Can we talk about Israel?

May 16, 2014
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A spray-painted sign on the side of a small factory building in the Old City of Jerusalem. Photo by Stephanie Jaeger 

For several years I met with a group of Christian and Jewish leaders to discuss the Middle East. Jewish participants were concerned that mainline Protestant churches seemed unbalanced in their attitudes about Israel. Christian participants wondered why Jews seemed consistently uncritical of Israel. After many intense and difficult conversations, we produced a statement. Two of the most significant understandings that we reached were:

  • Not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.
  • Christians hope and expect more from Israel than from other countries because we value Israel’s democracy, guarantees of civil liberties, and judicial processes. American Christians want Israel to thrive. We also expect more from Israel because of the substantial financial and military support that our nation provides.

I’m thinking about these statements as the Middle East peace process collapses in spite of Secretary of State John Kerry’s herculean efforts. The Chicago Tribune and the New York Times proposed that the United States walk away from the situation and tell the Israelis and Palestinians to call us when they are ready to negotiate seriously.

Is there nothing hopeful and useful that the rest of us can do? Some support BDS—boycotts, divestment, and sanctions directed at Israel—although the only guaranteed result of that effort is the anger and alienation of the American Jewish community and damage to interfaith relations. As an alternative, I’ve long believed that financial investment in the Palestinian economy is a positive, practical, and hopeful gesture.

But here’s a third option: it’s time for mainline Protestant churches to invite mainstream Jewish organizations to sit down and start talking about what we can do together to support and animate the peace process.

Here’s my argument: Israel needs to start acting as though it really believes a two-state solution is possible and the only solution that’s viable in the long run. I have Jewish friends who agree. They do not approve of the settlements and understand that every expansion makes peace more difficult. I have Jewish friends who profoundly hope that the Israeli government will do what’s necessary to bring about a sovereign, viable, and secure Palestinian state.

Writing in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman observes that two long-term trends make it extremely urgent to find a peaceful solution. The first trend is the increasing influence of extremist forces within Israel that initiate violence and that refuse to consider an independent Palestine. An example of this is a recent attack on an Israeli military outpost by renegade Jewish settlers whom Friedman calls “terrorists.” Another example, in the middle of the faltering peace talks, is the plan by Israeli housing minister Uri Ariel to build 700 new housing units in territory needed for a viable Palestinian state. Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livni commented, “Minister Ariel purposefully and intentionally did what he did to torpedo [the peace talks].”

The second trend is discontent among Palestinian youth. As Friedman says, the young generation of Palestinians “increasingly has no faith in their parents’ negotiation with the Jews, [they] have no desire to recognize Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ and would rather demand the right to vote in a one-state solution.”

American Christians and churches agonizing over the situation should consider reaching out to Jewish neighbors who are equally eager to find common ground: the end of settlement expansion, serious negotiation about compensation for Palestinian territory appropriated by Israel, and the status of Jerusalem as the capital of both states. Then together they could speak to American Jewish political lobbies that have influence with Israeli political leadership and to American Christian political lobbies that advocate for justice for the Palestinian people.

Friedman called John Kerry’s relentless efforts to make peace “the Lord’s work.” Wouldn’t it be something if Christian churches, hand-in-hand with Jewish neighbors, did the Lord’s work of peacemaking?


Letter from Suzanne Watts Henderson

I  admire Buchanan for his denominational leadership, commitment to interfaith dialogue, and keen ability to build consensus on thorny issues.

In the case of this article, though, I found the “understandings” reached between Jewish and Christian dialogue partners to be in jarring tension with the facts I’ve witnessed on the ground.

To say that “not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic” implies that most of it, or a good bit of it, is. We will never see peace with justice in the Holy Land as long as we perpetuate this myth. We must learn, as I did from the Palestinians I met—mostly Christian and a few Mus­lim—who forged a deliberate distinction between “the Jews” as a people (whom they saw as pawns in an evil system) and the machine that is Israel. To criticize those we love, when their ways are destructive for themselves and others, shows the deepest form of loyalty.

To say that we “value Israel’s democracy, guarantees of civil liberties, and judicial processes” is to imply the relatively consistent practice of these principles. Where are the civil liberties, though, for the four children arrested in Hebron and taken without the adult supervision stipulated by international law? Where is the justice in the use, to this day, of a 1945 British emergency law allowing prisoners to be held without charges for up to five years? Or in the bulldozing of 1,500 fruit trees owned by a Lutheran farmer outside Bethle­hem? What genuine democracy codifies a distinction among peoples on their passports? (Jewish Israeli passport numbers begin with “01,” non-Jewish Arab Israelis with “02.”) Even worse, what kind of democracy nullifies its citizens’ civil liberties when they marry an “outsider”? 

Suzanne Watts Henderson

Charlotte, N.C.

Letter from Merle Showers

Buchanan says “the only guaranteed result of that effort [boycotts, divestment, and sanctions] is the anger and alienation of the American Jewish community and damage to interfaith relations.” Buchanan’s recommendation is for the Protestant community to try to talk to the American Jewish community.

 But I notice he doesn’t say that is “guaranteed” either. Having worked in the interfaith community for many years and having been told that if we talked about Israel and Palestine, the American Jewish representatives would drop out, I believe it is almost guaranteed that if we take Buchanan’s recommendations, a break in the interfaith community will be the result. 

The Christian community for the most part did not join in the BDS effort with apartheid South Africa because we were told that would help the communists who were trying to overthrow the apartheid South African government. Yet in hindsight we can see that one of the significant factors in bringing down that government was the BDS efforts of governments and institutions all over the world. What an embarrassment that the church did not help when God’s children needed it.

I recommend that we join the BDS movement this time and be on the right side of history. 

Merle Showers

Buffalo, N.Y.