Editor’s Note: As the PC(USA) heads to the 221st General Assembly wrestling with whether or not to engage in certain forms of boycott and divestment in Israel/Palestine, a church with whom we are in full communion, the United Church of Christ (UCC), finds itself wrestling with the same issue. This article is the personal reflection and comment of a UCC colleague as his denomination wrestles with the same issue.
I first read the resolution which has been proposed by United Church of Christ Palestine/Israel Network (UCCPIN) a few weeks before submissions were due for the Central Atlantic Board (CAC) annual meeting, when one of the proponents of the resolution, a valued friend, sent me a copy and asked whether I could help gain signatures. My friend asked for my help, I expect, because she knew of my strong agreement with the intent of the resolution and my appreciation of the work of those in the UCC, especially those involved with UCCPIN, in tirelessly advocating respect for the human rights of Palestinians whose freedom, dignity, and personal safety have been so unacceptably infringed upon by the continuing Israeli occupation and the settlement policy which has been associated with it.
I believe that the great majority of Jews – particularly in the United States – saw Israel as an essential place of refuge for many Jews from Europe who were unwelcome elsewhere in the world.
When I first read the UCCPIN resolution, I expected to be able to support it wholeheartedly – yet my overall reaction was that despite my entire support of its intent and its goals, the resolution can and should be improved. I felt this way, essentially, for reasons related to my own personal upbringing and to the particular route by which I became closely and spiritually attached to the struggle for human rights in Palestine.
I was raised during the fifties, sixties, and early seventies in what can, I think, properly be called a conventional Jewish community in New Jersey, outside of New York. I received an excellent Jewish education in a modern synagogue, spiritual underpinnings which continue to support me to this day.
There was one tragic, spiritually and psychologically, overwhelming reality that enveloped the community in which I was raised. As you probably can guess, I speak of the Holocaust. Even today, the evils of the Holocaust cast a terrible and costly pall over the consciousness of many Jewish communities. But fifty or sixty years ago, when so many had lost relatives so horribly and recent survivors of the camps were so numerous in our community, I think it’s fair to say that the Holocaust fundamentally and dreadfully defined the Jewish environment in which I grew up. And the emotion which saturated, which dominated that environment was fear – deep, terrible, nightmare-inducing, post-traumatic fear.
This fear was the filter through which the community in which I was raised, perceived the creation and world situation of the State of Israel. I believe that the great majority of Jews – particularly in the United States – saw Israel as an essential place of refuge for many Jews from Europe who were unwelcome elsewhere in the world. And that is almost all that many in the community saw. Some people of vision – personified, say, by the theologian Martin Buber – recognized that a terrible injustice to the inhabitants of the land loomed and tried, sometimes at great cost, to influence the state’s policies to prevent this injustice. By and large, however, their voices were lost.
A narrative of self-defense, born, I am sure, of deep fear, came to dominate Israeli policy and those here in the United States – particularly in the Jewish community – who identified (and still identify) deeply with Israel.
Instead, a narrative of self-defense, born, I am sure, of deep fear, came to dominate Israeli policy and those here in the United States – particularly in the Jewish community – who identified (and still identify) deeply with Israel. This narrative bares a horrible resemblance to the narrative of people who for whatever reason deny the historical reality of the Holocaust. This narrative essentially says that the violent expulsion of Palestinians from Israel, the naqba, did not occur; it argues that the current occupation policies of the Israeli government represent a reasonable continuation of protection against a new Holocaust, rather than a system of settlement and separation that is utterly contrary to the Jewish values on which Israel was to be established, as well as the values of the Christian and Islamic faiths shared by others who inhabit the land.
You can probably sense my anger rising as I describe the narratives of my childhood and youth, narratives which of course continue to affect Middle Eastern policy to this day. My anger rises for several reasons. In the long period that has now elapsed since my youth, the perceptions generated by the ethnic setting of my childhood have been mixed with many other perceptions, generated in many other settings. I have also now personally witnessed the tragedy of the occupation from the standpoint of the Palestinian community, particularly in the Aida refugee camp and nearby Hebron, where some of the cruelest settlement-related activity is occurring. This is an experience I would strongly urge others to have, upsetting as it is. Personal witness can overwhelm any narrative or mythology and in my case has generated a good deal of anger including anger against the false narratives of my youth.
I’ll admit to anger as well, at the fact that I feel called to become involved in the situation in the Middle East, anger even at feeling called to speak on this topic here today. Aside from one visit under heart-wrenching circumstances, I have had no involvement with the Middle East at all, and I certainly have never supported settlement policies or the attendant ethnic oppression. There are other issues of social justice, especially those having to do with poverty in the developing world, which I know more about and far prefer addressing. So, for several reasons I’m angry.
However, as so often occurs when addressing situations of social injustice, I think it’s necessary for me to provisionally put my anger aside and accept some responsibility to get involved in the discussion of UCC policies in connection with the Middle East. And yes, my reason does have some connection with my own upbringing and ethnic identity.
It seems clear to me that in recent years, important developments have begun to take place in the U.S. Jewish community. One major example is the development of a movement not unlike the Truth and Reconciliation Movement in South Africa.
Despite having ‘strayed from the flock’ religiously, I remain in close contact with many in the mainstream Jewish community, and my personal relationships tend to be with those who share my views on important topics, including horror at the consequences and seeming endlessness of the occupation. Additionally, it seems clear to me that in recent years, important developments have begun to take place in the U.S. Jewish community (and in the Israeli Jewish community as well, but my personal familiarity with views there is not as great). One major example is the development of a movement not unlike the Truth and Reconciliation Movement in South Africa. This movement consists of an effort to dispel the false narratives of fifty and sixty years ago, to recognize the horror of the naqba and its terrible continuing consequences, to challenge the professional lobbyists who historically have claimed to represent as a monolith the opinions of American Jews who are in fact of many different opinions, and to promote U.S. government policies toward Israel which will promote – not obstruct – the realization of social justice.
This movement toward truth and reconciliation is can be seen by the play, “The Admission,” about the naqba, which played at Theater J in Washington, DC, and then at the Studio Theater; in the book My Promised Land, by Ari Shavit, which was printed in part in the New Yorker. The movement is exemplified by the mainstream Jewish peace organization, J Street; and I believe the movement is also characterized by the many Jews in mainstream synagogues who, while perhaps not formally affiliated with J street or a similar organization, are nevertheless fighting hard to overcome the understandable but destructive entrenched narratives and ideologies of fear.
I think we in the UCC are called, as part of our work toward justice and peace in the Middle East – and especially in seeking more just American policies – to reach out to this community in transition, within the mainstream Jewish community, and to try to make common cause. I believe we should do this at the congregational level, congregation to congregation, because that is how our denomination works. I think we should maintain this same communion with Arab-American congregations, both Christian and Muslim. The fact is that we are in an excellent position to be spiritual honest brokers. I believe we have a good track record at it and should even intensify our efforts.
I think we in the UCC are called, as part of our work toward justice and peace in the Middle East – and especially in seeking more just American policies – to reach out to this community in transition, within the mainstream Jewish community, and to try to make common cause.
And now to the resolution in question: My initial reaction to the UCCPIN draft – which needed, given time constraints, to be a hurried one – was to substitute a different resolution, calling for congregation-to-congregation engagement, for this UCCPIN resolution emphasizing economic leverage. Since then, there has been adequate time for engagement and dialogue on the draft resolutions, and such engagement and dialogue has occurred.very much within the traditions of the UCC, and I would like to suggest combining the two resolutions into one. I suggest a resolution based mainly on the UCCPIN draft, which advocates both the use of economic leverage, which the UCC has endorsed in the past, and congregation-to-congregation dialogue. And I also recommend some language changes, which I do not believe change the meaning and import of the UCCPIN language, but I think will avoid unnecessarily invoking fear-based sensitivities which remain in parts of the Jewish community, even among those who represent our logical allies in the movement for peace and justice in Israel and Palestine.
The wording changes I suggest are as follows:
- Editing of language which might, even unintentionally, be seen as placing those who identify personally with Israel as morally in the same posture as the perpetrators of apartheid in South Africa. Although the similarity of effect between the occupation and apartheid should not be kept from view, the moral roots of the two situations are different, and those who would join the quest for peace and justice, and break the patterns of the current occupation, should not be alienated by unhelpful and unjustified words of ostracism).
- Elimination of language suggesting (I believe inconsistently with the intent of the drafters of the UCCPIN resolution) whole-scale identification of the UCC with the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment Movement (BDS) or other particular organizations other than the church, even though we might support some policies and goals of BDS or other groups.
- To avoid any impression that we are acting injudiciously against any group of people, or seeking the general economic isolation of Israel, to include language making clear the reasons for recommending economic leverage with respect to particular companies involved in the occupation, and also emphasizing the need for care and discernment in applying economic leverage.
AUTHOR BIO: Michael C. Durst is a minister in the Potomac Association of the United Church of Christ, and an adviser to the PC(USA) on matters of tax justice.
Read more articles from The Road to Detroit: Issues of Social Justice Before the 221st General Assembly!