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Friday, 14 May 2021

Praying and Working for Peace in Jerusalem, May 14th 2021

 As far as I have learned, in 1875, Rabbi Avraham Ashkenazi and Rabbi Meir Auerbach acquired some land from Arab sellers.  In 1946, shortly before Israel’s War of Independence, two Jewish non-governmental organizations moved to register the deed with authorities in what was then British Mandatory Palestine. In 1982, the Palestinian residents of the property – including the parents and grandparents of some of the current occupants – signed an agreement confirming that the Israeli NGOs were the rightful owners. In the early 2000s, these two Israeli non-profits sold the land to the Nahalat Shimon organization. The Palestinians occupying the dwelling were nevertheless allowed to continue living there and enjoyed “Protected Residents” status. However, by law, the tenants were required to pay rent to Nahalat Shimon. It was only after the Palestinian residents refused to do that, and instead illegally expanded the property and rented out spaces to third parties, that Nahalat Shimon initiated eviction proceedings. Before going to court, the Jewish owners of the property and the Palestinian residents almost came to an out-of-court settlement but the Palestinian Authority threatened the Palestinian residents with violence if they agreed to a compromise. It therefore became an intractable legal issue of squatters, and had to go to court.

You may not have heard of this. Instead, you made have recently heard from Reuters that “Jewish settlers backed by an Israeli court have taken over some homes” in Sheikh Jarrah, or may have seen Associated Press reports that “dozens of Palestinians are fighting attempts by Israeli settlers to evict them from their homes.” You would not be alone. What is actually a landlord/squatter issue that only came to court because of pressure from the Palestinian Authority for the Palestinian residents not to cave to Israelis has become a narrative of Jewish settlers stealing Palestinians homes. Such a claim, which I believe is demonstrably false in this case, doesn’t arise from a vacuum, though. Many American Liberals, good people who are honest about their own country’s history of ethnic cleansing and systemic state-sanctioned racist violence, view everything in the rest of the world in similar terms. World history is viewed through the lens of American history, which is sometimes a useful way to look at things but is sometimes reductive and unhelpful because in so doing, it misses the uniqueness of the non-American experience. Not all of human history is American history expressed in differing locations. I am starting to think that guilt experienced by contemporary Americans for profiting off a society that was created through the violent oppression of indigenous people is then transferred to Israel, the only other state with which such people have a personal connection. Israel is then condemned in the strongest possible terms for any acts of violence against Palestinians, while Palestinian violence is excused as being understandable or even justified – Palestinians viewed like Native Americans are then seen as justifiably resisting white colonialist expansion. Such a comparison is deeply problematic that I believe reveals an American experience totally removed from life on the ground in the Middle East. I appreciate that this opening analysis of liberal Jewish American responses to the current crisis is challenging, but when such people, whom I believe are absolutely well-intentioned and good people, talk and organize 100 times more about human rights issues in Israel/Palestine than they do about human rights issues in the whole of the rest of the world combined, and when they demonize Israel using language that they would never consider using for any other country in the world, including those which commit far worse human rights abuses, I think it’s important to explore why. The Rohingya crisis which started in late 2017, in which more than 740,000 Muslims have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh to escape the military’s demonstrable ethnic cleansing, and which still continues today, American liberal Jews are essentially silent about that. Countless human rights abuses particularly towards women in Saudi Arabia have occurred for as long as I can remember but nobody speaks about them perhaps because to do so might threaten the oil supply that powers American society. China’s brutal oppression of over thirteen million Uyghurs that we all know is ongoing produces hardly an objection from the American Jewish community, perhaps so that we can all enjoy cheap Chinese products. In Kurdistan, the rights of millions of people have been taken away, facing indiscriminate arrest from Iraqi authorities. So why is it that American Jews are so silent when tens of millions of Muslims worldwide are oppressed, and focus only on the suffering of Muslims living in Gaza and the West Bank in a situation that is far, far more complex and nuanced than any of those I just mentioned? What I’m not saying, by the way, is that there aren’t serious human rights issues in Israel - of course there are. Israeli society is demonstrably inequitable towards non-Jews, particularly Arabs. Despite the fact that this particular instance in Sheikh Jarrar is not about settlers evicting Palestinians from their homes, last year Israel reached its highest rate of home demolition in four years, with over 560 Palestinian homes destroyed, displacing over 750 people. Plans for the annexation of the West Bank were openly advanced by Bibi Netanyahu. In response to Hamas’ clear war crime of firing 187 unguided rockets that targeted Israeli civilians last year, as well as their campaign of launching incendiary balloons, Israel once again limited food and medicine going into Gaza, blocked access to Gaza’s territorial waters for Palestinian fishermen, and slashed fuel imports to Gaza’s power plant, in an unequivocally immoral form of collective punishment. So, I’m not saying that it’s inappropriate for people to comment on human rights issues in Israel, but I do believe that regimes that violently oppress their minorities all over the world must love the fact that the world community obsesses about human rights issues in Israel and hardly pays attention to it in other oppressive countries, even ones that demonstrably engage in active campaigns of genocide.

And it’s not just the focus that is problematic to me, it’s the vitriolic language used about Israel as well. I’ve heard all too often this week, including from Jews, that Israel is a colonial project that is the root cause of Palestinian suffering, by being not only an aggressive militaristic nation, but a genocidal, deliberately child-murdering, undemocratic, racist, apartheid state that is either largely or totally responsible for the violence in the Middle East, and furthermore I’ve heard it repeatedly said that indiscriminate violence towards Israeli civilians – our fellow Jews - from rocket attacks to terror bombings even to full-blown historic invasions, is justified or at least understandable due to that narrative about Israel. As disturbing as that narrative (which I am confident I could refute every single point) may be, what is also so upsetting for me is the outrageous aggression that regularly accompanies that narrative. I have been told that I challenge that false narrative of Israel not because of facts but because of my white, male Ashkenazi privilege, or because I want to keep conservative Temple donors, or because I’m a coward too afraid to be a real leader. After I explained to someone in a very left-wing social media group how Jordan, other Arab nations and how the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are also the cause of so much Palestinian pain, I was told to “F*** off with that colonialist bullshit.” People in that very left-wing group then asked if “Zionists and genocide deniers” like me could be permanently banned from the group. I got in touch with the admin of the group, who is Jewish, and asked if I would be banned. He said that Zionists are not all banned, but decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

Here are my problems with all of this. Firstly, nothing is achieved by reductive soundbites that work well in tweets and social media posts that frame deeply entrenched and complicated political situations as one side good, one side bad, or one’s sides violence is abhorrent while the other’s is understandable. I would go further and say that not only is nothing achieved by such statements, but the dialogue that could be used to help bring about peace and understanding is muddied by such simplifications. Such statements don’t work towards peace, they just seem to reveal the speaker’s righteous indignation in the face of a situation far more complex than they want to accept. Secondly, shutting down nuance, deliberately ignoring facts that challenge the overly simplistic narrative, shouting down or trying to humiliate or shame anyone who dares to disagree with the prevailing false narrative about Israel that is so popular in liberal circles… all of those things turn people away from that liberal narrative and make them resent liberalism. I posted one article on Facebook and a colleague in England said that even though he agreed with it, he was too scared to post it. That is not a good look for liberal discourse.

This week I have learned more about my fellow Jews than I have about the conflict between Israel and Hamas – and I say it that way deliberately because this is not a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, despite so many people saying it is. Israel is a deeply flawed country, an absolute beacon of democracy and human rights in the Middle East compared to every nation around it, but yet still with a long, long way to go before it is an equitable and totally moral country….. very much like America has a long, long way to go before it is an equitable and totally moral country. Seeing how many Jews conflate Hamas’ violence with Palestinian violence has been disturbing. Hamas, to be clear, is a rabidly antisemitic genocidal terror group whose charter includes the statement that “there is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad” and that “initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors.” Hamas will never want peace. It only wants Palestine from the river to the sea, and there is only one way to achieve that. The fact that I have seen that vision now repeated in liberal circles this week shows how normalized Hamas’ genocidal plans have become in so much liberal discourse. The Hamas Charter also says that, and I quote, the Jews “were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about, here and there. With their money they formed secret societies, such as Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, the Lions and others in different parts of the world for the purpose of sabotaging societies and achieving Zionist interests. With their money they were able to control imperialistic countries and instigate them to colonize many countries in order to enable them to exploit their resources and spread corruption there….They were behind World War I, when they were able to destroy the Islamic Caliphate, making financial gains and controlling resources. They obtained the Balfour Declaration and formed the League of Nations through which they could rule the world.” It even says, and think just how disturbing this is, that the Jews were “behind World War II, through which they made huge financial gains by trading in armaments, and paved the way for the establishment of their state.” That is Israel’s neighbor, who seized control of Gaza and who have ruled it with an iron first ever since, murdering anyone who dares to disagree with them or even anyone whom they suspect may disagree with them, using their people as human shields and poisoning the minds of their children with disturbing anti-semitic propaganda. That is why I am so troubled when so many liberal Jews condemn Israel far more than they do Hamas. I’m not saying that this current conflict is totally Hamas’ fault, either, though. As far as I have learned, this most recent conflict was not the result of a specific act of Israeli aggression, but a combination of at least 7 differing factors:

1) The incompetence of an underfunded and unguided Israeli police force who have been left to fend for themselves by the essentially moribund Israeli government for years, and therefore lacking any strategies or human resources to respond to anti-Israel protests, to stopping violence between Israelis and Arabs, as well as lacking any sense of a PR disaster when arresting Hamas extremists engaging in riotous protests from within one of the most famous mosques in the world,

2) The need for the Palestinian Authority to attach an Israeli-oppressor narrative to a simple tenancy dispute to make themselves relevant again in the face of both the Abraham Accords which demonstrated that the rest of the world, particularly the Arab nations, are fed up waiting for the Palestinians to work towards peace, and also in the face of the Palestinian Authority’s declining popularity amongst Palestinians that even led to Mahmoud Abbas cancelling an election that he thought he might lose,

3) Iran once again testing the new American President through its puppet organizations like Hamas, as they have done a number of times across the region for the last few months,

4) Hamas seeing that the Ra’am party was about to join the majority in the Knesset for the first time ever and knowing that the best way to stop such enormous progress that demonstrates that violence isn’t the only route to Palestinian liberation is to cause Israelis to distrust Palestinians again, leading Hamas to stoke up violent protests, including the one in the Al-Aqsa mosque,  

5) The rise of Israeli ultranationalism that has its roots in the ever-increasing poverty in some areas of Israel and which has been widely tolerated by right-wing politicians for years for their own political benefit, a racist, violent nationalism which seizes on every act of Palestinian violence against Israelis, from rocket attacks to attacks on settlers or civilians, as proof of Palestinian intent to destroy their people.

6) The radicalization of many Palestinians by Hamas in the face of an Israeli state which constantly reminds those Palestinians that the law does not treat them equally.

7) The total lack of an Israeli national strategy to work towards peace caused both by repeated elections leading to internal political deadlock, and also caused by a lack of intention in creating such a national strategy due to Israel having no-one to speak to for peace as a result of the deep unpopularity of the Palestinian Authority and the clear genocidal intent of Hamas.

There are, of course, many more factors, but my point is that we cannot work for peace just by pointing fingers at one side, we cannot work for peace by seeing every international incident through the lens of American history, and we definitely cannot work for peace by trying to silence or shame those who try to reveal the nuance of every situation in order to try to find the unique solutions to that unique situation.

More than that, though, a time of conflict such as this is not a time to pick sides, to condemn, to hunker down in entrenched views, or to become intellectual extremists. Screaming from afar “This is your fault” while people die isn’t a humanitarian response and it isn’t going to change anything. Tikkun Olam is not found through blame. A time of conflict like this is a time to be compassionate to the victims on all sides. Magen David Adom is the only emergency medical service in the region that treats both wounded Israelis and wounded Palestinians. If you really want to help this situation right now, if you genuinely want to be an agent for positive change in people’s lives, you could actively support them. That would be infinitely more helpful than expressions of internet rage.

More than that, there are specific people and specific groups in the region on both sides who benefit from Israeli/Palestinian division. The more we take sides, the more they succeed. So, we must do everything in our power to stop responding with blame and instead to start reaching out to the overwhelming majority of people in the region who just want peace. So, for example, yesterday hundreds of Jews and Arabs gathered on a bridge outside Abu Gosh, a town on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, to show cooperation and shared humanity. I believe that such actions are infinitely more helpful than ranting on social media about who is to blame. Crises such as these are times when we should be actively supporting organizations that bring people together, like Creativity for Peace or the Aravah Institute. Israelis are on the whole good people and Palestinians are on the whole good people. The overwhelming majority of them want a two-state solution. Despite the aggression and intransigence of their leaders, most Israelis and Arabs get on very well with each other. But that’s not a narrative that keeps people tuning into news stations, so it’s not one that is regularly shared. But I believe that especially during times of conflict, that should be our narrative. We should be highlighting stories of cooperation. If we are to condemn, we should condemn all who resort to violence on all sides. We should never excuse violence, we should never justify violence, and we should not be defined by violence. We should look forward to a time when all who cause loss of life shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks (Is. 2:4). We should pray for the peace of Jerusalem - a just, equitable, realistic peace that addresses pain on all sides, so that all who love Jerusalem be secure. We should pray for peace within her walls, for the sake of all people and for the sake of the house of God. (Ps. 122:6-9). We should pray that God Who creates peace in the highest brings down peace upon us and upon all Israel. And we should accompany our prayers with actions that bring peace to all. May God guide us in our endeavors, and help us to work toward a just and long-lasting peace, and let us say, Amen.