Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Post #77 - Christians in the Middle

Many Americans, drawing on a mere 300-year history of our own, tend to believe that events of the early-to mid-1900’s are things that happened far in the past. The people of the Middle East, where civilizations have evolved and people have kept oral (and written) histories for many thousands of years, tend to see the events of the past hundred years as more nearly contemporaneous with today. In July of 1946, it was a group headed by Menachem Begin that sent a message to the British and the Arabs by bombing a civilian target – named, ironically, the King David Hotel. Only 40 years later, Begin was the spokesman for his country when the Camp David Accords were signed. Both hallowed heritage and hurtful happenings may not be forgotten – but conditions can change.

Paul Wolfowitz
One of the progenitors of war in Iraq, Paul Wolfowitz (later president of the World Bank), was booed by pro-Israeli crowd in Washington, DC, during the time of the second intifada in 2002, for saying that “innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying, as well. It is critical that we recognize and acknowledge that fact.” [reported in the Jewish Daily Forward, May 25, 2007]. Though Wolfowitz' family lost loved ones during the Holocaust in Poland, and he has been a strong supporter of Israel, to his credit he also took the time to learn the Arabic language (as well as Hebrew), served as US ambassador to Indonesia, and has been in a long-term relationship with a Muslim woman. Most U.S. foreign policy decision-makers have far less knowledge of the region's peoples, and their ignorance shows. Since the time Mr. Wolfowitz departed the embassy in Jakarta, the popular support in that country for America fell from 75% (in 2000) to 15 % (after the invasion of Iraq).

ICT, an Israeli think-tank, asserts that gross figures of Israeli and Palestinian dead “are used to create an image of lopsided slaughter, with Israel cast as the villain…such numbers distort the true picture.” And, it appears that the Palestinians, when they kill people, kill more women and more elderly, as you would expect when the weapons are suicide bombs, badly-guided missiles and thrown rocks. But it is also true, using ICT’s own numbers, that the total number of Palestinian non-combatants killed by Israelis was almost half-again as many as the number of non-combatants that were killed by Palestinians, and when one only looks at combatant deaths, the Palestinians were out-gunned better than seven-to-one. For an outside observer, it would seem that there is plenty of “terror” to go around. If you had to choose, where you wanted to parachute in – an Israeli city, where you could be killed without warning while attending a movie, or a Palestinian village, where you might get your roof blown off because of who lived next door, it might be a tough decision. Both populations are living in terror, though each sees itself as embattled and doing what it must to survive, while viewing the other as evil and uncivilized. (In the battle for Falujah, Iraq, 37% of the noncombatant casualties were killed by US-led forces, 36% by criminals,and 9% by "anti-occupation" forces, according to Iraq Body Count, 2005.)

As Jimmy Carter put it, "This cycle of provocative acts by Arab militants and the devastating military response by Israel demonstrates once more the permanent, festering results of the unresolved Middle East dispute. Israel's powerful military can, with American acquiescence or support, destroy the economic infrastructure and inflict heavy casualties in Gaza, Lebanon, and even other nations. But when this devastation occurs, guerrilla movements are likely to survive, becoming more united and marshaling wider support."

We are all aware of the very strong support of Israeli interests among prominent members of the “Christian Right.” Katherine Von Schubert, author of Checkpoints and Chances: Eyewitness Accounts from an Observer in Israel-Palestine, wrote in an Easter 2006 email:

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
"A few hundred Palestinian Christians made their way yesterday -- Good Friday -- along the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem to walk as Jesus did, carrying his cross on route to his death. Many Palestinians from Ramallah and Bethlehem can no longer join the annual procession in their holy city because they are prevented from traveling by checkpoints and a pernicious permit system. The checkpoint around the corner from where I lived in East Jerusalem, for example, has permanently closed the road into Jerusalem for tens of thousands of Palestinians from the North who have had their ‘Jerusalem ID' card taken away. The enormous concrete Wall has now shut off access to the Old City for many other Palestinians living in East Jerusalem dividing the heart of the city into many fragmented enclaves. Jerusalem has long been dying. So have Bethlehem and many other Palestinian towns….That the Wall's route was declared illegal by the International Court of Justice has fallen on deaf ears. We have stood by and done nothing… Thousands of Palestinians are on the brink of survival. This is not a foundation for peace."

Some of the members of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship [I coordinate OPF activities in North America] reside in Palestine; they keep us informed about what life is actually like on the West Bank – the indignities suffered by the Muslim Arabs there are suffered too by the Christians, though they have no part in the enmity against Israel. One Palestinian Christian, Dr. Bernard Sabella wrote, also at Easter time:

"…our prayers are that the celebration of Resurrection this year would be a reminder to all of the importance of placing the universality of humanity above the particulars of daily existence. That entombing and subjugating one people by another will neither lead to liberation, nor to resurrection. That if each of our religious and national communities genuinely want to reaffirm their identities through recreating and living traditions of their faith, culture and history, then we should all do so with respect towards other traditions."

Maria C. Khoury, another resident of the West Bank, wrote to us one year:

"For Christians, the Palestinian struggle for freedom and independence is not only a political issue, but...a humanitarian and ethical situation. For Christians across the world it should be a Christian issue because Jesus our Lord and Savior teaches us to feel and be empathetic with those who suffer. Our heart should be with those who suffer. To understand, feel and comprehend the suffering and the struggle of others is truly the Christian way...
"Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land ask from the Christian world at large to understand the pain of Palestinians and their desire to achieve an independent state...We must pray for all people, Palestinians and Israelis who have experienced so much violence and pain on both sides...Our work as Christians is to continue the witness in this special and sacred land."

Former president Carter had a similar experience in the final days of a 1990 trip to the region:

Maronite priest celebrates Communion
"...some of the Christian leaders asked for an urgent meeting with me...When they persisted, I finally responded that I could meet with them one evening [after] my last engagement. At this late hour, after midnight, I was surprised to receive custodians of the Christian holy places plus cardinals, archbishops, patriarchs and other leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian Orthodox, Maronite, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist and other faiths. They were distressed by what they considered to be increasing abuse and unwarranted constraints imposed on them by the Israeli government, and each of them related events that caused him concern."

It seems increasingly clear that, as in the old tale of the blind men and the elephant, which “part” of Israel one encounters makes all the difference. As Carter put it, on his return trips to the Holy Lands after leaving the White House, he found that there were “two Israels.”

One encompassed the ancient culture and moral values of the Jewish people, defined by Hebrew scriptures with which I had been familiar since childhood and representing the young nation that most Americans envisioned. The other existed within the occupied Palestinian territories, with policies shaped by a refusal to acknowledge and respect the basic human rights of the citizens. Even the more optimistic believed that militants would inevitably become more active on both sides, as settlements expanded and Jews and Arabs struggled for the same hilltops, pastures, fields, and water.

Indeed, this is what has happened. In 1988, things were looking up. Jordan was backing out of the West Bank, and Russia was backing off from its Cold War knee-jerk thwarting of anything that might be in America's interest. Arafat was recognizing Israel's right to exist; Syria was ready to talk about the Golan Heights problem. Yet today, nearly 25 years later, the situation looks as bleak as it ever has.

In a 2007 interview with Christianity Today, an evangelical periodical, Rami Khouri spoke from the perspective of Christians in Lebanon. Khouri, a Palestinian-Lebanese by birth and a U.S. citizen, is a journalist based in Beirut. He is editor-at-large of the largest English-language newspaper in the Middle East, The Daily Star, and director of the Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. He said:

"American Christians could look at Christian Palestinians or Christian Arabs as a potential window into the minds of millions of Muslim Arabs. You would find that what Christian Arabs are feeling is very similar to what Muslim Arabs are feeling. So the real issues at play, in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East, are not religious but political. People may call on their religious vocabulary and metaphors and iconography, but we should look beyond the surface manifestations of those religious symbols to the political realities...
"Sometimes the church needs to shame politicians. Go over their heads. The vast majority of people in the Middle East want the same thing. But the politicians are the problem in many ways.
The best antidote to misunderstandings, stereotypes, and racist misperceptions is for people to meet each other. There's nothing that has as much impact as physically getting together, chatting, having a cup of coffee, or going to someone's house."

No comments:

Post a Comment