February 8, 2009
Deluded Are the PeacemakersBy Dexter Van Zile
The IDF has withdrawn its troops from the Gaza Strip but the debate over who bears responsibility for the Palestinian deaths caused by Israel's attack on Hamas will continue for the foreseeable future - probably until the next round of fighting.
On an international level, commentators as Christopher Gunness, spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians in the Near East (UNWRA), will maintain that "any military commander would know" that attacks on Hamas in a densely populated area like the Gaza Strip would invariably cause civilian casualties and as a consequence, Israel bears the moral responsibility for the carnage that took place during the fighting.
For Gunness, the knowledge that civilian casualties would result from an attack on Hamas is somehow enough to prevent them. Under this rubric, Israel is expected to either come up with another way to stop the rocket attacks, or tolerate them. Sadly, finesse and forbearance can only get a sovereign state so far. Sometimes countries have to use force to protect their citizens. It is a tragic fact of international politics.
If Israel were contending with Smurfs and Teletubbies, finesse and forbearance would work just fine. But sadly, Israel is dealing with Hamas, a terror group whose idea of wholesome children's programming is detailing the exploits a Jew-hating knock-off of Mickey Mouse, and a Jew-eating rabbit.
On the other side of the debate are those who acknowledge that no sovereign state can tolerate incessant rocket attacks into its territory indefinitely. These people place the blame at the feet of Hamas, an organization that denies Israel's right to exists and which allowed the Gaza Strip to be used as a launching pad for rocket attacks against Israel during the past three years. Most people will understand that Israel tried to avoid harming civilians during the recent fighting while Hamas fought in such a manner so as to cause and invite civilian casualties. Hamas made its strategic and moral choices and Palestinian civilians - who voted Hamas into power in 2006 - suffered the consequences. The problem is not with Israel, but with Hamas.
For a while it looked like Louis Michel, the chief of development and humanitarian aid for the European Union, understood this after seeing the carnage in the Gaza Strip, telling reporters that "Hamas has an enormous responsibility for what happened here in Gaza" and that Hamas is a terrorist organization. Predictably, after Hamas leader, Mushir al-Masri, complained about Michel's condemnation asserting that his organization was engaged in legitimate resistance against the "Zionist enemy." Michel later added the obligatory condemnation of Israel. Still, even after Michel's efforts to mollify Hamas, the cat was out of the bag. An EU official departed, however briefly, from the party line and said the truth about Hamas.
Criticism of Hamas in the U.S. is much less circumspect. For the many Americans, the math is pretty simple. Leaders who want to promote the well-being of the people they lead do not launch rockets into neighboring territory from densely populated civilian neighborhoods and people who merely want a state of their own do not go about screaming incessantly about destroying somebody else's. Poll data gathered on behalf of the Israel Project by Public Opinion Strategies and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research indicates that 56 percent of Americans blame the Palestinians for the violence and 66 percent hold Hamas responsible for the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.
This message was made pretty clear in a resolution passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Jan. 9, 2009. The resolution calls on all nations to "to lay blame both for the breaking of the ‘calm' and for subsequent civilian casualties in Gaza precisely where blame belongs, that is, on Hamas."
No equivocation here.
Still, there are some in the U.S. who disagree, especially the people who called for Jews to go back to the ovens, lauded Hitler, accused Israel of perpetrating a "genocide" in the Gaza Strip, and equated the Star of David with the Nazi Swastika during the "peace" protests that took place in late December and early January. These folks, who can politely be called "anti-Zionists" (although "bigots" might be a better word) blame Israel for Hamas' policy of using the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip as human shields.
While these protests have helped legitimize public expressions of anti-Semitism in American society, the anti-Zionist's assessments of Israel's guilt and Hamas' innocence are not likely to get much traction in the U.S. (as they have in Europe). One place, however, where they will get hearing and in some instances, logistical and financial support, is in the Christian "peacemaking" community comprised of liberal ("mainline") Protestant and Catholic activists and pacifist groups such as the Mennonites and the Quakers.
To be sure, not all of these Christian peacemakers are explicitly anti-Zionist, but some are. And many of those who do accept Israel's right to exist do so only in the abstract. When confronted with Arab and Muslim hostility toward Jews and Israel, many of these peacemakers regard Israel's existence as a Jewish state too much trouble, too inconvenient and ultimately not worth the bother to continue supporting. They express their frustration over the continued existence of the Arab-Israeli conflict by condemning Israel every time it moves to defend its citizens. This tendency was particularly obvious during and after the Second Intifada, when Christian peacemakers excoriated Israel for building a security barrier to stop terror attacks from the West Bank in the first half of this decade. On this score, it was Israeli efforts to protect its civilians - and not terrorist efforts to murder them - that prompted the criticism.
The result of this selective outrage, whether Christian peacemakers want to admit or not, is to put the destiny of the Jewish people into the hands of groups that have sworn their destruction.
The narrative offered by Christian peacemakers is that Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (from which Israel withdrew in 2005) is the cause of Palestinian violence. Given the fact that Israel has been attacked from nearly every bit of territory from which it has withdrawn since the 1990s, one is reminded of the warning Protestant Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr offered in 1940 to Christian pacifists who had hoped to keep the U.S. out of World War II: "No religious faith can maintain itself in defiance of the experience which it supposedly interprets." In 1940, Christian pacifists were, in Niebuhr's words, exhibiting a "preference for tyranny" by regarding it as a lesser evil to the force needed to confront it and by embracing illusions about how Nazi Germany could be defeated through the magical application of nonviolent resistance.
And so it is with the Christian peacemaker's response to Hamas and Hezbollah. The average person knows full-well that more than a decade's worth of Israeli peace offers, concessions and withdrawals have not led to peace, and yet Christian peacemakers and church leaders continue to defy reality by asserting that the Arab-Israeli conflict will come to an end through Jewish (and Western) concessions and self-reform. It is one thing to ask Christians to accept on faith the reality of the Empty Tomb and the presence of Christ in their midst, but another thing altogether to ask them to accept as a verifiable fact the benign and limited national goals of groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
The leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah say they want to destroy Israel, and yet Christian peacemakers propound - with religious fervor and fundamentalist certainty - the notion that Arab and Muslim extremists can be mollified through more benign behavior on the part of the Israelis. When church leaders defy reality by propounding such an obvious falsehood, they undermine their ability profess the religious realities they are ordained to teach. And yet, they continue.
A Comforting Story
In order to further the false notion that Jewish self-reform will lead to an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the leaders and peace activists of these churches need raw material - stories of Palestinian suffering - to offer to their audiences. Like any preacher, they must have stories to tell to get their message across. Sadly enough, the latest round of fighting provides much of this raw material.
But for Christian peacemakers in the U.S., whose audiences are likely to regard Hamas as a terror organization, images of dead Palestinian children are not enough because many Americans will hold Hamas - and not Israel - responsible for these deaths. Christian peace activists intent on pointing the finger of blame at Israel need a compelling story to tell to convince church-goers to believe that up is down, and that down is up. And if history is any predictor, pastors and officials from mainline Protestant churches in the United States will look to Palestinian Christians Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek and Jean Zaru for this story.
Through their work with Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, Ateek, an Anglican priest, and Zaru, presiding clerk of the Friends meeting house in Ramallah, have been at the forefront of the Palestinian Christian effort to enlist the time, energy, and money of Christian in the U.S. to broadcast a distorted narrative about the Arab-Israeli conflict to the American people. The story Ateek and Zaru offer is similar to what Christian peacemakers in the U.S. have been offering for years: Israel is in control of the violence and hostility directed at it by extremists in the Middle East and can therefore bring a unilateral end to the Arab-Israeli conflict through some combination of negotiations, peace offers, concessions and withdrawals. The fact that this narrative has been debunked by Arafat's failure to make a counter-offer at Camp David in 2000 and an increase in rocket attacks after Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 is not a problem for these authors. They do not rely on factual historical analysis but identity politics to make their case.
Luckily enough for Christian peacemakers in the U.S., Ateek and Zaru, have recently authored books that, in the aftermath of the fighting in the Gaza Strip, will surely be included in reading lists for Christian "peacemaking" delegations to "Palestine-Israel." Seminary professors will include them in their syllabi. The texts will be described by denominational presidents as "invaluable" and "important" in helping people "move beyond the headlines." The irony is these books do no such thing. Instead of helping would-be peacemakers get beyond the headlines, Ateek and Zaru give their readers pretext to ignore them.
Zaru begins her text, Occupied with Nonviolence: A Palestinian Woman Speaks (FortressPress, 2008), by invoking her identity as a Christian pacifist to establish her credibility to the reader. Zaru affirms that she is "A Palestinian, a Palestinian woman, a Palestinian Christian woman, and also ... a Quaker and a pacifist. Identity is always complex."
Zaru's personal identity may be "complex" but it is also largely irrelevant. Yes, Zaru is a Christian pacifist who renounces violence. So what? Many of Zaru's fellow Palestinians, most notably the members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al-Aska Martyrs Brigade have been quite willing to kill people in their ongoing war against Israel. These groups killed more than 1,000 Israelis during the Second Intifada and helped destroy the credibility of the Israeli peace movement in the process. Honest commentators would address the ideology that motivates these groups, but Zaru does not. Instead, she characterizes terrorism perpetrated against Israel as "freelance" acts of violence motivated by despair and hopelessness.
Who are we to believe? Zaru the Christian pacifist, or the Palestinian terrorists who state quite openly they want to kill Jews and destroy Israel because their ideology demands it? Can Zaru at least give members of Hamas the right of self-definition that she demands for herself from Western audiences?
In his text, A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation (Orbis, 2008), Ateek offers a similar explanation for Palestinian violence - hopelessness, despair and anger over Israeli oppression. Such arguments are child's play for Ateek, whose real charism is to portray the Israeli Jews as unable to make peace with the Palestinians because of their insistence on remaining a sovereign people which he argues is rooted in both a hostile interpretation of their own scripture and a overwrought reaction to the Holocaust. Ateek writes that "Israel must transform Zionism" and if Zionism cannot be transformed, "it must be abandoned" because "its ‘ingredients' of violence, war, conflict, deception, terrorism, and expulsion can never add up to peacemaking."
The extent Ateek is willing to go to demonize Israel becomes evident when he tells his readers that the "belief that Palestinians are worth less than Jews, hidden in the hearts of some Zionists, began to be put into practice over time. It has been a slow and creeping genocide."
Ateek's assertion that Israel has perpetrated a "slow and creeping genocide" is libelous, contemptible and chimerical. The population of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has quadrupled over the past 60 years. The modifiers "slow and creeping" do not make Ateek's accusation any less dishonest.
The only evidence Ateek can muster to prove the existence of this "genocide" is a photo of a dog attacking a Palestinian woman that appeared in the front page of Al-Quds newspaper in March 2007. Ateek writes, "For many years, Israel refused to use trained dogs against the Palestinians because it brought to mind the Nazis. Now Israel uses dogs to attack Palestinians." Such is the basis for Ateek's accusation of genocide - the modern-day equivalent of the blood libel - Israel's use of attack dogs.
By way of comparison, Ateek portrays the Palestinian cause as if it is motivated only by a desire for statehood and liberation. This may be true for many - even a majority of Palestinians - but what about Hamas - which tried to derail the Oslo Accords with numerous terror attacks, murdered hundreds of Israelis during the Second Intifada and failed to stop rocket attacks against Israel after taking control of the Gaza Strip in 2006? Has Ateek stood up to the leaders of Hamas for thwarting the will of the Palestinian people? Hardly. Yes, Ateek does condemn suicide bombing, in English, to audiences of Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians in the U.S. - groups not known for their propensity to launch terror attacks in the Middle East, but his influence on Palestinians who perpetrate acts of violence against Israel is nil.
That Ateek and Zaru call themselves peacemakers should not distract readers from an unpleasant reality. Their books will not encourage Palestinians to stop killing Israelis (and each other), but will instead justify, to Western audiences, the next round of Arab and Muslim violence against Israel - all in the language of human rights and liberation theology. On this score, Ateek and Zaru's books are not unique, but part of a long line of texts, produced for and by Christian peacemakers in the U.S., that portray Jewish sovereignty as the cause of the violence in the Middle East and Jewish self-reform and abasement as a way to bringing it to an end. Someday, when Christian leaders and intellectuals recover their senses, they will regard with shame the number of authors who have profited from this genre.
The appeal of Ateek and Zaru's books is rooted in the comforting narrative they offer. Given the circumstances of Arab and Israeli societies, predicating the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict on Jewish self-reform is the much more "hopeful" narrative than expecting Israel's adversaries to come to their senses.
Sadly, under current conditions, feeding the unreasonable hopes for peace in the Middle East requires starving readers of the truth. If peace could come through Jewish self-reform and abasement, peace would have arrived a long time ago. But alas, history has shown the limits to what Jewish self-reform can accomplish, revealing that the problem resides not with the Jews, but in the hearts and of those who would kill them.
Ateek and Zaru, like the audience of Christian peacemakers they serve, have no stomach for discerning the habits of Muslim and Arab hearts in the Middle East, where genocidal, anti-Semitic images are broadcast regularly on state television and in official newspapers. On this score, Christian peacemakers are doing what pacifists have always done - avert their eyes from those aspects of reality would force them to come to grips with human sin in a meaningful manner.
Progressive peace activists averted their eyes before and during World War II by downplaying Hitler's misdeeds, exaggerating the evils of Western society, and responding to Jewish fears over threats to their safety with disdain and contempt - all in the hopes of promoting "peace."
Ultimately, Ateek and Zaru's texts underscore a sad truth about Christian peacemaking in reference to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Combine the one-sided narrative about the conflict offered by Israel's critics in the Middle East with notions of peacemaking and pacifism formulated in the comfort and safety of North America and you have a weapon to de-legitimize and disarm the Jewish state.
Dexter Van Zile is the Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for the Accuracy of Middle East Reporting In America (www.camera.org).