Jewish & Christian advocates for peace and divestment from Israeli Occupation at the Methodist General Conference, April 24, 2012 (Photo: JVPLive)
Today the United Methodist Church opens its global conference in Tampa, FL. Over the next 10 days, it will consider a resolution to divest from three companies profiting from the occupation.
Dear brothers and sisters of the Methodist faith,
Recently a friend asked me if it was possible to sum up the Israel/Palestine situation in a nutshell. I had to think about it before I said:
“When I left Jerusalem in February, I said goodbye to a friend who works for the United Nations and told her how devastated I felt from traveling through the occupation. She said, 'All my friends back home ask me, What is the peaceful resolution to the conflict?’ Then she got a sad look.
"‘When you’ve been here, you understand, There is no peaceful outcome.’"
That is the situation in a nutshell. A combination of endless Israeli expansionism and unwavering American support for that expansion and the refusal of Palestinians to accept the dispossession has created a powderkeg. It resembles other historic land struggles that involved imbalances of power and human rights violations, from the England-Ireland conflict to the French colonization of Algeria to South African apartheid. Diplomatic solutions have come and gone. One side is oppressed, and sees no light at the tunnel for its children’s future. The other side feels defensive, militaristic, and obstinate. When Americans entered a similar phase in our own history, people described the battle between the slavery south and the anti-slavery north as an “irrepressible conflict.” The same is true for Israel and Palestine.
And that is why I am for boycott, divestment and sanctions. Given the utter failure of other countries to bring any pressure to bear on the dominant power in the conflict-- Israel-- boycott and divestment are the only program that holds out hope of a way out without significant bloodshed.
Palestinians are asking us to do this, not on some whim, not out of any feeling of arrogance. No, leading figures and a broad segment of civil society have settled on this strategy as the most effective one. Let us not forget: Palestinians were promised an Arab state in Palestine 65 years ago and they have never gotten it, even as countless other peoples have gotten states recognized by the U.N. They have tried everything over the last 90 years to achieve independence—uprising, revolt, militias, armies, rejection of international measures, terrorism, compromise and peace process. All these approaches have failed to produce anything except more chopped down olive trees that their grandfathers planted, more bulldozed cisterns they store water in through the long dry months, more settlers taking their village's only spring.
And when the people have undertaken violent resistance to military occupation – a right guaranteed under international law— they have been met by overwhelming violence. They have lost even more.
Their lack of firepower is only rivaled by their lack of political power. The peace process has produced 20 years of endlessly similar proposals with America acting as Israel’s lawyer even as the Israelis colonize more and more Palestinian land.
As Hillary Clinton says, The status quo is unsustainable.
When people suggest that we should continue on the peace process path, or that “peace is hard work,” or that we just need to give it more time, they are showing incredible contempt for the real life situation of Palestinians. I have spent enough time inside the occupation to see how desperate and angry Palestinians are. They lack virtually all rights. They have no power to vote for the government that pushes them out of their houses, arrests their sons, and gives their water to settlers.
I've met a sheep farmer whose pen was destroyed by marauding soldiers who even crushed a lamb. I’ve met a tomato farmer whose water lines were cut by religious zealot settlers who've seized the hilltop across the way. I’ve met parents whose 12-year-old child was detained and pressured to squeal on family members who were guilty of organizing nonviolent resistance. I’ve met a brilliant student who leaves his computer programming classes at Bir Zeit University to risk being shot at a border crossing because he can see the Mediterranean from his rooftop but is barred by law from going there. I’ve met a young feminist who cannot travel to Jerusalem, without going through a bureaucratic maze of paperwork and military checkpoints that always produce fear and humiliation.
For many years, Palestinians have looked to the United States to put a brake on Israel’s settlement activities. But no one can have any doubt at this point-- the United States is incapable of supplying that check. Because of the power of the Israel lobby in our politics, presidents have again and again gone back on U.S. policy, that the settlements are illegal and that Palestinians have a right to self-determination. In Cairo three years ago, Obama said The settlements must end and Palestinians must have a state. At the U.N. two years later he cast a veto of a resolution the world backed, calling for an end to settlements. And then he worked hard to derail a Palestinian statehood initiative at the U.N. So much for his bold promises.
This is a familiar story. For decades U.S. presidents said that the Palestinian refugees had a right to return. But they could do nothing to make our closest ally honor that right.
They said they didn’t want a nuclear Middle East. But did nothing as Israel armed itself with nuclear weapons. The U.S. is something that can be easily moved, Benjamin Netanyahu said some years ago, and he has followed through.
My first boycott was when my parents joined the lettuce boycott to help migrant workers in California. Well there is far more violence in the occupation than there was in the agricultural industry. On average a Palestinian is killed every other day by the Israelis. Israel has cracked down hard on Palestinian nonviolent resistance in the West Bank. It has cordoned off Gaza as an open air prison. It perpetuates a regime of separate roadways and colonization that is suffocating Palestinian culture. Its politicians talk about pushing Palestinians into Jordan.
And all this as the Arab Spring is filling young Palestinians with the belief that the oppression in Palestine will end.
Israel may hope that the Palestinians will simply leave, but some will inevitably turn to violent resistance. I can imagine that I would myself if I were in that situation-- just as some Americans turned to violent resistance when the British taxed us without giving us a vote, or when the south tried to expand slavery into northern territories in the 1850s.
And this is why boycott is so essential. It takes a hugely-imbalanced situation in which Palestinians have lost again and again and again, and gives them some power at last. This is why a broad segment of Palestinian society has asked us to do this, so they can try and even the playing field.
They have asked us because the situation is so desperate, because their children want to leave and pursue careers in the Gulf, or because their children are throwing rocks from slingshots. They have come to realize that in the absence of American fairness or U.N. effectiveness, international pressure brought by the likes of you and me is the most powerful tool these people have to give themselves any bargaining power.
As someone who has had the privilege of bearing witness to their oppression over six trips to the occupation in the last six years, I have no choice but to honor their request.
Now let me address four important objections to boycott and divestment: it won't work, it will inflict suffering on Israelis, it will destroy the Israeli state, the American Jewish community regards it as anti-Semitic.
It won't work? The Palestinians say this is the only option now. And it worked in South Africa. So let us try it.
As to the pain it will inflict--this is true. Boycott is not painless. But what we are visiting on Israel is a tiny measure of the pain that Palestinians have been made to experience for generations, and the pain we are bringing is economic, nonviolent pressure. The force of the divestment measure before the Methodist conference is largely symbolic: a targeting of three companies that do business in the occupation as a means of trying to force governments to honor human rights.
As for dismantling Israel, I can tell you that there are many things that as an American Jew I love about Israel. I love the Sabbath in Jerusalem that makes me feel like I am in turn-of-the-century Europe, I love the journalistic culture and the freedom Jews experience, I love the physical culture that Jews have created on farms and beaches. None of these things would be destroyed by boycott. In fact, Israel is doing such an effective job of undermining its achievements by anti-Palestinian measures, through anti-Arab legislation and the maintenance of apartheid in the West Bank and the siege of Gaza, that I believe the only way Israeli achievements can be preserved is through some transformation akin to the civil rights movement in the United States. Israel has shown itself to be incapable of attaining any awareness of its own dissolution. It has become ever more militaristic and defensive, and its political discourse ever more pugnacious. Again: The potential for violence here is so high that the only alternative is steady and concerted pressure from outside. We must all hope that Israeli leaders have a DeKlerk moment like the one that helped transform South Africa. But DeKlerk only had his epiphany when international pressure isolated South Africa.
The fourth charge is most important: that divestment somehow threatens Jews, that it makes Jews a “pariah” group as we have been historically. But the divestment is aimed at the Israeli occupation, it is not aimed at Jews. It is aimed at exclusivity and apartheid. In fact, many Jews support divestment and boycott-- and activist Jews have used boycott and divestment again and again as an effective measure to end human rights abuses, from pogroms in Russia to inhumane conditions in the garment business on the Lower East Side of New York.
Yes, but mine is undoubtedly a minority position inside the Jewish community. More than 1200 rabbis have gathered to tell you not to do this, it will damage Christian-Jewish relations, and who are you Methodists to contradict the request of that Jewish establishment? In voting for divestment, there is no doubt you would be choosing the Palestinian civil society’s requests over the request of the Jewish organizational leadership.
I would tell you that it is always the right thing to honor human rights. And the powerful will always find a voice; they always have.
Yet still the question nags. The Jewish community is one that has faced many historical persecutions over the last 1000 years, culminating in the extermination of two-thirds of our people in the Holocaust. Who are you to take a stand that so many leaders in my community regard as another stage of that persecution?
And yet you should do so, and you must do so. And here is why.
My community is deeply wounded. The Holocaust produced in many of us a feeling that we could only rely on ourselves to survive. Today despite all our success in the U.S., that feeling of aloneness has only been amplified by Israel’s many wars. They have produced in many Jews a belief that the world will not protect us when the chips are down, and that our only protection is militant nationalism. So Israel today has nuclear arms and the fourth or fifth largest army in the world, and it detains Palestinian children without charges for participating in nonviolent resistance.
My community is deeply wounded because we fail to perceive that unbalanced reality, because our collective memory is so filled with tragedy that we cannot see the present time. This damage may be inevitable, but it imprisons us. As Peter Beinart says in his new book on Zionism, the Jewish leadership has felt "forever persecuted and licensed by their fears to worry only about themselves."
When 4 million Palestinians are without any real rights, this self-concern is a blot on our history.
My community cannot escape from this prison of self-concern on its own. No, leading Jewish councils see the problem from too narrow a perspective; a religious nationalist movement has taken precedence inside Jewish life.
And today the Jews who are fighting to restore their community’s attention to compassion for the oppressed work across traditional lines, as the Palestinians do, to seek help from outside. We need the assistance of compassionate people devoted to human rights to break the hold of Jewish nationalist feeling.
Voting for divestment is a way not only to help Palestinians but a way to help Jews. It is a way to bring an oppressor to its senses, it is a way to empower a progressive movement in Palestine that is the only alternative to violence, and it is a way to empower the progressive movement inside Jewish life that can turn the tide against militant nationalism. I urge you to pass the divestment resolution.