In his New York Times column of Nov 11, “My President is Busy,” Tom Friedman tells Israelis not to count on the U.S. government to rescue them from their own leaders’ catastrophic policies. “I find it very sad,” writes Friedman, “that in a country with so much human talent, the Israeli center and left still can’t agree on a national figure who could run against Netanyahu and his thuggish partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman… Don’t count on America to ride to the rescue. It has to start with you. My President is busy.”
Even though this column was written before the horror of Israel’s latest carnage perpetrated on Gaza, an action sanctioned and made possible by our government, my breath was taken away by the smugness and hypocrisy of this statement. Friedman ignores the fact it is our policies that have saddled the Israelis with this rogue government. America’s massive financial and unconditional diplomatic support of Israel have allowed the most right wing and pernicious elements in Israeli society to take control of the state. But Friedman would have us abdicate our responsibility. Instead, he blames the Israeli public, themselves victims of successive Israeli leaders who have taught them only hate and fear. “You are home alone,” intones Friedman, abandoning the Israelis to the fate to which we have effectively consigned them. And, not neglecting the Palestinians, Friedman faults them for failing to accomplish the “radical change” – what this is to be is not at all clear – that will help them out of the situation and will be the condition for earning our help, “to get us to fully re-engage.”
Tom, you’ve got it backwards. The problem is not that we are not engaged, the problem is that we are VERY engaged, and it is the nature of that engagement that must change.
And that change is coming. The clearest indication of this occurred on October 5, when fifteen leaders from major Christian faith communities in the United States issued a courageous statement calling our government to account for its key role in the continuation of Israel’s unjust and criminal actions toward Palestinians through our unconditional provision of massive military assistance. Kairos USA issued an Action Alert urging emails to Members of Congress in support of the letter. Wake up, America, the authors of the letter are saying, and cast a clear eye on what an increasing number of Americans have come to realize: that our “friend” in the Middle East is headed at breakneck speed over a cliff, and we are putting them in the car that is taking them there.
Friedman, however, wants us to ignore this reality. “Focus on Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, not on Bethlehem, Palestine, and focus on getting us out of quagmires (Afghanistan) not into them (Syria). No, my Israeli friends, it’s much worse than you think: You’re home alone.” Well, we may not have boots on the ground in Gaza or the West Bank, but are Americans aware of how much money flows to Israel every year to buy increasingly sophisticated and destructive military equipment and build illegal settlements and Jewish-only roads, policies that, as Friedman points out, only push us farther from peace? How precisely is this not a quagmire?
No, Tom, the Israelis are not home alone. We have been with them every step of the way, feeding their government’s addiction to militarism and the politics of fear. But perhaps Friedman is right about the Israelis being alone. America has abandoned Israel in the most profound, destructive and cruel way possible. We see their problem, which is their addiction to militarism and their political captivity to the most extreme elements in their society, a grim reality leading directly to settlement expansion in the West Bank and the siege of Gaza, which are the root causes of the violent resistance originating from Gaza – we see this, and we continue to hand over the cash for another bottle. It’s far worse than leaving them alone. Friedman ignores the fact that the money continues to flow and the UN vetoes continue to be as good as guaranteed. How is this leaving Israel home alone? This is like telling your kid you will no longer support his drug addicted, lawless lifestyle, but in the meantime continuing to send the fat monthly allowance.
In the Letter from a Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out that “we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.” The Christian leaders’ October 5th letter was not an act of civil disobedience or a call for boycott, but in our context today it qualifies as a direct action by King’s definition because it has surfaced critical issues driving the discourse over the issue of Israel and Palestine. This is the power of this letter, the same power demonstrated by Kairos documents past and present, the same power contained in the cries of the prophets and the ministry of Jesus as records of movements of nonviolent resistance to tyranny and injustice.
True to King’s words, the tensions immediately surfaced with the publication of the letter, and they arrived from two sources. First, the voices of American Jewish lobbying and advocacy organizations made themselves heard, with a ferocity and intensity that took some of us by surprise. We heard the familiar charges of “anti-Judaism and relentless attacks on the Jewish state” and the specious claim that in holding Israel and the U.S. responsible for the failure of peace efforts, the letter was ignoring Palestinian intransigence and refusal to “return to negotiating table.” Second, voices within the church denominations themselves were raised, voices challenging the bold and clear action of the 15 signers, warning that the letter could cause “an irreparable rift between U.S. Jews and Protestants.” They called for a return to the policies of interfaith dialogue here and negotiations between the “two sides” there — voices seeking to preserve at all costs the “peace without tension” that King spoke about.
The calls from within the church for “balance” and “patience” were answered clearly and firmly by church leaders and grassroots organizations echoing King’s assertion that only a firm commitment to justice and human dignity would honor the church’s true mission, and asserting that it was the responsibility of the church to call our own government to account for its complicity. And the leaders are holding firm – here is a recent example from the United Church of Christ. The strident protests of the Jewish establishment groups called out the equally impassioned voices of American Jewish organizations, including the small but growing number of rabbis who are saying: Enough! We want to redeem our tradition and liberate our own people from the sin and the catastrophe of a state that has abandoned the most fundamental principles of decency and international law. We support our Christian colleagues in calling our own government to cease its sinful complicity and to bring our friend back from the brink.
Rabbi Brian Walt, co-convener of a recent trip to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian territory with the Dorothy Cotton Institute, wrote the following in response to one prominent rabbi’s prediction that the Christian letter may permanently damage Christian-Jewish relations. “It may be more accurate,” writes Walt, “to say it may cause a rift between the American Jewish establishment and the Christian leaders who have until now been cowed with the warning that the price for ‘interfaith dialogue’ is silence on Israel’s human rights violations.”
The Rabbi’s observation is telling. He is reminding us that what we are seeing is the rise of the prophetic church, a church we have seen before, in this country and in other lands, when the cry of the oppressed was heard. This is where the real struggle is – between the voices the voices urging moderation and patience, and the emergence, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his own letter of 50 years ago, of “a colony of heaven, called to obey God rather than man.” We are witnessing, in the words of the courageous South African church leaders facing down their own government barely ten years before the fall of Apartheid, “a moment of truth…At this moment in South Africa the Church is about to be shown up for what it really is and no cover-up will be possible.”
We must show both Israelis and Palestinians that they are not home alone. Values and principles deeper and stronger than those that govern institutional church policy and international diplomacy are being called forth. As it has been in the past, when it acted to end legalized racism in our country and a tyrannous, racist regime in South Africa, the church is called.
My president is busy, writes Tom Friedman. If that is true, then it is time we got busy getting him, and our other elected officials, to pay attention to our country’s business.
“Change the wind,” writes Sojourners’ Jim Wallis, “transform the debate, recast the discussion, alter the political context in which decisions are being made, and you will change the outcomes. And you will be surprised at how fast the politicians adjust to the change in the wind.”
Mark Braverman is Program Director for Kairos USA