I just spent two weeks in Israel/Palestine, representing American Presbyterians, with an international team that planted olive trees for Palestinian farmers who would otherwise be unable to work their fields. This happened to be the two weeks in which the flap over the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Israel Palestine Mission Network’s new publication, Zionism Unsettled, was happening among those who oppose true Palestinian rights and justice.
When you live in Palestine for two weeks; when you talk to Palestinian people–both Christian and Muslim–up close and personal; when they share with you their daily struggles including the violation of every imaginable human right they have, and their intense pain and humiliation as a result of that; and when you are exposed to the same sort of suspicions they themselves are subjected to on a daily basis just for being there, you have to wonder what the flap is really about. When you read Zionism Unsettled and live and work in the West Bank, you clearly see the consistency between the written word and actual life in Palestine. Even the most politically conservative person on our trip, who is sympathetic to some Tea Party agenda, said to me on day 4: “It doesn’t take a genius to see this and know who the aggressor and oppressor is.” I never expected that statement from him in a million years.
Political Zionism is destroying a culture and a people, and intentionally so. It is seeking to ethnically cleanse a land by any means possible: scaring Palestinian families so they flee to other nations, incarcerating Palestinian men for the simple crime of being Palestinian, harassing and damaging children both emotionally and physically (all well-documented), and yes, even killing them. Palestinians are killed by the Israeli military on a regular basis under the guise of “crowd control.” We heard story upon story from young Palestinians who remember watching high school classmates die as a result of the so-called “harmless” rubber bullets, or because they were hit in the head with a tear gas canister at close range, or had a severe reaction to the gas itself. There are many abuses of Palestinian children taking place at the hands of the Israeli military and penal system. These stories hardly ever make U.S. headlines, which is why you really don’t know much about that.
Critics of Zionism Unsettled have argued that we are not allowing Zionists to engage in the same kind of exceptionalism afforded every other religious culture in the world. Indeed, every culture in the world throughout the march of history has demonstrated exceptionalist tendencies. Zionism Unsettled critics are dead wrong when they argue that exceptionalism is something to preserved, protected and of which to be proud. American exceptionalism is guilty of the massacre of Native Americans and the enslavement and oppression of African Americans. It has reared its ugly head in every war in which we have demonized our enemies to make them seem less-than-human, making it easier to resolve our consciences about collateral damage. We hear it in our immigration debates today. Our national psyche still suffers, whether we know it or not, from our exceptionalist sins of the past and present. When we exercise our American exceptionalist attitudes in ways that are harmful to human beings not like us, we are wrong and immoral and must be called on that. I learned that in a highly respected Presbyterian theological seminary in the late 1970’s and have practiced it throughout my life as well as in 3+ decades of ordained ministry. When another people, with their own set of exceptionalist beliefs, do the same to an indigenous people in their own land, and my nation (translate: tax money) supports that financially to the tune of $3-4 billion each year the same standard applies. Add in the reality of U.S. corporate investment in occupation and that figure of $3-4 billion shoots sky high. As a tax payer and as member of a church that invests my retirement funds in those corporations I have every right and moral obligation to speak to this injustice.
Israel could not do what it does to Palestinians without U.S. support. While talking to a couple of the Israeli soldiers standing guard over us in the olive fields, I said: “I work very hard in the U.S. so that my government can send you my tax money.” His response was: “I work very hard to spend your money. Thank you very much.”
If you have never had an army standing and looking at you with assault weapons slung over their shoulders while you planted olive trees, you should give it a try. It is very unsettling to say the least. The Israeli military showed up every day we planted just for the sake of harassment and intimidation. On two separate occasions they made us stop work while they verified Palestinian ownership papers. The joke is that all the players know each other. The Palestinian leaders of the Joint Advocacy Initiative (JAI) know the Israeli commander, and the Israeli commander knows the Palestinian farmer has the right papers because JAI doesn’t plant trees on fields where Palestinian ownership cannot be substantiated. It’s a big dance, and would be funny except that the Israeli military is messing with people’s livelihoods, and lives. On the last day of planting, we were again stopped and delayed for over an hour. The Palestinian farmer once again produced all his ownership papers, the papers were verified, and yet on this occasion the commander told us to stop work and leave the field. But this was not before an Israeli settler came onto the field (uninvited, mind you) to argue with our team. The final spectacle came when he knelt down, slapped the ground with his hands and shouted: God gave us this land! This was right after the commander had officially verified that this was Palestinian land. The excuse for not letting us finish the job? It serves as a “buffer zone” between the nearby settlement and other Palestinian lands. Translation: These adjacent fields are to be absorbed for future expansion of the settlement next door.
The last time I was in Israel/Palestine before this most recent trip was 2006. Just as I was shocked that year at seeing the expansion of settlements since my previous visit in 2001, I was shocked even more in the last two weeks to see what has happened since 2006. The Israeli government is allowing for settlement expansion at break-neck speed all over land well inside the Green Line. This was land clearly established for a Palestinian state by the 1948 partition plan. It is tantamount to not only endless occupation, it is invasion for the purpose of removing a people from the lands given to them by international agreement. And they keep building walls in the strangest places deep within occupied Palestinian territory to make sure their slow, ongoing invasion will be successful. Some are arguing that proponents of B.D.S. (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) are now not even hiding the fact they are for a one-state solution over a two-state solution.
Here is my answer: I really was for the two-state solution until Israeli expansionism and colonization in Palestine made that impossible. I was not alive in 1948 when decisions were made. But I am alive now to go and see the mockery the Israeli government has made of that historical decision. It’s not my fault that the two-state solution no longer makes sense. Yet, now it is my responsibility to point out that the human rights violations taking place arise out of the worst system of abuse in the “free world” since South African apartheid.