I just returned from Gaza a couple weeks ago. I can’t begin to describe the kind of devastation the Palestinians face there every day. What shocked me the most was the profound feeling of their being treated like disposable humanity, in a cage, to live or die or grow ill from the lack of basic medical supplies, clean water, sewage treatment, electricity or simply a roof over their head. The basics- all things we take for granted. “Smile- it’s Gaza” they kept telling me. All I could do was weep.
What gets me is that while Palestinians are forced to live under and suffer the consequences of the 10 year blockade and siege in their tiny little hot open air prison– back here on the cushy west side of Manhattan we’re put under a great deal of pressure not to speak of such things and when we do, we’re often told that we’re “demonizing” Israel or making people feel “unsafe.”
One recent example; On April 19th the Task Force on Israel-Palestine at my Upper West Side Episcopal Church (which I have chosen to leave anonymous, because this is not an isolated example) hosted former Israeli special forces soldier Miko Peled for a talk. Prior to the event, which did take place, the Rector of our church received phone calls from a local Rabbi and a City Councilman expressing their displeasure about hosting such an event.
On June 19th we had another event at my church, but this time organized by the Rector and led by the same local City Councilman and chair of the Jewish Caucus, entitled “How we engage the issue of Israel and Palestine in our own context. As non-Jewish and Jewish New Yorkers on the Upper West Side, how can we talk about this difficult issue without demonizing the other side?”
This reminds me of an article Mark Braverman wrote several years ago on interfaith bullying. In it he describes how there is a kind of soft bullying at work, “in which those who claim to represent the Jewish community have set the rules that Christians have obediently followed. A deal designed to relieve Christians of their guilt over anti-Semitism by making any meaningful criticism of Israel or challenge to Zionism out of bounds.” Even back in 2012 when this was written he stated, “we are seeing only the beginning of the battle that will be waged to silence this church movement.”
This June 19th event was billed as “how we engage the issue of Israel-Palestine” but the talk itself ended up being heavily focused around why Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, is a bad idea (according to this Rabbi and Councilman) and why Israel is being unfairly singled out for this treatment. If this were 1972 this argument might be more convincing when opportunity lay ahead to end the occupation and comply with UN resolutions and international law. What was heartily glossed over in this talk by the Councilman and the Rabbi is that the non-violent peaceful call to boycott and divestment only came after decades of failed diplomatic efforts, decades of peace talks, dialogue and coexistence projects, decades of occupation, and now a decade of the blockade and siege of Gaza and periodic “lawn mowing” of its civilian population, not to mention the continued theft of Palestinian land to build Jewish only settlements and roads in the West Bank on the very land the UN set aside for a future Palestinian state more than 67 years ago.
This, in psychoanalytic parlance, is called the double bind. In other words- when someone or some entity in a position of power makes contradicting demands on another whereby no response is deemed appropriate. For the Palestinians- they may not object to the occupation and continued expansion of Jewish only settlements on Palestinian land, they may not militantly resist such actions, and they may not non-violently resist through the time honored tools of civil disobedience such as boycott, divestment and sanctions. What’s left?
In the US, advocates for Palestinian human rights are now experiencing a different kind of double bind. We want to recognize the emotional and psychological fear expressed by people living here on the Upper West Side who feel uncomfortable when they hear the policies of the state of Israel being criticized but we also want to honor the lives of those who have been killed, maimed, live food-insecure, homeless, and without water and electricity. We want to honor the lives of the 22,000 orphans living in Gaza. If we are not permitted to speak of what has happened to them, how do we honor their feelings and the truth about their lives ?
If we’re “demonizing” Israel by using words to raise questions about their human rights violations, what is the name we would give to what Israel is doing to the 1.85 million people of Gaza using drones, missiles, F16’s, apache helicopters and white phosphorous?
We will continue to be criticized, shamed and ridiculed for our efforts to talk about Israel’s human rights violations against a besieged and occupied population. I keep telling myself- that’s ok with me, it’s a lot easier than living in Gaza. Smile- we’re on the Upper West Side.
We’ll have to find a way to simply embrace the friction and discomfort of our work together. People won’t like it, people will find it annoying, but we’re not doing anything wrong and advocacy for the oppressed is a long held tradition of Christian ministry.
We can assume best intentions of dialogue efforts such as this recent event on the Upper West Side, but we also have to be realistic. Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs allocated $25.5 million in 2015 for a new Anti-BDS Task Force. That budget is set to balloon upwards from there- it’s already over $30 million.
It’s difficult for small non-profits like Jewish Voice for Peace and Jews Say No to bump up against that kind of money, political capital and slick marketing. Israel and it’s American partner organizations have a sophisticated, well funded, well organized international campaign. Small organizations advocating BDS in order to encourage policy change by political leaders rely on grassroots sharing of information, old fashioned collaboration and coordination. That’s all we have to work with. We have to use it. The involvement of a city council member that doesn’t even represent the district of this Upper West Side parish is not a coincidence, nor is it a coincidence that the head of Jewish global advocacy in support of Israel at the AJC attended and signed into one of the Task Force events at the same Upper West Side parish using an alias.
Five Lutheran synods recently passed divestment resolutions. Israel knows the Episcopalians are up for a vote in 2018. There’s a lot at stake here and they are threatened by BDS, not because it’s terribly damaging economically but because it is a non-violent tool that is sending a powerful message to the world.
The Task Force along with others advocating for peace and justice will continue to experience push-back. We need to be vigilant and prepared at every turn