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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Jewish peaceniks, Christian visitors, and the Israel-Palestine problem

Jewish peaceniks, Christian visitors, and the Israel-Palestine problem

The cabdriver tells me he hasn't set foot in Jerusalem's Old City in 18 years. Before the first intifada, he used to eat there three times a week, he says, but now he is afraid.

 "It's too bad," he says, adding that when he was growing up, between the Yom Kippur war and the first Lebanon war, Arab friends used to visit his parents on the Jewish side of Jerusalem, and they would cook lamb over a fire. Later, as an adult, he used to drive to Ramallah or Tulkarem to shop or repair his car. Israelis were kidnapped and murdered in both places early in the second intifada, and Israel now forbids its citizens to visit there.

It's too bad, we agree.

The driver wants to know what business brings me to the Old City this evening. It's not business, I tell him. I am going there as a volunteer of MidEastWeb for Coexistence, to make a brief presentation to some foreign activists who have come here under the auspices of the World Council of Churches. They have invited speakers from some peace organizations working in Israel.

Peace is an illusion, the driver says. But at least we should be entitled to some quiet, he adds as he drops me inside the Jaffa Gate. 

At the meeting we sit in a circle --- some two dozen church-affiliated volunteers and staff from abroad, plus five local guests who have been invited to tell about their peace activities in Israel.

We go around the circle, the foreign visitors introducing themselves by their first names and countries only, the locals explaining what their groups do. The locals represent Combatants for Peace, Rabbis for Human Rights, Bat Shalom and Women in Black, Peace Now, and MidEastWeb.

What the various people say in the meeting is not part of this report, as I have not asked for nor obtained their agreement to be quoted. 

I can tell you what they don't say, though.

No one asks inflammatory questions. No one gives incendiary answers. An absence of sharp words characterizes the evening. 

No one accuses Israel of doing anything "illegal." The word "brutality" is not heard.

That is noteworthy, since accusations of "illegal" and "brutality" are central to the program which brings these activists to the Holy Land. The visitors are part of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel, whose stated aims include, "reduce the brutality of the Occupation" and "End the Illegal Occupation of Palestine." (see

These ecumenical accompaniers, who serve for at least three months, are assigned among five Palestianian Authority towns --- Bethlehem, Hebron, Jayyous, Tulkarem and Yanoun --- or to Jerusalem. The newest group of 25 activists came from eight countries --- Germany, Finland, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Britain, and the United States. The group includes the program's first Hindu and its second Muslim.

In all, more than 300 volunteers have taken part since the World Council of Churches started the program in 2002 under the banner "Ecumenical Campaign to End the Illegal Occupation of Palestine: Support a Just Peace in the Middle East." 

The atmosphere at our meeting is cordial. It is as if people in the room are on their best behavior.

In the question period, I comment that almost everyone at the meeting is too young to have any direct experience of conditions before the occupation began 39 years ago. I assure them that if they could make the occupation go away overnight, they would find underlying problems which remain unsolved, problems that led not only to the occupation but to the three wars that preceded it. No one asks what I think the problems are. 

I urge them to visit Israel outside Jerusalem and learn something firsthand about the country and its unique society. No one asks what there might be to learn in Israel.

During a break I tell one of the organizers that material on their website makes it hard to sell their program to politically progressive Israelis. I refer to a page that gives an overview of the project's aims. (See

This page targets "the violence of the occupation" without mentioning the violence of suicide bombings directed against civilians in Israel. This page asserts an aim "to end the occupation and create a viable Palestinian State" without mentioning Israel's right to exist.

These look like matters of presentation, not policy, because the ecumenical body advocates non-violence and is on record elsewhere on the site as supporting Israel's existenc within a two-state solution. 

Whatever the intent, this page can come across as a condemnation of Israel's government and society. It has elements of a bill of particulars. Its use of the term "illegal" to characterize the occupation is provocative, not judicial or informative.

The next day I send the meeting organizer an e-mail message containing some of these points and concluding, "I offer these comments not in the spirit of argument, but to call your attention to wording that is likely to turn off many peace-seeking Israelis." 

One problem that can interfere with mutual understanding is that the World Council of Churches has already chosen a policy that no Israeli in their right mind should be expected to regard as helpful or even friendly. This is its 2005 recommendation encouraging economic pressure on the Jewish state by the ecumenical body's more than 340 member churches and denominations representing some 550 million Christians. It commends as an example the divestment program adopted in 2004 by the Presbyterian Church (USA). (After much criticism and discussion, the Presbyterian leadership has since blurred the language, replacing the term "disinvestment" with "corporate engagement" in June 2006.)

One Christian opponent of divestment has written that "the goals of the divestment campaign have little to do with changing Israeli policy or promoting peace, but with the economic and political isolation of Israel."

In any case, the divestment issue goes unexplored in our group discussion.

Before the meeting breaks up, a pleasant Christian activist in his 30s comes up to chat with me. He mentions the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s, so I introduce him to an axiom attributed to Eldridge Cleaver, a black revolutionary. It states that if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem. Cleaver was referring to racial politics in the United States, but he gave us a rule that can be applied widely to other crises and disputes, especially our problem in the Middle East. All of us, I suggest, should be constantly examining ourselves in this light, asking whether we are part of the solution or part of the problem. 

The meeting ends with polite goodnights and no sign whether any eyes have been opened or any minds have changed. The hope, of course, is that your words get through to the people with whom you're talking, regardless of where their organizations stand. 

--- Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv



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