Telling the truth
Five years ago I attended a conference in Boston entitled “One State for Palestine/Israel.” It was March 2009. Gaza was still smoldering from Operation Cast Lead, in which 1400 Palestinians were killed between December 27th and January 18th. Israeli historian and author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine Ilan Pappe was one of the speakers, and he talked about genocide. My God, I thought, he’s saying the G word. It was not hurled as an accusation, it was not shouted for effect. It was a cry for help, and Pappe made that explicit. Cast Lead, he said, was Israel’s entry into a new phase of its project to take all of the land and to rid the territory of the indigenous Arab population. This is a test, Pappe said, and more is coming — will the world do something? Will you sitting in this university lecture hall do something, before it is too late? I learned later that Pappe had issued this call to the international community in 2006 in an Electronic Intifada piece entitled “Genocide in Gaza.” The slaughter of Palestinian civilians was no act of self defense or lamentable consequence of war, Pappe pointed out in the article. It was, rather, part of an ongoing program linked to Israel’s founding: “When Israel was absolved from any responsibility or accountably for the ethnic cleansing in 1948, it turned this policy into a legitimate tool for its national security agenda.” “Only international pressure will stop Israel,” he told us that day, one year after the appearance of the Palestinian call for BDS. “Nothing apart from pressure in the form of sanctions, boycott and divestment will stop the murdering of innocent civilians in the Gaza Strip… In the name of the Holocaust memory, let us hope the world will not allow the genocide of Gaza to continue.”
When Genocide is Permissible
Pappe’s reference to the genocide of European Jews was pointed. In the Israeli propaganda machine and indeed for the Jewish community as a whole, the term is only be used in reference to Jewish losses and Jewish suffering. Certainly any acts committed by us against others is justified by virtue of our historic traumas (this is Marc Ellis’s concept of “Jewish innocence”) and could not possibly be spoken about in the same terms used to describe Jewish victimization. Last week this rule was broken by Orthodox American Jew Yochanan Gordon, in his piece entitled “When Genocide is Permissible” published in the Times of Israel, in which Gordon posed the question, “What other way then is there to deal with an enemy of this nature other than obliterate them completely?” The article was pulled the same day and Gordon forced to apologize, the editors claiming that “We reject any such notion or discussion associated with even entertaining the possibility of such an unacceptable idea.” The denial is disingenuous – what was unacceptable was not the idea of a genocidal Israel, but that posing the question came so uncomfortably close to an acknowledgement that genocide of the Palestinians is the Israeli reality. Gordon broke the rule by speaking the truth about Israel’s intentions and articulating the justification for its actions.
Now comes Pappe’s latest piece, published in the Electronic Intifada on July 27th, “To the family of the one thousandth victim of Israel’s genocidal slaughter in Gaza.” From the depths of his horror, Pappe speaks the truth and makes a pledge to the Palestinians. “This is 2014,” he writes, “the destruction of Gaza is well documented. This is not 1948 when Palestinians had to struggle hard to tell their story of horror; so many of the crimes Zionists committed then were hidden and never came to light, even until today. So my first and simple pledge is to record, inform and insist on the truth.”
This is Pappe’s pledge to the family of the one thousandth victim:
“I feel the urge today to make a pledge to you, which none of the Germans my father knew during the time of the Nazi regime was willing to make to him when the thugs committed genocide against his family. This is not much of a pledge at your moment of grief, but it is the best I can offer and saying nothing is not an option. And doing nothing is even less than an option.”
Pappe’s pledge continues with a call for BDS:
“I pledge to continue the effort to boycott a state that commits such crimes. Only when the Union of European Football Associations throws Israel out, when the academic community refuses to have any institutional ties with Israel, when airlines hesitate to fly there, and when every outfit that may lose money because of an ethical stance in the short-term understands that in the long run it will gain both morally and financially — only then we will begin to honor your loss.
So I pledge today not to be distracted even by friends and Palestinian leaders who still foolishly pin their hopes on the long-gone ‘two-state solution.’ If one has the impulse to be involved in bringing regime change in Palestine, the only reason to do this is for a struggle for equal human and civil rights and full restitution for all those who are and were victimized by Zionism, inside and outside the beloved land of Palestine. This is what I can pledge — to work to prevent the next stage in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.”
Calling the churches
Pappe’s call for international grassroots action prompts consideration of the growing church movement for Palestinian liberation, especially in response to the 2009 “Moment of Truth” document by the leaders of the churches of Palestine, which calls on the international community to witness and come to the aid of the occupied Palestinian people. Now, as in other historical eras, politics meets theology: the Old Testament prophets speaking truth to power; the Roman occupation of Palestine in Jesus’ time; Germany under the Third Reich; Jim Crow America; popular liberation movements in Latin America; South Africa under Apartheid. Now, the churches are again called to stand for justice, as evidenced by the emergence of the global kairos movement. Kairos, in the words quoted in the U.S. “Call to Action” kairos document, is the “moment of grace and opportunity, when God issues a challenge to decisive action.” The words are taken from the 1985 South Africa Kairos document, a prophetic statement that marshaled the churches of South Africa and ultimately the world to stand against the heresy and evil of apartheid.
The momentum of this movement was in evidence in the recent action of the Presbyterian Church USA to divest from companies profiting from the oppression of the Palestinians. At their General Assembly in Detroit in June I watched the Presbyterians struggle to follow the gospel imperative to divest in the face of massive pressure – from within the church as well as from without — to hold back from this action in order not to risk a rupture with the institutional Jewish mainstream. By this time – the Presbyterians had been considering divestment at every biennial conference since 2004 — everyone knew it was apartheid and the church had to stop supporting it, but taking the pledge was hard. It passed, but barely, 51-49%. As the movement to bring the church around to a faithful stand grows, so will the internal struggle intensify, pitting courage and faithfulness to fundamental Christian principles against political caution and institutional timidity. Having watched this struggle unfold in Detroit, the testimony of one man in particular stands out for me – a pastor from Ohio, Andries Coetzee, who during the deliberations spoke out with particular passion and eloquence. Last week, in response to the bombing and invasion of Gaza, Coetzee posted a short piece entitled “With renewed violence in Gaza, Presbyterian Church’s Israel disinvestments are a nonviolent contribution to peace.” I encourage you to read the whole blog, especially for how Coetzee responds to the challenging comments. It is clear that it is his experience growing up in apartheid South Africa that provided the moral platform for this pastor’s clarity and courage. “I personally support divestment and spoke in favor of it on the plenary floor,” he wrote, “based on my experience of growing up in South Africa during the height of the apartheid years, as part of the white Afrikaans-speaking minority who oppressed the black majority.” The lessons he draws for today speak loud and clear:
“The emotional impact of such a system of oppression based on fear of ‘the other’ is tremendous, on oppressed and oppressor alike, and is still, I believe, at the root of many of the struggles we face in South Africa today. As whites supporting apartheid, we denied the humanity of our fellow black citizens by denying them basic human rights, and in the process we became less than human ourselves through our support of a brutal system of violence and degradation. It is because of this, the dehumanization of myself and others, that I thank the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the international community for their courage in divesting from companies during the 1980s that profited from oppression in South Africa, even though the Reagan administration failed to take an appropriate moral stand by opposing sanctions against the apartheid regime. It was through divestment and increased isolation that we as a minority realized that we were on a path of self-destruction, and that the powerful were forced to negotiate. Divestment helped us gain insight as to how we were viewed in the eyes of the world and forced us to realign ourselves with the values of nonviolence and peace. For me, the decision to economically divest was a decision to invest in South Africa and all her people, and helped lead us on a path of healing and hope in the midst of fear and destruction.”
As long as it takes
As criticism of Israel and of U.S. policy intensifies, in particular now in response to the carnage in Gaza, defenders of the status quo redouble their efforts to shore up support for Israel. On July 30th Mondoweiss reported on a rally in support of Israel in New York City. Readers were treated to the spectacle of politicians who lined up to take the microphone to do what they thought they needed to do to hold on to their seats. Mondoweiss’ headline was what made me click on the email: “Israel now, Israel tomorrow, Israel forever!” were the words that issued from Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, New York Eighth Congressional District, Brooklyn and Queens. For anyone not recognizing the allusion, click here. (Really, click on the link.)
Jeffries is African American.
To which there can be only this reply:
BDS now, BDS tomorrow, BDS as long as it takes.
It’s important to tell the truth because the media and the politicians – especially those in both industries identifying as liberal or even progressive — will continue to uphold the status quo by promoting moderate solutions that do not acknowledge or address the root cause — in short, that do not tell the truth. This is illustrated by the not one but two OpEd columns featured in this past Sunday’s New York Times. Roger Cohen in “Why Americans See Israel the Way They Do” spills most of his ink describing recent eruptions of anti-Semitism, especially in Europe: “Hitler’s name has been chanted, gassing of Jews invoked,” but with no discussion of what acts are prompting this hatred. Cohen concludes this appeal to eternal Jewish victimhood and vulnerability with an homage to the “balanced” discourse: “I find myself dreaming of some island in the middle of the Atlantic,” muses Cohen,”where the blinding excesses on either side of the water are overcome and a fundamental truth is absorbed: that neither side is going away, that both have made grievous mistakes, and that the fate of Jewish and Palestinian children — united in their innocence — depends on placing the future above the past. That island will no doubt remain as illusory as peace.” Yes, as illusory as seeking peace without confronting the tyranny of the powerful. Under the fold we then have Thomas Friedman in “How This War Ends.” As ever, reporting from Planet Friedman, the internationally celebrated columnist here appeals to moderation on both sides that will yield viable political solutions. In Friedman’s scenario, Hamas joins Fatah in a unity government, which then negotiates with Israel to create a Palestinian state. Friedman knows this can’t happen because Israel, supplied by genocide-enabling U.S. arms and emboldened by abjectly cowardly U.S. diplomacy, won’t let it happen. Friedman acknowledges as much in his penultimate sentence, but he can’t go where he needs to go: to the regime change Pappe talks about, brought about by international pressure not from politicians but from civil society.
Tell the truth.
BDS now, BDS tomorrow, BDS as long as it takes.