Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Israel, Palestinians, and Quakers

As clerk of the BYM Peace and Social Concerns Committee, I have recently found that to give this work due diligence, it is becoming increasingly important that I have a better knowledge base on the complex issue of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Most recently, the call for Palestinian statehood – which had long seemed a no-brainer to me – has heated up. Within the Yearly Meeting, there are those who are passionate that we should be vocal in supporting Palestinian statehood and boycotting all things Israel. Widening the circle I have seen and heard from some folks that not supporting statehood makes no sense and Obama is once again not showing fortitude. Among some of this group I have been taken aback by what I would call a somewhat toxic response laced with nasty comments bordering on hatred. And, in mid-September, three Quaker organizations (AFSC, FCNL, and QUNO) released a statement endorsing the Palestinian request at the UN for statehood - an act that the Obama administration asked them not to do, but to instead try to negotiate a peace first. In the Quaker statement, it is noted that the Palestinian request at the UN is a peaceful act, and should be endorsed. What seems to be missing is a deeper understanding of some of the history, such as that Mr. Abbas, despite recent actions, seems to struggle with making decisions (see this editorial for more) and this could be problematic in establishing a peaceful statehood.

And yet, as I sat and watched things unfold, I saw this issue evolve (or devolve?) into another partisan issue, where the political left generally endorsed statehood and the right did not, and Obama’s acts were perceived as politically motivated to appease the right. Personally, I am suspect of any issue that becomes partisan in this country, and wonder what the middle-ground is that people do not want us to see. So, I started to reach out. First, I contacted a friend of mine from high school who is Jewish, very liberal, and very connected with Israel. After high school, she did a year-long kibbutz, and this year her twin children are doing two separate kibbutzes in Israel. I forwarded to her some materials that I was receiving from Friends for her input. She connected me with a Jewish scholar who works at the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore. From both of them, I have started to gain a deeper understanding of these issues. For example, among Jewish Americans, there is little support for Israeli occupation of territories, but there is also a strong concern about the security of Israel. And yet, in the various materials I have shared with them, they felt that the security of Israel was not a consideration. If Palestinians are granted statehood, does that mean that they could assume that Jerusalem is included as part of this deal? If that’s the case, we probably could expect to see a sharp rise in violence in that city. So I was starting to see that, in fact, Obama is right to say that peace needs to lead to statehood, and not the other way. Statehood first, I now think, will most likely lead to more violence, not less.

Then this morning there was this op-ed piece in the Washington Post questioning why Human Rights groups are ignoring Palestinian war of words (written by one of the founding members of Human Rights Watch). Essentially, for me, this best clarifies the issue, which is that, while I think Palestinians should have statehood, if it is established through the UN and not through a peace settlement with Israel, the anti-Israeli element of the Palestinian government and society could very-quickly take up arms. As the writer points out, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament called for the killing of the Jewish people “down to the last one of them” in 2007. I am reminded of the comments I heard from a speaker at the National Cathedral – a man from Darfur who was from the side that was being persecuted and executed (another issue I am shamefully thin on understanding). He said that with all the “Save Darfur” signs he was seeing, he was clear that the last thing we wanted to do was arm those who were being persecuted because the vengeance would be more brutal. Can we take comfort that this will not happen to Israel?

This is a very complex issue, and one that is going to take an immense amount of bridge-building. As I have delved into this, I am more convinced that this Friend (me) will not be actively involved in the public policy statements and minutes that take the side of the Palestinians in such a blanket way. There are factions within the Palestinian community that absolutely want to do violence to Israel. Peace, for some, is not the goal; eradication of Israel is. At the same time, within our own communities, when we ignore this reality, we are also not being kind to neighbors who do not support Israeli policy but are passionate that Israel must be protected. So, while I think we need to stand down from the partisan policy statements, I do think we should step up our role as bridge-builders – the ultimate peace makers. It is when we can widen our own circle of understanding that we can perhaps see new ways forward.


Rich_Thayer said...

Well stated.

It would seem that our efforts as Friends might best be focussed in three areas:
(1) educating ourselves and maintaining this clarity in the face of so much politicizing
(2) using it to educate others and
(3) supporting those we think are actually working towards peace and reconciliation.

I was especially struck by the admonition not to arm those who are persectued lest it lead to further violence and escalation.

Suzanne said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Brad. I share concern about the expressed wish of some in Palestine to do away with Israel. On the other hand, Israeli insistence on continuing to build and support settlements makes me think that Israel has little desire for peace with Palestinians. Each side seems to wave the "red flag" at the other. I shall hope that quiet private talks between Israelis and Palestinians at a high level - or at any level - might provide an opening for both sides.

Kathryn said...

Brad, thank you for this alternative perspective. I, too, read the Op-Ed in the Washington Post by the founding chairman of Human Rights Watch (Robert Bernstein), and was struck by this paragraph:

"The real obstacle to long-term peace is the endless and overwhelming words of hate and incitement to genocide effectively spread to Arabs and Palestinians. One example is the textbooks given to millions of children in Saudi Arabia, distributed in the Arab world and beyond, that label Jews "monkeys" and "pigs." This continues to foment discord, radicalism and violence."

History shows us that dehumanization can lead to violence, but I agree with Suzanne that the continued building of settlements in what would likely be a potential Palestinian state is also intensely provocative.

I think this issue may the toughest one in the world to find shared ground on. There is a tremendous need for strong, moderate voices on both sides. Extremists from both ends are likely to consider (even their own) moderates as enemies, which complicates it all further.