Rabbi Brian Walt: Christian Leaders Cannot be Cowed into Silence

Please read my friend Rabbi Brian Walt’s new piece in Ha’aretz. He has recently returned from a remarkable interfaith delegation to the West Bank; I will be posting more of his writings about his experiences in the near future.

In his recent Haaretz op-ed, “Heading toward an irreparable rift between U.S. Jews and Protestants,” my colleague, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, sharply criticized the recent letter to Congress by leaders of Protestant churches that called for U.S. military aid to Israel to be contingent on Israeli compliance with American law. Nowhere in his article, however, did Yoffie mention the central concern of the Christian leaders’ letter: the overwhelming evidence of systematic human rights violations by the Israeli military against Palestinians.

Over the past two weeks, I had the privilege of leading an interfaith delegation including several leaders of the civil rights movement, younger civil and human rights leaders, Christian clergy, academics, and several Jews, on a two-week trip to the West Bank.

We were all shocked by the widespread human rights violations that we saw with our own eyes and that we heard about from both Palestinians and Israelis. Several black members of our group, including those who participated actively in the civil rights movement, remarked that what they saw on the West Bank was “frighteningly familiar” to their own experience, a systemic pattern of discrimination that privileged one group (in this case, Jews) and denigrated another (Palestinians).

Together we walked down Shuhadah Street in Hebron, a street restricted to Jews and foreigners where Hebron’s Palestinians are mostly not allowed to walk, even those Palestinians who own houses or stores on the street. This street was once the center of a bustling Palestinian city. Now the area is a ghost town with all the Palestinian stores shut down by the Israeli military.

We visited several villages on the West Bank whose land has been expropriated by the Israeli government and where their nonviolent protests against this injustice are met with rubber bullets and tear gas (we saw with our own eyes many empty canisters of tear gas made in the U.S.). We witnessed a demonstration in Nabi Saleh, watching soldiers in armored cars launch tear gas and shoot rubber bullets against children who were throwing stones. In this village, soldiers routinely enter homes in the middle of the night to arrest children, who are handcuffed and blindfolded, and taken to interrogation without the right to the presence of a parent or of consultation with a lawyer. The shocking abuse of children that we heard about from several sources, including Israeli lawyers, was particularly disturbing.

Our delegation also saw the rubble of Palestinian houses demolished by the Israeli authorities and waited in long lines at check points as Jewish motorists were waved through or passed unimpeded through special settler checkpoints.

We met with a young Palestinian man who played the part of Martin Luther King Jr. in a play about Dr. King’s life written by one of the people on our trip. This young man (like over 140,000 other West Bank Palestinians) has lost his residency rights as he went to Europe to study acting. Despite the fact that his family has lived in Jerusalem for generations, he is now unable to live in the city in which he was born. Yet I, or any other Jew, could become a citizen of Israel overnight and live in Jerusalem while enjoying many privileges available only to Jews.

Every day we were on the West Bank, we saw this pattern of discrimination: a systemic privileging of one ethnic group over another. Every day we heard about egregious human rights violations: Administrative detainees held in prison for years without any right to due process (a Palestinian due to talk to our group about prisoners was arrested two days before the presentation and is still in prison), massive land confiscation, separate roads and grave restrictions on movement.

As the Christian leaders’ letter indicated, all the violations we witnessed are made possible by unconditional American aid, in violation of American law. Rabbi Yoffie predicted that this statement may cause “an irreparable rift between U.S. Jews and Protestants.” It may be more accurate to say it may cause a rift between the American Jewish establishment and the Christian leaders who have until now been cowed with the warning that the price for “interfaith dialogue” is silence on Israel’s human rights violations.

But after these past several weeks, as I read the courageous Christian leaders’ letter and stood side-by-side with my interfaith colleagues on this remarkable delegation, I sense a new form of interfaith cooperation – one based in our mutual sacred imperative to “seek peace and pursue it.”

Rabbi Brian Walt is the Palestinian/Israeli Nonviolence Project Fellow of the Dorothy Cotton Institute. He was the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America from 2003-2008.


17 Comments on “Rabbi Brian Walt: Christian Leaders Cannot be Cowed into Silence”

  1. ignoblus says:

    Much of what you write in this post is important. And yet you chose to frame it with the claim that Christians have been cowed by Jews, a claim that presumes Jews to be more powerful than Christians, which is so very wrong in so many ways. I’d ask you to seriously consider your goals and audience. If your goal is to convince someone like me, this is the sort of thing that is terribly alienating. Not to mention, frightening. This is the sort of thing that makes it absolutely impossible for me to side with you, regardless of how many other points we might agree on.

    • I don’t hear the writer either explicitly or implicitly suggesting that hat Jews are more powerful in America. What he’s arguing is that the Christian leaders are not going to be “cowed” by a certain sector of the American Jewish community, which is why he says “establishment.” After all, the author is a Rabbi. What he’s suggesting is that this sector cannot speak for “the Jewish community,” and thus the Christian leaders who signed the letter should not take their CLAIMS to represent the Jewish community at face value.

  2. Laurie says:

    Are the people who accompanied Rabbi Walt going to go to their churches/groups/friends and tell them what they saw and ask them to consider encouraging our Congress to have Israel abide by the laws that other nations have to when they receive any kind of aide from the U.S.? We know they’ll have to be able to shoulder the label of “anti-Semitic” as all are who have been critical of the present government of Israel.

  3. rabbibrian says:

    @ignoblus: Thanks so much for your response and for the opportunity to clarify my statement. I am not saying that Jews are more powerful than Christians. I am saying that many mainstream Jewish leaders, like Yoffie, and many Jewish institutions exert enormous pressure on any Christian organization or leader that is critical of Israeli policy. The first line of attack is to call them anti-semitic and in his article Yoffie even suggests that the decision of the church in this case is part of a “theological animus” towards Jews. I have seen this pressure with my own eyes. When I worked in the mainstream Jewish community and even when I served executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, I saw how liberal rabbis organized vociferous and often nasty attacks on the church and its leaders when they criticized Israeli policy.

    I hope this is helpful and once again, thanks for your comment.

    Brian Walt

    • ignoblus says:

      Brian, from my point of view, you’re compounding the offense here. These Jewish leaders — any Jews, in fact, despite your disagreement — have every right to state their views and every right to a fair hearing by a more powerful group. One of their complaints, of course, was that they weren’t consulted. Another is that it was released on the Sabbath, so that they couldn’t even respond quickly.

      But for them to complain about antisemitism, to you, is for them to be nasty and intimidating. In saying, “The first line of attack is to call them anti-semitic,” you treat it as if it weren’t a widely held belief among those Jewish leaders involved in dialogue efforts, but as a cynical, scheming ploy. If it’s a widely held and sincere belief, it deserves a better response. Even you note how it is not just right-wing but liberal Jews, and when you say it is “organized” (a trigger word for me), you only emphasize that it is a widely held belief. And there is no reason to assume it is anything but sincere.

      And when you did say Christian leaders have, until now, been cowed, you were asserting that the attacks come from a place of power. If that’s not your view, then please reconsider the whole line.

      • @ignoblus: I don’t believe Brian in any way begrudged these Jewish leaders the “right” to state their views. But yes, he did indeed claim that the accusation of “anti-semitism” is inappropriate and bullying – and I agree with him. And it is particularly cynical to wield this term in the context of interfaith dialogue.

        I obviously have no control over which words “trigger” you, but I do think Brian made it fairly clear that by “organized” he was referring to the Jewish organizational world. I also think it’s worth noting that in any dialogue, both parties have certain kinds of power over each other. This is probably not the place to go into an extended analysis of this issue, but I don’t think it’s over the line in the least to suggest that many Jewish organizational leaders wield a heavy hand over Christian religious leaders when it comes to the issue of Israel.

  4. Jeff Nguyen says:

    Apartheid is apartheid in any religion.

  5. Sylvia says:

    I can’t seem to find the Haaretz Hebrew version of this article.
    Could the author provide me with the link?
    Thanks

  6. i_like_ike52 says:

    Perhaps this is a nitpick, perhaps not. Brians comment was, regarding Shuhada Street in Hevron, that
    “This street was once the center of a bustling Palestinian city”.
    I am quite familiar with the Jewish part of Hevron and this statement simply isn’t true. The Israeli controlled part of Hevron consists of 2-3% of the territory of Hevron and is located at the southern fringe of the city, not “the center”. The business center of Arab Hevron isn’t located anywhere near the Israeli controlled part.
    Like I said, this may be a nitpick, it might be an “exaggeration” in order to stir up the political juices of the readers. But on the other hand, it leads to to wonder what other exaggerations and other diversions from the truth appear in this piece, you know, “for the cause”?

    • Ike,

      What you wrote is not true. I’ll quote from the Jewish Virtual Library – a source described as “A Division of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise:”

      In the Hebron Protocol, a distinction is made between Hebron’s “H1″ and “H2″ areas. The status of the largest part of the city, “H1″, is similar to the one pertaining to “Area A”. The Palestinian Police Forces (PPF) exercise full control over “H1″, while the IDF are not allowed to enter, unless escorted by Palestinian security forces. Yet, the IDF maintain indirect control over this part of the city, by occasionally establishing checkpoints at entrances to the city, or by closing these points of access. “H1″ covers residential sectors as well as the commercial areas of Bab Al-Zawiya and Wadi Al-Tuffah, situated west of the Old City.

      In the remaining part of the city, “H2″, Israel maintains military presence, as well as control over various aspects of Palestinian daily life. Palestinian civil institutions operate under certain restrictions imposed by the Israeli military administration. When it comes to the PPF, they are only present when they participate in joint patrols led by the IDF.

      “H2″ covers approximately 20 percent of the municipal territory. It comprises the entire Qasba and areas adjacent to the Jewish settlements. The population in this area is composed of an estimated 30,000-35,000 Palestinians and approximately 400 Jewish settlers (Emphasis mine).

      The “Qasba,” by the way, refers to what was once a major Palestinian commercial district.

    • rabbibrian says:

      Ike,

      On our visit to Hevron we met with David Wilder, the spokesperson for the Hevron Jewish community and he said exactly what you did: that they only have 2-3% of Hevron. It is one of their talking points.

      As Rabbi Rosen points out this is simply untrue, the Israelis fully control 20% of the area and also enter HI, the Arab area at will.

      The settlement is in the center of what was the Palestinian Old City of Hevron. This was once a bustling commercial and residential area that is now a ghost town. No exaggeration and no diversion, just the plain facts.

  7. Claire Goldstein says:

    I write from the swing state of Ohio, where every day my voicemail and mailbox are inundated by scary messages urging me to vote “for Israel’s security” and threats that “Iran is 4 years closer to a nuclear bomb,” etc. Thank you Rabbi Brian, for sharing your experiences in the West Bank with us. Kol hakavod to you and the other members of your delegation for going to discover what is going on, for speaking out, for advocating. As always you are an inspiration, and your work speaks to the best of our Jewish values, the best of our American values, and the best of our human values. I look forward to reading more about your experiences and to hearing more about how all of us can advocate more effectively for justice and human rights.

  8. Laura Wood says:

    The constant disputes between the Israelis and Palestinians is an ongoing occurrence and needs to be put to a stop-not promoted by the US military. Israel belongs to both the Palestinians and the Israelis not one or the other and this post gives a interesting and valuable Jewish account of the situation. The US should not be seen to be promoting one religion as it itself is a ‘free country’ and should instead aim to offer a solution rather than promoting violence against a minority.

  9. Sylvia says:

    The 15 churches released their call on October 5th, before Shabbat and the second holiday of Succot that followed it. When they were certain that there was no chance whatsoever that the “Jews” will be talking back to them for at least another 4 or 5 days. When their backs were turned.
    This – and not their call to investigate – is what I find extremely disturbing and sufficient proof that religious animus – and perhaps a yearning for the “old order” when Christian clergy dictated and Jews remained silent, is very much part of it.

    Similarly, you chose to visit the West Bank during the Muslim Eid, knowing full well and in advance what you were going to find: stores closed, business district looking like a ghost town, the Palestinian coordinating team off or on holiday schedule, and attribute all that to the “occupation”, just as if that’s daily life.
    .
    This, in my view, is the reason why you chose to publish those findings in Haaretz English digital edition, so that the Hebrew speaking population doesn’t get a chance to react to those charges. Behind our backs, so to speak.

    I particularly would like absolute proof of what you’re saying about the children (someone here said they were two years old) blinded and arrested in the middle of the night.

    Thanks in advance.

    • Sylvia,

      I’m not sure why you feel the timing of the letter’s release is “clear proof” of the Christian leaders’ “religious animus” toward Jews. I’m sure they knew that the Jewish establishment would not be happy about the statement regardless of whether they had one day or five days to respond.

      Re the “ghost town” in Hevron: the closed business district was not closed for the Eid holiday – Palestinian businesses on Shuhudah St. have been closed down for many years now. I’ve written this during my own visits there (which did not take place on Eid.) You can read my posts about that here and here.

      Re: Palestinian children and administrative detention: I strongly recommend reading this 2012 report by Defense of Children International (DCI). You can read about the incident involving the two year old child here.

      • Vicky says:

        Sylvia, the most common time for child detention is between midnight and five a.m., according to data gathered by Defence for Children over a four-year period. (60% of children were detained in this window of time.) Blindfolds are the norm, as are handcuffs and leg-irons. In addition to looking at reports from DCI, t’s also worthwhile reading the most recent booklet of soldier testimonies from Shovrim Shtika, which focuses on child detention specifically: http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/testimonies/publications

        Soldiers threatened to arrest two-year-old Mo’men Shteiwi as a means of frightening his father; he was not actually taken away. The youngest child to actually be arrested to date, to my knowledge, was five-year-old Yahya al-Rishaq from Silwan (arrested June 2011).

        Regarding what Brant has written about Shuhadeh Street, I’d like to add that it’s not just shops and businesses that have been closed, but family homes. Their front doors and windows have been sealed shut with metal sheeting, meaning that these families do not get daylight in their front rooms. When they want to go out people climb out of their back windows and use a network of ladders to reach the street. I’ve been in some of those homes, and sometimes it feels funny and we laugh about it. But I never want to laugh when i go down the street itself. (I’m allowed to walk there from end to end, not being Palestinian.) It does have a very eerie feel to it.


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