In Michael Mitchell’s recent piece for Forward Thinking “Israel’s Moral Army?” (July 18, 2014), Mitchell impressively deconstructs the Israel Defense Force’s conduct during its current military operation in Gaza. Using a variety of pedagogical criteria (international law, Jewish tradition, ethical theory) he ultimately challenges Israel’s claim to being a “moral army” (or to use an title often wielded by its politicians and supporters, “the most moral army in the world.”)
Mitchell notes that while there is “evidence that Israel is taking significant measures to minimize civilian deaths,” it is also “quite possible that innocent people have been killed by IDF decisions to strike a target when it knew that doing so could put civilians at risk.”
He thus concludes:
If the IDF aspires to be a “moral army,” especially one that affirms both the universal dignity of each human life and the respect for the human embodiment of the divine image particular to the Jewish ethical tradition, it is in these instances that its conduct falls from regrettable to wrong.
Given the overwhelming support for “Operation Protective Edge” throughout Israel, the American political world and the American Jewish establishment, it is courageous indeed for Mitchell, a Tel Aviv resident, to openly label the IDF’s actions in Gaza as “ethically wrong.” But beyond his relatively narrow analysis of the ethics of warfare, there are larger issues he leaves crucially unexamined.
Most notably, while Mitchell invokes the principles of self-defense in wartime, he ignores the broader question of whether or not this war itself is, as Israel claims, an actual war of self-defense. Indeed, while Israeli and American politicians – and Israel-supporters the world over – have been defending Israel’s actions in Gaza by invoking Israel’s right to self-defense against Hamas rocket fire, the timeline of events leading up to Israel’s military assault on Gaza suggests otherwise.
According to the terms of the last cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas, signed back in November 2012, Hamas agreed to cease its rocket attacks against Israel, while Israel agreed to “stop all hostilities in the Gaza Strip land sea and air, including incursions and targeting of individuals.” Since that time, as Forward Editor-in-Chief JJ Goldberg recently pointed out, “Hamas hadn’t fired a single rocket …and had largely suppressed fire by smaller jihadi groups.” By comparison, Israel continuously violated the terms of the cease-fire during those two years with repeated military incursions and targeted assassinations into Gaza. Israel also failed to “facilitate the freedom of movement and transfer of goods within Gaza” as the terms of the cease-fire had stipulated.
This past April, Israel stepped up its rhetoric against Hamas following the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah. Then in June, Netanyahu publicly blamed Hamas for the kidnapping/murder of three Israeli teenagers – even though he provided no evidence to support his claims and Hamas repeatedly denied any responsibility. It is now known that Israeli politicians and military leaders knew full well that the teens had been murdered shortly after their abduction – using the pretense of their kidnapping to brutally crack down on Hamas members in the West Bank and to re-arrest former security prisoners who had been released during the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap.
As Israeli public pressure to find the teens reached a fever pitch, right-wing Israeli politicians began to pressure Netanyahu to launch a military operation against Gaza. As Goldberg noted:
In Gaza, leaders went underground. Rocket enforcement squads stopped functioning and jihadi rocket firing spiked. Terror squads began preparing to counterattack Israel through tunnels. One tunnel exploded on June 19 in an apparent work accident, killing five Hamas gunmen, convincing some in Gaza that the Israeli assault had begun while reinforcing Israeli fears that Hamas was plotting terror all along.
On June 29, an Israeli air attack on a rocket squad killed a Hamas operative. Hamas protested. The next day it unleashed a rocket barrage, its first since 2012. The cease-fire was over.
In other words, we cannot view the IDF’s actions during Operation Protective Edge in a vacuum. While Mitchell’s effectively analyzes Israel’s behavior vis a vis the ethics of wartime self-defense, he fails to reckon with the hard fact that Israel’s latest military adventure in Gaza was clearly a war of choice, initiated with cynically political designs.
If we factor in this larger perspective, the ethical categories invoked by Mitchell may well have deeper and more profound implications. For instance, Mitchell cites the Torah’s verse, “Justice, justice shalt thou follow” (Deuteronomy 16:20) together with Jewish value of Pikuach Nefesh (“saving a life”) to make the point that “we must be just not only because it’s right, but because by doing so we ourselves may live.” But while he applies this concept to the context of an army’s actions during wartime, it might be more appropriately invoked in regards to the sacred imperative to work for a just peace to the tragic crisis in Gaza.
If Israel was truly interested in following the course of justice in order to preserve life, it could have dropped its abject refusal to deal with Hamas following the November 2012 cease-fire and pursued further negotiations aimed at ending its crushing siege. It could have sought the course of diplomatic engagement – a truly just attempt at peace rather than merely a lull between its now regular military assaults into Gaza.
Moreover, when Hamas and Fatah announced its reconciliation agreement, Israel’s leaders could have seen this as an opportunity to enter into dialogue with a more unified and representative Palestinian leadership rather than reject another chance to engage in a truly authentic peace process. Instead, they opted for yet another brutally violent onslaught on Gaza that has, as of this writing, killed 370 Palestinians, including 228 civilians, 77 children and 56 women, as well as 18 Israelis.
This past Monday it was my honor to give the keynote speech at a dinner sponsored by the Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The event took place in Detroit during the Presbyterian General Assembly and was attended by longtime Christian peace activists, many of whom have become become my dear friends and colleagues in the growing interfaith movement for a just peace in Israel/Palestine.
Here is a text of my remarks:
I am humbled and honored to have been asked to speak to you tonight – and I’m particularly moved to look around the room and see so many people who have become my friends and colleagues in this amazing and growing movement that means so much to us all. I’d particularly like to thank (Reverend) Katherine Cunningham (moderator of the IPMN) for being such a gracious host and guide to me during my stay here in Detroit.
I’d like to start by sharing a little bit of my journey and to try to explain how it is that I have come to stand before you today.
In most ways, you might describe me as a pretty average American Jew: I went to a Jewish Community Center pre-school, I grew up in a synagogue, had a Bar Mitzvah and belonged to my Temple Youth group. And like many American Jews, my Jewishness has been indelibly tied up with Israel for my entire life. My Jewish identity has been profoundly informed by the classic Zionist narrative: the story of a small underdog nation forging a national and cultural rebirth out of the ashes of its near-destruction. It is, at its heart, a redemptive narrative – and it has assumed a quasi-sacred status for me, as it has for many American Jews of my generation and older.
Politically speaking, I’ve identified with what tends to be referred to today as “liberal Zionism.” I’ve long been inspired by Israel’s Labor Zionist origins, and I’ve generally aligned myself with positions advocated Israeli peace movement. I’ve always been very willing to openly criticize the actions of the Israeli government that I believed were counter to the cause of peace. At the same time, however, I generally viewed these kinds of actions as “blemishes” on an otherwise stable democracy and a noble national project. At the end of the day, I understood the essence of this conflict to be a clash between two national movements, each with compelling and valid claims to the same small piece of land.
Over the years, however, I confess, I struggled with gnawing doubts over the tenets of my liberal Zionist narrative. Although I was able to keep these doubts at bay for the most part, I was never able to successfully silence them. As an outspoken critic of American militarism, for instance, I would occasionally ask myself why I wasn’t equally as outspoken about Israeli militarism – why I habitually would give a pass to what was, after all, the one of the most militarized countries in the world.
I would also entertain nagging questions about the ethnic nationalism at the heart of Zionism. Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state was bound up with its maintenance of a Jewish majority within its borders. Like many liberal Zionists, I’d often base my arguments for a two state solution by pointing to the population growth of Palestinians as a “demographic threat” to the national character of the Jewish state. As an American, I’d never dare describe an ethnic minority in the US as somehow posing a “demographic threat” to our national American character. Why, then, was I so willing to invoke this concept about so freely when it pertained to the Jewish state?
And in the darkest, wee hours of the night, I’d even question the very concept of a Jewish nation-state-ism itself. I’d ask myself, what does it mean to maintain an exclusively Jewish state in a land that has historically been multi-ethnic and multi-religious for centuries? Was it even possible to create a Jewish state that was truly democratic? How could a state define itself as “Jewish” and not view its non-Jewish population, in one way or another, as a problem to be dealt with?
When I was ordained as a rabbi in 1992, the stakes were raised on my personal political views. Given the ideological centrality of Zionism in the American Jewish community, my questions now carried very real consequences. As I’m sure you know, rabbis and Jewish leaders are under tremendous pressure by the American Jewish organizational establishment to maintain unflagging support for the state of Israel. Congregational rabbis in particular take a very real professional risk when they criticize Israel publicly. To actually stand in solidarity with Palestinians would be tantamount to communal heresy. So you might say I put those inner questions in a lock box and made a safe and comfortable home in liberal Zionism for the first decade of my rabbinate.
As Israel’s occupation over the Palestinians became more patently oppressive and widespread however, it became increasingly difficult for me to ignore my questions. The breaking point for me occurred in December of 2008, as it did for many American Jews. This was, of course, Israel’s military assault on Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead.
I remember reading the news out of Gaza with utter anguish. Like many rabbis, my e-mail inbox filled with official Jewish communal talking points about how to respond to the events in Gaza: “This was about Israel’s security pure and simple.” “Like every nation, Israel had a responsibility to ensure the safety of its citizens.” “If Hamas hadn’t launched rockets into Israel, they wouldn’t have had to resort to such drastic military measures.”
In the past, I might have dutifully taken these talking points to heart, along with the obligatory apology: “of course we regret the deaths of innocent civilians.” But this time, I responded differently. In spite of my anguish, or perhaps because of it, I finally felt as if I was approaching this issue with something approaching clarity. The magnitude of Israel’s military onslaught was so disproportionate, so outrageous. By the end of Operation Cast Lead, over 1,400 Palestinians had been killed, 300 of them children. Whole neighborhoods had been reduced to rubble, Gaza’s infrastructure was left in ruins. By contrast, on the Israeli side, 13 people had been killed. Of these, 10 were soldiers, four of whom by friendly fire.
As I read the increasingly tragic news coming out of Gaza, I came to realize this was not about Israel’s security at all. This was about bringing the Palestinian people to their knees. If Israel was truly seeking its security, it was clear to me that it was the kind of security that came from wiping out the other side with the overwhelming strength of its military might. But of course this approach had never and would never bring peace and security to either Israelis or Palestinians.
This is when my paradigm for understanding the Israel/Palestine “conflict” fundamentally shifted. I came to accept that this was not a conflict between two equal sides with claims to the same piece of land. This was about the oppressor and the oppressed.
Although I had always considered myself to be part of the peace camp when it came to Israel – I now came to realize just how hollow it was to invoke the notion of peace without reckoning just as seriously with the concept of justice. I was now ready to accept and to say out loud that Israel’s very founding was irrevocably tied up with a very real injustice to the Palestinian people – an injustice that continues to this very day. And I knew in my heart that until this injustice was fully faced openly and honestly, there would never truly be peace in this land.
There is much more I could say about my own personal trajectory since that time, but for now, I’ll only say that six years after my break from Liberal Zionism, I have gradually found a home in the growing Palestinian solidarity movement. Much to my surprise and delight, I have found I can actually do this as a Jew. For this I owe a great debt to Jewish Voice for Peace for providing a genuinely Jewish home for those Jews who believe as I do, that Jewish tradition demands that we stand with the oppressed and stand down the oppressor – yes, even when it comes to the state of Israel.
I also continue to serve my congregation in Evanston. That doesn’t mean it has been easy. Needless to say, there are many members of my congregation who do not share my views – and there are some who are deeply pained by my activism. But the fact that I can still remain employed at the congregation that I love and continue to make my home in the Jewish community gives me hope that the parameters of Jewish discourse on this issue are widening in significant ways.
I’m often asked, how can I, as a Jew, take the kind of stands that I do? To this I can only reply: it is because I am a Jew that I take this stand. I believe that standing in solidarity with Palestinians is the most Jewish thing I can do. As a rabbi, as a Jew, and as a human being, I am primarily motivated by the prophetic strains of Jewish tradition. I am driven by religion that speaks hard truth to power. By a faith that holds unmitigated human power to account.
I fervently believe that when religion advocates the cause of the powerless, when it stands with those who are victimized by the powerful, when religion proclaims that God stands with the oppressed and seeks their liberation – this is historically when religion has been at its very best. And conversely, when religion is used to promote empire, when it is used as by the powerful to justify their rule, when it is wedded to militarism, nationalism and political power – this is, tragically, when we witness religion at its worst.
I cannot help but read Jewish tradition with prophetic eyes. As a Jew, I’ve always been enormously proud of the classic rabbinical response to empire. I believe that the Jewish people have been able to survive even under such large and mighty powers because we’ve clung to a singular sacred vision. That there is a Power even greater. Greater than Pharaoh, greater than Babylon, even greater than the Roman empire that exiled us and dispersed our people throughout the diaspora. It is a quintessentially Jewish vision best summed up by the prophetic line from the book of Zechariah: “Lo b’chayil v’lo b’koach” – “Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.”
Now, there are many who challenge such a religious vision as naive, as over-idealistic, as noble but unrealistic. They tell me it’s all well and good to promote justice, but in the real world “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” In the real world, we need to make hard compromises to achieve peace.
Whenever I hear these kinds of comments, I can’t help but think back to Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he addressed the liberal clergy who had told him to stay away from Birmingham and not to rock to boat – and to give them the chance to negotiate with the Jim Crow authorities. I can’t help but think of those who criticized those who advocated for divestment from South African apartheid, who said that such measures would antagonize the apartheid regime and counseled “positive engagement” instead.
In all these cases and so many more, peace was viewed as synonymous with “not disturbing the status quo” and justice was seen as the enemy of the good. But of course, today we now openly venerate these struggles for justice and liberation. And these movements succeeded because they were led by people who understood, as King put it so well in his letter, that “Power is never given voluntarily by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
I’d like to end by addressing another way in which my theological understandings have been impacted by my participation in this movement. I mentioned earlier that I used to understand the essence of this conflict to be a clash between two national movements, each with compelling and valid claims to the same small piece of land. As well meaning as such an understanding might be, the problem with this kind of idea is that it is rooted in the notion that any people or nation can actually “stake a claim” on a piece of land. Such a notion can surely be traced back to the Biblical notion of a God that apportions the land and entitles one people to it. To be sure, this is a zero-sum theological model in which there is only enough room on the land for one people – a people who is, moreover, commanded to take possession of the land by dislodging others.
But when we shift the question from “which people has a right to this land?” to “how do we extend full human and civil rights to all who live on the land?” we discover a decidedly different Biblical vision. We lift up the God who tells us that all humanity is made in the divine image – and that when push comes to shove, the land does not ultimately belong to any of us, but to God and we are all but strangers upon it.
I submit to you that our movement is deeply rooted in this theological vision – one that invokes the God of plenitude, not scarcity. After all, when we define our entitlements to a finite commodity such as land, we only doom ourselves to a future filled with endless upheaval and violence. The Bible describes our lot in this regard only too well.
However, when come to understand that our ultimate entitlement is to a boundless commodity such as human rights and human dignity, we ensure a future of true peace for ourselves and our children. This, I believe, is the Biblical vision we share and to which I know we are all so passionately and fervently committed.
It is my honor to share this vision with all of you – and to help build the movement that will one day make it a reality.
I’ve just returned from two days in Detroit at the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly, where I joined together with Christian and Jewish friends and colleagues to help support overtures being brought to the plenum that support the cause of justice in our country and around the world – particularly in Israel/Palestine.
During my very full sojourn in downtown Detroit, I had the opportunity to testify in a committee meeting that was deliberating on an overture that presented new parameters for Interfaith Relations. I also attended the extensive committee discussions on the overture that is garnering a great deal of attention from around the world: divestment of the PC (USA)’s funds from three companies that profit from Israel’s occupation: Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard. (See my previous post for more on this subject).
As I wrote in my previous post, this overture has long, ten year history behind it. Although it has been brought to previous GA’s, each convention brings brand-new commissioners, so while many attendees are all too familiar with this particular overture, many (if not most) of the ones who will actually be voting are relatively new to the issues involved. Even so, I had the pleasure of speaking with a number of commissioners who are considering this overture with an impressive level of thoughtfulness and seriousness.
Some of the most profound moments of my experience at the GA came from the realization that I am truly part of a large and growing interfaith movement for justice that has fast become an important spiritual home for me. I came to the GA with a large delegation from Jewish Voice for Peace, who has worked closely with PC (USA) members who have engaged on this issue for nearly a decade. (You can meet just a few of them above and below).
At the same time, I worked hand in hand with many inspired Presbyterian activists who have become dear friends and true spiritual teachers. This past Monday night it was my great honor to offer a keynote speech at a dinner sponsored by the Israel Palestine Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA). As I spoke, I was deeply moved to look out at the room and see so many old and new colleagues, all part of this very special community of conscience. (I will be posting my remarks in a subsequent post. Stay tuned).
There is much more to unfold as the GA continues to deliberate this week. As of this writing, the committee discussing the divestment overture will soon be deciding whether or not to refer it to plenum. In the meantime, I highly recommend to you two important pieces on this issue recently written by my colleagues on the JVP Rabbinical Council.
From Rabbi Margaret Holub, writing in the Forward:
Our greatest hope is that the Jewish people would hear selective divestment from these corporations as what it is — a form of tochechah. It is a rebuke from our neighbors in the American religious landscape, calling us to task for a cruel policy that brings pain to their own brothers and sisters in the Palestinian Christian community and to all who live under Israeli occupation. Far from being hate speech, it is the speech of conscience.
We believe in fact that the Presbyterian Church has many new friends to gain in the Jewish community and beyond it through its courageous witness. We may not share all of our beliefs or political commitments. Such is the beauty and difficulty of coalition work, or of any kind of spiritual companionship. We have much to learn from each other, and in long-term relationships our differences are as important as our points of convergence.
And from Cantor Michael Davis, in Tikkun:
I, an Israeli national who served three years in the IDF, and who has served the Jewish community in Chicago for over 20 years, support the right of our Presbyterian friends to freely explore their conscience on divesting from American companies that benefit from Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank. I will be at the Presbyterian General Assembly arguing for divestment. I believe, along with a growing number of Jews and Israelis that BDS is the best non-violent option to stop the downward spiral to inevitable violence. For Jews – and for Christians – divestment is a principled position. As a supporter of BDS myself, I know how much effort the mainstream Jewish community is putting into shutting down this debate and excluding BDS supporters from the Jewish community. I would challenge those who are trying to shut down the Presbyterian debate to show how the motives of those supporting divestment are anything less than honest. This is unworthy of us as Jews and particularly egregious when directed at our Christian neighbors.
While the public criticism and upheaval over BDS continues apace, this movement is slowly and inexorably tallying victory after victory. Last week, the Gates Foundation announced that it was fully divesting from G4S – a British/Danish security firm that has been severely criticized for its operations in the occupied Palestinian territories and in prisons and detention centers in Israel, including those housing children and “administrative detainees” held without charge or trial.
Now just this week, we’ve learned that the United Methodist Church – the largest mainline Protestant church in the United States – will be pulling all its investments from G4S as well. This news is huge – and a dramatic precursor to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which will be convening in Detroit next week. I can’t help but think the BDS tide is turning significantly, particularly in the arena of church divestment campaigns.
I’ve long participated with colleagues in Protestant church groups who have been actively involved in promoting the principled and targeted divestment of their denominations’ funds from companies that profit from Israel’s illegal and oppressive occupation of Palestinians. I was, in fact, an active supporter of the divestment “overture” brought to the last Presbyterian GA two years ago and wrote extensively about these efforts.
This is what I wrote at the time:
I support this resolution without reservation and urge other Jewish leaders and community members to do so as well. I am deeply dismayed that along every step of this process, Jewish community organizations (among them, the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs) that purport to speak for the consensus of a diverse constituency have been intimidating and emotionally blackmailing the Presbyterian Church as they attempt to forge their ethical investment strategy in good faith.
It is extremely important to be clear about what is at stake here. First of all, this is not a resolution that seeks to boycott or single out Israel. Divestment does not target countries – it targets companies. In this regard speaking, the PC (USA)’s ethical investment process seeks to divest from specific “military-related companies” it deems are engaged in “non-peaceful” pursuits.
We’d be hard-pressed indeed to make the case that the Israeli government is engaged in “non-peaceful pursuits” in the Occupied Territories and East Jerusalem. I won’t go into detail here because I’ve been writing about this tragic issue for many years: the increasing of illegal Jewish settlements with impunity, the forced evictions and home demolitions, the uprooting of Palestinian orchards, the separation wall that chokes off Palestinians from their lands, the arbitrary administrative detentions, the brutal crushing of non-violent protest, etc, etc.
All Americans – Jews and non-Jews alike – have cause for deep moral concern over these issues. Moreover, we have cause for dismay that own government tacitly supports these actions. At the very least, we certainly have the right to make sure that our own investments do not support companies that profit from what we believe to be immoral acts committed in furtherance of Israel’s occupation.
As the co-chair of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, I am proud that JVP has initiated its own divestment campaign which targets the TIAA-CREF pension fund, urging it to divest from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation. Among these are two of the three companies currently under consideration by PC (USA): Motorola and Caterpillar.
Why the concern over these specific companies? Because they are indisputably and directing aiding and profiting the oppression of Palestinians on the ground. Caterpillar profits from the destruction of Palestinian homes and the uprooting of Palestinian orchards by supplying the armor-plated and weaponized bulldozers that are used for such demolition work. Motorola profits from Israel’s control of the Palestinian population by providing surveillance systems around Israeli settlements, checkpoints, and military camps in the West Bank, as well as communication systems to the Israeli army and West Bank settlers.
And why is Hewlett-Packard under consideration for divestment by the PC (USA)? HP owns Electronic Data Systems, which heads a consortium providing monitoring of checkpoints, including several built inside the West Bank in violation of international law. The Israeli Navy, which regularly attacks Gaza’s fishermen within Gaza’s own territorial waters and has often shelled civilian areas in the Gaza Strip, has chosen HP Israel to implement the outsourcing of its IT infrastructure. In addition, Hewlett Packard subsidiary HP Invent outsources IT services to a company called Matrix, which employs settlers in the illegal settlement of Modi’in Illit to do much of its IT work at low wages.
I repeat: by seeking to divest from these companies the PC (USA) is not singling out Israel as a nation. The Presbyterian Church has every right to – and in fact does – divest its funds from any number of companies that enable non-peaceful pursuits around the world. In this case specifically, the PC (USA) has reasonably determined that these particular “pursuits” aid a highly militarized, brutal and oppressive occupation – and it simply does not want to be complicit in supporting companies that enable it.
I encourage you to read the entire post, which also includes a detailed history of the process undertaken by the Presbyterian Church (USA). The current overture, like the one two years ago, seeks divestment from the same three companies: Hewlett-Packard, Motorola and Caterpillar.
And inevitably, like before, the overture’s sponsors and their supporters have been subjected to an unrelenting barrage of criticisms and accusations from certain quarters of the Jewish establishment. I am particularly dismayed to learn that J St. – ostensibly an anti-occupation organization – is once again joining forces with those who hope to quash this principled, good faith proposal.
On this point, I’m in full agreement with Israeli journalist Larry Derfner, who recently wrote:
J Street was instrumental in beating back the same motion in 2012, when it failed before the church’s General Assembly by a vote of 333–331. But that was then. Then it was possible to argue (although I’d already stopped) that there was still hope that the United States would pressure Israel into making peace. Then it was still at least reasonable for J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami to tell the Presbyterian Church, “Reject divestment, and embrace full-on pursuit of the diplomatic efforts necessary to create genuine and lasting peace for Israel and the Palestinian people.”
But now? What argument can an anti-occupation movement make to the Presbyterian Church in June 2014 about why it should not divest from Caterpillar’s bulldozers, Hewlett-Packard’s ID system for Palestinians and Motorola’s surveillance machines? Because it would interfere with U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East? Because it would harden the Netanyahu government’s stance in the peace talks?
From an anti-occupation perspective, what is there to lose by a Presbyterian Church vote for divestment? Nothing. But what is there to gain? A blow against injustice, the kind that has been scaring the Netanyahu government and Israel lobby like nothing else — certainly not the Obama administration — which is a very good sign that the BDS campaign is on to something.
With the failure of the peace process and Israel’s recent announcement of 1,500 new settlements, it is clear that political pressure has been utterly ineffective in bringing a just solution to this unjust occupation. Why then, must we block attempts at the popular, nonviolent pressure tactics such divestment – particularly when such efforts have been demonstrably effective in other parts of the world?
I will be posting much more about the divestment overture at Presbyterian GA in the coming week. Stay tuned.
Here is an update on the situation at Tent of Nations, where the Israeli military recently destroyed 1,500 to 2,000 mature, fruit-bearing apricot and apple trees and grape vines were destroyed along with terraced land. (See my blog post of May 21 for more information.)
The letter below is adapted from an email by Bill Plitt of Friends of Tent of Nations – North American (FOTONNA)
May 31, 2014
The video above was taken during a talk given by Daoud at St. Marks Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle on May 18 – the day before the bulldozers attacked his groves. Daoud visited the devastated land for the first time mid-week. The full scope of the destruction left him heartbroken, of course. He told us that there was one lone fig tree left standing on the side of the hill (on purpose? by accident?) that was the sole witness to the work of the IDF soldiers. It now stands as a living monument to what was lost – a lone sentinel that will someday have new friends, thanks to you.
We have been told that the State Department needs to hear from Congress before taking any real stance on this issue. If you haven’t already contacted your Senators and Representatives, please take time to do so now. Click here for a Congressional action alert. Scroll down in the body of the text and click on “Write your senators and representative.” Fill in the information and click “Submit.”
If you haven’t signed our FOTONNA Petition Letter yet, you can do so through this link.
There has been an overwhelmingly supportive response from around the globe from friends of the Nassar family and the work carried out at Tent of Nations. Individuals and organizations have put together their own petition letters, written to political leaders, called influential leaders at all levels of government, written oped pieces for their papers, and carried out demonstrations in front of the Israeli Embassy in NYC. Peace groups from all persuasions are standing in solidarity with this remarkable family. FOTONNA alone had 2,500+ signatures on its petition as of May 28, 2014, and the list is growing.
At this point, our goals are the following:
1. Prevent any more destruction on the land;
2. Keep up the pressure on the courts to finally re-register the land in the Nassar family name;
3. Support the Nassar family as they seek financial recompense from the Israeli Military for their illegal actions and for the incredible loss of twelve years of hard work, 1,500-2,000 lost trees and grape vines, lost revenue from the sale and/or use of the fruit, etc.
We cannot thank all of you enough for the wonderful responses you made to our appeals for support. It is also nearly impossible to capture the breadth, depth and width of this movement worldwide. We are just a small piece in this whirlwind of action – small, but fierce – and there will be justice in the end.
In solidarity and with deep gratitude for all of you,
The FOTONNA Steering Committee
In the wake of Pope Francis’ recent visit to Israel/Palestine, many watchers have commented on his unscheduled visit to the separation wall in Bethlehem – and are already referring to the picture taken there as “iconic.” It is indeed a powerful image: with the Pope leaning his head against the wall in prayer standing next to a young girl holding a Palestinian flag. Emblazoned across the wall, the graffiti pointedly reads, “Pope, we need some 1 to speak about justice” and “Pope, Bethlehem look like the Warsaw ghetto.”
Though the Pope made many stops at both Palestinian and Israeli sites, it is safe to say that his visit to the wall in Bethlehem will provide the most enduring image of the trip. Here we see the Pope praying at a very different kind of “wall.” While Popes and other religious dignitaries have long visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem as a matter of course, this was the first time a Pope had ever prayed at the separation wall. In his way, Pope Francis reminded us that while Israel has its wall, the Palestinians also have theirs. It was difficult to ignore the sacred symbolism of these parallel acts.
It was also difficult to ignore the powerful message imparted by the words of graffiti that framed the Pope as he leaned his head against the wall in prayer. By all accounts, there is every reason to believe that Pope Francis consciously chose this precise spot to alight from his Pope-mobile and engage in this impromptu prayer-session. In an eye-opening blog post , Bethlehem-based photojournalist Kelly Lynn has written about Mohammed Abu Srour, the young Palestinian activist who sprayed the graffiti message in advance of the Pope’s visit. Apparently, Mohammed and his comrades played an extensive game of cat and mouse with IDF soldiers and PA security before he was able to successfully spray his direct message just in time for the Pope’s arrival:
A few minutes before Pope Francis arrived, spray cans surfaced and activists from the previous day’s action began to paint over the newly, newly-painted wall and gate. Mohammed climbed his friend’s shoulders and because of the frenzy, security personnel could not be bothered. “They painted all of the wall silver, you couldn’t see anything we did yesterday, so we decided to write again for the Pope. We want him to pay attention to our issues as normal Palestinians,” explained Abu Srour.
And then, in a glass-covered pristine white pick-up truck, he came.
“I didn’t expect the Pope to go down and start to read the sentences and meet the children and people there. He shocked us,” said Abu Srour.
For his part, the Pope’s driver later told the Wall Street Journal that when the Pope saw the graffiti, he asked him to stop the car:
Francis suddenly asked to pull over so he could step out. He opened the door and wandered toward the wall as his security detail scrambled to keep up with the 77-year-old pope.
Below the watchtower, Francis reached out to near where the graffiti had been scrawled and painted over two times before. He closed his eyes and began to pray.
In most other ways, Pope Francis’ visit represented a boiler plate Papal visit to the Holy Land, as he balanced his time and nuanced his statements with Israelis and Palestinians with the skill of a seasoned tight rope walker. Other than a reference in his sermon to “the State of Palestine,” he largely avoided pointed political comments. He used the safe language of “two states for two peoples” and extended an invitation to Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Abbas to visit the Vatican in June to pray together. In the words of a Vatican spokesman:
The pope does not have a political agenda and does not have a proposal for diplomatic dialogue. This is not his mission. This is not what he desires.
Perhaps, but it is difficult to shake the now enduring image of the moment Pope Francis consciously chose to go off script. Even if protocol would not allow him to say so personally, he still allowed one young Palestinian’s spray painted plea to say it for him.
I am heartbroken to report that the Israeli military has destroyed between 1,500 and 2,000 fruit trees at the Tent of Nations – the Nassar family farm located south of Bethlehem.
I have written extensively about Tent of Nations and the work of Daoud Nassar, whose struggle to keep his family farm has provided an inspiring model of peaceful resistance to oppression. I have personally visited his farm with members of my congregation on more than one occasion (most recently this past October) and have hosted Daoud on his visits to Chicago.
Those of us who know Daoud know him to be a profoundly decent and honorable man, thoroughly dedicated to the cause of a just coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. (On a stone next to the front gate of the Nassar farm are the words “We Will Not Be Enemies.”) Given his personal circumstance, his innate compassion is truly inspirational – and that’s what makes this latest turn of events all the more sickening.
I am forwarding this letter from Bill Plitt, Executive Director of Friends of Tent of Nations, below. Please, please join me in acting on behalf of the Nassar family farm now.
Dear Friends of Tent of Nations,
We are writing this letter to call for action against acts of injustice by the Israeli Military towards the Nassar family farm and their Tent of Nations Peace Project. This farm (known as Daher’s Vineyard) is located just six miles southwest of Bethlehem in the Occupied Territories of Palestine (the West Bank).
As you know, this family has registration papers for their 100-acre farm dating back to the Ottoman Empire, and they are now in a situation where the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) brought in bulldozers on May 19, 2014 and destroyed between 1,500 and 2,000 mature, fruit-bearing apricot and apple trees and grape vines, all in the lower valley of the farm.
This move was totally unexpected as their latest case for proving ownership has been in the Israeli Military/Civil Courts since February 2013. An appeal was also made on May 5 to protest a warning placed on the land in late April 2014 that declared the land as “State Land” and should be “evacuated”. There was no warning ahead of time about the impending destruction, however (as is the usual case), so the Nassars were caught off guard with the wanton destruction that took place. In addition to the destruction of the trees, the terraced land on which the trees were planted was also destroyed, left in a state of rubble that cannot currently be re-planted.
We are appealing to you to contact appropriate congressional committee members, members of Congress, and others you know who may have some influence in this kind of situation; this can include your church leaders as well and an article in your local newspaper would be more than welcome. We are including a short letter and a timeline of past events you can use to educate people about the details of this farm’s history as well as a sample letter you can use to send out if you want.
In particular, we ask that you contact the U.S. Department of State, the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, the U.S. Ambassador in Tel Aviv, and the Consulate General in Jerusalem and ask them to investigate the circumstances surrounding this travesty.
We urge you to contact these authorities as well as others you know personally. You have our permission to use information from this letter in your appeals. We also urge you to sign our Petition Letter and forward it to all of your own personal contacts, urging them to forward it also.
We would like to have you act on this information as soon as you can in the hopes that we can prevent any more destruction from taking place on Daher’s Vineyard.
Bill Plitt – Executive Director – on behalf of the FOTONNA Steering Committee
Sample appeal letter:
Dear (church/community leader, etc.),
I/we are writing this letter to call for action against acts of injustice by the Israeli Military towards a Palestinian Christian family (the Nassar family) that has registration papers for their 100-acre farm dating back to the Ottoman Empire. The family has been working through the Israeli Military/Civil Courts and the Israeli Supreme Court since 1991 to defend their rights to the land on a vineyard just six miles southwest of Bethlehem in the Occupied Territories of Palestine (the West Bank). A Peace Project was established on the land in 2001 called Tent of Nations. Thousands of international visitors have visited the farm, worked as volunteers, held workshops and conferences in the facilities there, worked in the Summer Youth Camps, and have taught in the Women’s Education Center they established in the nearby village of Nahalin.
On May 19, 2014, the Israeli Military took unwarranted and illegal action and destroyed between 1,500 and 2,000 mature, fruit-bearing apricot and apple trees and grape vines growing in the lower valley of the farm. We are appealing to you to contact appropriate congressional committees and members of Congress regarding this issue. In addition, we ask that you contact the White House, the State Department, the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC, our Ambassador in Tel Aviv, and the Consulate General in East Jerusalem (see the attached contact list).
In the past, (December 2012), Israeli Military/Civil Courts threatened to demolish 13 structures on the land (pens for animals, tents for volunteers, compost toilets, etc.) and denied the family’s appeal against these 13 demolitions. By appealing these orders through the family lawyers, however, the deadline for action was moved to February 24, 2013. At the same time, the family also requested (again) that the land be re-registered in their name (having all the papers legally required to prove ownership). The family provided all additional information requested by the Military Court by that date, and they submitted and paid for requests for building permits for the existing 13 structures placed under the demolishing orders.
In late April 2014, the Israeli Military placed a warning on the land declaring that the trees were planted on “State Land” and, therefore, constituted a trespass and should be “evacuted”! The family filed an appeal on May 5; they were waiting for a court decision on these issues, and that is what makes the destruction of these trees illegal.
We would like you to inquire about this issue and why this vendetta against the Daher’s Vineyard is taking place. Israel needs to be held accountable for its actions against a family that lives by the motto ‘We Refuse to be Enemies’ and that believes in non-violence as a solution to the problems there.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me at ___________ .
(individual or organization)
Timeline of Events
- In 2009, on two separate occasions, Israeli soldiers forced their way onto the property, conducting searches of family members and internationals and threatening to return with eviction papers. They never followed through on that particular threat.
- In May of 2010, they did issue nine demolition orders to remove buildings, tents, animal sheds and restrooms which they claimed the family had no permission to build. The Nassars went to court to stop the demolitions, and no action was taken on the part of the Military courts.
- In April 2011, a court decision was made, without the family’s lawyer present, to follow through on the demolition orders because of a plan to build an Israeli-only road nearby. The lawyer intervened and, to date, no action has taken place.
- On February 14, 2012, as the family was working in the ‘Trees of Life’ orchard, volunteers found, in three different places (under rocks and tacked onto trees), papers with maps signed by the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria (which is the Israeli Military Government) giving them 45 days to appeal their claim to the land or the land would become State Land. This order covered one-third of the existing 100-acre farm. The family lawyer filed an appeal immediately. Many other Palestinian farmers discovered similar notices under rocks on their land. To date, there has been no decision on the appeal.
- On Monday, May 19, 2012, demolition orders were posted on a portion of the farm in the valley in the same manner as the earlier notices. This time the authorities identified a cistern which has been in use for ten years that was scheduled to be demolished within three days. While the order was contested, the Court ruled in favor of the military, but no action has been taken.
- Other acts of harassment have occurred on a regular basis. On May 5, 2012, civil authorities came and removed the barricade on the road that connects both the farm and the village of Nahalin to Route 60, the main north/south highway in the area. The next day, the bulldozer came and re-barricaded the road, thereby preventing any movement by local residents. Palestinians now, in order to travel between Bethlehem and the Nassar family farm, must travel through the villages of Nahalin and Husan. This is a burdensome detour for them as well as for the 20,000 villagers affected by these new regulations.
- On December 13, 2012, military trucks and large jeeps entered the west side of the village of Nahalin and destroyed olive trees that grow between the village and the settlement of Beitar Elit in the west. Immediately after doing so, they drove to the east side of the village, near Daher’s Vineyard (the family property) and uprooted several fruit trees belonging to village farmers in addition to trees on the Vineyard.
- On December 16, 2012, the Nassar family received notice that their appeal to the Military Court had been denied. The Nassars were given 45 days (January 30 deadline) to demolish the structures themselves or reapply for permits which will cost them $1,500 per structure. Under the ‘New Rules’ they will also need to submit a zoning plan and sign an agreement that, if the permits are denied, they will pay for the costs of demolishing the structures. The Nassars are trying to determine the intentions of the Israelis in the hope that access to the farm can be preserved. They have reapplied again for permanent registration of their land. As always, the family wishes to proceed calmly, constructively and legally.
- On January 31, 2013, the family lawyer was told the following:
- The family must reapply for all previous permits (13) including the more recent structures, such as: big tent, cistern near home, a cistern in the valley; and the office trailer. They must do this with the understanding that for those structures denied a permit, the Nassars must demolish them at their own expense.
- They must submit additional land survey maps: one topographical map which shows the farm location in the region; two technical maps, one at 1/250 scale and the other 1/50,000 scale, which show the new structures and their locations and dimensions.
- They must submit plans for sources of providing electricity and water to the land from the village and for provisions for gray water and filtration systems.
- They must apply for approval/signature of the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture, certifying that the land is agricultural land.
All submissions were due by February 24, 2013;
the family was able to meet each of the criteria set out for them.
The courts have not as yet responded to the Nassars appeals or requests for building permits.
- In January 2014, three “stop cultivation” orders were found on the land. The Nassars had their lawyers look into the situation, but the courts have not responded to these appeals, either.
- In early May 2014, 1,000 dunums (250 acres) of land bordering the road leading to the farm and south of the nearby village of Nahalin were declared as State Land; this was land owned by other Palestinian farmers. The old blockade to the road leading to the farm was enlarged with additional piles of rubble and boulders, making it even more difficult to walk from the road to the Tent of Nations Peace Project site.
- In late April, the Israeli Military authorities placed a warning on the land declaring that the trees were planted on “State Land” and, there, constituted a trespass and should be “evacuated”!
- On May 5, 2014, the Nassar family filed an appeal with the Military Court against the order. According to the law, no demolition or evacuation is allowed once an appeal is filed and until a final verdict has been forthcoming.
- On May 19, 2014, the Israeli Military bulldozed between 1,500 and 2,000 mature, fruit-bearing apricot and apple trees and grape vines growing in the lower valley of the farm and destroyed the terraced land that had been cleared for planting. There was no forewarning given, and this was an illegal act on the part of the IDF.