Pushing a pro-Palestinian crowd to question assumptions

Woody Allen quipped that when he was a kid, he used to get beaten up by Quakers. That happened to me (figuratively) just last week at the Churches for Middle East Peace Advocacy Conference in Washington.

I was the only rabbi at the conference and with the exception of a few speakers, I believe I was the only Jew. At the end of the first day Ambassador Warren Clarke, executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, kindly asked me if I was uncomfortable. I thanked him for asking.

Yes, I was uncomfortable, but on the other hand, I expected to be uncomfortable. The tone of the conference was highly critical of Israel. This was in keeping with much of the material I had been reading about the group, but comments made and the general tone were even more pointed.

And that is why I was there.

We Jews tend to be a paranoid lot — and for good historical reasons, too. I am no exception. But I try to be introspective and self-critical. I question my own assumptions ruthlessly.

Undoubtedly, I tell myself, there is some truth in what I am hearing and I need to listen. We have met the enemy and maybe they have a point.

In this case, the participants were not really the enemy; these are good people. But if they are not the enemy, they are opponents. And while positions articulated often have some measure of truth, the general tone lacked balance and fairness; I said as much quietly, politely, but firmly.

What was encouraging to me is that I think people were ready to listen. There was good will.

Two major fallacies were at work. First, people, especially religious people who are trained to think in moral categories, tend to view the world in binary terms, seeking a victim and a perpetrator. Religion must be more than piety and faith needs to be translated into political action.

Second is a propensity to side with the perceived weaker party. Israel is seen as a military juggernaut, backed up by the world’s only remaining superpower, the United States. That, to the minds of these activists, creates an asymmetry. Who will champion the weaker party if not fair-minded people like themselves? Nobody likes a bully. Israel is the bully. Israel’s flaws are underscored and those of its opponents are downplayed, if not overlooked. Nuance would undermine the binary.

This is not anti-Semitism. These are people who eschew bigotry. But there were prejudices aplenty — political prejudices. They had chosen sides. There was little appreciation that perhaps the fairest, most radical and most godly position in a conflict is to be engaged, but to be in the middle. The apocalyptic Christian fundamentalists these liberals detest, the very people whom they oppose on most every theological and social issue, support Israel. So Israel must be bad.

And because they are interacting with one another, their assumptions are reinforced.

Jewish concerns were largely glossed over, trivialized or ignored. I did not hear the word “terrorism” even once. The term isn’t politically correct, and for good reason. “Terrorism” is often a code word for “Muslim,” and as such is pejorative. But some terrorists are Muslim and think it is a big mitzvah to kill Jews. Kids are blown up on buses. Rockets are launched against civilian Jews, who are routinely depicted in the Arab media as inherently and irredeemably wicked, often using the crudest, Nazi-like depictions. This is preparation for genocide. And the Arab extremists, who are really not so “extreme” insofar as they are often part of the elected mainstream (Hamas), are given a free pass. Anticolonial, Third World people are inherently virtuous.

Yes, I found a CMEP resolution that condemned terrorist attacks, but it is buried on a web page. I heard no reference to it at the conference.

The assembly included a training session on lobbying led by Kate Gould of the American Friends Committee on Legislation and a CMEP board member who is prominently featured on the occupyAIPAC.org website and active in the BDS movement. She made disparaging remarks about end-of-days fundamentalist support of Israel.

The occupation was regularly blamed for the conflict. If only the occupation would end, so would the whole issue. But wasn’t there a conflict before 1967? Perhaps all of Israel is an occupation? Clearly at least some of the people at the conference feel that way. There was a general reluctance to even use the word “Israel.” People spoke of “Palestine,” “Israel-Palestine” or “The Holy Land.”

I am writing these words from New Jersey, where my 11-year-old is at a day camp sponsored by the Society of Friends. Campers are required to attend a morning meeting, Quaker-style, in a room draped with flags from many countries. You might guess which flag was missing. Mind you, not all flags of all nations were there, but this omission feeds my unease.

Israel left Lebanon. Did anybody say “thank you”? No. Hezbollah started lobbing thousands of rockets into northern Israel. Israel left Gaza. The response? Rocket attacks on civilians by Hamas.

Many of Israel’s supporters have grave reservations about the continued Israeli presence in the West Bank. If Israel does leave the West Bank, will there be more rockets? How about some incentives? Is a little bit of good will so out of order?

There was a myth or a near myth repeated over and over at the CMEP conference: Palestinian pacifism. Much was said about nonviolent resistance. Groups and individuals were mentioned. They do exist. (I think there is also a Flat Earth Society in Gaza, too.) To the extent that there is a nonviolent movement, it is just one small cog in an overall strategy characterized by indiscriminate violence. But this uncomfortable fact does not accord with the sort of virtue CMEP supporters wish to believe. An alternate universe is created. Read the lyrics of the Palestinian national anthem, especially the part about “the enemy tasting our revenge.” Milk, cookies and roses might work better, but nobody is offering them.

Many of the people at the CMEP conference were pastors. It is good pastoral practice to make people feel that they are being heard. People seemed to listen to me and I am grateful because only one narrative was being championed. I don’t think the situation is anywhere near hopeless. I was there. I was welcomed. I was a fish out of water, but I was a contrast.

That made things a bit more engaging. As the bumper sticker says, “Question Assumptions.” I do and I will. I question my own and I hope that the CMEP delegates will question theirs.

Peacemakers need to be credible. I am enough of an optimist to think there can be movement in that direction, not just in Churches for Middle East Peace but in the Middle East itself.

Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen is founder of the Vine and Fig Project, an interfaith educational venture to help Christians and Jews understand the historical and political realities of the modern Middle East in a faith-based context.