Thursday, 31 July 2014

Israel and Palestine - I should keep my mouth shut

With this blog, I prepare to say good-bye to friends.

I will likely be un-friended on Facebook and invite the ire and contempt of those with whom I have been friendly for many years.

That’s how it goes when you talk about Israel and Palestine.

It happened with the United Church of Canada.  After almost a decade of trying to determine the best course of action; the best witness to offer, the United Church recommended a boycott on items produced in the disputed territories occupied by Israel and claimed by Palestinians.  Eighty years of good relations with the “Official” Jewish communities in Canada were forgotten as the United Church was called naive and/or anti-Semitic.   Other Jewish voices in Canada (e.g. Independent Jewish Voices) lauded the UCC for the support, and yet others damned the United Church for not making a bolder statement.   The United Church policy was not the way forward that I would have chose, although remarkably, it was the same policy as the Canadian Federal Government at the time (i.e. no loans or investment in the disputed territories).

Why did the United Church of Canada speak out, when they are silent on other issues around the world?  They had been invited to speak.  They had been asked by partners in Israel and Palestine to offer support.  They listened, studied and prayerfully took a stand.  Not the one that I would have taken, but a considered one.  It was not received with anything resembling unanimous approval by the membership of the United Church.  Some folks threatened to leave the church (a very few did); some clergy spoke out loudly against the boycott, at least one considered offering boycotted Soda Stream products for sale in the church… and pretty soon a number of clergy were no longer speaking to each other.

And so, if I have any wisdom, I would now shut up.

Had I the wit, I would keep my thoughts to myself, the number of my Facebook friends stable and my future lunch invitations secure. 

But I can’t.

Not that I can offer anything of great substance to the discussion, but allow me to point out a couple of things.

First, I know very little. I engage in Canadian main-stream media and get one story; I search out more information and witness on the internet and get other stories; I talk to friends and acquaintances who are there now or have spent a great deal of time in Israel and/or Palestine in the past decade and get even more stories.  The only consistent message is:  I don’t really know anything.

I admire Israel for their active democracy that supports the rights of women and the LGBTQ community; for their struggle to live safely and peacefully in a land that has not offered anybody security in thousands of years.

My heart aches for the Palestinians who live in the reality of the Wall that separates them from family, work, food and water.  I support every human beings right to live freely and securely.

I don’t understand all of the treaties, exceptions, condemnations, recommendations and necessities that created the context in which Palestinians and Israelis live and die today.

But here is what I do know:  The conflict going on at this moment is time is NOT the FIFA World Cup, even though many seem to be treating it so.  People all over the world take on Israel or Palestine like they are teams; cheering for their side to win and vanquish the other side.

But this is not a game.  
It’s one thing to cheer for Holland in the World Cup, admire the goals and over-look Arjen Robben’s flagrant bad sportsmanship, or cheer for Uruguay while making up excuses for Luis Suarez  biting other players.  When you are cheering for your “team” everything thing that they do right is “the greatest” and every infraction or penalty is an unfair call or justifiable when you consider what the Brazilians did in the first half!

But what is happening right now in the Gaza is not a footie match.  It is not a competition. It is living and dying human beings. 

“He shouldn’t have been there…”
“She should have minded her own business…”
“They’ve killed more than we have…”
“They started it…”

These are not valid excuses for the ending of human lives…. The ending of hopes and dreams and plans and futures.  It is not good enough to simply cheer your team on and imagine that they can do no wrong.  They can and they are… and as long as we treat this like a Football match, we will excuse anything that our “team” does in an effort to win the game. 

There is nothing wrong with conversation and criticism  of your own government, another’s government or, even, your “side”.  In the second World War, people were horrified by the bombing of Dresden by the Allies – it did not mean that they were suddenly Nazi’s or that they were withdrawing their support for the safety and freedom of England and Europe, it simply meant that they were still connected deeply to their humanity and could not let such an action go by without criticism or comment.  People need to be able to wonder out loud without fear that they will be shunned and excluded from the conversation.  We need as many people in the conversation as possible – we are trying to bring peace to a land that has not truly known a lasting peace in thousands of years.

And this is what else I know: There are thousands of Israelis and Palestinians hoping, working and praying for peace.  They are demonstrating and acting – but we don’t get to see that in the mainstream media very often because it betrays the image of this conflict as one in which “teams” can be picked and cheered for.   It makes for a confusing narrative and we like our news to be simple:  Bad guys attacks good guy and good guy overcomes.   But what happens when good guys and bad guys are working together???   That's going to be hard to report. 

There are Peace Groups, Businesses, Theatre Companies, Schools and more in Israel and Palestine where Israeli Jews, Christians, Muslims and others worth side by side with Palestinian Muslims, Christians and others to find hope and peace for their land.  And we make it harder for them, as we stand on the outside choosing sides, buying scarves and cheering for our “teams”.    We make it harder because we make it easy for our media to stick to the simple narrative.  Have you noticed how the coverage seems to be dominated by people opining from other countries?   If all of the coverage was coming from Israel itself we would hear a much more complex narrative –  and more people would be able to be part of the “conversation”.  

With more voices, we just mind find a way that hasn’t be tried yet… “And a little child shall lead them” a prophet once intoned.  He wasn't necessarily speaking of a child to be born in Bethlehem, but rather noting that the solution to unrest would come from a new place, a person from whom they had yet to hear… a child who had yet to be born.  When we scare, shame or intimidate people into silence we assure ourselves of hearing only the same old voices we always hear, and we kill the idea before it can even be heard. 

Had I been asked to draft the United Church of Canada’s policy on Israel and Palestine, I would have raised money for and sent people to support organizations in Israel and Palestine whose memberships are diverse: Bringing Muslims, Jews, Christians, Secularists and others together to share culture, hospitality, hopes, ideas and efforts for a just peace in and around Israel.  Those groups exist and, I believe, are the best hope for justice in Israel….   But then, I don’t really know much.

So, in my compassionate ignorance,  I pray for the people…the soldiers and civilians from both sides of the wall and the many sides of the issue.  I pray for the Leaders, that they might find a way that eludes me today, but may be clear tomorrow.  I pray for the real people:  Mothers, Fathers, Sons, Daughters, Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, babies, teenagers, men, women, elders, wise ones and fools and I commit myself to not taking a “side” but continuing to support and criticize the people that I love and for whom I pray. 


  1. Thanks for thinking this out loud Norm and for challenging me to think for myself and live with compassion.

  2. Brother Norm,

    I too want to send thanks for your words this morning. I've read and re-read your thoughts. They give voice to many of the feelings I've had over these past sad days and, for that matter, all the many years that I've witnessed this tragic struggle from the safe and relatively peaceful place we call home.

    Like you, I am only one voice standing on the sidelines. A voice that truly does not know what it must feel like to know the immediacy of living in fear from bullets, bombs or missles. If I'm honest, I do not really know how I would feel under those circumstances. Yet, I have a voice. I have beliefs and I want to think that I would be true to them no matter the accident of birth and geography that I places me on this peaceful sideline. For me, my belief is simple: no matter from which direction the instruments of war are fired the result is the diminishment of what is sacred, life itself. I believe that there must be a better way; a way that appeals to the higher nature of what it means to be human.

    As I read your thoughts and those of others I feel good that there are other voices in conversation that choose not to play the game of war, terror or keep score in bodies. The road less travelled towards peace is to sadly witness this suffering with empathy and compassion yet have the courage to say "no" there must be a another way; a humanistic way. One that supports individuals, groups and communitites who seek a peaceful world where everyone can live freely and securely. In keeping with your thoughtful choice of a sport's metaphor I choose a different team, perhaps an underdog, I choose to wear the colors of peace, humanism and compassion.

  3. Again, I am reminded why I have so admired you since highschool. I don't know the answers, but I'm pretty sure that I know how to sustain or even make worse the current situation - and we're following the plan exactly. There are too many people gaining financially and politically from all of this and we need to stop listening to them... we need to stop "demonizing" the other and stop acting like demons ourselves. Somehow we need to begin to trust and hope... a little bit at a time. If I thought that vilifying one side over the other might bring about peace, I could be tempted (justice aside) - but I see no reason to believe that would work. And so, I am left to live in hope... because the alternative is simply not sustainable.