Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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I attended a talk last night by Washington Post columnist and editor David Ignatius on the subject of Syria. Coming on the heels of the attacks in Belgium, it was a sobering evening reflecting on possible missed opportunities for early intervention over the past few years that might – might – have made a difference, and looking at what might – might – make a difference now. Seemingly every option, then and now, carries as many risks as opportunities. It was hard to see a way forward by the end of the evening.
Remarkably, in this thoughtful discussion of the Middle East and the larger Arab world, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not mentioned. Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Lybia all featured. Israel was named once. Palestine and the Occupation ignored. The sense that this almost 70 year old conflict and the human suffering it implies have been effectively sidelined was both discouraging and alarming.
It didn’t help that the evening followed in short order the ritual appearance this week of presidential candidates before the American Israel Public Affairs Council (AIPAC) in which every speaker doubled down on unwavering support for Israel come what may and either stated or implied a dismissiveness of the Palestinians’ plight. One doesn’t expect any sympathy from right wing conservatives for the injustices imposed by the Occupation. For them Israel involves both a geopolitical and a theological romance. Secretary Clinton’s bellicose address, however, that failed even to mention the problem of illegal settlements, was deeply disturbing. Some of this, of course, can be attributed to the inevitable pandering that takes place at these annual rites. But for Secretary Clinton there is the uneasy feeling that this may represent both pandering and principle.
Palestinians have long understood that the Unites States’ calculus on the conflict will never allow for sharp and sustained critique of Israeli policies that sustain, intensify, or extend the Occupation. Brief and occasional push back from U.S. presidents has quickly been followed by embarrassing American mea culpas and a return to the status quo of lip service being paid to the role of impartial peace broker while doing little or nothing to contest disruptive Israeli facts on the ground. For now, it seems, the veil has been lifted. Not even lip service to fairness remains. Should we be surprised that many Palestinians feel abandoned?
Just as diplomatic initiatives that essentially presume Palestinian acceptance of a subservient, settlement riddled state are unrealistic, so too is the notion that Israel on its own will find a way and a will to negotiate and establish a just peace. The emerging political demography of Israel makes this less rather than more likely. But simply hoping that Israel can keep a lid on the current status quo while we worry about ISIS or Iran is a cruel and dangerous game. The individual acts of violence against Israelis over the last year are not subsiding, suggesting that rage, despair, and powerlessness are likely to fuel a wider uprising. It may not be too cynical to think that American and Israeli policy makers are simply preparing for a Third Intifada which can then be crushed militarily. But neither Israel, nor its allies, nor Palestine win in that scenario.
Some American churches, along with universities and municipalities, have opted for another path, supporting boycotts against Settlement products and divestment from corporations profiting from the Occupation. Believing this strategy will provide some leverage toward peace, they have braved charges of anti-Semitism and a growing effort by legislators around the country to essentially criminalize this strategy. Predictably, they hves drawn the scorn of most pretenders to political thrones, Secretary Clinton included. Alone it is, admittedly, a weak reed against the steel treads and walls that buttress the Occupation.
But support for this non-violent strategy does accomplish two very important things. First, to the extent that it becomes a growing movement, it offers a counter narrative in the United States to the dominant one that has mostly wavered from feckless engagement to a very un-benign neglect. Perhaps more important, it says to Palestinians that abandonment is not the full and final word. Given what a sense of abandonment may foster, that is no small matter. Meanwhile, on Maundy Thursday, Christians more than anyone ought to remember that abandonment by disciples is a sin, whether in the Jerusalem of long ago or the Jerusalem of today.
John H. Thomas