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It’s About Dignity, Stupid!

This past weekend was an interesting time to be in Washington, particularly as a participant in the Churches for Middle East Peace annual advocacy conference.  This ecumenical gathering was modest in size compared to AIPAC’s gathering of thousands just down the street.  Neither the President nor the Prime Minister came to speak, though we did hear from an impressive array of policy experts, as well as progressive Israeli Jewish leaders and Palestinians.  These Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical Christians persevere in their pro-peace work on Capitol Hill, refusing to be discouraged by the rhetoric or the funding of Christian Zionists (Zealots?) like John Hagee who are eagerly courted by the ascendant right wing in Tel Aviv and Washington.  But in a conflict often mesmerized by the shibboleth of “balance,” the lack of balance in the voice of US civil society, including among American churches, was everywhere apparent.

Lost amid the shameful spectacle of Benjamin Netanyahu lecturing the President of the United States for the crime of stating the obvious about the starting point for negotiations – pre-1967 borders with negotiated swaps – or brazenly muscling his way into American partisan politics where he assumes he has a blank check for extending settlements and pursuing the disastrous status quo, are the lives of those who live on either side of the security barrier, both held hostage to the morally and physically corrupting reality of four decades of occupation.  To be sure, each faces different challenges.  Israelis carry a deeply felt legacy of vulnerability, worry about hostile neighbors, and want their children to grow up to live prosperous and rewarding lives without the fear of rockets or bombs.  Palestinians lament homes and villages lost in 1948, and again in 1967, struggle with poverty, are physically constrained, without freedom of movement, and live with prospects for their children that seem limited at best.  But in the end both suffer from a similar deprivation.  There is nothing dignified about being an occupier with all the brutality that requires.  And there is no dignity in living under occupation.  Until we understand this shared reality, I fear the distinct but interwoven narratives of Israelis and Palestinians alike will hurtle toward mutually assured destruction.

President Obama, speaking of the Arab Spring, noted the galvanizing act of a Tunisian man who finally found his humiliation unbearable.  The same impulse is now being seen in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and even in the most symbolic ways in Saudi Arabia where a young woman defied her own religiously sanctioned humiliation by the simple act of driving a car.  At the CMEP conference an analyst from the Center for American Progress, Matthew Duss, stated the point clearly:  “Helping people living lives with dignity must be at the heart of US policy.  Dignity promotion is prior to democracy promotion.”  Security, water, borders, refugees, the location of capitals, settlements – all these are familiar words in the well known lexicon of the seemingly unending and unrewarding peace process in the Middle East.  But until leaders understand that the status quo is profoundly humiliating to all, little progress seems likely to be made.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has undoubtedly visited families in Siderot where Hamas rockets have, at least until recently, regularly chased frightened residents into shelters.  As the leader of Israel it is right that he should experience the humiliation of his people at the hands of those who show such brutal disregard for human life.  But he shows no evidence of ever accompanying elderly Palestinian women through the check points at Ramallah that look and function for all the world like the cattle chutes that once dominated the stockyards in Chicago.  I doubt that he has waited with farmers or school children early in the morning as they endure the humiliation of endless delays and identification checks by armed Israeli guards who are little more than teenagers at crossings in the Wall separating their homes from schools and olive orchards.  And it is unlikely that he has drunk coffee with Palestinians watching their ancestral houses handed over to Jewish families in East Jerusalem.  The Prime Minister owes his position to the Israeli electorate.  But he is also the de facto leader of the military occupation that subordinates every Palestinian, including President Abbas, to his own government’s political and military apparatus. Shouldn’t their yearning for dignity be as much his concern as that of the Israelis who elect the Knesset?

Some years ago I visited a school for Palestinian refugees in East Jerusalem.  Each day they must pass through checkpoints watching their parents challenged by armed young Israeli soldiers.  That day, at the close of a math class, they rose to sing a song for their American guests.  “We shall overcome!”  Ironically, it was the week that Rosa Park’s body lay in state in the capitol rotunda back home.  As I listened to the civil rights hymn, I asked the principal whether they knew Rosa’s story.  She reminded me of the storied Civil Rights leaders as she responded in her own proud, even stubborn dignity:  “Of course they do!”

The political posturing of the last week notwithstanding, everyone knows what the contours of a peace will look like.  Obama named them honestly, and who knows what political price he will pay for speaking the truth.  Probably more than his Israeli counterpart will pay for manipulating that honesty for short term benefits here and at home.  What is lacking, of course, is moral and political will, and the readiness of all to recognize the humiliation of occupier and occupied alike.  A former president once cut through the political haze famously declaring, “It’s the economy, stupid.”   Perhaps it’s time to adapt that blunt assertion for a new context and challenge:  “It’s about dignity, stupid!”

The Christians at the CMEP Conference are well versed in the history of this conflict, in the policy debates that swirl around it, in the narratives that divide two people and in the politics that often manipulate those narratives and the shared suffering.  But we’ll never capture the headlines or get on the calendars of national leaders eager to court favor and votes.  Perhaps our central task, beyond reminding a few lonely politicians who have ears to hear, is to remind all that it’s about dignity.  And that until we attend to the humiliation experienced by so many, it really won’t matter which border we start with, or what land we’re willing to swap.

John H. Thomas

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