Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Crucifixion of Palestine

In 2003, a year after Israel had begun construction on a 440-mile wall to separate Palestinians in the Occupied Territories from Israel, Pope John Paul II said: "The Holy Land does not need walls, but bridges." The wall, he said, "is seen by many as a new obstacle on the road leading to peaceful cohabitation."
Without the reconciliation of spirits, there can be no peace. May the leaders have the courage to return to dialogue and negotiation, thus opening the way toward a Middle East that is reconciled in justice and peace.
Nearly three years later, the pontiff's hopes have not been fulfilled. The wall, built largely on Palestinian land inside the 1967 "Green Line" separating the two sides according to international law, has effectively cut the West Bank into enclaves, making movement between communities, or between towns and farmland, almost impossible. Illegal settlements, however, are protected, in effect made a part Israel. The UN calls the wall an "unlawful act of annexation," and says it cuts off more than 200,000 Palestinians from social services, schools and places or work. The wall, and roads built for troop movements but denied to Palestinians have carved the Occupied Territory into bantustans, the geographical technique used by white South Africans to enforce apartheid.

Years ago I heard Catholic theologian Rosemarie Radford Ruether argue that the Arab-Israeli conflict, now almost sixty years old, is not about religion but about land. This to me was a startling claim, given the almost universal belief that the battle was between Jews and Muslims, with Christians often caught in the middle. But for Ruether, the struggle was over land -- the "deserts" made by Jewish settlers to bloom on land where the homes, villages and olive trees of the original residents had been bulldozed by the Israel Defense Forces.

Today there is a humanitarian crisis in the West Bank and Gaza where nearly four million Palestinians are suffering under the brutal occupation. After the victory of Hamas in democratic elections earlier this year, needed aid from the US and Europe has dwindled to a trickle. Services are crumbling. Targeted assassinations of Palestinian leaders include innocent bystanders, often children. Businesses are failing. Over 50 percent of the residents have fallen below the poverty line. A public health disaster and starvation are possible.

Is all this retaliation for a horrific campaign of suicide bombings, or is it part of a master plan to ethnically cleanse the Promised Land of an Arab presence? If outright "transfer," the euphemism coined to describe Palestinian removal, is not possible, then apartheid is the means to make life so impossible that residents of the West Bank and Gaza will have no choice but to move elsewhere. I know this sounds like conspiracy theory, but a little research will uncover a consistent thread to the motives of successive Israeli leaders.

All of this breaks my heart. The stories and photographs coming out of the Holy Land portray a crucified people, abandoned by the powers of this world. I bow my head in guilt for the injustices caused by my government in my name. The United States has been the prime supporter of Israel and currently provides almost $3 billion in aid, more than it gives to any other country. The media and Jewish lobby in this country portray criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. But to be anti-Israel is not to be anti-Semitic.

When I studied Jewish mysticism and the history of Judaism with Mishael Caspi at UC Santa Cruz in the 1980s, he spoke of life growing up in Jerusalem as a boy before World War Two. He said that Jewish, Christian and Muslim children played together happily in a time of innocence before the establishment of the state of Israel. I also learned about a golden period in 12th century Spain when Jewish and Christian mystics and Muslim Sufis flourished together. The People of the Book are not natural enemies. They worship the same God.

Jews have long suffered at the hands of Christians, due to the misguided notion that they were responsible for Christ's death. They were expelled from Spain in 1492, were persecuted in Eastern Europe in the 19th century, and were exterminated by the millions in Nazi death camps during World War Two. The ideology of Zionism called for a homeland where Jews might be safe and, with the aid of guilty Europeans, settled on Palestine. They believe the land had been promised to them by God over two thousand years earlier. But Palestine was already occupied, by mostly Arab Palestinians, and they had lived there for many generations. Why should they leave? The Native Americans must have felt the same way when European colonists took over their land. My father long ago taught me that two wrongs don't make a right. The treatment of Palestinians is a crime that must be stopped.

Many observers of this tragedy, like historian Tony Judt, have called for a one-state solution to the problem: Jews and Arabs living together with equal rights. But this would mean the end of the religious state. And why not? There are many successful multi-ethnic states, the United States among them. Besides, there is not enough territory on the earth for every religion or every ethnicity to have a piece of the pie. Religious states, like Israel, or Iran, are inherently undemocratic, granting more rights to the dominant majority. The two-state solution, called for by the United Nations since the 1970s, and given lip service by the presidents of England and the U.S. (and occasionally Israel) is impossible without contiguous territory and a measure of administrative control on the part of both states. But the actions of Israel, in carving up the West Bank into separate enclaves, has made this impossible.

The world is slowly being sucked into a whirlpool of violence in the Middle East, war first in Afghanistan, then Iraq, and now threatened with Iran. The root of all this violence, as well as the terrorist attack of September 11th, is in Israel/Palestine. "Terrorism is a tactic, not an entity," Charley Reese wrote in a recent posting on, "and it is a tactic used by people who have a political grievance. Therefore, if you want to eliminate terrorism, you have to address the political problems that gave it birth."

After the fall of the World Trade Center towers, a few sane heads asked: "Why do they hate us so much?" But this window of opportunity was closed by President Bush when he argued that the terrorists "hate freedom," and was echoed by the malicious right. If we had given the question any thought, we might have realized that until there is justice for the Palestinians, there will be no justice in the Middle East.

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