Friday, May 4, 2012

West Bank Story

I’m sure many of you saw the article in the paper the other day noting that the United Methodist Church, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, debated and debated and finally voted against divesting itself from (which is to say, refusing to do business with or invest in) any American companies that it perceives as being somehow related to, and thus at least nominally supportive of, Israel’s presence on the West Bank, a group that includes such giants Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola. In a sense, the Methodists were only following a recent trend. The Evangelical Lutheran Church, this country’s largest Lutheran denomination, voted just last year for a second time to reject this kind of politically-motivated divestment policy. In 2006, the Presbyterian Church USA rescinded its vote of two years earlier calling for divestment. (The issue is scheduled to be revisited yet again at this year’s convention at the end of June, however.) Just recently, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Reverend Katharine Schori, came out personally against divestment and boycott calls aimed specifically and solely at companies deemed supportive of Israel.

On the other hand, the largest Protestant church in Canada, the United Church of Canada, released a report earlier this week calling for an economic boycott of Israel focused on products produced in what the report referenced as “illegal” settlements, in which category the report includes not only the handful of settlements that Israel actually deems illegally to have been built on West Bank of the Jordan but also sections of Jerusalem comprising neighborhoods that are home today to almost 200,000 Jewish Israelis. (What Jesus of Nazareth would have said to the notion that he and his family, were they alive today, could reside legally in certain Jerusalem neighborhoods but only illegally in others was left unexplored in the report.) The language used to announce the publication of the report was beyond vituperative. The chairman of the group that composed the report, the Very Reverend David Giuliano, himself a former head of the United Church, referred openly to Israel’s presence on the West Bank as a crime, then moved on from there to draw the natural conclusion that buying goods produced by Israelis living on the West Bank would be no different than buying stolen goods from any thief. So far, the report represents only the opinion of its authors, not official church policy. But the report will be considered and then either adopted or rejected by the church’s General Council in August.

I’ve shied away from discussing the whole issue of settlements on the West Bank in the past, partially because the issue itself is so contentious and partially because
I myself am of mixed feelings in its regard. For some reason, however, hearing a former moderator of the United Church of Canada openly label Jewish people living in the heartland of the Jewish homeland as criminals merely because of their existence in that place has moved me to express myself nevertheless.

There is, of course, lots to say about Israel’s presence on the West Bank. There are even lots of cogent reasons to feel strongly that Israel would only be serving its own best interests by withdrawing from most of the West Bank and permitting a Palestinian state to grow to maturity in that place and thus to take its peaceful place in the family of nations. But the point that most of the columnists and politicians, including any number of American political figures, seem never quite to seize is that the real issue is not whether the West Bank should or should not be part of some future Palestinian state, but whether it exists at all in any truly meaningful way.

The notion that the West Bank is a single parcel of real estate that can be discussed in terms of its history and its future is itself not part of our biblical heritage, nor was it ever part of the political reality of the Middle East. If anything, the Bible presents the ancient Israelites puzzled over the future of the lands on the east bank of the Jordan, not its western bank. (In the end, Moses permits the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and part of the tribe of Manasseh, to settle on the East Bank on the condition that they nonetheless participate fully in the conquest of the lands across the Jordan, which they are depicted as not only willing but eager to do.) But the notion that there was or is some sort of meaningful distinction between the lands currently collectively designated as “the West Bank” and the rest of the Land of Israel is not only geographically meaningless, but also historically without any sort of precedent or foundation. For better or worse (and I mean that literally), the lands in question are the heartland of Israel. Its major cities—Hebron, Jerusalem, Shechem (called Nablus by the Arabs), Bethlehem, and Jericho—are the settings for the most famous incidents in Israelite history to such an extent that it seems forced and artificial not to take God’s promise of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people as their eternal patrimony to refer almost specifically to the lands today collectively called the West Bank. And that, I believe, is the crux of the problem. I would like to think of people—and particularly people who earn their living by preaching the Bible as the word of God—who blithely use the language of criminality to describe the presence of Jewish people living in the heartland of the Jewish homeland as more naïve than truly malign. But in my heart that is not at all what I think. Nor do I think it is what most people who study the matter dispassionately would conclude.

In the end, the Jewish claim to the West Bank is no different—no stronger and no weaker, and no more or less historically real—than the Jewish claim to the land under Tel Aviv or Beersheva. It may well turn out to be politically expedient, therefore reasonable, for Israel to relocate its citizens from their legal homes on the West Bank—legal in the sense that the territory was and is on the Israeli side of the ceasefire line that ended the 1967 war and no peace treaty, not with Jordan and not with the Palestinians, has ever replaced the original cease fire agreement brokered by the United Nations and accepted by the parties to the conflict—but that does not make the land in question any less a part of the Jewish homeland than any other part. More to the point is the ominous sense I get that the argument to the effect that the settlements on the West Bank are criminally illegal is merely the thin side of a deeply anti-Jewish wedge, the mere precursor to the far greater and more momentous “discovery” to follow that there is something illegitimate and unlawful about Jews living anywhere at all in the Land of Israel. In the end, it might well end up making sense for Israel to cede those lands to the Palestinians. In a certain real sense, the Palestinians are already in control. (Just to muddy the waters a bit, I might pause here to ask the Rev. Giuliani why, even if we were to accept the ahistorical notion that the West Bank somehow isn’t part of the Jewish homeland, it should be a crime for Jews to live there when it is considered entirely legal and normal for Arabs, both Muslims and Christians, to live in Israel proper. Or is that merely the childish argument of someone who hasn’t yet fully internalize the principle that the same rules that apply to other peoples never apply to Jewish Israelis?) It is true that the area also remains under Israeli military control. But that is just how things are when a war ends and no peace treaty is subsequently signed: things stay as they are. That, in and of itself, is merely unfortunate. But the deeper and more upsetting question to ponder is what truly is motivating these people so full of the need for their churches (or food co-ops or universities) to divest from companies doing business with Israelis living legally in the Land of Israel.

I am neither a fundamentalist nor a fanatic defender of the inerrancy of the biblical text. If anything, I think of myself as a political realist and I really do believe fully that things change with the passing for centuries, that the rules that applied millennia ago in King David’s day, or in Moses’s, cannot simply be applied to today’s world without any accommodation to political reality. I’m all for political realism! But I can’t keep myself from wondering how churches founded on the word of God, on the Bible and its foundational promise of the Jewish homeland to the Jewish people, can find it in themselves to divest themselves of their own heritage, to turn their back on God’s own sworn pledge of the Land of Israel to the people Israel, and to preach to the world that Jews who live in the “wrong” parts of Jerusalem are not merely behaving politically inexpediently, but criminally so. The solution to there being no peace in the Middle East is for there to be peace in the Middle East. The solution to the thorny dilemma of Jews living in a future Palestinian state is for the Palestinians to adjust to the concept. The solution to the lack of Palestinian resolve to move forward, to sign a treaty with Israel, and to accept the Israelis as neighbors and as partners is for the Palestinians to move forward, to sign a treaty, and to accept the Israelis as neighbors and partners…and then to accept that the point of a two-state solution is neither to dump the Arab citizens of Israel across the border in future Palestine nor to shove the Jews of the West Bank over the line into Israel proper, but for both sides to the conflict to live in peace…which means learning to live with the presence of each other’s people on lands both people claim as their own.

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