Thursday, 24 July 2014

Palestinian Christians: The Abandoned Sheep

Imagine there was a country- not a small, unstable state, but a 21st-century modern state, with stable democratic institutions, a thriving, diversified economy, and the fourth-largest military on the globe- with a sizeable Christian minority.

Suppose that Christian minority was being denied basic human rights- freedom of movement, freedom of worship, freedom to live where they chose, freedom to own property….

Suppose they were subject to arrest and detention without trial; 

Suppose their property could be confiscated on a moment’s notice;

Suppose they were subject to segregated schools; suppose there were even roads they were not allowed to drive on;

Suppose this Christian community was under military occupation and the regular targets for military action, economic blockade, and attack.

I don’t know about you, but I imagine that American Christians would be out of their minds. Advocacy groups like Voice of the Martyrs, Christian Freedom International, and Focus on the Family would be incandescent with anger. News outlets like CBN, the 700 Club, and FOX News would be reporting it 24-7. Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly would be screaming for action. There’d be denunciations from pulpits; it’d be all over the cover of Christianity Today, World magazine, and the Christian Post; needless to say, President Obama would probably be on the receiving end of some very pointed questions: ‘these are our Christian brethren! Why were we supporting such a regime? Why were we giving them billions in military aid?!'

But we’re not hearing any of that. The Christian media- at least the Evangelical end of the spectrum- is virtually silent. In fact, it supports the repressive regime, demands it be given more aid, more weapons, more political support.

How can this be? Simply but bluntly, it is because the Christian community in question are Palestinians.

There are about 350,000 Christians in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories. They have been there for 2000 years, but in the last 60 years, the number of Christians is dropping- by the day- like a stone. Most emigrate as the occupation continues to strangle the local economy and illegal Israeli settlements continue to expand, confiscating more and more Palestinian land and diverting more and more water.

Nazareth and Bethlehem- Jesus’s birthplace and home town- used to be predominantly Christian. Not anymore. It is not an unreasonable fear that, in a few decades, there might be no living Christian presence in the Holy Land. The most sacred sites in the Christian religion might become mere museums. A Christian community that can trace its lineage to the Day of Pentecost (they are the ‘Arabs’ of Acts 2:9) will be gone.

And the state of Israel will be delighted to see them go.

Now we sit, once again, and watch the Israeli military pound Gaza into rubble once again, with civilian casualties in the hundreds.

Once again, we hear the endless repetition from the US government: ‘Israel has the right to defend itself’.

No, it does not. Under international law, they have one prerogative: withdraw. End the occupation; withdraw to the 1967 borders; dismantle the settlements; build two states on a foundation of real justice and real peace.

I don’t want to get too utopian here, though. Ending the occupation will not solve every political problem in- and between- Israel and Palestine. But I am convinced that it will end about 70% of them. But the occupation should not be ended because it is expedient, but because it is right- and acting rightly allows space for other right actions. 

Israel has the right to exist- but not like this.

Israel has the right to security- but not like this.

The very fact that these sentiments will immediately be read by many as being anti-Semitic or pro-Hamas only shows how dysfunctional most of the discussion and debate surrounding the Israel-Palestine issue has become.

Under international law, an occupied nation has the right to resist its occupation. But all of the rockets Hamas has fired into Israel have not brought them any closer to their military aims. They are symbolic rather than strategic, lacking any semblance of praxis, action for action’s sake. All of their 'resistance' is stupid and criminal. 

Yet it is no less stupid and criminal than the Israeli strategy, and theirs has proven far more deadly.  While Israel has every right to not want violent Islamists living anywhere near them, the occupation- with all of its military, economic, and legislative might- has not been able to subdue the Palestinian insurgents, and while they try, the lives and livelihoods of thousands are destroyed. The occupation has has given Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, and every other violent Islamist organization an enormous issue to hide behind while conveniently advancing agendas that are spectacularly frightening- getting rid of the state of Israel altogether being the most disturbing. Ending the occupation would be one giant step toward exposing these people for who they really are and what they really want- and how few people actually want it.

Regardless of the damage it does and the injustices it perpetuates, the occupation continues and spreads. In this fruitless endeavor, Israel has been lavishly supported by the US government for decades. Any nation over which the US holds enough sway tacitly looks the other way. Theodore Herzl’s Zionist dream is a nightmare for many. And the question that so many of us keep asking is, Is any nightmare justifiable in the name of the preservation of an exclusively ‘Jewish State’?  

It is not merely Palestinians who think this way and are asking that question. There is a growing body of opinion within Israel- proud, patriotic, some even Zionist- who are speaking out.  There is the Parents Circle - Families Forum (PCFF), a joint Palestinian/Israeli organization of over 600 families, all of whom have lost a close family member as a result of the conflict; there is Breaking The Silence, an organization of Israeli military veterans who are publicly exposing the brutality of the occupation, as well as Courage To Refuse, another group of military veterans refusing to go into the West Bank; there was the Shminitsim (‘twelfth graders’)  incident in 2001, where a group of young people resisted their military service on moral grounds; there are dozens of authors, writers, journalists, academics, and activists who are raising awareness, asking questions, demanding answers.

On the Palestinian side, there is the Holy Land Trust, Tent of Nations, Bethlehem Bible College, and Sabeel, working against incredible odds to maintain a positive, empowered, nonviolent, and creative Christian presence in the midst of a violent occupation and harassment.

And in the midst of it all are the Palestinian Christians- fleeing the army, watching their homes being flattened, dying, opening their churches to hundreds of those fleeing the bombardment…  And the silence of their American brothers and sisters in Christ is deafening.

‘But’, I hear over and over, ‘we must support Israel’, to which I constantly answer: no, you must pick which ‘Israel’ you wish to support. Right now, the Evangelical churches in the US have thrown their wholehearted support behind the most militaristic, intransigent, theocratic, and fanatical elements within Israel.  I’ve traveled to Israel and the occupied territories and met dozens of peacemakers- Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and secularists; Israelis and Palestinians. These people are doing incredible work against incredible odds.  If they had a tenth of the financial support, the region would be a much different place.

In John 10, Jesus referred to himself as a shepherd- a good shepherd. The good shepherd, he said, knows his sheep and his sheep know him; it’s a powerful image of the bond that Jesus felt for his followers. In Luke 15, Jesus tells the parable of a shepherd who loses one of his hundredfold flock and does not rest until he finds the one lost sheep, a powerful image of the love that God has for every one of us.

The Palestinian Christians are not ‘lost’; they know who and where they are they are, and so does their shepherd, Jesus.  

Rather, the Palestinian Christians have been abandoned, and abandoned utterly- not by Christ but by a vast majority of their fellow Christians, especially in the US.

Worse, they are being sacrificed.

They are being sacrificed to a particular reading of scripture that equates all references to ‘Israel’ in the Bible with the modern state of Israel;

They are being sacrificed to the notion that any criticism of the modern state of Israel- for any action- is anti-Semitism;

They are being sacrificed to the absurdity that to speak out for justice for Palestinians is support for terrorism;

They are being sacrificed to the most militaristic, extremist, and theocratic dreams of the settler movement in the West Bank;

They have been sacrificed to a failed political vision.

It is never the God of life who demands a human sacrifice; it is the idols of death. The first law given to Moses was specific: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ This was the God who revealed himself, first and foremost, as a God of life and liberation. Yet the temptation will always be there to put something- the interpretation, the ideology, the policy, the state- before the God of life.

And when that happens, people die. They always do.  

When I was in The West Bank, every Christian I met was dismayed that their brothers and sisters in America cared nothing for them, and in fact supported their oppressors. Every one of them said the same thing: ‘Tell them about us; tell the whole world what is going on here'. 

I’ve attempted to do that ever since- to bear witness to the Palestinian church; to the Israelis trying to change their country; to Muslims who refuse to be enemies of the other Abrahamic faiths; to Israeli and Arab secularists who are tired of the 'parties of God' having an unconditional veto over peace and pluralism; to the peacemakers…

For God shall call them his children…

Stop the war. End the occupation. Build the peace. 

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Orange Crushed: Developing Praxis in North Belfast

Woodvale Road, North Belfast, early morning, 13 July 2013

Last year, 12 July 2013, after an Orange Order parade that had been banned by the Parades Commission from passing the Ardoyne shops in North Belfast was stopped by the police, there were days of serious rioting, dozens of police in the hospital, and (just to change things up a bit) an MP knocked unconscious by friendly fire. That night, I sat in my window on the Crumlin Road, one of the most contentious pieces of real estate on the island, and watched the flames from up the road. The next morning, I walked up to the scene of the standoff between the rioters and the police. The road was an inch deep in shattered glass, bits of brick, burnt wood and plastic, and splattered paint.

As I walked back home, I was deeply frustrated and angry with the Orange Order, who I felt had been incredibly reckless with the lives of their own supporters, the police, and local residents. They had urged their supporters onto the streets to protest the rulings of the Parades Commission, with only the most amorphous messages about ‘nonviolent protest’. After a night of mayhem, they had called off the protests, a day late and a lot of blood and money later.

The Order might reasonably have been asking, what went wrong?  Had they not called for peaceful protests? Had they not made it clear that civil disobedience was what they had in mind? Had they not told those who wanted to attack the police to stay away? It seemed that they’d planned for everything.

It’s now July 2014, and here we go again…

It’s less than a week until the Glorious Twelfth in Northern Ireland, and the Orange Order has yet again been banned by the Parades Commission from marching past the very same Ardoyne shops.

A loyalist protest camp,  festooned with banners of support from loyalists all over the province, has been in place at the site of the march for a full year.

There has been an illegal march every night for a full year.

The policing bill for this is now over £9 million.

This week, every Unionist politician walked out of the most recent round of ‘flags/parades/the past’ negotiations and have promised for more protests in the future.

The PSNI has not yet asked for mutual assistance from other forces in Britain, but they’re keeping the option on the table.

Relations on the ground in North Belfast are as poisoned as ever.

Last year, the day after the Twelfth, I wrote a piece that tried to address where I felt the Orange Order had bungled the situation. I’ve been involved with street protest for over a decade now, with the anti-war movement, anti-globalization and anti-capitalist groups. This doesn’t make me an expert, but I do have some insights from this experience to share. It was written with a year to go until the next standoff. Even the morning after, I was absolutely certain- and so was anyone else with any kind of a sober judgment- that the Parades Commission was not going to allow the parade to go through in 2014 unless there was considerable dialogue between residents and the Orange Order. I figured, well, might as well get cracking early...

Looking at the past 11 months and 3 weeks, the Orange Order hasn’t taken any of my advice.

No matter; hope springs eternal. So, with less than a week to go, here are my ideas of how this year might go better than last.

1: Have a Plan. Organizing an effective protest takes, well, a lot of organizing- A LOT of organizing. Get a hold of any decent history of the American civil rights movement or any other socio-political movement and you’ll see how much work it takes. What do you want to happen? What, in your mind, will constitute a successful action? What’s the message? Who’s involved with you? Are you all on the same page? Is it a legal protest? If so, do you have paperwork and are the police informed? Are you (or anyone around you) planning- at best- civil disobedience or-at worst- criminal activity? Do you all know the difference between those two things? Do you have a plan if you’re arrested?

Last year, the Orange Order had no plan. They called on their supporters to protest the Parades Commission rulings regarding the contentious parade, and told their members and supporters not to abide by the Commission’s rulings... but not to break the law. This was absurd, as the Parade’s Commission is a legally-constituted body. If you don’t abide by its rulings, you are breaking the law. Elected Unionist officials should have broken off contact with the Orange Order at that point. Needless to say, they didn’t, which raises uncomfortable questions for their commitment to the rule of law.

Anyway, the Orange Order said not to break the law or attack the police. What should supporters do? The Order said nothing specific.

This was never going to end well.

2: Don’t do anything when you’re angry. Not one thing. Nothing. An angry crowd does one thing and one thing only: damage. Telling people who are angry- and the Orange Order and every Unionist politician who could get himself in front of a microphone tells us over and over and over how ANGRY everyone is- to get up and hit the streets is never going to lead to anything constructive. Now, lots of historic change begins with civil disorder. But no real social transformation starts to happen until people calm down and start organizing (see point 1).  

So… If your people are angry, UNLESS YOU WANT TO HAVE STUFF DAMAGED, you make sure they stay off the streets. You issue a statement that says, ‘I know everyone is angry, so stay off the streets today and tonight. When we’re not angry, we’re going to plan our next move.’ It’s not very sexy and people who love to do damage won’t vote for you, but unless you want a whole lot of people injured and arrested, it’s what you do.

But I think you see where I’m going with that: violence gets you noticed. But it doesn’t lead anywhere constructive- certainly not in North Belfast, and if they haven’t figured that out by now, the leadership of the Orange Order is wilfully ignorant, truly devious, or spectacularly naive. On top of that, they were dangerously reckless with the lives and safety of others.

3: Know the Law. The conventional wisdom about protesters is that ‘they have no regard for the rule of law’ or ‘all they want to do is break the law’. This is a very clumsy stereotype. Activism of any kind very often demands an intimate and encyclopedic knowledge of the legal code- what you can and cannot do, what the authorities are allowed to do, what the penalties are, etc. Most of the activists that I’ve worked with over the years know a staggering amount about the legal code and can recite it, section and clause, to a police officer, a reporter or a security guard at a moment’s notice. Believe me, if a cop is trying to confiscate your camera because you took a picture of his land rover, you’d better be able to very quickly and clearly- and in as calm a voice as possible- quote the law as it is written. He might still take your camera and you’ll have to say it all over again to a magistrate trying to lock you up or fine you for doing something perfectly legal. Trust me on this.

That said, the fact that the Orange Order in 2013 called on their supporters to disobey the Parade’s Commission’s rulings, BUT not to break the law, is a stunning lack of an understanding of the law. Again, the Parades Commission is a legal body and its rulings are legally binding. If you disregard them, you are breaking the law. You might decide to go ahead and disregard them, but you’d better understand what that means. And make sure you’re supporters know what that means. They might decide to go ahead and ignore the rulings, but you can’t then say, ‘I did nothing wrong’. Well, yeah, you did. In 2003, four Catholic Worker activists cut through a fence at Shannon Airport, broke into a hanger and took a hammer to the nose of a US war plane that was contravening Irish neutrality and was a tool in an illegal invasion of a sovereign nation. It took 5 years of trials for them to finally be acquitted of any wrong-doing. And a thorough knowledge of Irish and international law was absolutely vital. Again, trust me on this. 

4: What’s the Next Step? This is related to point 1, but it needs to stand on its own. This relates to one of my favourite things: praxis. Praxis is an ongoing process of reflection and action, followed then by more reflection and then more action. They need to go together. Reflection on its own is just navel-gazing and theorizing. Action on its own is just, activism, 'doing stuff'. But praxis is how progress happens. Reflection on a problem helps to analyze and crystallize the problem. Out of this, an action can be undertaken. After the action, we reflect again. What was accomplished? What was learned? What happened that was totally unexpected? How can we act better in light of what we originally wanted to accomplish and what actually happened?  

If 12 July 2013 taught the Orange Order anything it’s that a.) you shouldn’t reflect when you’re angry, and b.) you sure as hell shouldn’t act when you’re angry.

But no use crying over spilled milk and wounded cops- especially a year late. They acted, and now they must reflect. How did it go? What went well? What didn’t go well? What was learned?  Are we any closer to the stated goal?

It is now less than a week until the Twelfth. If the Orange Order doesn’t want a repeat of 2013, I’d suggest getting started on it soon. It’s  not too late… yet.