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Rethinking Mennonites’ approach to Israel and Palestine

5.14. 2018 Written By: Lisa Schirch

This month, Israel is celebrating the 70th year since its creation, and Palestinians are marking 70 years of the Nakba, the catastrophe of losing their homes and villages. Today, while the United States opened its controversial new embassy in Jerusalem, tens of thousands of Palestinians protested the Nakba along the border fence separating Gaza and Israel. Seven weeks of demonstrations turned into the bloodiest day in Gaza since the 2014 war with Israel as Israeli soldiers killed dozens of Palestinians and wounded more 1,600, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Many Israelis and Palestinians are eager for outsiders to demonize the other side. Mainstream media and Christian Zionists often portray Israeli policies as unquestionably noble. News media project images of Palestinians as terrorists and often fail to provide any history to help understand Palestinian grievances.

Mennonites have done important work to support Palestinian rights. Unfortunately, many Mennonites have significant gaps in how they understand Israel, Jews and Judaism. Too often Mennonite advocacy for Palestinian rights carries anti-Semitic tones that portray Israel as simply an abusive colonial power. Portraying Jews as only voluntary colonialists delegitimizes the millions of Jews who came to Israel as refugees fleeing persecution. In most Mennonite churches I have observed, little to nothing is taught on Mennonite roles in the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, how Jews understand Israel, or on Judaism or Jesus as a Jewish rabbi.

The 2017 MC USA Resolution on Seeking Peace in Israel and Palestine identified important steps in addressing Mennonite participation in a long history of anti-Semitism and in seeking justice for Palestinians. This more balanced approach recognizes the truth and trauma in both Palestinian and Jewish narratives and writes Mennonites into the story of Israel and Palestine.

Palestinian narratives

May 14 is the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, the catastrophe of Palestinians losing their homes, villages and farms in the 1948 war between Jews and Arabs. For Palestinians, the creation of the state of Israel came at their expense and has led to seven decades of suffering.

For Palestinians, this catastrophe of the loss of land and home continues today. There are more than 50 Palestinian refugee camps scattered throughout the Middle East, where Palestinians continue to live in severe poverty with few rights. Palestinian citizens of Israel face numerous challenges as second-class citizens. The Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip brings 40 percent unemployment, severe food, water, electricity and healthcare shortages. The Israeli occupation in the West Bank includes regular military seizure of land, bulldozing homes, detention, torture, violence and soldiers blocking travel and other forms humiliation. Palestinians want an end to the occupation, full and equal rights as citizens of Israel, and restitution or the right to return to their homes.

Jewish narratives

Romans sent Jews into exile after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. For nearly two millennia, Jews prayed for and imagined their return to the land of Israel. After centuries of persecution and attempts to assimilate, the terror of the pogroms against secular and religious Jews in Europe in the 1800s convinced many Jews to join the Zionist movement. Zionists believed the only way for Jews to be safe was to create a Jewish state as a refuge from persecution. Then came the Holocaust. Tens of thousands of European Jewish refugees and more than 800,000 Jewish refugees fleeing persecution from Muslim majority countries that were allied with Hitler in World War II came to Palestine. Hitler had plans for “mobile extermination units” to kill Jews living in Muslim countries. This confirmed to Jews that they could not be safe living in either Muslim or Christian majority countries. Many Jews see no alternative but to fight for survival in a state where they are warriors, not victims.

Jews are a small minority in every other country where they live. According to the Pew Research Center, there are only 14 million Jews in a world of 2.2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, 1 billion Hindus and nearly 500 million Buddhists. There are 49 Muslim majority countries and 100 Christian majority countries, mostly created by forcibly converting indigenous populations using genocide and brutal repression. Israel is the only Jewish majority country in the world and the only society that structures all its social and cultural life around the Jewish religious calendar. Jews point out the violence Israel uses against Palestinians is less than the violence Muslim states inflict on Muslims within other states. For many Jews, criticism of Israeli policies is simply an extension of the hatred of Jews and the desire to destroy Israel is a continuation of the Holocaust.

Writing ourselves into the story

Mennonites are not mere observers of Israel and Palestine. The March 2018 Bethel College conference on Mennonites and the Holocaust revealed a significant level of collaboration between Mennonites and Nazis as detailed in this two-page summary and this timeline and syllabus. Some Mennonites enthusiastically supported Nazi racial science that asserted Mennonites were among the purest of the “Aryan” race. Many Mennonites viewed Hitler as a savior implementing a divine plan. Mennonite theologians participated in racial theology that asserted “morals pass through blood” and justified anti-Semitism. Mennonites used Jewish slave labor and worked directly for the Nazi regime, overseeing and participating in the Holocaust.

Mennonite history emphasizes the victim status of Ukrainian and Prussian Mennonites who suffered greatly under Soviet violence. But Mennonite history has not accounted for the complicated truth that some of these Mennonites were both victims and perpetrators. Mennonite refugees denied their Nazi connection to avoid Soviet retribution and came to the Americas. Mennonite institutions did not go through a process of denazification, and some of these Mennonites continued to spread anti-Semitism and the racial theology of white nationalism.

By contributing to the Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews and forced hundreds of thousands of Jews to flee toward Palestine, Mennonites are in part responsible for the dispossession of both Jews and Palestinians.

The scope of Mennonite programming in Israel and Palestine

Soon after the creation of Israel in 1948, Mennonite agencies began programming in Israel and Palestine, including:

  1. Humanitarian aid and development programming to support Palestinians.
  2. Justice advocacy programming related primarily to Palestinian liberation.
  3. Learning tours to expose Mennonites primarily to Christian Palestinian suffering and biblical historical sites.
  4. Evangelical programming related to missionizing with the aim of conversion of Jews to Christians.

Mennonite work in Israel and Palestine has taken place almost exclusively through the eyes of and in support for Palestinians and Christian missionizing. While Mennonite work includes some collaboration with Jewish organizations, this is mostly to support Palestinian humanitarian aid or liberation, rather than to understand Judaism, anti-Semitism or Israeli society in its own right. Mennonite tours spend relatively little time with Jews, and some expose Mennonites to extreme right-wing Israeli points of view that may lead to further demonizing Jews rather than increasing understanding. Mennonite institutions have not, to date, taken official steps to apologize, be accountable to and build institutional relationships with Jews.

A balanced approach to Israel and Palestine

Mennonite agencies need to take a more balanced approach that works to address anti-Semitism against Jews and racism against Palestinians by using this list of principles for talking about Israel and Palestine. A balanced approach relates to each group on their own terms rather than through the eyes of the other.

A balanced approach to Israel and Palestine does not mean Palestinians and Israelis suffer equally under the current situation, nor that they have equal power. A balanced approach does not ignore justice or power issues. A balanced approach understands trauma does not justify violence by any side.

Recognizing the truth and trauma on all sides, a balanced approach questions punishment and coercive-based methods such as repressive violence against Palestinians and wrestles with the pros and cons of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Jews. A trauma-sensitive movement for change requires two hands, reaching one hand out to dialogue and affirm the humanity of all sides, and holding up one hand to stop injustice and violence.

Lisa Schirch is research director for the Tokyo-based Toda Peace Institute and senior policy advisor at the Alliance for Peacebuilding in Washington, D.C. She attends Shalom Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia.

The Mennonite, Inc., is currently reviewing its Comments Policy. During this review, commenting on new articles is disabled. Comments that were previously approved will still appear. Comments on older articles can continue to be submitted for review in accordance with the policy below. To promote constructive dialogue, the editors of The Mennonite moderate all comments and comments don’t appear until approved. Anonymous comments are not accepted. Writers must sign posts or log into Disqus with their first and last name. Read our full Comments Policy.

24 Responses to “Rethinking Mennonites’ approach to Israel and Palestine”

  1. Amy Yoder McGloughlin says:

    While I agreed with much of this article, it’s the balanced part of this conversation that gets me every time. It is impossible to have a balanced conversation when the power between Israelis and Palestinians are so skewed. I’ve visited groups like the Family Circle and Roots in Israel, and while those conversations are geared at humanizing the enemy, when Israelis go home, many are in gated communities with security guards to protect them from “terrorists,” while Palestinians’ homes can be raided by the military. Israelis have the upper hand, so how can we be balanced here?

    Today–at the most recent count–52 Gazans have been killed and 1,200 wounded just trying to get to the fence that divides them from Israel. Israel has guns, tear gas, bombs, etc… Palestinians do not. How do we have a “balanced” approach to this?

  2. Lisa Schirch says:

    Hi Amy, I hear you and yes, as noted in the article there is no “balance” in power or justice. What I’m asking is not to demonize Jews in our advocacy for Palestinians. A balanced approach does not ignore the death tolls or injustice. A balanced approach recognizes that both Jews and Palestinians are human beings who have been traumatized and are fearful. When I hear Mennonites dismiss Jewish history as irrelevant or dismiss Jewish trauma as illegitimate, this is what concerns me. When Mennonites only mention Israel in relation to “European colonialism,” they make it seem like all the Jews living in Israel had a choice and came voluntarily as white colonialists. The Holocaust took place less than 100 years ago, just a few years before the Nakba. They both are important. And when we speak of “balance” we have to also remember that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust. In the last 100 years, less than 100,000 Palestinians have died. So Jews also react to the “balanced” assertion… noting that when Mennonites and others refer to a “genocide” and mass killings, they are referring to levels of violence that are not equal to the Holocaust.

    • Amy Yoder McGloughlin says:

      I’m struggling to know who your audience is here, Lisa. The Mennonites I know that care about this conflict recognize the complex narratives, and our complicity. Personally, I’m working on listening to Palestinian narratives with Jews and Christians alike, and reflecting on the ways our traditions have contributed to the conflict, and speaking out against the injustices done to Palestinians in our names. But perhaps I live in a bubble?

      Also, I pretty uncomfortable with the “who’s pain is bigger or worse” approach. That feels like it gives permission for Israel to continue the Nakba. It’s impossible to come to the table if one person’s pain is so much bigger. And, does it mean that because my Mennonite ancestors have colonized Native Lands, and participated in the perpetuation of the holocaust that I can’t speak into the pain I see in the lives of my Palestinian friends?

  3. David J says:

    I’m withholding my last name because I don’t want to be denied admittance to any countries – a telling thing to have to write.

    I strongly protest The Mennonite’s decision to print this column on this day. A racialized apartheid order is being violently enforced at the cost of thousands of stolen or maimed civilian lives.

    Certainly it’s important not to de-humanize Israel. For both moral and pragmatic reasons, the valid rights of Israelis and even Settlers to their homes and peace in life need respect.

    At the same time, Israel’s narrative of itself as David against Goliath is invalid and facilitates Netanyahu’s brand of nationalism, as well as the continued U.S. flow of arms and money.

    Unfortunately, 150 words are insufficient, so I will just register these simple protests and offer a prayer for the families of murdered and mangled people in Gaza today. They deserve better than this.

    • Amy Yoder McGloughlin says:

      Yes, David. I’ve struggling with this too. It doesn’t sit right today, of all days.

  4. Lisa Schirch says:

    David, The point of the article is to look at how Mennonites interact with this region on the 70th anniversary of the Nakba. The article speaks out against the Nakba and the Israeli massacre of Palestinians that happened today.

    Most Americans have never heard of the Nakba, nor do they understand anything about Palestinian history or grievances that would explain the protests. Every other news source Mennonites will listen to today will give a brief background on these events in Jerusalem and Gaza today. Few will go into detail on Palestinian rights or history.

    Are you suggesting that we must choose either Palestinians or Jews as worthy of Mennonite care? Can we not both support Palestinian rights and also challenge ourselves to speak in ways that are not antisemitic? Would now not be the perfect time to reflect on how we denounce Israeli policies?

    I think it would be terrible to suggest that we can only support Palestinian rights by continuing to demonize Jews.

    We need “both/and” thinking. We can support the right for Palestinians AND Jews to safety and security. And defending those rights means both speaking out against Israeli violence against Palestinians, and considering the whole of Jewish history. I think today is the perfect day to say that.

    • Hi Lisa,

      I am an American Palestinian Mennonite whose father’s family became refugees in 1948. I’m struggling with your article because I don’t feel like it gives adequate space to my family’s story. I do genuinely believe that you are trying to maintain a balanced view of the conflict. However, I’m not sure how you would have me advocate for a peaceful and just solution to the current situation and at the same time be true to my personal narrative. If I tell the story of my family’s dispossession from their home in Lydda by Jewish militias, am I encouraging antisemitism? If I speak out against killing unarmed protesters and jailing children, am I fomenting antisemitism? For me, the disheartening aspect of your article is that it plays into my constant fear of being labelled an antisemite because I desire justice and human rights for my people. This is a very real concern for me even within the Mennonite Church. While I will acknowledge that the leadership of MC USA is very sympathetic to the Palestinians, the rank and file of our congregations is much less so. Just as you are concerned with the tone of some activists within the Mennonite denomination, I’m also concerned that shrouding Palestinian advocacy under the constant suspicion of antisemitism is not fair.

      • Lisa Schirch says:

        Michael George, You should absolutely speak out about your family’s history. It is in no way antisemitic to talk about what Jewish militias did to your family. It is absolutely necessary to condemen the massacre of Palestinians yesterday, and to tell the Palestinian story. The article here links to another article that very specifically identifies when Christian advocacy for Palestinians slips into antisemitism (or Islamaphobia and racism) It is necessary for American Christians to understand what the history is in Israel and Palestine, and to understand that Christians (and Mennonites in specific) played a role of pushing Jews out of Europe, and into Palestine. So when Christians only point the finger at Jews, and not themselves, something is amiss. See this article: https://lisaschirch.wordpress.com/2018/05/10/identifying-antisemitism-and-racism-in-talk-about-israel-and-palestine/

    • David says:

      I certainly advocate both/and thinking. And as I acknowledged, moral and practical considerations alike demand that we not dehumanize Israel.

      I also think the place of this day in history and particularly the butchery that Israeli soldiers perpetrated today call for something very different from what you wrote. Your piece does not exist in a vacuum, and the frame of reference against which to compare it is not the U.S. media, which are obviously utterly imperialistic and committed to foreign wars and utterly pro-Israel. Your piece exists in The Mennonite, which should aspire to far better, and could instead have highlighted the continued massive influx of U.S. arms and cash in to sustain the military and security apparatus of an apartheid state that is currently pursuing racialized population resettlement.

      • Lisa Schirch says:

        David, I did not write the article yesterday. You and others make assumptions that I wrote the piece after the massacre took place. I wrote the article over the last several months and turned it in last week. If you or others want to write an article denouncing Israeli aggression, please feel free to do that.

        • David says:

          Actually, I assumed — and made it clear on my Facebook post on the topic — that you wrote it a while back, charitably assuming you’d sent it well before the current events. When it became clear you’d very recently edited it to reflect recent events and presumably wanted it published on the same day anyway, it might as well have been written in response to the massacre. News organizations and individuals that publish stories at the same time as highly relevant extremely painful events can expect those stories will be viewed through the lens of the current event. And timing is very much a part of journalistic work.

  5. Lisa Schirch says:

    David, On the David and Goliath metaphor, yes, in this situation between Israel and Palestinians, Israel has far more power. Jews don’t reference being David against Palestinians. Jews reference David against a world where there are over a hundred Christian states and 50 Muslim states and many of these other states participated in killing or persecuting Jews.

    • David says:

      Well, fortunately for Israel’s far-right, the myth of “Israel against 50 Muslim states” works very well for purposes of mobilizing ultra-nationalist sentiment but isn’t actually reflected in any meaningful balance of power against Israel. Israel has suffered almost literally no deaths or injuries in armed force in a decade, while imposing vast amounts of death and suffering on its enemies (overwhelmingly civilians). And it has the tacit and sometimes explicit support of the richest countries in the Muslim world. I don’t deny that right-wing interests in Israel have successfully helped Israelis (and plenty of Americans) to *understand* their place in the world through the lens you present, and I don’t deny that it’s important to work with this perception. It is wrong, however, to validate this perception or suggest that it’s understandable.

  6. Shannon says:

    The best response, rather than answering questions somewhat inadequately since you’re not addressing the heart of the problem, would be to take down the article and write a different piece. I sense lots of caucasity here.

    • Lisa Schirch says:

      Shannon, The point of the article was to identify for Mennonites, on the 70th anniversary of the Nakba and the creation of the state of Israel, how Mennonites have played a role in the current violence. The article was not written after the massacre, but before. The article added a line before it was released acknowledging the horrific and deplorable Israeli aggression yesterday. While most other news sources yesterday did not explain why Palestinians were protesting, or even mention the Nakba, this article attempted to provide a historical understanding of Palestinian grievances. The article was written not for a general audience, but specifically to Mennonites to identify how Mennonite roles in the Holocaust directly contributed to the dispossession of Palestinians from their homes and lands.

  7. Wayne Yoder says:

    Thanks, Lisa, for this balanced statement on the Jewish-Palestinian narratives. Actually, an unbelievable story of trauma.

    It’s very disturbing for me to come into touch with the anti Semitism in Mennonite circles, most of it disguised so that the average person isn’t aware of it.
    Wayne Yoder

    • Lisa Schirch says:

      Yes, I think that is very clear from the social media discussions. A colleague noted to me how strange it is that people were also outraged at my article on “Mennonites and the Holocaust” and felt the need to deny this, or diminish Mennonite roles perpetrating against Jews. And now, there is so much resistance to seeing how Mennonite roles in oppressing Jews has also had a direct effect in dispossessing Palestinians.

  8. Levi Miller says:

    Thank you for helpful perspective to a pro-Palestinian Mennonite Church USA readership. So much of this conversation seems to assume the norms of a North American dispute over congressional district boundaries, but governing in the Middle East may be a little more difficult, even violent. Hence your reflection on the Jews’ experience of being a minority in other countries and desire for a homeland in a very difficult context. Quoting: “Jews point out the violence Israel uses against Palestinians is less than the violence Muslim states inflict on Muslims within other states.” I wonder if a part of balance would be for the Mennonite Church USA to revisit its attempted financial boycott of Israel.

    • Lisa Schirch says:

      Levi Miller, Actually I support the Mennonite boycott of Israeli settlements. But that MCUSA statement is not the same as supporting the entire BDS movement. What many people do not know is that Jewish peace groups in Israel (Gush Shalom) first began the boycott of Jewish settlements, recognizing that the expansion of settlements was fundamentally unjust. Since then many other Jewish peace groups that are anti-occupation and supportive of justice for Palestinians have asked the BDS movement to clarify the language and goals on the website. The BDS organizers have refused to clarify that language. So the US Jewish peace groups like J Street, If Not Now, and Americans for Peace Now all work against occupation, but none of them support BDS because of the antisemitic language that is still posted on the BDS website which describes all of Israel as “settler colonialism” and in effect then saying that no Jews were refugees or came to Israel for any legitimate reason. So it is complex… like the whole region.

  9. Jake Janzen says:

    I scanned briefly through the wikipedia articles that are linked in the blog, and I am tempted to challenge some of the assertions/implications made there and in this article. But a back-and-forth discussion about history won’t unravel the perpetual cycle of violence we are trying to stop.

    I think it is just better/easier to assert what we believe in: A God who created all people. Although we seek to draw closer to God through the Faith that comes from God, God loves all of us equally. We do not believe in a God who shows preference to some above all others based on the nature of their birth.

    Zionism is wrong, and I don’t see any benefit in trying to ameliorate that. We should be speaking out against it forcefully.

    -Jake Janzen
    Arlington, VA

    • Lisa Schirch says:

      Jake Janzen, Zionism has many definitions. The article links to another article that identifies all the various ways it is defined. It also mentions the role of the programs and the Holocaust in creating the dynamic where many Jews see no other answer by having their own state, and being warriors instead of victims. I don’t think the article asked you to support Zionism. Rather, it asked for us Mennonites to see our own role in a world where Jews came to see Zionism as necessary. Is this the history that you contest? Do you hold the same views toward Mennonite national claims in the Chaco, Paraguay, which also displaced Indigenous people, and which also continues to run in a colonial, racist manner?

  10. I appreciate your intention to be balanced, listening to both narratives of Israelis and Palestinians. I appreciate your confession about Mennonite involvement in Hitler’s Nazi Germany that might still be influencing anti-Israeli sentiments as we look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I agree that present behaviors and attitudes of conflicting parties are best seen through historical contexts.

    Yet, Israel’s current violence against the Palestinians bring shame to those who suffered and died in the Holocaust. Israel was an oppressed powerless people in the past and yet they have become the oppressors of weak people in the present. Jews are minority compared to Christians, Muslims, and other religions or philosophies wielding power, yet the Jews cannot use their fear to bully their Palestinian neighbors for 70 years.

    I’m a Filipino who have embraced anabaptist theology and I strongly condemn the actions of Israel against the Palestinians.

    • Lisa Schirch says:

      Dann Pantoja, Yes, we should condemn the Israeli massacre of Palestinians yesterday. Of course! Mennonites have condemned Israeli policies many times, and the article argues we should continue this. The point of the article was to identify Mennonite contributions to the violence in Israel and Palestine. The article argues we need to “write ourselves into the story.” When we simply condemn the Jewish Israeli without noting our own role in the dispossession of Palestinians, we just continue the same type of antisemitic thinking. We can hold ourselves accountable to following Jesus’ Way when we both express outrage and lament at the massacre and oppression of Palestinians AND commit to not demonizing all Jews in the way we talk about Israeli policy.

  11. Sheldon C. Good says:

    As executive director of The Mennonite, Inc., I want to address some of the questions surrounding Lisa Schirch’s piece “Rethinking Mennonites’ approach to Israel and Palestine.” First, I want to acknowledge the anger and pain the publishing of this piece has caused some persons among us, especially Palestinians. I have heard from various individuals, including Palestinians, who feel like Lisa’s piece was not the right piece to publish on a day when Israeli soldiers killed so many Palestinians. It was not and is not The Mennonite’s intention to delegitimize or ignore the pain and suffering of Palestinians. If the publishing of this piece has offended you or harmed you, I am truly sorry for that, and I humbly ask your forgiveness. Second, my understanding from Lisa is that she had been pondering this piece for months. She submitted the piece to The Mennonite on May 10. Based on my feedback, she made some revisions May 11. Considering Israeli soldiers killed dozens of Palestinians and wounded thousands more on May 14, Lisa added details about that violence in the opening paragraph. Third, I hope readers can continue to wrestle with what Lisa has written. Readers may not—and do not—all agree with her opinions and framing. Lisa has responded to many comments on Facebook and on the article itself. I am grateful folks are taking the time and energy—sometimes despite great pain—to respond to her, and I am grateful Lisa is engaging them. I will allow Lisa to respond to questions related to the content and purpose of her piece. Fourth, I have read and will continue to read every comment on Facebook and TheMennonite.org. Please keep in mind that The Mennonite’s Comments Policy states that “respectful criticism is welcomed; comments should focus on others’ ideas, not motives, character or faith.” Lastly, if you or someone you know would like to submit to The Mennonite an article or letter to the editor, you may do so at editor@themennonite.org. -Sheldon C. Good, executive director, The Mennonite, Inc.