I joined the Mennonite church as a teenager. Mennonite Church USA as a denomination was still new, and I found it fitting that I was […]
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.
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.
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:
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.
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