Seeing With Two Eyes: Thoughts on Israel-Palestine

Portrait of a boy with the flag of Israel painted on his face.

Today is Yom Ha’atsma’ut, Israeli Independence Day. My son went to his Jewish pre-school dressed in white and blue to celebrate, and I felt that feeling many Jews know at times like this, the strange mixture of pride, joy and aching sadness. It is tempting to try to simplify the hearts feelings and cancel out one of these clusters of emotions.  I could celebrate the triumphs of Israel and mourn it’s victimhood at the hands of Arab states and Palestinian Arab terrorists, denying that Israel shares any substantial guilt for the suffering of the stateless Palestinian Arabs and blaming it all on the violence of Palestinian Arab political culture; or I could declare Israel a “catastrophe” and blame it for Palestinian Arab and Jewish suffering, seeing the Palestinian Arabs as innocent victims of Israeli-Jewish nationalism and greed. Either choice would simplify my tortured emotions and also provide me with a custom built echo-chamber: either the “pro-Israel” community or the “pro-Palestine” community, where I could find tailor made biased news reports, inflammatory rhetoric, and the twin toxins of self-piteous victimhood and confident self-righteousness.

It is so hard to hold together in one mind the narrative and suffering and humanity of Israel and the narrative and suffering and humanity of Palestinian Arabs. So few people do it well. Those who understand the history of Zionism and Israeli political and social culture and defend Israel from the many unjust accusations hurled at her are so often dismissive of the real role that Israeli militarism, right-wing Jewish nationalism, and the settlements have played in perpetuating the conflict; so often emotionally numb to the extremity of the humiliation and suffering of Palestinian Arabs under the occupation of the disputed territories. Those who have listened intently to the Palestinian Arabs and their stories of human rights violations, poverty, suffering and death, often dismiss the role that Arab hostility to Israel, the cynical refusal to resettle Palestinian Arabs in Arab countries, Islamic anti-semitism, and the Palestinian choice of violence as the main instrument of liberation have played in perpetuating the conflict.

Dogen Zenji, the great Japanese Zen master, said that a person of wisdom must see “with two eyes, not one”. I have begun to find the one-eyed vision of so many commentators on this conflict incredibly tedious. It is so much easier to see with one eye. One can dine on the simple, pleasurable fare of an easy, smooth narrative with a side of sour self-pity and a sweet pastry of strident self-righteousness to wash it all down. Yet this narrative is not simple, and as the Israeli author Amos Oz said wonderfully in his How To Cure a Fanatic, “this is not a wild west movie where all we have to do is decide who the good guy is and who the bad guy is and then cheer for the right one.”

So there is no resolution to the feelings of my heart as I watch my son get ready for a classroom tour of  “Israel” in a pretend airplane. I refuse not to celebrate, and I refuse not to mourn.

 

   

 

A Season of Cooperation: The Good Interfaith News

nterfaith-harmony

For the religious world, the last year has been a battle scarred one. The rise of ISIS has spelt the near-extinction of several Middle Eastern Christian communities as well as a severe threat to lesser known religious groups such as the Yazidis and the Shabak. Ahmaddiyas and the Bah’ai continue to suffer persecution in the Middle East, and Buddhist Myanmar continues it’s genocidal policies against Rohingya Muslims, even under new government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Meanwhile in the US and elsewhere there have been violent attacks against Muslims in response to terrorism in the US and Europe. Some Christian leaders in the West have responded with a recourse to militarism, such as Jerry Falwell Jr., who urged his seminary students at Liberty University to arm themselves. The 2016 Republican candidates have combined public avowals of Christianity with an embrace of militarism, xenophobia, and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Yet the picture as a whole is not bleak. Taking the above example of pistol packing theologians for one, Falwell’s statements sparked massive criticism throughout the US Christian community, including from the leading  Evangelical pastor John Piper in the Washington Post.  Despite the fearful shutting of doors against Syrian refugees in many US states, the inspiring stories of nations and communities welcoming them far outshadow that show of inhumanity. In the US, leading centrist and right of centre Christian pastors and Academics (aside from the expected denunciations from the Christian left) like David Gushee, Max Lucado, Russel Moore and others have come out against Drumpf and the behaviour of the GOP.

In Canada there were several examples of inspiring interfaith cooperation in the last months. In BC synagogues raised tens of thousands of dollars to sponsor refugee families. Across Canada many congregations stepped up to sponsor refugee families as well. Jewish communities are also  working with the Blended Visa Office-Referred Program which matches private sponsors with people fleeing war that the UN Refugee Agency has “identified for resettlement.” This program matches support from donors (who agree to sponsor the refugee for six months) with a government pledge of an additional six months of support.

In Montreal, Jews and Muslims joined hands to help Syrian refugees together, and Pope Francis called for every Catholic diocese to house one refugee family. One of the season’s most inspiring stories came from Peterborough, where a Synagogue donated the use of its space to members of a Mosque destroyed by arson. In addition many cold Facebook feeds were warmed recently by the Israeli restaurant that gave a 50% discount on any meal shared by Arabs and Jews during the recent surge of Palestinian terror attacks.

There were also heartening stories from within the Muslim community. In Kenya, Muslims on a bus refused to separate from the Christian passengers, preventing their execution by Jihadis, recalling the protective ring formed around a Jewish synagogue by 1,000 Muslims in Norway earlier in the year. In New Jersey, Muslims for Peace organized a Christmas Party for youth at risk, and in Montreal Muslims, Jews and Sikhs joined hands on Christmas to serve food to the homeless at the Old Brewery Mission.In Vancouver students from RJDS joined with students from Al-Zahraa Islamic Academy to feed the homeless, continuing a tradition the two communities have developed.

Meanwhile in Jewish-Christian relations the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document which radically changed the Jewish-Catholic relationship arrived. Two important documents were released to coincide with it, one by a colloquiam of Orthodox Jews and one by the Vatican. The Jewish statement used the boldest language yet in a document of this kind, asserting that Christianity is “not an error” and is an intentional part of God’s plan to redeem the world. The Vatican document discouraged institutional evangelization of Jews and affirmed that Jews are saved by their own covenant with God outside of accepting the historical Jesus as saviour.

Reason for hope exists on all fronts. The real religious war is not between the religious and the irreligious, or between one religion and another. The real “holy war” is between those who live their religion as a way to love God and human beings, walking in humility, love and the a quest for ever growing understanding and those who pervert their traditions to serve the causes of nationalism, war, fear and hatred. Religion becomes a weapon when the human passions are idolized above the wisdom of God, of whom “all Her paths are pleasant and all Her ways peace (Proverbs 3:17)”. May we have the wisdom and courage to listen to the “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) urging nonviolence, justice and humility.