Direct action from Birmingham to Gaza

30 January 2008

Last week, the US celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the official end to segregation and racial discrimination in this country. As we celebrate certain historic advances, we mustn’t forget that these policies are far from over in this country, and that as we struggle against one injustice we are perpetuating another system of discrimination and segregation on the other side of the world in occupied Palestine, a land where there are separate roads, schools, hospitals, neighborhoods, and legal systems, access to which depends on one’s ethnicity or religion.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King “wept” from disappointment with the laxity of the church and its leaders in taking action against the status quo for fear of being considered “nonconformist.” I recently met a young Palestinian Christian dancer (one of those censored in New England last December) who echoed similar frustration with churches around the world who are doing nothing to ease the suffering of Christians and others in the Holy Land. She spoke to a group of church-goers in Old Lyme, Connecticut:

My name is Mary Qumsiyeh. I am an English teacher from the little town of Bethlehem. My husband works in tourism and I have met many groups that said “We are here to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.” But are they acting the way that Jesus did?

Our churches are now like museums. Tourists visit, take pictures, and leave. What about the living stories? Jesus in his time was living under the Roman occupation. Today, after 2000 years, we are still living under occupation — now the Israeli occupation that has confiscated 88 percent of Bethlehem’s land. If Jesus were alive today, would he permit this to happen? Jesus helped the oppressed and the ones in need. He made the blind see.

I ask you all to see how many times in the Bible the word justice is mentioned. And remember that Jesus did not avoid politics. Please spread our message, a message of joy, happiness, and justice, a message from youth full of life, willing to live and die in the little town of Bethlehem.

Thankfully, churches eventually stepped up to play a large and historic role in the civil rights movement, and it’s worth remembering how: it was not simply by hoping for change, or by praying for change, or even by voting for change. It was by making change happen, by Christians stepping out of their comfort zones and challenging the status quo even if it meant going to jail or being ostracized.

Making change happen is never comfortable. It’s what Dr. King called “tension.” He confessed, “I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

Notice the word “necessary.” This necessity is often hard for people of privilege to grasp. We think, “if only we educate our leadership, or the Israeli government, they’ll come to their senses …” How much more comfortable it would be if it were just a matter of waiting, and listening, and sharing! But we forget Dr. King’s clear wisdom:

“We have not made a single gain without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges [until they have to] … Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Last week in Gaza, Palestinians demanded freedom from the Israeli siege that has endured for years since the so-called “disengagement” and before. After several days under even tighter isolation by Israel, which had sealed the borders of the small strip and cut off electricity, food, medical supplies, and other lifelines, Palestinians blasted through a wall of their collective prison and flooded into Egypt in search of medicine, soap, fuel, cement, and other desperately needed supplies.

Some might call blowing up a wall “extreme.” In fact, just about any action taken unilaterally for Palestinian liberation is portrayed as such. Dr. King was also called an “extremist,” and eventually embraced the word, calling on others to join him in creative extremism. Criticism of the status quo will always be dismissed as ideological or extreme, and that’s what makes challenging power structures so uncomfortable. We would prefer to affect change through consensus and the blessing of communities that have traditionally supported the status quo, like mainstream Jewish temples and US legislators. But, my friends, this is unrealistic; these groups will hopefully become a part of the movement someday, but they will not lead the movement today. They probably won’t even consent to it. And while it would be nice to wait until a day when it feels more convenient, remember that change will never be convenient for those who are profiting off of the way things are. Let us not forget that Palestinians, like people of color in Dr King’s time (and still today), have not had the luxury waiting and choosing a convenient time. Indeed, there is no convenient time. But inconvenience and discomfort are a small price to pay for justice. Remember that prophets have always been scorned in their own time.

In Palestine, that inevitable discomfort — or tension, as Dr. King calls it — has taken the form of popular nonviolent resistance met with army brutality, checkpoints, roadblocks, invasions, curfews, house demolitions, and mass imprisonment. In this country, that inevitable tension has taken the comparatively mild — but admittedly unpleasant — form of moral blackmail: anyone who dares criticize Israel’s violations of human rights and international law is labeled anti-Semitic. But this is absurd. Occupation, oppression — these things have nothing to do with Judaism, and to oppose them in Israel, Palestine, or anywhere else in the world is simply not anti-Semitic. On the contrary, it is in line with the Jewish tradition of critical thinking, open debate, and social justice, which have been a source of pride for Jews through history.

The Israel-Palestine struggle is portrayed in our media and elsewhere as an endless religious rivalry, but it is no more a war between Jews and Muslims than the civil rights struggle was one between African-Americans and whites. This is a struggle for justice, one that affects us all and in which we all play a part. In the words of Dr. King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

This mutuality is clear in the collaboration today between Palestinians and the Israelis who support their struggle, working together towards an end to discrimination and the occupation, towards a common future of integration and coexistence. In the United States, churches are once again taking the lead. The United Methodists, the Presbyterians, and others have started campaigns calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions against the Israeli government until it complies with international law. This is a crucial campaign not only because it has the potential to be successful in conjunction with Palestinian resistance (after all, it was Black South African resistance supported by international solidarity and divestment that ultimately contributed to the end of Apartheid there), but also because it was called for by Palestinian civil society. This is a Palestinian struggle, and we need to be taking our lead from Palestinians. They have been reaching out for support through the years, particularly last week in Gaza as they were cut off even further from the world. We need to reach back.

Anna Baltzer is a 28-year-old Jewish American Columbia graduate, Fulbright scholar, and the granddaughter of Holocaust refugees. She is a three-time volunteer with the International Women’s Peace Service in the West Bank and is currently touring the United States with her book, Witness in Palestine: A Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories. For more information visit: www.AnnaInTheMiddleEast.com. This essay is adapted from a sermon she delivered at Linden Hills United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, MN.

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