Why Palestine solidarity movement should challenge America’s legacy of conquest

“Go to the Holy Land,” the author and psychologist Mark Braverman is fond of telling Christian audiences.

“You will not only walk where Jesus walked, you will see what Jesus saw,” he explains, comparing the Roman occupation of Palestine during Jesus’s time to Israel’s occupation of Palestine today.

With his latest book, A Wall in Jerusalem: Hope, Healing and the Struggle for Justice in Israel and Palestine, a follow-up to his earlier Fatal Embrace: Christians, Jews, and the Search for Peace in the Holy Land (2010), Braverman seeks to address a particular audience: Christians and Christian churches that have supported Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinian people out of guilt for Christian complicity with the Holocaust.

For decades, the religious left has been prominent in this country in participating in the civil rights movement, opposing the Vietnam War, US interventions in Central America, nuclear weapons, and to a lesser extent, the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Acts of religious conscience in the course of these struggles often exhibited great courage and resulted in prison terms and martyrdom.

But when it comes to Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, much of the traditional religious left has failed to respond to the denial of Palestinian human rights. After a 2006 interfaith tour of the occupied West Bank, Braverman, whose grandfather was a fifth-generation Palestinian Jew, tried to approach both Christian and Jewish religious groups with news of the human rights abuses he witnessed — only to encounter stiff resistance.

The genesis for the current book, he writes, was one such encounter with a pastor at a Christian church in Washington known for its social justice activism. After working for years with an interfaith group consisting of Jews, Muslims and Christians, the pastor found that — out of sensitivity to rabbis in the group — he could not support a resolution calling for the Presbyterian Church’s pension fund to divest from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation.

Contradicting core values

Out of that encounter, Braverman realized that he could play a role in showing that the Jewish religious establishment’s embrace of political Zionism contradicted the core values of both Judaism and Christianity.

Despite its previous reluctance to get involved in Palestine solidarity work, the religious left in the United States has begun playing an increasingly significant role over recent years. This is perhaps best exemplified by the divestment and boycott resolutions introduced in the Presbyterian and United Methodist churches, among others.

Organizations or groupings such as Friends of Sabeel-North America and the Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace, along with social justice and peace networks within numerous faiths, have done much to educate people about Palestine.

They are also often at the forefront in answering Palestinian civil society’s call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Braverman himself is on Friends of Sabeel-North America’s advisory board, acts as a consultant to Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding, and is program director for Kairos USA, which describes itself as “a movement to unify and mobilize American Christians to take a prophetic stance for a just peace in Israel and Palestine.”

(In the interests of full disclosure, Braverman and I work together in a Portland, Oregon coalition that is organizing a local boycott of SodaStream, a company based in an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank.)

Bearing witness

What can the secular left learn from this movement? Much, and Braverman’s book is as good a place to start as any.

Braverman is clearly influenced by liberation theology, both the writings of the Palestinian liberation theologian the Naim Stifan Ateek, the founder of Sabeel, and the Jewish liberation theologian Marc Ellis. Yet theological studies apparently played a secondary role in transforming him from someone who was “critical of Israeli policies yet supportive of the Zionist vision” to someone who realized that “Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians in 1948 and the ongoing colonization of Palestinian lands since 1967” was “the root cause of the conflict.”

That realization came from actually witnessing human rights abuses carried out in occupied Palestine. At the root of those abuses, Braverman asserts, is “Israel’s attempt to maintain Jewish rule over a diverse population.”

For the same reason Braverman opposes the “‘two-state solution’ on the table today” as an effort that would “in effect legitimize an apartheid system worse in some ways than the one that held South Africa in its grip.”

“Occupation can’t be reformed”

The Israeli occupation cannot be reformed, he writes, but must be transformed. A similar transformation ended apartheid rule in South Africa, he notes, and adds that this transformation, which was brought about with the aid of a global BDS movement, “did not destroy South Africa — it saved South Africa, by bringing about the end of the political system that had poisoned the society and made it a pariah among the nations of the world.”

Braverman makes the case, however, that pressure on Israel alone should not be the sole goal of Palestine solidarity activists in the United States. Equally important is to bring pressure on the US government.

He points out that the Kairos USA document not only challenges the US government’s diplomatic and military support for Israel but also the US’s “own legacy as a conqueror and occupier.” There is an affinity, the document proclaims, between the notion that the Jewish people have a “superior right to the territory of historic Palestine” and the notion of Manifest Destiny, the US version of exceptionalism that led to the near extermination of the Native American population.

Braverman’s book airs many voices in addition to Palestinian Christians and dissident Jewish Israelis. It includes important testimony from South African and black American clergy, veterans of the anti-apartheid and civil rights struggles who draw parallels between apartheid South Africa, the Jim Crow South and occupied Palestine.

Although the book focuses on a dialogue between progressive Christians and Jews, it nevertheless would have benefited from the input of Muslim and secular voices. These voices after all have their own insights to offer on the failure of mainstream American Christian churches to speak out against Israeli apartheid.

These voices need to be heard, particularly at a time when Zionists are attempting to whip up hatred and hysteria against Islam and the left in general.

Rod Such is a freelance writer and former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He is a member of the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign and Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights.