Friday, July 29, 2011


In mid-July some 90 religious, political, and media representatives gathered at London's Lambeth Palace at the behest of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, to discuss in conference the situation of Christians in the Holy Land.
The purpose, according to Archbishop Williams, was to raise "literate, compassionate awareness" of the plight of Palestinian Christians in light of the "very significant" and "accelerating" decline of their population and to consider "What we can we do to help those Christians who so urgently want to stay in their homeland, and to imagine a future there for themselves?"
The conference followed closely on the heels of a mid-June BBC interview, in which Williams spoke of Palestinian Christians as a minority in a largely Muslim population and, with no mention of the effects of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, attributed the Christian exodus solely to Muslim extremism. This led the Rev. Naim Ateek, the director of Sabeel, the Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, to write the archbishop to point out that "as Palestinian Christians, we perceive ourselves as an integral part of the Palestinian people ... [and] do not refer to ourselves as a minority."
Ateek noted, moreover, that "as Palestinians, whether Christian or Muslim, we equally live under the oppression of the illegal Israeli occupation of our country." This was reiterated at the conference by Samer Makhlouf, a Roman Catholic, who reportedly called the occupation "the father of all problems in the region." (See John Allen's report in the National Catholic Reporter.)
Others at the conference tried to draw attention to the specifics of those problems… the sorts of hardships I have seen firsthand visiting Palestinian Christians in late 2008 and again this March. These effects are most clearly evident in Taybeh, the only entirely Christian village in Palestine, whose economic livelihood is threatened by the settlements and military outposts that surround it, and Bethlehem, whose many Christians are cut off from Jerusalem by the thirty-foot high separation wall and a tightening ring of settlements, including the veritable cities of Gilo and Har Homa. At the Christian-run Bethlehem University, for example, students with Jerusalem identity cards described the daily hassle they must endure at Israeli checkpoints, while those with West Bank papers complained about their complete inability to visit the holy sites -- or relatives -- in Jerusalem.
No wonder the population of Christians in Israel/Palestine has stagnated, growing only from about 150,000 in 1946 to fewer than 160,000 in 2006 rather than the far higher figure that might be expected from natural demographic growth. As the Palestinian Christian academic Bernard Sabellah noted, according to Allen, this stagnation is accounted for by the "missing" Christians who have emigrated.
Almost amusingly, Rabbi Daniel Sperber of Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University reportedly told the conference not to worry … "the churches are full" thanks to Filipino guest workers and 50,000 Christians who have immigrated from the former Soviet Union. These latter "Christians," he failed to note, are for the most part Soviet "Jews" who have made aliyah to Israel and brought with them racist, fascist attitudes that have given rise to neo-Soviet policies that would discriminate against Palestinians and Filipinos alike and, in the process, threaten Israeli democracy.
So, to return to Archbishop William's pregnant question, "What we can we do to help those Christians who so urgently want to stay in their homeland, and to imagine a future there for themselves?"
For the most part, the archbishop and others danced around the "realities on the ground" -- realities made worse each day by the bulldozers that daily create thousands of new illegal settlements, home now to half a million Israeli Jews on the West Bank -- preferring instead to talk of "balance," as if a confrontation between Israel's behemoth military machine and a people on its knees could ever be "balanced" -- and bottoms-up grassroots "constructive engagement;" the sort of "constructive engagement" engaged in by the Episcopal Church since 2002.
To what effect, one has to ask? According to Canon Robert Edmunds, chaplain to Suheil Dawani, the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Jerusalem, such an approach risks ending in "words and goodwill" that don't change the lived reality of Palestinian Christians. They are, he said, but "band-aids," adding that "if we don't encourage the government of Israel to cut a deal, we're going to be putting on band-aids for a very long time."
It is far past time not just to encourage, but to insist that the government of Israel cut the two-state deal demanded not just by justice but by the best interests of Israel. It is time for the Episcopal Church to consider and adopt a policy that will get the attention of the governments of Israel -- and the United States -- a policy of divesting from all companies that enable the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and boycotting all products manufactured in Israeli settlements in the West Bank or East Jerusalem.
The bleeding Palestinian Christians -- indeed, all Palestinians -- deserve not just our words, prayers, goodwill, and conferences. They are not just some object of abstract historicity and, therefore, in the eyes of our archbishop, "critical to Christianity's identity." They are living, breathing, bleeding human beings whose dignity we are called by our baptism to respect.
The above appeared on Episcopal News Service July 28, 2011

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


Tuesday's demonstration at San Francisco's Israeli Consulate General was hastily called (by Code Pink), precipitated by the physical sabotage and legal wrangling deployed by Israel against the boats of the Gaza Flotilla detained in Greek ports.  For my part, I was even more outraged by our State Department's warnings, not to the Israelis who might use violence against the boats, but to the Americans on cease and desist.

Arriving at the consulate about five, we were two, maybe three dozen, a similar number of Israel supporters on the other side of the consulate entrance.  They had a megaphone (which we did not) and sang a few songs in Hebrew.  Across the street, a police officer watched from his car and, on the corner, a familiar, nattily-suited skinhead – probably Mossad.

I brought my Palestinian flag and there were a few others, one large sign, and some small "Free Gaza" and "Let the Boats Sail" signs.  I had toyed with bringing my large "Episcopalians for Peace" sign and, in retrospect was glad I hadn't.  It takes two Episcopalians to hold it.  I made it a point, however, to wear my clerical garb.

Already by 5:30 we were running out of flyers.  Nancy McFarlane took my flag to wave, while I went to a Fed Ex a block away, returning with 200 more flyers, most of which were handed out before we dispersed.

The response of passersby and those in cars was quite positive.  More than one pedestrian said "I'm glad you're here," as he or she accepted the flyer.  And there were plenty of honking horns, "V" signs, and thumbs up from passing drivers.  One has the impression that the narrative has changed.  The Palestinian story is getting through.

On the negative side, the pro-Israeli group was aggressive and combative and frankly full of hate they were all too willing to share, as they mingled in with our group, seeking to provoke untoward reactions and taking pictures right and left.  Their main themes seemed to be "You're anti-Semites" and - one directed to me over and over - "Jesus was a Jew."  My responses varied - from "Yes, that he was, but, oh, so much more" to "I don't think God has a denomination."  Adding to the latter once a reference to Desmond Tutu's new book God Is Not a Christian, I was greeted with the retort "Oh that guy, a notorious anti-Semite."

I asked more than one of the pro-Israeli demonstrators to stay with their group on the south side of aqn invisible line in the interest of a peaceful evening and suggested to the police officer that he keep the two groups apart.  He finally intervened when some of the pro-Israeli crowd drifted back into our midst, chalking over the chalked slogan our members had written on the sidewalk.

Though I met one civil and very pleasant pro-Israeli demonstrator (She wanted me to know her name was Robin.), their generally pugnacious behavior was a real turn-off, causing me to question the utility of any further attempts at dialogue.  As I was leaving, I ran into a "friend" from social justice marches with CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice), a black female rabbi.  Addressing her with a smile as "Rabbi," I gave her a hug amidst the blue and white flags, my Palestinian flag still in one hand.  She rebuffed me with a look that was a cross between disgust and contempt.  It hurt.

The contempt, however, was unalloyed in the attitudes of the three people I encountered at the entrance to the consulate – a man, a woman, and a twenty-something who appeared to be the woman's daughter.  Pointing angrily at the olive-wood cross around my neck, the woman snarled "What does that say?  'Jesus, Lord?'  Don't you know Jesus was a Jew?"  At which point, the man turned on me, raising his voice "You couldn't wear that in Palestine.  You'd be killed!"  I responded simply, "I bought it in Palestine…in March," and then attempted to educate the three of them about the fact that there are many thousands of Palestinian Christians.  The woman, her flag draped over her shoulders like a prayer shawl, would have none of it.  She interrupted "I can't tell.  Are you a man or a woman?"  End of conversation.  Returning her smirk with my own silent and unworthy look of contempt, I walked away in guilt and sadness to fight the sprouting seeds of anti-Semitism.    

I don't like how that feels and know I must keep fighting.  I will, but, God, Israel is making it hard…for me and for Jews, my sisters, brothers, friends.

Monday, July 4, 2011


As she prepares to leave for Gaza on the Audacity of Hope, Alice Walker has written eloquently of Gandhi and King; of Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner ( of the power of standing with non-violent dignity for justice. 
That is the stance of Jesus Christ - to turn the other cheek and, in doing so, to change the heart of those swinging the hand…or wielding the trunchion or gun.  It is, however, a stance, a method, that only works if one's oppressor has a moral core that can be appealed to, a heart that can be opened. 
Gandhi triumphed, because his oppressors - the British - were shamed by their own Magna Charta and an in-grained sense of fairness.  Martin triumphed, because he forced us to realize how great the gap had grown between our professed ideals - the American Creed - and the reality of our daily lives.  Hitler and Stalin, however, had no such moral core to appeal to and gunned down with ease those who opposed them. 
And, Jesus, too, was killed by a Roman Empire that feared only the sword; by a Judaism, the heart of which had so calcified, that it could not be cracked open; and, yes, by the similarly calcified Christianity of today.
In the current situation, as another Gaza Flotilla sets sail to break the siege of Gaza, big questions loom about the nature of today's Judaism and of state power in Israel and America.   Increasingly, I have doubts and fears about the latter, but, having served in our government for nearly three decades, I know that, in the private corridors of power, appeals to what is good and just often win the day.  I hope that there are still those in Washington and Jerusalem willing to make such appeals.
Concerning the nature of Judaism, one always has to ask whether it represents a set of exclusivist tribal ethics or the universal moral code of prophets who speak to all humankind, prophets who, in the words of Micah, call us all "to act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."
Thanks to courageous Israeli Jews I know personally – folks like Michal, Eitan, Jeff, and Avraham – and a young American Jew sailing with Alice on the Audacity of Hope, Gabriel Matthew Schivone (, I find assurance that the soul of the prophets still beats strongly in Judaism and can be moved by a universal appeal to justice.
In the meantime, I must express my outrage that our United State Department of State, for which I once worked, would "warn" those who would make such an appeal to cease and desist, in effect washing its hands of the blood of unarmed American citizens who might once again be killed or wounded on the high seas by Israeli "commandos" ( 
In doing so, I would recall also what Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, said in expressing her "deep concern" over the deaths arising from the IDF attack this time last year on the earlier Gaza Flotilla.  Those "deaths of civilians working to deliver humanitarian aid," she wrote in her letter to President Obama, "could not have happened absent the counterproductive Israeli blockade of Gaza. The Episcopal Church strongly supports American leadership toward ending the blockade. There are far better ways to protect Israel's security and promote moderate political leadership in Gaza than a blockade that intensifies human suffering and perpetuates regional insecurity."
This year, as another tragedy looms, I would hope that my church and other churches would speak out before the fact to commend those who would witness with their bodies on behalf of justice and non-violence and warn Jerusalem and Washington of the self-isolating moral consequences of further bloodshed.
Finally, I applaud our own Barbara Lee (D- Berkeley/Oakland) and Sam Farr (D-Salinas) and the four other members of Congress who have just written Secretary Clinton urging her to "work with the Israeli government to ensure the safety of the U.S. citizens on board" the U.S. boat to Gaza, and urge you to contact the other members of our Bay Area delegation to Congress, including Minority Leader Pelosi and our own Representative George Miller (D-Martinez), to urge them to take a similar stand in this moment of moral and political accounting.
A version of this appeared in the Vallejo Times-Herald, June 30, 2011