Thursday, October 27, 2016

Fractures in the Family

I have a friend, or at least I wish he were my friend but he hesitates to talk with me because he heard that I was critical of Israel. “Ted” is Jewish. Even though he admits to not practicing any of the rituals of Judaism, such as attending a synagogue or changing his activity on the Sabbath, he is adamant in his defense of Israel. Like many older American Jews, supporting Israel is for him a substitute for being religious and a new way of being Jewish. 

There was a time when he would have represented almost the total Jewish community. There was a time when I was cautious in talking about Israel for fear of a certain rejection by anyone Jewish. Thank God, that time is no more. Ted’s tribe is shrinking. He doesn’t want to admit it but there is a huge fracture in the American Jewish family.

Many American Jews break with Israel over the killing of Americans:

Israel has directly killed and injured Americans, from the crew of the USS Liberty in 1967 – 34 Americans killed, 171 wounded, in international waters; to 23 year-old nonviolent activist Rachel Corrie, killed 13 years ago, days before we invaded Iraq; and 18 year-old Furkan Dogan, a passenger on the humanitarian vessel Mavi Marmara, who was killed six years ago. The U.N. Human Rights Council described his killing as, I quote, “summary execution,” by Israeli commandos who boarded the unarmed ship, also in international waters.[1]

Others are distancing themselves over Israeli killings, period.  According to Mondoweisss, Israel has killed at least 235 Palestinians in the past year.[2]

But for whatever reason, according to Dov Waxman, “a historic change has been taking place in the American Jewish relationship with Israel.

The era of uncritical American Jewish support for Israel – of “Israel, right or wrong” – is now long past… American Jews, especially younger ones, are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with Israel’s policies with the Palestinians and are skeptical of its governments’ proclaimed desire for peace.

Waxman continues:

Surveys among American Jews show that only a minority – around 30 percent or so – feel very strongly attached to Israel, while a similar number feel distant. The rest are just moderately attached to Israel.[3]

Israel is not the idealistic, peace loving country that most older Americans believe because they read Leon Uris’s Exodus. The conflict between Israel’s policies and Jewish ethics is enormous. 

The world owes much to Judaism, not just for its commitment to monotheism but especially for having created a welfare system and ministry of justice and compassion through its synagogues at a time when Jews were a minority in a world surrounded by violence power and greed.

I would love to be able to talk to Ted about the Jewishness for which he could be proud but I fear his Jewishness only extends to Israel.

Thomas Are
October 27, 2016

[1] Huwaida Arraf, Holding Israel Accountable for the Gaza Flotilla Raid,  Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2016, p.57.
[2] Two More Shootings in Occupation Bring Number of Palestinians dead to 235 since October, 2015. Mondoweiss, Oct. 23, 2016
[3] Dov Waxman, Trouble in the Tribe, The American Jewish Conflict over Israel, (Princeton University Press, 2016) p. 4, and 22.   By the way, I played off of his title for the title of this blog. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Israel's Gaza

I learned a new word this week. Dystopia:

Dystopia, noun: an imaginary place where people are unhappy and usually afraid because they are not treated fairly; an unpleasant future where people are often dehumanized; a nightmare world characterized by human misery, squalor, oppression, disease and overcrowding… Dystopian societies give us glimpses into distorted societies where justice and freedom are suppressed; where deprivation is a way of life; and lives are dispensable. They ask us to imagine a society where people are pushed to the limits of what they can endure – and often killed if they can’t.[1]

Well, we don’t have to imagine. Just think of Israel’s Gaza.

The biggest strain on Israel’s legacy, image and conscience is Gaza. More than two million people now live in Gaza, that little sliver of land squeezed between Israel and the Mediterranean Sea, barely 25 miles long and no more than seven miles across at its widest point. According to the United Nations, the territory could be unlivable by 2020 and Israel totally controls Gaza, as 70 percent of Gazans subsist on less than a dollar a day and 60 percent have no daily access to water.[2]

Decades of siege and three major bombardments in six years has left Gaza in a state of perpetual crisis. “We aren’t human. Our life is hell. We are living like animals,” says 54 year old Maeen Neim Maqbel, whose home was destroyed by Israel, twice.[3]  Add to that; leaking sewage systems, and electricity for barely half the day and totally dependent upon charity handouts from the United Nations to keep his family alive and you have a glimpse of dystopia in Gaza.

Unemployment in Gaza stands at 40 percent, however for those between 15 and 29 years of age, the unemployment rate is 60 percent. Poverty has increased with almost 80 percent of Gazans dependent on humanitarian aid to survive… In 2000 the U.N. was feeding 80,000 people in Gaza; today it feed over 830,000 people.[4]

The most painful part of this whole scenario for me is not the almost total indifference of  most Americans to this suffering and the eagerness of my government to support it, but the unwillingness of my church to address it.

Thomas Are
October 19, 2016

[1] Huffington Post, Gaza: The Makings of a Modern Day Dystopia, September 22, 2014.
[2] Rochelle Marshall: Has Obama Made a Devil’s Bargain with Israel.  Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December  2009.
[3] Mondoweiss, Living in the Aftermath: Palestinians in Gaza Struggle under the Siege to Rebuild, December 3, 2014
[4] Sara Roy, Deprivation in Gaza. July 19, 2014.  Sara Roy is a senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A Presbyterian State

I’ve got an idea! Let’s turn America into a Presbyterian State.

Of course, we might have to fight a few wars to make it happen, but it could be done. We start by telling stories that solicit sympathy for all Presbyterians. Publish a few books and make a movie that tells of how brave and deserving Presbyterians are. Then, we start lifting up Presbyterian symbols.  We raise a Presbyterian flag.  I don’t know if there is such a thing but we could easily divert the many Presbyterian emblems into flags, banners, letterheads, and erect road signs and billboards that show anything Presbyterian.

Then we have to pass a few laws that favor Presbyterians and outlaw such things as Baptist Church sign, deny Catholics the right to do charities and question the motives of all non-Presbyterians. (Non-Ps; the unchosen)  One necessary law to make all this work would be one that allowed only Presbyterians to carry guns.  Anyone else armed would be identified as a terrorist

These beginning steps will be followed by discrimination in such things as jobs, educational opportunities, health care and the right to travel from one place to another.  We could even build “Presbyterian only” roads and erect checkpoints to make life more difficult for Non-Ps. If we treat those “others” as sub-human, they might even leave our Presbyterian country which would also leave Presbyterians even more in control.

If those who were not Presbyterian bothered us because there were too many of them to make us comfortable, Presbyterians could invite all Presbyterians from around the world to come live in a Presbyterian state designed exclusively for them.  There are a lot of Presbyterians in Korea.  Of course, they are not equal to us American Ps, but better off than those Unitarians who think they have a right to live in peace without being oppressed.  In fact, anyone who objects to this new “miracle” state… well, we have a program of demolishing their homes, or expelling them to Canada which might give them a second thought before speaking out.

It’s essential to know that Russia likes this development and is prepared to donate billions and billions in dollars and weapons to protect Presbyterians from any rebellion against the new and vulnerable Presbyterian State.

The only thing left that is needed to pull all this off is the Presbyterian State will need to develop a theology that makes it all look innocent. Presbyterians could point out that the government of the United States, built upon city, county, state and national entities is patterned after the Presbyterian form of government which builds up from Session, Presbyteries, Synods and the General Assembly.  Since the Presbyterian system was formed first, it must mean the Presbyterians were here first, therefore this is Presbyterian historical homeland simply being rightfully reclaimed.  Besides all that, everybody knows that Presbyterians are God’s chosen people, because Presbyterians said so. Our Jewish friends might object but what can they do about it?

Presbyterians will call this new state a democracy, which it will be for all who are Presbyterians. For everyone else, it will just be a Presbyterian State.

Oh, did I mention, I am a Presbyterian.

Thomas Are
October 5, 2016

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Israel's Stench

When I think I have heard it all, then I read about Israel’s national stench policy. I am referring to Israel’s use since 2008 of “skunk juice” as a weapon to keep Palestinians under control.
Victims have no idea of its chemical make-up but if they are sprayed with it, it takes days of scrubbing to get rid of the stench. In a land where water is scarce, smelling like the sewer is a disheartening experience.

According to Ben Ehrenreich, Skunk trucks could show up at any time, especially during celebrations, such as weddings, birthday parties, funerals or times of worship. Someone yells “skunk,” and everyone runs.

There was that truck, the white one idling behind the jeeps, a clear liquid dripping from the cannon on its roof. The liquid it so violently emitted was called skunk water. No one knew what chemicals it contained or what effect exposure to it might bring, but everyone knew what it smelled like. It smelled like dead dogs in a dumpster in August. Mainly, it smelled like shit. And no matter how many times you scrubbed your hair and your clothes, the scent would linger for days, even weeks.[1]

Run home, lock your doors. You still can’t hide from it. Skunk trucks drive down neighborhoods and business districts spraying its putrid smell on everything within a hundred yards. Its odor may linger in clothing for five years.[2]

Skunk is powerful stuff. A reporter described its effect:

Imagine taking a chunk of rotting corpse from a stagnant sewer, placing it in a blender and spraying the filthy liquid in your face. Your gag reflex goes off the chart and you can’t escape, because the nauseating stench persist for days.[3]

Palestinians living under Israeli occupation do not have to imagine. They know:

The truck blasted Mohammad’s house next, the jet of fluid smashed the first-floor windows and knocked him from his feet. He had just come home, triumphant from his close escape. Shattered glass cut his face and chest. Skunk water saturated the carpets and couches.[4]

Forty percent of Palestinian males have spent time in Israeli jails. Said Tamimi was one of them. After serving twenty years, he came home to find his house saturated with skunk juice. Once this happens, carpets, upholstery and clothes never get rid of the stench and wind up being thrown away. Even at that, he was lucky. Others have been hospitalized, either from the effects of the skunk itself or having been injured in the stampede running away from it.

Israel needs a new flag, one to represent Israel today. It would be brown. The Star of David, the symbol of a proud and praiseworthy Jewish heritage is far, far above skunk juice.

Thomas Are
September 20, 2016

[1] Read Ben Enrenreich, The Way to the Spring, (Penguin Press, New York, 2016) p. 30. Even better; Google: Israeli Skunk Trucks and watch any of the numerous videos of Israel in action.
[3] Skunk has been condemned by Physicians for Human Rights, the International Network of Civil Liberties Organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, B’Selem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel..  
[4] Ben Enrenreich, The Way to the Spring, (Penguin Press, New York, 2016) p. 76.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Better Imagined

Israel wants more; more money and more protection from international criticism.

American journalist, Ben Ehrenreich, after traveling three years around the West Bank, writes that when the last “peace accords” broke down, the only people surprised were the Americans. Israel had entered into its discussions determined that nothing would come of it, and the Palestinians had been jerked around too many times to even hope.

He writes that all Israel wants is more:

What Israel experienced as relative calm, Palestinians lived out as a slow and steady exercise in annexation; more settlements, more prisoners, more evictions and home demolitions, more land lost to the path of the wall. The number of Israeli settlers living in the West Bank had more than tripled since the first Oslo agreements was signed in 1993. Assaults on Palestinians by soldiers at check-points, or by settlers anywhere else, were so common that they rarely made the news.[1]

It adds up to four decades of humiliation, loss of freedom and natural resources, (water,) watching helplessly as your children are arrested, put in prison and tortured, being tried in Israeli military courts and convicted be “secret evidence,” which they nor their lawyer are allowed to see. The last year such records were kept, 99.74 percent of Palestinians tried in the military court system were convicted.[2]  The humiliation goes on and on.   When Israel is involved, there is always more.

At the same time Israel pleads for less. Less exposure. On April 1st,  this year, Israel even called off its infamous, erotic laced, birthright trips.  In an interview with Mondoweiss Birthright CEO Gidi Mark explained:

--- Given the rightward, and frankly racist, turn in Israel we could no longer conduct a trip that would present the country in the most flattering light. We determined that in order to build support for Israel, young people are best off leaving it to their imagination.
--- Time and time again we found participants were turned off by actually seeing the country.
--- As I watched the U.S. presidential debates, I kept thinking, “why can’t we show people the Israel these politicians seem to see?”
--- We finally figured it out, the best way to build support for Israel is to have as little contact with Israel as possible.

So, birthright trips now are to a camp in the U.S. where kids watch the movie Exodus.[3]

The less known about the real Israel… well, again, Israel seems far better imagined than realized.

Thomas Are
September 12, 2016

[1]  Ben Ehrenreich, The Way to the Spring, (Penguin Press, New York, 2016) p.8.
[2] Ben Ehrenreich, The Way to the Spring, (Penguin Press, New York, 2016) p.20.
[3] 2016/04,  Birthright Ends Trips to Israel – “American Jews are better off Imagining Israel than Seeing It.” 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

She was Pregnant

She was pregnant, for crying out loud.

I have never, in forty three years of ministry, known the mother of an unborn baby to put that baby in jeopardy for any reason, much less to make a political statement. Yet, Israeli soldiers shot to death Sara Haddoush Trayra from the town of Bani Neim near Hebron claiming that they were under attack. The crime she committed which brought about her execution was that she approached the mosque. She wanted to pray. She was 27 years old. 

Eyewitnesses said a female soldier ordered the woman to accompany her to a room in order to search her, and that the soldier sprayed the woman with pepper spray, an issue that pushed her to run away from the soldier before other soldiers shot and killed her. They added that the army had no cause or justification to shoot the young pregnant woman, and could have easily subdued her, without resorting to lethal fire.[1]

It is amazing how little it takes to threaten Israel’s security.  Yet, to make matters worse, the soldiers who shot her prevented Palestinian medics from helping her. Her baby died as she lay there bleeding to death.

I am lost for words. When fully armed soldiers have to shoot a pregnant woman who was running away from being pepper sprayed to protect her unborn child – if this is what it takes to “keep Israel secure,” - then Israel needs to find soldiers a little less trigger happy and a little more compassionate.

That is not an impossible task. I have met Israeli soldiers, who risk being ostracized and even put in jail for treating Palestinians with fairness. Hundreds, including officers, have declared themselves “refusenics,” meaning that they refuse to fight beyond the 1967 borders to dominate, starve and humiliate an occupied people.

There is a chance that Israel might become legitimate among the family of nations and even respected, but killing a pregnant woman seeking to pray for the well-being of her child is one post in a long fence that needs mending.    

Thomas Are
September 1, 2016

[1] IMEMC News, Israeli Soldiers Kill a Pregnant Woman in Hebron, July 1, 2016

Friday, August 19, 2016

A Look at Yesterday

British historian, F. W. Maitland wrote:

We study the day before yesterday in order that yesterday may not paralyze today, and that today may not paralyze tomorrow.

Which is a fancy way of saying, what really happened does matter.[1]  In a similar vein, John Dominic Crossan said something like, if we get yesterday right, we have a chance of getting today better.  So, let’s look at yesterday.

Back in 1956, David Ben-Gurion, possibly struggling with his conscience, confessed:

If I were an Arab leader, I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural, we have taken their country. Sure God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We came from Israel, it’s true, but that was two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come and stolen their country. Why should they accept that? [2]

“God promised it to us”?

Not so fast. More and more scholars, Jewish and humanist, are questioning the exodus story and that “promise”.  Rabbi David Wolpe raised just that provocative question before his congregation of 2,200 at Sinai Temple in Westwood, California back in 2001, saying:

After a century of excavations trying to prove the ancient accounts true, archeologists say there is no conclusive evidence that the Israelites were ever in Egypt, were ever enslaved, ever wandered in the Sinai wilderness for 40 years or ever conquered the land of Canaan under Joshua’s leadership.[3]

Teresa Watanbe continues:

The modern archeological consensus over the Exodus is just beginning to reach the public. In 1999, an Israeli archeologist, Ze’ev Herzog of Tel Aviv University set off a furor in Israel by writing in a popular magazine that stories of the patriarchs were myths and that neither the Exodus nor Joshua’s conquest ever occurred.[4]
Think about that. Outside of the Jewish Bible, there is not one shred of evidence that Israel was ever in Egypt to be rescued by God in the first place.  Even in the Bible, the Pharaoh is not named, nor is the context identified.  There is no record in Egyptian history of two million people suddenly making an exodus nor of a labor shortage when a third of its workforce disappeared almost overnight. Disregarding the sociopathic image it makes of God sending plague after plague upon innocent Egyptian families who had no power to do what Moses demanded and discounting the fact that rivers just don’t suddenly part to allow people to walk across, there has never been one piece of pottery, (the archeologist best friend) found in the Sinai to indicate that a couple of million Jews roamed around there for forty years. Nor is there any   record in Canaan that suddenly an invading army came and conquered them with or without God’s blessings. In other words, it was made up hundreds of years after it was supposed to have happened to justify Israel’s presence and occupation of Canaanite land.

To be fair, I am not just doubting Jewish traditions.

I don’t believe stars ever roamed across the sky no matter how many times we sing Star of Wonder, Star of Night in our Christmas carols. Nor do I believe that virgins have babies or that dead people suddenly rise up out of their graves in mass as described in Matthew 27:52-53.  In more than forty years of preaching, I have never preached on that text, nor have I been asked to.

And not to leave the Muslims out, I don’t believe that a huge rock called out to a Muslim warrior saying “There is a Jew hiding behind me, kill him,” as is recorded in the Hadith. Or that Mohammed heard about Jinns (angels) from a tree, that Adam was ninety feet tall or that roosters crow and donkeys bray because they see Satan.

What I DO believe is that there is a call for peace and justice in all three Abrahamic religions.  If we took seriously the compassion mandate that we all share, if we accepted the responsibility to feed the hungry, bring water to the thirsty and justice for the oppressed, there would be little energy left to fight over our imagined traditions.

Thomas Are
August 19, 2016

[1] Alfred M. Lilienthal, What Price Israel, (Infinity Publishing, Haverford, PA. 2003) p. xv.
[2] This quote is documented in numerous sources. I refer to the book by Don Wagner and Walt Davis, Zionism and the Quest for Justice in the Holy Land. (Pickwick Publications, 2014)  p.21. And Chas W. Freeman, Jr. America’s Continuing Misadventures in the Middle East, (Just Word Books, 2016) p.48.
[3] Teresa Watanabe, Doubting the Story of Exodus, Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2001
[4] Teresa Watanabe, Doubting the Story of Exodus, Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2001