A Christian duty to take up the cause of Palestinian rights
By Robert Cohen, Micah’s Paradigm Shift
November 02, 2013
This month the Jewish American writer and Israel/Palestine activist, Mark Braverman, publishes his second book ‘A Wall in Jerusalem’. It follows ‘Fatal Embrace’ in 2010 which quickly established Braverman as an important new voice in the Israel/Palestine debate. Below you can read Braverman’s first interview to mark the new book’s publication given exclusively to Micah’s Paradigm Shift.
Braverman, who has deep family roots in Israel, has developed what he describes as a ‘calling’ to speak to the Church in a spirit of Christian teaching that sees Jesus as a radical Jew rebelling against the Jewish establishment and the Roman occupation of first century Palestine. In his new book he successfully straddles Jewish and Christian theological thinking to create a shared dialogue of justice and compassion. Braverman is determined to articulate a Christian approach to Palestinian solidarity that counters evangelical Christian Zionism while remaining rooted in the teaching of Jesus. He also challenges the phenomenon of Christian post-Holocaust guilt that leads to a reluctance by the Church to confront Israeli injustice against the Palestinian people for fear of disturbing Jewish-Christian interfaith dialogue.
‘A Wall in Jerusalem’ is full of personal stories and the voices of Christian and Jewish, scholars and activists. Braverman’s own story of his journey to an awareness of the Palestinian cause is as compelling as any in the book. For me the book holds many moments of great clarity including the insight that the Palestinian story has become not just ‘their narrative’ but the defining narrative of Israelis and the Jewish Diaspora too.
Whether you are new to the issues or familiar with them you will find ‘A Wall in Jerusalem’ an exceptionally rewarding and inspiring read.
An interview with Mark Braverman
MICAH’S PARADIGM SHIFT: In this book, more than in Fatal Embrace, it feels as if your primary audience are Christians grappling with what to think about Israel/Palestine. You talk about the difficulties you have experienced in raising the whole debate within synagogues but the warm welcome you have received in many churches. Have you given up on raising awareness within your own Jewish Community?
MARK BRAVERMAN: Awareness continues to increase in the Jewish community, but I see this as a separate issue from the mobilization of the churches as a grassroots force for changing government policy in the US and among its Western allies. There are Jewish journalists, academics, and now even rabbis who are raising their voices, and grassroots Jewish peace groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace in the U.S. who are doing very important work with the Jewish community as well as presenting an alternative to those Jewish institutional voices who defend Israel against all criticism and claim to speak for all Jews. I simply have another calling, which is to speak to the churches.
MPS: What does that ‘calling’ look like? What’s the core message you want to put across to Christians and the Church?
One of the points that I make repeatedly to my Christian audiences – and I am not aware of other Jews who make this point – is that they must, as Christians, and as church organizations, move ahead as Christians and as the church in the movement to liberate Palestinians and Jewish Israelis from the scourge of apartheid in our time. The interfaith project to reconcile Christians and Jews for thousands of years of anti-Jewish persecution at the hands of the church continues to be important – but this is a different matter.
So what is it about the on-going interfaith reconciliation project that creates a Christian barrier to engaging with the Israel/Palestine debate?
If Christians allow themselves to be held back from this human rights cause because they are being told that this is betrayal of their “friendship” with the Jewish people, if they figure that they must wait for the Jewish community to come around before they can feel comfortable taking on the cause of Palestinian rights, or embracing BDS, for example, then they will wait too long. So part of my point in working only with the churches is to drive home this distinction – the church must put its own house in order with respect to the Palestinians, and I have accepted, for now, the assignment to be a Jewish voice urging it to do so. But I am very clear that this does not mean that Christians cannot move forward on this without a Jew walking beside them. I am fond of saying that I am willing to do so for now, but that I pray for the day that Christians do not need a Jew’s permission to act as faithful Christians in this matter.
At times, and I think you acknowledge yourself in the book, it feels like here is a Jew giving Christians a lecture on how to rediscover their own Christian mission and the role model that Jesus set for them in first century Roman occupied Palestine. That must be an interesting position to have found yourself in?
Well, it’s quite wonderful for me because meeting the Palestinian Christians, in particular the people of Sabeel, and the authors of the Kairos Palestine document, has allowed me to discover Jesus of Nazareth and to embrace him as a Jewish reformer. The parallels of our current situation to the first Century I find very compelling. I think it’s an opportunity for the Church, as it seems to have to do in every generation, to discover the core meaning of the gospels, which is to work for social justice, for compassion for the vulnerable and the oppressed.
And where do you think that takes the Jewish attitude to Jesus?
I think it’s an opportunity for Jews to discover that same Jesus, who, if he were to turn up in Jerusalem today, would speak truth to the power to the Jewish establishment of our times just as he did to the Jewish monarchy and Temple establishment of long ago.
I‘m not sure most Jews are ready to embrace Jesus as a radical Jewish reformer with a message for Judaism today. It’s a viewpoint that must leave you isolated from the mainstream Jewish community?
People ask me if I feel lonely or isolated – making the assumption that I am alienated from the Jewish community. My answer is that it is quite the opposite. I feel a part of a broader, larger community now, and it includes people of all faiths and persuasions. So it’s been quite liberating and gratifying for me. I think Jesus would have approved – his message had to do with stepping out of the tribal and into the universal.
Do you think that as a Jew, saying the critical things you do about Zionism, you are giving Christians the permission to think differently about Israel and break free of the post Holocaust feeling of guilt they may have towards the Jewish people?
Yes but as I said before I think Christians need to move beyond needing that permission. It’s appropriate to feel horror, sadness and shame about the sins of the church – but guilt is not a good motivator. I think that what we have come to call guilt over the Nazi Holocaust has resulted in the embrace of Zionism by the Christian West, and I think that this is why Israel has been allowed to get away with its crimes, historic and current. Besides the tragedy this represents for the Palestinians, this is bad, not good for the Jews. I don’t need your guilt offering, I say to Christians. I need you to be good followers of Jesus and work for justice and compassion. Call my people to account, but not for our sake, but for the sake of your consciences and for the good of humankind.
Below. A deeply antisemitic portrayal of the trial of Jesus (miraculously turned into a straight-nosed Caucasian, before the hook-nosed Pilate and other Jews. By Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1450 – 9 August 1516.The known history of Christian antisemitism should not mean Christians feel they must support the state of Israel and ignore the injustices forced on the Palestinians.
How has your sense of Jewish identity changed as a result of your engagement with the cause of the Palestinian people? You say in the book that it feels the most Jewish thing you have ever done.
I am in the company of tens of thousands of Jews who feel as I do – that Jewish identity today is about embracing the Palestinian cause, just as we were taught as children in synagogue and Hebrew school to stand up for the oppressed because we were slaves in the land of Egypt. My father, who was active in the Anti-defamation League of B’nai Brith, taught me back in the 1960s that working for racial equality in the U.S. was the core of being a Jew. That holds now for the Palestinian cause. Even more so, perhaps, because we are responsible for their suffering. We need to mourn for our past losses and suffering, but move on from our preoccupation with our own victimhood and do something about how we have now become the victimizers. That is the most important component of Jewish identity today. To be Jewish today means to understand that the Nakba is our story as well.
In the book you go to some length to ‘join up the dots’ between the mission of Jesus, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, South Africa under Apartheid and Israel/Palestine today. Your key texts appear to be the Gospels, Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Kairos document produced by the dissenting South African churches in the mid 1980s. Can you foresee a ‘tipping point’, as we did with Civil Rights and Apartheid, where consciousness of Israel/Palestine leads to a fundamental shift in global opinion?
Yes, and we may be approaching this point. Look at the New York Times piece by Ian Lustick from September 14 . I also believe that, regardless of timing, it is inevitable. As MLK Jr. said, the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice. Desmond Tutu and the Palestinian Kairos authors also talk of hope – even as things get worse, the inevitability of a just resolution is there, because the current situation is unsustainable. And, as the South Africans discovered, things can move faster than expected. I would not be surprised to see this happen with Israel and Palestine. Israel is digging in deeper and deeper, moving rapidly toward domestic racist policies that to many feels like a turn toward fascism. As this continues, it only makes the end seem closer – an “end,” I hasten to say, that does not mean the destruction of Israel, but a new beginning for all its citizens.
You have described yourself as a retired (‘recovering’) professional psychologist, with that hat on, how hard do you think it will be for communities on all sides (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Israeli, Palestinian) to break free of the rigid narratives that we use to define ourselves and the world around us?
Hard for some perhaps but I feel strongly that the impulse for health is stronger. It is not good to live behind a wall, and that separation wall is as much psychological as it is physical. Israeli Jews who have crossed to the other side of the wall have discovered that the Palestinians are not the hateful enemies they were told they were. Remove the wall and those narratives begin to deconstruct themselves naturally. I am a one-stater because I believe that it is the natural outcome – Jews and Palestinians can live together harmoniously, in fact I think that give the opportunity they will create a wonderful, diverse society together.
Finally, when we met over the summer, you told me that all of us involved in the movement to bring justice and peace to the Holy Land were punching above our weight. What did you mean by that?
You know I’m not sure the metaphor is the best. Individually, we each do our best and I think we are doing quite well using the gifts we have. The movement, perhaps, can be said to be outnumbered and under-resourced, certainly compared to the opposition, which is connected to the structures of government and religious establishments. But individually and collectively we have a power that the other side, with all its money and institutional support does not have – we are on the side of justice. The other side knows that as well. Which is why it is fighting so hard – bringing out the big guns, so to speak. The prophets spoke with the authority of absolute principles they said came from God. So did Jesus. And he started with 12 followers…. Do we say that Elijah or Jesus were punching above their weight? It sounds absurd, even wrong to say so.
But maybe I don’t understand the expression. Maybe it’s supposed to mean: if you are ready for the fight, you go into the ring even if the odds or the rules say you will lose.
Interview conducted via email between 31 October and 1 November 2013
A Wall in Jerusalem by Mark Braverman, published by Jericho Books, ISBN: 9781455574209. In the US you can buy the book from Tuesday 5 November and in the UK from Monday 21 November.
Mark Braverman, b. 1948, is the programme director of Kairos USA. He spent most of his life as a consultant psychologist working with a range of groups and public entities.