26 November 2009

More on neutrality

But before that, Happy Thanksgiving Day. Today Judy made an incredible Thanksgiving meal for the teachers at the New Humanities Institute, including turkey, cranberry sauce, a pumpkin bread with a delicious swirl of tvorog inside (a worthy substitute for the cream cheese of the recipe), and cranberry-apple-raisin pie.

Yesterday, I used a handout from esl.about.com in two of my classes. The material on the history of Thanksgiving, however sentimentalized and pre-revisionist, provided a great platform for discussion. In one class, we only got through the first three paragraphs; the other class went a bit faster through the material.

Marius and Barbara Berntsen of Oslo Meeting have been (very courteously) pushing me to go deeper in my thinking about Friends and neutrality. Shortly after posting my first comments two weeks ago, I wrote to them, in part, as follows (correspondence reproduced with permission)...
The comments [on my original post] from "Anonymous" sent me back to my work on my chapter of the "Friends and the Vietnam War" project that became a book published by Pendle Hill. It's interesting that many Friends at the time asserted strongly that the incredible contortions they underwent in order to deliver medical supplies to North Vietnam were not at all a violation of traditional evenhandedness, but a consequence of the U.S. government's unwillingness to accommodate our religious witness. Of course there were Friends who romanticized the North, but the historical record doesn't support that as a big factor.

How would we translate that into today's Israeli-Palestinian conflict? The most direct analogy would be delivery of needed supplies to Gaza, for example, at the cost of civil disobedience if necessary. This might appear to be "taking sides," but in fact it would be an assertion of our moral right to reach out to all parties--even a Hamas-dominated Gaza--without regard for the labels used by the powers.
Marius responded:
We have read your blogpost and your email below, and we appreciate the effort you have taken to address my question. However, I feel that you are reluctant to consider the heart of the question, which went like
What should be the limits of Quaker neutrality in the face of major man-made sufferings? When is the time to act to stop major atrocities and not limit ourselves to providing iodine, blankets and talk of reconciliation? For the sake of principle, let us consider rape, the Holocaust and the ongoing 90-year Nakba.
I am not asking ‘how’, just ‘when’, being real-time witnesses to crimes against humanity, when we do have the opportunity to speak out in public.

Technically, Israel is the product of aggressive war and ethnic cleansing, which I believe were the two main Nazi crimes, according to the Nüremburg verdicts. Human rights demand that the Palestinians shall return and be reinstated and repaired, which will restore a significant Palestinian majority, with title to more than 90 % of the land.

Quaker ethics and tradition demand that we acknowledge the crimes that are being perpetrated, that we “help” the perpetrators stop, repent and repair, and then start the work for reconciliation. In the absence of these prerequisites there can hardly be reconciliation, only the slow completion of the genocide. I believe this is the message from Jean Zaru as well as the “Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation” from Sabeel and Naim Ateek.
On Monday, I wrote:
I doubt I'm going to provide a satisfactory answer....

But first, I agree with the urgency of your question. It's a spiritual and political urgency--summarized in my mind by the words of Fr. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, one of my heroes: "Apathy, in the face of relievable human misery, is radical evil."

I also believe in a deep skepticism about nearly all political assertions. There is never a time when we can skip the vital step of spiritual discernment in prayer and dialogue. Politically, Jewish supporters of Israel can point out two awkward realities: early the whole Arab world tried to cancel the UN-endorsed creation of Israel (whether or not the UN should have done that); and that Arab world and its leadership at that time was NOT stocked by paragons of democratic virtue. At its beginning, Israel was supposed to be an experiment in democracy (even democratic socialism, in fellowship with the Palestinians), but no other country in the region even pretended to have similar ideals. See the complex anguish in the dialogue represented here: A Jeremiad.

My "neutrality" relates to competing claims of precedence and blame, impossible (to my mind) to resolve. Therefore, interventions that champion one side over another, no matter how costly the conflict in terms of innocents' suffering, and no matter how we personally feel about their relative merits, are probably useless in practical terms, possibly serving only to make the intervening party feel better. Both sides objectively feel that their existence is threatened; arguing whether Israelis should feel that way is useless. Nor should we assume that if we (you or I or Norway or the USA) were under mortal threat, we'd somehow behave better than Israelis.

What we CAN do--which to my mind is not inconsistent with skepticism and neutrality--is constantly demand ethical behavior (as we understand it, based on prophetic leading as well as traditional teaching) from both sides. Whichever side behaves with less regard for ethics will probably say that we are biased in favor of the other side, but we don't need to accept that indictment at all. In the present conflict, the suffering is massively disproportionate--and therefore our intervention to RELIEVE that suffering must also be disproportionate. That's still consistent with neutrality.

Relief of suffering boils down to two basic and related forms: first, action to transfer needed resources, and, second, pressure to deal with the systemic causes of suffering. Both forms of relief create confrontations with Israeli authorities (not always, but often), but those confrontations are not a violation of Quakerly neutrality. Even direct rhetorical pressure against those politicians in Israel who advocate "permanent solutions" such as the removal of all Palestinians to Jordan is not a violation of neutrality. We really do want everyone involved to heal and thrive; we do not advocate zero-sum solutions. Neither form of relief--neither palliative nor prophetic/systemic--requires us to declare "for" or "against" Israel.

To compound my dis-ease with advocacy...the whole nation-state construct is fatally flawed in my opinion. Palestinian politicians have proved their ability to be as idiotic as Israeli politicians, perhaps more so. I remember Edward Said's frustration with Arafat's megalomania--would I have wanted Arafat to be on top of a Palestinian state's structure?

In most violent situations, the Quakerly thing to do in my opinion is to stand in between the combatants, to "get in the way," to use the Christian Peacemaker Teams' tagline. It is not to romanticize the victim nor to demonize the offender. In the case of Israel, part of that "getting in the way" should be, in my opinion, to cooperate with those Israelis who are, day in and day out, holding a mirror up to their own country, asking "Is this the country we intended to found? Is this the honorable descendant of the Biblical prophets? Have we counted the spiritual cost to ourselves and our young people of treating Palestinians this way?" And, for those of us in the USA, we MUST continue to open up space for reflection on the way our taxes and our businesses are used to oppress Palestinians--but also to protest against the tendency of both sides to flatten the debate into the usual righteous polarization. That polarization does not relieve suffering!!

If we Friends actually did all this, I believe we would still be observing classical neutrality. We have a lot more we could do within that discipline of neutrality before we can honestly say we've exhausted our options.

Righteous links:

In his last Christianity Today column ("--for a while at least"), Philip Yancey urges us not to abandon the label "evangelical," but instead to live up to it.

Another tragic loss in Moscow--the young Russian Orthodox priest Daniil Sysoev was fatally shot, and parish choir director Vladimir Strelbitsky was severely injured, in their church, St Thomas Orthodox Church, a week ago. Some have speculated (as reported in a New York Times article and in this Russia Today video report) that the murder is linked to Daniil Sysoev's evangelistic work among Muslims and his public debates with Christian "splinter groups."

In my "why didn't I think of looking in Wikipedia?" file for this week: Do you like that peppermint soap with the "All-One_God" crowded-text labels?

Christmas cards by Kolya Fomin--they support Friends House Moscow.

Every Church a Peace Church has an interesting series of video interviews of "Peacemakers" available online. I've only sampled a few--let me know if you have any favorites or least-favorites.

The Chrome browser is available for Linux (in my case, I'm running it with Linux Mint) in an "unstable" version from this site. There's also a warning that it doesn't print yet. I can in fact print pages on Chrome, but I can't figure out how to make it print just one page. Extensions aren't available yet, but I have found my way around the two extension-related features I like most on Firefox--integration of delicious.com tags and downloading of videos. These inconveniences seem minor compared to the speed and elegance of the browser.

Ethical marketing guru Seth Godin writes about borrowing a page from the publishing industry to finance a new business--"Debt, equity, and a third thing that might work better."

Basset hound fans, here's a gem, relayed by Barbara Berntsen in Oslo--"Canine Quakers."

Today started out warm and springlike here in Elektrostal. So ... here's a page for those who miss genuine winters.

How I miss Albert King! Here's a wonderful remembrance of him from twenty years ago at a festival in Japan. I've selected "The Sky Is Crying" but of course you can watch the whole set....

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