23 May 2024

Pleading for Gaza: First Principles


AFSC staff in Gaza have shared horrendous accounts of starvation used as a tool of war. Children in Gaza are starving to death. The World Health Organization predicts that up to 80,000 more lives will be lost to disease and starvation if no immediate action is taken. This crisis surpasses anything many of us have witnessed in our decades of responding to disasters worldwide.

... Immediate action is needed so that killings and suffering can end. That starts with a permanent ceasefire, the release of hostages and prisoners, and unrestricted humanitarian access in Gaza.

—from Quaker organizations share a vision for peace in Palestine and Israel

We call on the US government to end its military aid of the Israeli government and to fully restore UNRWA funding to aid Palestinians. The US government must stop sending the Israeli military more weapons.

We call on the Israeli government to grant access and safety to United Nations and humanitarian agencies to fulfill their duties. We need immediate humanitarian access for Gaza and adherence to international humanitarian and human rights law.

—from Minute on Ongoing Devastation in Palestine, Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends

As the ongoing devastation, bombing, and ground invasion in Gaza continue into their sixth month, Palestinians, including our Palestinian Christian siblings, cry out to the world, asking, “Where are you?” World leaders have responded with empty rhetoric and political volleying about addressing the “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza while ignoring the direct causes of the catastrophe. Those causes are the daily bombing and ground invasion by the Israeli military, in addition to the shutting off of basic life-sustaining services to more than two million people who are suffering the consequences of crimes not their own.

... The horrific actions Hamas committed on October 7th in no way justify the massive deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in Gaza at the hands of the Israeli military.

—from March 2024 Global Christian Leaders Call for Permanent Gaza Ceasefire, Churches for Middle East Peace

Steve Breen's cartoon, and readers' reactions.
Hebron, November 26, 2019. (My photo.)

All over the world, faith communities have struggled to put into words their plea to world powers and leaders to respond with some actual effectiveness to the spectacle we witness on a daily basis in the Gaza Strip (and not only there) as Israel destroys homes, hospitals, schools, churches, and people. The three examples above all reflect this plea. Unlike the boilerplate activist rhetoric of some past campaigns, these voices are raw, urgent, as balanced as this terribly unbalanced situation allows ... but so far, it's hard to judge their impact.

All three statements refer to the International Court of Justice and the provisions required of Israel to avoid a judgment of "genocidal intent." Since these statements were published, the International Criminal Court has received a prosecutor's request to consider arrest warrants for major figures of both warring parties. Neither initiative has made any discernible impact on anyone's behavior, but I see the first hints of a positive development: a crack in the trance-like captivity of the major Western powers when it comes to Israel. They've been in a spell for many years; they don't regard international law as having any application to Israel's action, and they collaborate with Israeli propagandists who equate any criticism of this magical status with antisemitism.

The Israeli state and U.S. policy, as well as popular opinion in both countries, have not always lined up quite as they do now. Dahlia Scheindlin, in her Foreign Affairs article, "Can America’s Special Relationship With Israel Survive? How Gaza Has Accelerated the Social and Political Forces Driving the Countries Apart," contrasts the comparatively balanced situation during the Jimmy Carter administration with today's complex polarizations. Israeli public opinion, and Israel's strongest defenders in the USA, both prefer a future president Trump over a second term for Biden, despite Biden's fierce loyalty to Israel over his entire political life. 

Concerning Israel's right to exist, a huge percentage of USA poll respondents remain strongly in favor. On the other hand, when it comes to the current war, Scheindlin points to a generation gap:

A February 2024 survey by Pew found that 78 percent of older Americans (over 65) see Israel’s reasons for fighting the war as valid, whereas just 38 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds do—a 40-point gap. And although students in the Axios survey overwhelmingly agreed with Israel’s right to exist, nearly half of them—45 percent—supported the campus protests “which seek to boycott and protest against Israel,” whereas only 24 percent were opposed. (The remainder were neutral.) The Harvard CAPS / Harris Poll from April also found that respondents between 18 and 24 years old were almost evenly divided between those who believed that Israel was mostly responsible for “the crisis in Gaza”— 49 percent—and those who held Hamas mostly responsible—51 percent. By contrast, among people over 65, just 14 percent blamed Israel.

What can our well-meaning, even urgent and passionate statements say that can slip through these polarizations and affect hearts? I thought about this question this morning during a Friends' organization's video conference partially devoted to the war in Gaza. We were considering whether to sign on to a statement on this conflict and its human cost. (It was one of the three statements posted above. We didn't consider the other two; I added them here this evening for the sake of discussion.) Ultimately we decided to give this decision more time. Our key concern was simply this: would associating ourselves with this statement and its source complicate our colleagues' and partners' situations on the ground in Palestine and israel?

I'm not close enough to their situation to have a judgment. But if I were to write my own statement from scratch, what would some of my guiding principles be? Are these hopelessly idealistic? ...

  • No state or organization is beyond accountability. International law and the expectations of human decency apply equally to all. The actions and decisions of international tribunals are judged solely by their adherence to law and due process, not by their supposed "symbolism" or "message" or implications of "equivalence."
  • No population has the exclusive right to territory based on a religious belief or a sacred book. No person, family, group or nationality can be forced to move from their family/ancestral homes because of someone else's religious claims. Conflicting claims can be resolved through a process that gives conflicting parties equal weight.
  • There is no theory of "defense" that allows treating occupied territory as a legitimate military target, or that justifies terrorism in any form. (Terrorism is defined as the use or threat of violence for coercive political purpose, regardless of whether it is committed by states or non-state actors.)
  • Rhetorical flourishes such as "we demand," "we condemn," or "you/they must" should be used very sparingly. The main purpose of a statement is to persuade, to touch hearts, to open a dialogue, not to express hostility, even when that last purpose might gratify one's own emotions or one's own partisans.
  • The best form of Quakerly neutrality is equal openness to dialogue, equal readiness to listen to all concerned, and a rejection of all forms of exaggeration. Neutrality does not require pretending that all sides are equally innocent or guilty, or have equal access to the resources needed for a fair outcome.
  • I would hope to make a statement that reflects my own Christian faith, particularly in the doctrine that everyone everywhere is created in the image and likeness of God, and that wars and conflicts take place in a spiritual context where all sides may be caught in sinful systems of principalities and powers and evil in high places. Therefore we should be persistently seeking resolution and reconciliation instead of resorting to carnal weapons and deceptively attractive zero-sum solutions. Ephesians 6:12.

Related posts:  When do we shift from 'neutrality' to 'advocacy'? The rhetoric of righteousness vs the priority of humane effectiveness. Who wants to 'teach lessons'? Who wants to learn?

I've signed up for a Woodbrooke online course on Quaker Theology and Whiteness, part of this interesting lineup of upcoming courses.

Pope Francis calls for debt cancelation in Jubilee Year 2025.

Interesting case study of North American academic publishing: a "broken model"?

The video: this year's version of "Clothes Line" (Rick Estrin and the Nightcats). 

(And here's a link to the Little Charlie and the Nightcats version we used in listening comprehension classes in Russia. It was in good fun; nobody's grade depended on keeping up with Rick's rapid delivery!!)

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