Timothy Seidel: Advent, Bethlehem and Beyond

By Timothy Seidel
PalestineChronicle.com

“How can the international community contribute?”  The question is an important one and as relevant as it ever has been.  Especially during this season of Advent, when the world once again looks towards the “little town” of Bethlehem in preparation for Christmas, we should recognize this as an opportune time to move people to action.  But it is also a difficult question as it challenges those of us who are internationals in Palestine and around the world to take a good look in the mirror and in an exercise of self-reflexivity and humble honesty ask some hard questions.

One of those questions is often “What can I/we do?”  Whether it is in the context of HIV/AIDS in Africa, poverty in Latin America, or occupation here in Palestine, this familiar cry echoes out from the Global North in what often seems to be an expression of helplessness or paralysis.  Without getting too much into how often this question is asked as a distraction or an attempt to delay any sort of decision about what one’s role may be in the larger scheme of this global reality that we live in—to deny the assuming of one’s responsibility as an agent of change inside these structures of power and violence—what may be a more relevant question to ask first is, “What should we not be doing?”  As members of the privileged and citizens of Empire there is plenty that we should cease in our doing, seeking to end our complicity and our participation with the powers of death in this world.

This is important.  The realization that, as internationals, we are already engaged in these issues—that we are not distanced and disinterested parties to this conflict, whether we know it or not, and whether we would like to be or not—is a fact of our globalized world and key to breaking down mentalities of domination that too often guide international agendas.  For example, as someone from the U.S., I am quite engaged in this conflict due to the fact that my government provides billions of dollars a year to the state of Israel and has led the way in implementing an international boycott of the Palestinian people.  This honest self-examination of both these historical and current relationships is the first step that internationals must take if we are to truly contribute in a positive way.

This may be an even more difficult question for us, and I will speak again as someone from the U.S., because it is a negative or critical line of inquiry and not a positive, task-oriented, “give-me-something-to-do-but-don’t-ask-me-to-change-anything-about-my-own-life” inquiry.  This is why, for example, calls from Palestinian civil society to consider economic alternatives to the political and legal avenues to engage this occupation, such as boycotts, divestment, and sanctions, have been cautiously (if at all) received in the U.S.  Instead, a popular response is one that discourages such “negative” or “critical” measures as divestment and instead suggests more “positive” approaches such as “investing” in the future of a Palestinian state.  But we can talk more about these measures in a moment.

There are, however, actions that internationals can and have taken in the context of this terrible conflict.  Speaking specifically as someone working for a church-related organization, just one aspect of civil society, solidarity groups such as the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI; http://www.eappi.org/) and Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT; http://www.cpt.org/) are two examples of an international presence in the Occupied Territories.  The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC; http://www.afsc.org/) and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC; http://www.mcc.org/) are examples of international agencies supporting local peacebuilding efforts.  And Catholic Relief Services (http://www.crs.org/) and World Vision (http://www.wvi.org/) are examples of international agencies involved in development programs in areas such as the West Bethlehem villages of Husan, Battir, Wadi Fuqin, Jaba, Walajeh, and Nahhalin—communities particularly vulnerable due to the ongoing Israeli colonization of West Bethlehem and increasingly isolated due to the construction of Israel’s separation barrier.

These are just a few examples of international agencies doing advocacy, education, accompaniment, nonviolent direct action, relief, development, and peacebuilding work.  There are several more organizations that I could have mentioned, both international and local organizations active in the Occupied Territories.  In addition, there are many organizations based in the United States, such as the U.S Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation (http://www.endtheoccupation.org/), Al-Awda, the Palestine Right to Return Coalition (http://www.al-awda.org/), and Churches for Middle East Peace (http://www.cmep.org/) working to support Palestinians and Israelis in their search for a peace born of justice.

What does this mean for internationals?  In light of this, how might internationals—individuals or communities—move towards engagement?  In addition to supporting the work of the above-mentioned groups or the many other local Palestinian and Israeli groups active in Palestine/Israel, whether financially or though active participation with them here in the Occupied Territories, the following are some ideas that speak to this work.

1) Prayer: As people of faith, prayer is always a very real way to engage the burning issues of our time.  More specifically, a prayer that leads us to action on behalf of the poor and oppressed of this and all lands is integral to our identity and witness.  Particularly in places wrought with despair and feelings of forsakenness, a spirituality that can guide and sustain us cannot be overemphasized.

2) Education / Advocacy: Something that all of the above groups are doing that individuals can do wherever they are is educate themselves and others, raising awareness in their home communities as to the harsh realities here that do not make it on the nightly news.  Articulating the true nature of the conflict helps to dispel some of the misperceptions and misrepresentations that persist in the Global North.  There are countless news sources available, especially on the internet, that offer alternatives to the dominant media outlets and that lift up the voices of those too-often silenced, dismissed, and dehumanized. 

However, the most powerful means of educating, mobilizing and advocating occurs when internationals visit the Occupied Territories themselves.  And there are several local organizations, such as Open Bethlehem (http://www.openbethlehem.org/), that are working to facilitate these experiences.  An important role that internationals living in the Occupied Territories can play is maintaining connections to these visitors ensuring some sort of follow-up back in their home communities.

Speaking specifically about the role of churches and church-related organizations in education and advocacy, much is being done in the North America and Europe to challenge Christian Zionism.  Here is another example of what churches should not be doing in relation to this situation—namely not perpetuating biblical theologies such as Christian Zionism that legitimize the violence and oppression of these structures of dispossession and occupation that create a status quo of death for Palestinians.

But what is more challenging, and what many churches have yet to deeply engage, is the necessary theological reckoning with the ideology and project of Zionism, a reckoning that would lead to a confrontation with the question of whether the creation of a state which denies Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes and insists on maintaining a “Jewish demographic majority” is theologically, let alone morally or legally, but theologically problematic.

This, I would argue, is perhaps one of the most important conversations that churches and church-related organizations can be having and where some of the deepest soul-searching is yet to be had, because it truly, in the context of the church’s history of anti-Judaism and the horrors of the Shoah, points the finger back at ourselves.

3) Political Advocacy: Challenging our elected officials to take a more balanced and just approach to this conflict is essential.  Although these kinds of efforts may seem completely useless, especially for myself as someone from the U.S. where there is little to indicate that this is ever productive due to various political forces, political advocacy remains essential because of our responsibility to witness to governments regardless of results.  But advocacy around specific political goals, such as “two-states” living sided by side in peace, can be somewhat difficult not only due to the multitude of voices emerging from Palestine but also due to the facts on the ground that make some political goals difficult to articulate.  That is why some choose to do advocacy guided by principles informed by justice, equality, and human security.  This is key for those of us who are Christians, recognizing that we are called first and foremost to practice and witness for a politics of jubilee, one which brings liberty to the oppressed and a secure existence in the land (Luke 4; Leviticus 25) and to work for the day when each will sit under vine and fig tree without fear (Micah 4:4), regardless of what political form that might take.

Again there are several groups involved in this arena of activity—such as Churches for Middle East Peace (http://www.cmep.org/) and the American Task Force on Palestine (http://www.americantaskforce.org/) in the U.S., as well as many churches and church-related organizations—that present on-the-ground reports from the Occupied Territories to elected government officials.

4) Economic Pressure: Due to the seemingly ineffective nature of political or legal mechanisms to find a just peace for this land, a conversation about exploring alternative mechanisms to resist this occupation, such as boycotts, divestment, and sanctions, has developed.  This speaks specifically to one of the roles of civil society in this context.  To quote an Israeli lawyer:

“After years of failed political efforts by the Israeli and international human rights community aimed at ending the occupation, it is clear that new approaches must be implemented. It is time for American civic institutions to support a multi-tiered campaign of strategic, selective sanctions against Israel until the occupation ends. Since the Israeli government is flagrantly disobeying the ICJ decision, international law mandates the use of sanctions to force Israel to comply with UN resolutions and human rights treaties.”

Pursuing creative responses to resist injustice is key and, some would argue, the essence of nonviolence.  Yet a growing popular response is one that discourages such “negative” or “critical” measures as divestment and instead suggests more “positive” approaches such as “investing” in the future of a Palestinian state.  But without freedom of movement or access to needed resources or services, such investments can hardly produce any “positive” benefits—economic or otherwise—for Palestinians.  Ideas such as “cross-border industrial zones” built along the “borders” of what have essentially become West Bank “reservations” will prove to be only another way for Israeli and Palestinian business elite to profit from the desperate and cheap Palestinian labor of a captive market—not a future for Palestinians or Israelis that any of us want to invest in.

Getting Israel to move in a direction away from its colonization of the West Bank will not be possible simply with “positive” investments. “Critical” responses will be necessary.

There has been much movement on this issue over the past several years, especially since the Presbyterian Church (USA) (http://www.pcusa.org/) passed a resolution in 2004 to look into “phased, selective divestment” from those corporations involved in the Israeli occupation.  In 2005, on the one-year anniversary of the International Court of Justice ruling on the Wall, Palestinian civil society launched a boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign, challenging the international community to hold Israel accountable as it did South Africa under apartheid (http://www.bds-palestine.net/index.cfm). 

Getting involved in civil society initiatives such as this is one example where internationals can engage and contribute to the struggle for justice and peace by adjusting our lifestyles and our consumption patterns.  Activities can range from boycotting Israeli goods to challenging our churches, universities, or communities to divest from corporations deemed complicit in the injustices here to advocating our governments to halt military support of the state of Israel.  Resources for such actions are available from the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center (http://www.fosna.org/), the Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign (http://www.stopthewall.org/), and the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (http://www.pacbi.org/).

5) Solidarity: Though the term “solidarity” is widely used, I hesitate to use it here simply because I feel it can be used as a tool to actually disengage.  Specifically, when someone claims to have acted in “solidarity” with this or that group or people—whether that be giving money or traveling through a checkpoint a couple of times—they too often can return home feeling as if they have played their part and that nothing more is required of them, especially nothing that might challenge their lifestyle when they are back home. 

However, solidarity in the form of sustained, active support of local initiatives, in the context of just relationships that work to dismantle structures of domination, can be very helpful.  These kinds of relationships must respect and dignify all of us.  They are horizontal, not hierarchical.  They hold all of us accountable to each other.  This begins, as I mentioned above, with internationals—individuals, churches, NGO’s, governments, businesses—recognizing their negative impact due to structures and systems of inequality and violence we often benefit from.  In other words, solidarity cannot simply be throwing money at Palestinians but must be a shared work to adjust relationships, structures, and lifestyles, and dismantle the mentalities of domination that maintain them.  Again, the “What should we not be doing?” element.

I strongly feel that one of the most beneficial activities internationals can be involved in is beyond the typical “North-South” linkages that are often the goal of solidarity visits and educational efforts.  Instead, fostering “South-South” linkages between Palestinians and people experiencing oppression in other places in the world, such as Latin America or Africa, would do more to move us beyond a notion of a work for liberation that sees Palestinians or others as the objects of liberation, to be liberated by the North (the self-proclaimed “change agents” of “history”), to a recognition that the oppressed must be the subjects of their own liberation.

6) Hope: From the perspective of church workers and church related organizations, speaking theologically is something unique we can contribute to this conversation.  And perhaps one of the most important elements of that vocabulary is found in the language of hope.  Hope in the midst of despair speaks a loud, ringing “yes” to life and a resounding “no” to the powers of death and destruction.  Indeed, if there is one thing I have learned in my time here, it is that hope is the most powerful form of nonviolent resistance to the system of dispossession and occupation Palestinians have experienced for almost 60 years now.  Because hope resists the fatalism—the resentment, bitterness, and despair—that by default submits to these oppressive status quos.  Indeed, there is nothing more that the occupier wants from us then resignation and disengagement. 

Fatalism offers no resistance.  It celebrates nothing in this life, and, again, I have learned much about this from Palestinians whose acts of celebration—a new birth, a graduation, a wedding—in the midst of occupation and dispossession, become potent acts of nonviolent resistance.  Fatalism is without joy or critique.  It does not believe in change, only in a static reality.  Or rather it fears change, it fears the dynamic, anything new.  It is comfortable with the familiar as some degree of control comes with familiarity while change brings risk.  It is without dreams, visions, and imagination.  Fatalism resists change and healing.  It does not believe.  But hope allows us to live with an active expectation, avoiding cynicism.  A deep confidence that God is good and that God’s goodness somehow triumphs.  That life triumphs over death.  A hope driven by a sustained conviction that the purposes of God will not relent, that justice will be had, that the way things are are not as they should be—that they are not right and should therefore be resisted.  A hope driven by a commitment to not forsaking those who have been left out of the “in”—the “underside” of history.  Ultimately, a hope driven by an indefatigable “yes” to life amidst the powers of death.

Conclusion

Whether in the form of advocacy, education, accompaniment, nonviolent direct action, relief, development, or peacebuilding work, such displays of solidarity are especially meaningful during this Advent season—a season meant to be a time of somber preparation and yet at the same time filled with joyful expectation and hope. 

Pilgrimage has brought many people over the years to the “Holy Land,” including to Bethlehem.  And encouraging people to visit Palestine, to come and see what is happening for themselves, continues to be important.  Though pilgrimage can make us feel closer to our faith-story, to truly find an opportunity for engagement and transformation, to truly encounter God today in the suffering of this land, internationals must see the “living stones.” They must see and personally engage the living communities here who hope for a peace born of justice and who seek to tell their stories, to be heard, and to have their stories told to the rest of the world.

May the voices of these Palestinian sisters and brothers that are so often dismissed, silenced, and dehumanized speak loudly to us this Advent season, providing both a meaning and a challenge for our own celebration of the incarnational presence of “God with us” this Christmas.

-Timothy Seidel is a peace development worker with Mennonite Central Committee in the Occupied Palestinian Territories where he has lived for the past two and a half years. The above is taken from the text of a presentation delivered at the Friends International Center of Ramallah on 6 December 2006.

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