- Published Date
- Written by Rev. Tim Kutzmark
A Sermon Offered by Rev. Tim KutzmarkÂ
Sunday, January 10 , 2010 â€˘ Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading
Â â€śVictory attained by violence is equal to defeat,
for it is momentaryâ€ť
â€”Words of Gandhi spray-painted on â€śThe Wallâ€ť in the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem in the Occupied Palestinian Territories
There was a loud boom that echoed and expanded, amplified by the dusty hills surrounding us. Â Someone yelled or screamed; I couldnâ€™t tell which. Â Like a pack of panicked rabbits, we bounded across the loose rock, away from the Israeli soldiers and their riot gear. Â Another boom. Â A tear gas bomb landed so close I could feel the whoosh of air before it made impact on the ground next to me, spewing its stinking/stinging cloud of crowd control. Â My eyes swelled, my throat closed, my lungs burned, and I thought â€śWelcome to the Promised Land!â€ť
The first time I visited Israel/Palestine was just over a year ago. Â I left shocked. Â I left scared. Â I was shocked by my own ignorance, how little I had known or understood about what was really going in the so-called â€śHoly Land.â€ťÂ
I left shocked, because I heard for the first time an alternative narrativeâ€”an alternative storyâ€”about the founding of Israel. Â The story I grew up with was that Israel was a weak and threatened little nation, a refuge for survivors of the Holocaust, a place besieged by evil Arabs both within and beyond who wished to destroy it completely. Â I went to Israel/Palestine the first time believing that before the Jews had settled the land, this territory was, as Golda Meir so famously stated: â€śA land without a people for a people without a land.â€ť Â What I learned my first trip was there is another side to that storyâ€”an alternative narrative, a different narrativeâ€”one rarely repeatedâ€”some might say suppressedâ€”in the West. Â From this other side of the story, I learned that the land that was given by the United Nations to Jewish immigrants after the Holocaust was a land that had been already owned for centuries by native peoples, the Palestinians. Â These Arabs (Muslim and Christian) lived on the land and cultivated the fields. Â They had villages and beautiful cities, a rich culture and a thriving economy. Â The Arabs had been by far the majority in the land and the major landowners, and they lived peacefully for years and years with the much smaller Jewish population (in 1900, for instance, the population in Palestine was about 5% Jewish and 95% Arab.) I learned that things began changing long before the Holocaust, with the advent of European colonialism, which sought to divide and conquer land and people. Â Things further changed with the birth of the Zionist movement in Europe, which encouraged massive Jewish immigration to escape persecution in Europe, and in order to create a Jewish superiority that could claim and control the land.Â
Growing up, I had been told that the Arabs were terrorists. Â I hadnâ€™t heard that Jews in Palestine had used terrorist attacks and suicide bombings to take land from the British and the Arabs. Â Militant Jews strapped bombs to their bodies and exploded them in Arab marketplaces. Â They attacked the British and terrorized the Arab population, hoping to drive both out of the land. Â Some of these Jewish terrorists went on to become powerful players in the newly formed state of Israelâ€”such as Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Â Now, obviously, the Palestinian population didnâ€™t sit idly by as their land was being overrun. Â There was Arab violence, there was Arab terrorism, there were Arab militias, and there were Arab atrocities. Â But this Arab revolt caused by the influx of European immigrants was beaten back by the British. The Palestinians had been largely disarmed, their leadership imprisoned, killed, or fractured. There was Arab resistance, but the Palestinians were not a strongly militarized people, and they were easily conquered, displaced, and dispersed by Jewish forces when the State of Israel was declared in 1948.Â
I was also shocked to learn that the destruction of the Palestinian people wasnâ€™t something that had only happened sixty years ago. Â It wasâ€”and isâ€”an on-going reality. Â And last year, I saw this with my own eyes. Â I had heard about a great wall being built by the Israeli Government that the International Court had declared illegal. Â I had thought that the Wall (four times as long as the Berlin Wall and, in places, twice as high) was being built for security, to keep Palestinian suicide bombers out of Israel. Â What I hadnâ€™t known until last year when I saw it was that the Wall was also being built to extend deep into land not in Israel. Â It reached across the border into the Occupied Territories, land meant to be part of a Palestinian State once peace was brokered. Â The Wall annexes valuable water resources, rich agricultural lands, and cuts villages in half, separating Palestinian from Palestinian. The Wall is literally annexing prime real estate onto the Israeli side, which will probably never be returned. Â Â
I was shocked to see that in addition to the wall, there are hundreds of checkpoints that further divide the Palestinian territories into little islands of restricted movement and Israeli military control. Â Again, these checkpoints donâ€™t just keep Palestinians from Israelis. Â From the Palestinian perspective, the vast majority are set up in Palestinian land to divide and conquer, keeping Palestinians from Palestinians and restricting movement and access to family, friends, job opportunities, hospitals, schools, farmland, and places of worship. I talked to bright students who couldnâ€™t travel to the University. Â I talked to patients unable to get through check points to the hospital. Â Until I saw it myself, I didnâ€™t know the checkpoints were also places of humiliation, where Palestinians could wait for hours, and then be refused passage on an undisclosed whim. Limit freedom of movement, divide, isolate, dehumanize and control: these are the same techniques once used by South Africa to enforce their apartheid.Â
I was shocked to find that that my tax dollars were funding these serious human rights abuses. Â My tax dollars, sent in the form of US military aid to Israel, were paying for an occupation that was in direct violation of the Geneva Convention, the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and numerous United Nations Resolutions.Â
So, last year, I left Israel/Palestine shocked. Â But I also left scared.
As I prepared to leave last year, I was detained by security at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv for a few hours. Â My bags were searched and the soldiers found pamphlets and booklets from Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups. Â These pamphlets were produced by pro-peace and pro-Palestinian human rights groups, both Jewish and Arab. Â â€śWhere did you get these,â€ť the soldiers demanded. Â â€śDonâ€™t you know these are lies?â€ť Â I was asked for names of people I met, phone numbers, email addresses, places where I stayed, who had offered me hospitality. Â I refused to give any information. Â The intimidation continued: â€śWhat do you think about the Palestinians?â€ť I was asked repeatedly. Â When they found out I was a minister, I was asked: â€śDoes your religion take a position on Israel?â€ť Â I was terrified and remained silent. Â What the soldiers called â€śliesâ€ť some people called truth. Â What some Israelis called â€śArab Propagandaâ€ť was actually an alternative telling of history and truth-telling of a present reality. Â When I was taken from the main security area and escorted through a metal door into a back room, I didnâ€™t know what to expect. Â All I knew was that I was getting a very small taste of what it was like to be in a country that was in many ways a military state. Â I knew that I had seen and heard things that the Israeli Military and Government didnâ€™t want discussed. Â And when I returned to Boston, I learned first hand that there is a powerful lobby, a powerful network, that works very hard to discredit anyone who shares the Palestinian side of the story. Â I learned it isnâ€™t ok to criticize Israel.
So I returned to Israel/Palestine in November with a great deal of anxiety. Â What would I find in the Promised Land this second time?
Things were different. Â Last year, walking through the Palestinian refugee camps, hordes of little children would run up to me shouting: â€śObama, Obama!â€ť Â Barak Obama had just been elected President, and most Palestinians and pro-peace Israelis that I spoke with last year felt that he was going to bring a change to the Middle East. Â But by this November, it was different story. Â The Palestinians and the pro-peace Israelis I spoke with felt that Obama had capitulated to the anti-Palestinian lobby in Washington, and that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had trumped Obama, putting him in his neophyte place. Â The US was not going to stop the Government of Israel from building more settlements.
And that brings us to something else that has changed since last year. Â Itâ€™s now all about the settlements. Â The speedy spread of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories has been fast and furious in last twelve months. Â Even as diplomats dither over phrases like â€ślimited suspension of constructionâ€ť the Israeli colonization continues to build beautiful, luxurious apartments and homes in land that is not legally part of the State of Israel. Â International Law prohibits a conquering nation from transferring its citizens onto conquered territory that it occupies. Â But that is not stopping the Israel Government. Â The building continues, and some settlements are now the size of small cities. Â Jewish-only road systems are connecting these luxury settlements to Jerusalem, creating a vast and growing suburb of Israeli-only residences on Arab owned land. The more that is built now, the less likely that land will be given back to the Palestinians when a peace plan is finalized. Â When the Palestinian Authority says they wonâ€™t return to peace talks without a complete settlement freeze, they are trying to stop the Israeli Government public relations ploy of talking peace while still grabbing more land.
Further out in the countryside, reports of Israeli settlers harassing Palestinian villages increased. Â I visited the little village of At-Tuwani, outside of Hebron, which is so small and decrepit that calling the living conditions third world is a compliment. Â Israeli settlers from the nearby Maâ€™on and Havat Maâ€™on settlements, who want the village evacuated and the Palestinians gone, continually harass these farmers. Â Parents told me how Israeli settlers routinely attack the children of At-Tuwani as they walk across the hills to attend school. Â The situation is so bad that Israeli soldiers have been ordered to escort the kids past the settlers. Â Imagine, having to turn your six-year old child over to an occupying armyâ€”the enemyâ€”and then trust that the enemy soldiers will protect your kid from stones and beatings. Â Sometimes, the soldiers donâ€™t show up and the kids are left to fend for themselves. Â One father told me that his kids were sometimes escorted part way, and then abandoned by the soldiers, forcing the kids to walk without protection. Â Parents are not permitted to walk with their children. Â I met college age Americans who were living in the village as international observers, hoping that their presence would dissuade settler or soldier violence. Â Ten days after my visit, two of these young Americans I had met were attacked by five Israeli settlers, knocked to the ground, kicked and beaten. Just this week I received an email report that on Thursday morning, Israeli soldiers attacked and injured At-Tuwani shepherds as they grazed their sheep. Â The soldiers also attacked the observers accompanying the shepherds, breaking the video camera the Americans were using to document the attack.
Then there is East Jerusalem. Â This is the small area of the city that Palestinians hope to make their capital someday. Â To that end, the Israeli Government is implementing an increasingly fast-paced attempt to cleanse the area of Palestinians. Â Homes are being confiscated, others are being bulldozed and torn down (some Palestinians are given the option of tearing down their own home or paying the Israeli Army for the expense). Â In the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah, I met a family living in a small Red Cross tent set up in the street. Â As a mother and her little children huddled around a small sterno stove, I heard how soldiers had evicted several generations of the family from a home theyâ€™d lived in for sixty years; now a Jewish Orthodox group from Brooklyn, NY is living on the property. Â Archbishop Desmond Tutu had already visited with the family and declared their removal a travesty of justice. Â It was a surreal moment when the young American Jews came out of the house and began praying loudly in the street across from the tent. Â In response, the evicted Palestinians, all Muslim, turned on their car radios and blasted verses from the Koran to drown out the Jewish Sabbath Prayersâ€”all while Israeli security forces stood by with lights flashing and machine guns poised. Â Can you say explosion waiting to happen?
There is also an increasing crackdown on the leaders of the Palestinian non-violent resistance movement. Â On December 10th, International Human Rights Day, one of the protest leaders I marched with when I was tear-gassed was arrested. Â He was charged with weapons possession for holding an empty tear gas canister that had been shot at him. Â A week later, on December 16th, the leader of a grassroots anti-Wall campaign was arrested and is being held without charge. Â Amnesty International has called for their release.
Things had clearly changed on the ground. Â But something was also beginning to change in me. Â Even as I talked with so many Israelis and Palestinians who were doing amazing human rights work; even as I met Israeli Jews who were trying to stop the home demolitions of their Palestinian neighbors; even as I heard of the increasing world-wide support of a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign against Israel and companies who were making profits off of the Occupation (such as Caterpillar which makes the bulldozers that are destroying Palestinian homes; or Motorola which provides communication devices used by Israeli soldiers in the Occupied Territories; or Hewlett Packard, which makes the hand scanning technology used at checkpoints); even as I stood in the Aida Refugee camp and saw Gandhiâ€™s words scrawled on the Wall: Â â€śVictory attained by violence is equal to defeat for it is momentaryâ€ť; I found myself less connected to pathways of peace and more connected to anger. Â Not Palestinian anger, but my own.
Until then, I had always found it hard to understand how someone could resort to violence. Â Standing up for something made sense, but I just couldnâ€™t fathom how someone could hurt or kill another person to prove a point or gain some ground. Â
But as I stood in the checkpoints and watched the Palestinians debased and dehumanized; as I walked with UN workers who talked about the critical lack of food and medicine in Gaza; as I heard how the residents of the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem are allowed running water into the camp once a week for two hours; as I saw how Palestinians were forced to live in walled ghettos; as I watched the rain pour down on little children who had been evicted from their home for no crime other than being Palestinian and living in East Jerusalem; as I saw all this, something inside me shifted. Â Â
This is a war being waged by the Israeli Government against a predominantly civilian population. Â This isnâ€™t only about striking at terrorists or armed militias. Â The Israeli Government is using their soldiers, their vast military superiority, and their justice system to wage war on children, women, families, and civilians. Â And no one is stopping them. Â One elderly Palestinian man said to me: â€śWeâ€™re the ones being attacked. Â We have no army, no real soldiers. Â We have children who have rocks. Â We have angry boys who have some guns. Â We have a few men who have bombs. Â We have a lot of angry men in angry mobs. Â We have our own mistakes and our past bad choices. Â We have our own incompetent corrupt leadership exploiting all this. Â We have other Arab nations ignoring us, playing us for fools, using us, or selling us out. Â But a quiet war is being waged against us, here and now. Â Weâ€™ve been pushed into a corner. Â Should we just sit here and take it, just watch our homes, our women and children, our lives and our future wiped out, erased from the worldâ€™s memory?â€ťÂ
When the Israeli Government strikes with force, it is called â€śsecurity.â€ť Â When the Palestinians strike with force, it is called â€śterrorism.â€ť Â
I began to understand how someone could pick up a rock and throw it at a tank. Â I began to understand how someone could hurl a bottle at a soldier. Â I began to understand why someone could strap dynamite to their body and blow up a bus. Â When you have nothing, when you are left with nothing, when you are stripped of everything, including your identity, why not strike back? Â
I need to be clear: the vast majority of Palestinians do not believe in violence. Â Yes, Hamas has used violence in the past and may use it in the future. Â Fatah has used violence. Â Terrible things have been done in the fight for land and freedomâ€”especially given the incompetence, infighting and corruption of much of the Palestinian leadership. Â But hear me when I say this: the vast majority of Palestinians hope and pray that a peace can be brokered that will give them a scrap of land and fragment of dignity. Â Even as I speak, there are Palestinians and Israelis and Internationals hard at work teaching the non-violent resistance of Gandhi and King, teaching the path of peace in refugee camps and villages, teaching peace on the streets of Nazareth, Nablus, Hebron, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. Â Iâ€™ve met them. Â I bow before these courageous women and men. Â I stand humbled in the face of their conviction that non-violent resistance will eventually touch the conscience of Israel and bring freedom and justice to Palestine, as it did in India, as it did in the 60â€™s in the South, as it did in South Africa just a few years ago.
But in that twisted and tormented land, I found myself looking at the human rights workers and the peace activists as naĂŻve dreamers. Â â€śPick up a gun and fight for yourself and your family!â€ť I found myself thinking. Â â€śDefend yourself and your land by any means possible!â€ť
As a minister who teaches and preaches peace, I was being confronted with the limitations of my own compassion. Â I was being confronted with the limitations of my own Unitarian Universalist faith. Â Could I be strong enough to walk the path of peace if I lived in this place? Â Had Israel/Palestine awakened an unknown part of myself that believed violence was justified? Â Could vengeance be mine?Â
On my last day in Palestine, I joined a small group that was heading toward the Palestinian village of Bilâ€™in, deep in the Occupied Territory. Â Each Friday for the past five years, the villagers hold a peaceful protest against the Israeli occupation. Â And so we marched out beyond the village to where the Wall cuts across the hills. Â Two kids in motorized wheelchairs led the way to the barbed wire, cement and steel. Â I went there because I wanted to believe again. Â I wanted to rekindle my hope through the hope of those around me. Â I wanted my humanity renewed by the humanity of those working for justice. Â The protest began peacefully. Â We marched; we chanted slogans. Â Then, there was a slight provocation from the Palestinian sideâ€”a few young people hoisted a protest sign up and over the first perimeter of the wall. Â Israeli soldiers, hidden behind riot gear, moved toward us. Â A loud boom echoed and expanded. Â Someone yelled or screamed; I couldnâ€™t tell which. There was another boom as the soldiers began to fire tear gas at usâ€”canister after canister of poison and power. As the gas exploded around us, some Palestinians picked up stones. Â These skinny, shirtless thirteen and fourteen year old kids grabbed pieces of their homeland and hurled it at the soldiers. Â The cycle of violence was rekindled and reborn. Â Two peoples who have known great wrongs again began their battle. Â Tear gas was shot. Stones were thrown. Â Army against civilians. Â Armor against skin. Â Great power against great determination. Â How is this anyoneâ€™s Promised Land?
Standing there in that hope-filled and hopeless crowd, I cried. Â I cried because the tear gas burned in my eyes and nose and throat. Â But my true tears were for these two peoples, Arab and Jew. Â My tears were for the Palestinians, who live day after day in an unjust and ignored occupation. Â My tears were for the Israeli soldiersâ€”boys and girls, reallyâ€”just out of high school, scared, unsure and turned into pawns in a political minefield. Â My tears were for my country, the United States of America, for funding this subjugation of a people and not even talking about it honestly. Â My tears were for the Israeli settler I had met a few days earlier, who couldnâ€™t understand why I couldnâ€™t understand that the Palestinians brought this all upon themselves. Â My tears were for the old Palestinian woman who grabbed my hand, looked in my blurry eyes and said: â€śWhen the Jews came home, they made us homeless.â€ť Â And finally, my tears were for myself, so full of anger, and desperate to feel hope . . . and forgiveness.Â