A Jew in CPT Palestine: Prologue, My Christian Problem

I’m going to Hebron with an interfaith delegation of the Christian Peacemaking Team because my rabbi asked me.  Linda Holtzman  loves that sort of thing—working with Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Animists—and she’s consistently challenged the Jewish establishment’s positions on Israeli policy from the pulpit and the street.   Rabbi Linda’s an ethical powerhouse, unpretentiously brave and buoyant, and she’s known me for years and can talk me into pretty much anything, but frankly, this trip was a stretch.

logo-CPTThe Christian Peacemaking Team grew out of a coalition of historic peace churches, such as Mennonites and The Church of the Brethren,  who wanted to find a way to respond to the many U.S. funded “low-level” conflicts around the world—in Central America, Haiti, and Palestine and “stand in front of the weapons and encourage less violent ways for change to happen”  As of Summer 2015, full-time CPT staff are based in Palestine, Columbia, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Nigeria, well as Canada where they work in solidarity with aboriginal tribes to resist corporate land-grabs.  Their July convention focused on water rights; it was held in Detroit.  Delegations travel to these places for two weeks to strengthen CPT’s work and to go home and tell its story.   As far as I know, this is the first time Jews have joined a CPT delegation.

I’d gone to Israel a few times in the past twenty years to research my novels, but never as part of a delegation.   Sometimes I call myself a Buber-style Cultural Zionist, and sometimes I identify as an Anarcho-Bundist.  Like many writers, I like to think I chew ideologies with my mouth open; I like to see what I’m eating, and I hope I know better than to swallow.  As you can imagine, I have a resistance to groups and itineraries.  I don’t like being told where to go and actively resist being told what to think. But to put it more starkly and specifically, I hesitated going on the Christian Peacemaking Team delegation because of my Christian Problem.

I’m sure that the Mennonites who staff the CPT’s Palestine office know far more than I do about Israel and Palestine.   Yet they speak with a serenity I find unnerving, and it fires up my paranoid synapses in ways that I know are completely unfair.   Do they see themselves as cleaning up a mess that Jews have made? Where is the ambivalence and the wrestling? I don’t see these people break into a sweat.   Why do they keep talking about “witnessing” and use words like “hope”?   Who in their right mind would use a word like hope that about the region, let alone where we’ll be spending most of our time, Hebron?

Settler in Old City of Hebron, 2014
Settler in Old City of Hebron, 2014

Hebron is an ancient city, believed to be the site of the Tomb of the Patriarchs (and Matriarchs)   which is, of course, sacred to both Jews and Muslims, and both populations have roots there. I’ve been reading Menachem Klein’s excellent Lives in Common, and he considers  the relative peace and neighborly relations of the late Ottoman period, the effect of  Zionism and burgeoning Arab resistance, the 1929 massacre of Jews by Arabs during a nationalist uprising, and the vengeance of the Jewish settlers after the territory was captured by Israel during the ’67 war, most fatally Baruch Goldstein who massacred Palestinian worshippers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994.   Now, Hebron is a flash-point, a place where the Israeli occupation takes its most brutal forms.

So hope?   Not bloody likely. At least not for me.   I can feel despair and anger, I can feel outrage at the settlements, but can’t extend that simple outrage to the entire Zionist project in all of its manifestations since the first Russian Jews landed in Jaffa in 1881.   Who were those crazy men and women?  Imperialists?  The term implies they represented an empire.  Ah, face it:  an accurate term is settler.   And then I double back and wonder if Jews have a right to return to a city like Hebron where they were dispossessed eighty years ago, but then do Palestinians have a right to return to a city like Haifa where they were dispossessed seventy-seven years ago?   I’ve talked about this sort of stuff with Rabbi Linda, and she said it was all the more reason to come along and take those contradictions with me.

Do the Christians struggle with this stuff?   Are the terms simpler for them?   Yes, I know, Israel is their Holy Land, but surely they don’t carry all the Jewish or the Muslim baggage. Maybe I resent their distance from these circumstances. Do they have skin in this game?

Yet, here’s another question: is distance an advantage?

Sit-in at the Woolworths lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi, 1963. Annie Moody (far right) was a student at Tougaloo College in Jackson.
Sit-in at the Woolworths lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi, 1963. Annie Moody (far right) was a student at Tougaloo College in Jackson.

My novel, Waveland, is actually about another group of outsiders who went to a brutal Civil Rights flashpoint: the volunteers who came to Mississippi in 1964 in the project we now call Freedom Summer.   Nearly a thousand Northern college students went South to support the work of the Freedom Movement.   They staffed project offices, taught in Freedom Schools, and registered voters for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

The students were overwhelmingly white, and certainly outsiders.   Sure, they could have stayed North and dealt withobvious discrimination in their own communities in Boston, New York,  Minneapolis, Columbus or Philadelphia. Instead,  they chose to go to Mississippi, where racism was unambiguous, heroes and villains well-defined, and their own roles were prescribed. It was, as one white Mississippi Movement veteran said to me, “the baddest place.”

From a distance, Hebron seems to be Mississippi’s Palestinian equivalent, with its separate roads for Jews and Palestinians, a city center where Palestinians are driven out of their own shops streets by settlers, children who need protection when they walk to school, humiliations and outrages I can’t yet imagine and will discover and document in the weeks to come.  And like Mississippi, Hebron has its outside agitators who do the best they can to document what they see and bring it to international attention.

CPT volunteer accompanying children as they go to school in Hebron; they're often harrassed by settlers.
CPT volunteer accompanying children as they go to school in Hebron; they’re often harrassed by settlers.

Here’s the truth of the matter: like Freedom Summer volunteers, the Christians on the CPT Palestine project are outsiders.  Maybe their serene distance isn’t an affront to Jews like me. Maybe it’s a gift.   They weren’t dispossessed, and feel no need to repossess. They can—oy vey—actually think about the awful stuff that goes on in Hebron or Gaza as a humanitarian crisis without needing to dredge up histories and claims and family photographs and old property deeds.   It may drive me crazy, but the value of this perspective is undeniable.

So off I go, having made peace with the Christians Peacemakers by re-framing them as Freedom Summer volunteers, with all the ambiguity that term presents, war-tourist, voyeur, outside agitator.   I suspect the other Jews in my group made peace with them long ago, because they’re wise enough to understand that in the end, we’re all outsiders, neither Israeli nor Palestinian, and as Americans who essentially bankroll Israeli policy, we’re all culpable for what happens in Hebron.

Still, at this point, I’m afraid I’ve self-identified as the “cranky delegate”, the one who is fascinated by Israeli culture and the revival of the Hebrew language.   Something– I can’t know what– keeps me from wholehearted support of the BDS movement,the one who kept wanting us to read a book together to prepare, who asked if there could be a way to let Palestinians in Hebron know that there were Jews in the Delegation.  Could we wear special red caps?    In short, within this lovely interfaith group, I’ve set myself up for alienation.  Well, I thought, at least I can occasionally vent to Rabbi Linda.

Then, last week, Linda had an accident while walking her dog.  She broke her shoulder, and can’t come with us.   Wish her a speedy recovery, and wish me luck.

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4 Comments

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  1. Mississippi’s issues in 1964 were a lot more black and white (pun not intended, but hysterically obvious) than the Hebron’s. Sure there were “good white guys” and “bad black guys” in Mississippi , but it was impossible to find moral justification or historical justification (beyond “that’s the way it’s been for 300 years”) for the blind hatred and violent segregationist culture in the South.

    2015’s Hebon is different than Mississippi, the English removing the Irish from their land, or the American Government relocating Indians to reservations. Those acts were wrong from any reasonable perspective, and without any ethical justification (beyond an innate belief in the superiority of one race over another).

    Jews lived In Hebron before they were driven out by the Palestinians, which at least provides a colorable argument for a right to return. The problem is the vicious and cold-blooded means embraced by Israel’s government in “allowing” them to do so. It’s the old canard about two wrongs not making a right. Unfortunately, I don’t see any workable, immediate solutions beyond the “two state” one (which needs Bibi ousted, plus an extraordinary amount of patience, trust, luck and good will).

    I can’t get on board with your “one state solution”. I simply cannot believe that Israel will ever even discuss this as a possibility, nor do I think they should, lest Israel become Palestine in reverse (or worse). it will only come about through a vast war an annihilation of the State of Israel.

    Damn, I hate being so freaking negative.

    • For what it’s worth, Palestinian I spoke with claim that the original Jewish families who’d survived 1929– or maybe it was their grandchildren– wrote a letter opposing the new settlers; they weren’t the same families. Also, the it may actually be the case that the British evacuated the remaining Jews afer the massacre. One real question is this: is there a statute of limitations on justice, or more specifically right of return to anywhere?

  2. I read this with the knowledge of your style and how you put a comedic spin on most of what you say. I felt your struggle to align what happened with the Mississippi Summer of Freedom, with what CPT was standing for. Change can be hard, but I appreciated how you kept the struggle in your own mind going full speed until you found a concept,that although was hard to “swallow”, was acceptable. That is what is called critical thinking, thanks for reminding me to do this in my writing.

    • Thanks, Rhonda. That means a lot coming from you. As the series goes on– and there are actually five more parts– I continue to struggle with what I see and learn on this trip (which took place around a year ago). One really great thing about writing is that it gives us a way to continue to think things through. I wrote the piece you commented on just before I left, and the others soon after I returned. Ultimately, nothing was quite acceptable, and the struggle doesn’t really end, at least not for me…

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