Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Russell Siler: Challenge the distorted, one-sided narratives heard in our churches and communities

Readers,  Correction: It was not the Silers I saw in Jerusalem but other good friends.

Russ Siler has revived his series of email comments. While this post is a little long for sharing in church newsletters, it is very worthwhile reading. I encourage you to find ways to share Russ Siler's message.

Russ writes:

What I have heard, seen, read, and watched in recent months has moved me to resume writing my occasional posts regarding the situation in Israel-Palestine. (...) If you do not wish to receive future posts, just let me know. If you have received this message from someone else and wish to be added to the e-list, again just let me know.
For Peace with Justice,
Russ Siler 

Home From Jerusalem # 1
27 October 2011

History tells us that some people can be good teachers in areas where they have no practical experience. Priests and other celibate ministers and practitioners can be excellent marriage counselors. Many athletic head coaches have excelled at their craft without having been players at a high level--or even players at all. We can receive valuable advice and guidance about extricating ourselves from deep financial difficulties from those who have never known financial adversity. However, I have reached the conclusion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and occupation is so overwhelmingly complex, nuanced, and oppressive that very, very few people can grasp the depth of its inhumanity without having witnessed firsthand the daily physical articulation of its brutality and the steady erosion of freedom and dignity which it engenders.

Certainly commentators can grasp the history and the politics of this tragic drama. They can recite the chronology of the battles and the lists of primary figures and the litany of conferences, accords, and agreements. They can propose one path to peace or jumpstart to justice after another. But if they have not lived in the bleak shadows of humiliation and bondage, they will know neither the sense of urgency nor the despair which are the constant companions of those who live in the land we in the West call “Holy.”

This conviction forced its way into my consciousness as an unwelcome thought some months ago. I have always tried to suppress the feeling that some can understand the pain and suffering better than others. I can no longer do so in good conscience. Israelis and Palestinians who walk in daily fear and hopelessness know better than anyone else. You and I can never say we know what they are going through. We can never know as they do. But it is my firm contention that those who have lived among the people there--watching through tears as their friends and neighbors, co-workers and colleagues, sisters and brothers struggle with the growing realization that the rest of the world does not care enough to demand justice--are far better equipped to comprehend what the headlines report to the world.

Time after time in these past months I have seen headlines and heard stories about how the Israelis “want peace” or are willing to “negotiate terms of peace” or are ready to make “painful concessions,” but the Palestinians just “refuse to come to the table.” While there may be a grain of truth to some of these stories, it is virtually impossible for most observers in this country to discern such a meager morsel buried within the layers of misperception, misdirection, and media mouthing of a narrative that is anything but accurate or neutral. However, when one has lived in the heart of the matter, the realities become much more obvious. There is one of these realities which transcends all the others--when seen up close without the dimming distortion of distance: Israel is doing all it can to delay actual negotiations with the Palestinians on territory, borders, refugees, and Jerusalem until it has taken as much land as the rest of the world will allow. While the world hears of peace processes, pre-conditions, demands, and time lines, the Israeli settlement enterprise moves inexorably forward. There is a clear pattern, now more than a generation old. The government announces that it will build 1100 housing units in the settlement of Gilo, or somewhere else in occupied territory; various government officials in other countries issue statements of displeasure and concern; the Israeli Prime Minister’s office offers an innocuous explanation; the 1100 disappear from headlines; and the building continues as announced.  Soon the public conversation about “facts on the ground” will include these new houses which are illegal according to international law. This is nothing new; it has been going on for decades. Small wonder the people living there long ago learned that justice is what nations of the world demand for themselves, only not for others.

The people who live in Israel-Palestine--except those who choose to cover their eyes and block their ears to avoid the truth--know well this pattern. They also know full well that those whose actions support the pattern are handled gently by the authorities. Thus, militant settlers who openly violate even Israeli laws by building what are euphemistically termed “outposts” are often given years of grace before their ramshackle dwellings on expropriated Palestinian land are finally removed. Elected officials such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman can openly advocate the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and still maintain his high office. Most people in this country have never heard of Lieberman, because he never comes here to represent Israel. If he did, America would hear his racist rant. But to Israelis and Palestinians and, indeed, to all who live there his hatred is constantly apparent.

Now this lack of knowledge is largely understandable. It is extremely difficult to grasp even the obvious nuances of the circumstances across thousands of miles. In my opinion it is essential to listen to a variety of voices and perspectives, but it is vital to hear the viewpoints of those who have lived there. Based on such an opinion, there are then two groups of people for whom I have a great deal of concern. First, I am deeply troubled, even embarrassed, by those who seem to listen only to individuals and groups who have an absolute bias in one direction or another. Those who believe the Palestinians have a monopoly on truth and integrity are wrong, but at least their views do little, at the present, to further support the occupation of the Palestinian people. Their Israeli-supporting counterparts, on the other hand, do strengthen immeasurably our American government’s one-sided, unquestioning partnership with Israel, while simultaneously undermining the efforts of my church...and yours. 

Second, I am literally ashamed of the Congress of the United States, with the exception of those Senators and Representatives who steadfastly seek a balanced truth. In contrast to ordinary citizens who must rely on the witness and testimony of others, Members of Congress have long known the truth about conditions in the Holy Land. They are well aware that the “conflict” is not a conflict. It is an occupation in which Israel is in complete control. Furthermore, Members of Congress know explicitly that the illegal Israeli settlement enterprise may be the single greatest impediment to peace that now exists. Some months ago when a joint session of Congress gave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not only the opportunity to speak to them, but also a standing ovation, I fear that oppressed peoples the world over felt the hope of freedom diminish palpably. The day after Netanyahu’s appearance I struggled mightily to avoid thinking that Congress had sold their positions as arbiters of fairness and justice for a boost in their re-election chances. My struggle failed; I could not avoid that realization.

Hope is not lost. It seems to me that--no matter the outcome of the Palestinians’ actions in the United Nations--so many, many more people will be moved to take a closer look at what is going on and, possibly, will begin to question the assumptions they have always taken for granted. You and I can help immeasurably by challenging the distorted, one-sided narratives we hear in our churches and communities. We can support those religious and secular organizations and movements who demand an honest rendering of the realities; that, in and of itself, will go a long way toward peace with justice. We can stand with Israeli and Jewish groups like J-Street, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions as they courageously attest to the need for all people in Historic Palestine to live with security and freedom. Finally, we can communicate with our nations’ decision-makers the truth that there are two peoples, not one, who live in that land. Both are in need of justice.

Russell O. Siler

Russell Siler
412 William St. NW
Leesburg, VA 20176

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