The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. Psalm 118:22-23 NRSV

Monday, January 12, 2009

Can We Talk about Gaza?

There is an energy percolating, nearly coming to a pleasant boil as the nation anticipates the changing of presidential administrations that will occur in 7 days. To be honest, a lot of America is experiencing nervous energy related to anxiety about our prospects, especially economically. That concern can only be exacerbated by President-elect Barack Obama's acknowledgement Thursday, in his comments promoting his proposed $800 billion stimulus package, that without intervention the current recession could last for years. Meanwhile, the news that December jobless rates topped 7% for the first time in 16 years only exacerbated the concern.

Now you notice that I defined the simmering tension and energy in our nation as a "pleasant" boil. I did so because our anxiety is mixed with a healthy helping of hopefulness, thanks to the feel good aura of the Obama election and the beauty and winsomeness of our in-coming first family. Change is coming to Washington and his name is Obama.

Less notable in the news, given our national and local anxieties and hopes, was the senate's passage of a resolution supporting our special ally Israel in the midst of its offensive in Gaza. And this is the issue I feel I need to say a word about today.

Those of you who read the blog known that I visited Israel last August. Although our group of African American clergy spent a fair amount of time touring holy sites, the purpose of our visit was not just tourism. We were also there to learn more about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians from insiders on various sides of the conflict. I haven't written much about this aspect of the trip because frankly I came home with more questions than answers. There are so many sides to the story, so many stakeholders in the disputed territories. There are so many painful stories of personal and national tragedy, so many testimonies of hopes for peace dashed by encroaching violence.

One of the most memorable stops during our tour was in Sderot, a town in southern Israel that borders on the Gaza territory. Sderot has appeared in many of the media stories concerning this month's offensive in Gaza because it is a town that is constantly threatened by Qassam rockets fired randomly from Gaza. That was also what made Sderot so memorable for our group. We saw the bomb shelters that looked like reinforced concrete bus stops all along the streets of the town. We visited the police station and saw the remnants of the rockets, each tagged with the date it dropped. We observed the ongoing construction of a new school with more extensive structural reinforcement to withstand potential rocket fire. And when we came home, we learned that a Qassam rocket had landed just 15 minutes after we left the town to head back to Jerusalem.

I could not then nor do I pretend now to imagine what it is like to live in Sderot. I cannot imagine what public officials sworn to protect Sderot's citizens and all the others endangered by random rocket fire feel when they look into the anxious faces of their fellow Israelis. And because I do not live with their constant anxiety, I will not attempt to talk about Gaza either from the perspective of a Gazan or an Israeli. I will talk as an American.

In an earlier post, I expressed my hopes that the US, especially the African American Christian community, would seek a position of fairness that acknowledges the humanity of the Palestinians as well as Israelis. What is disturbing to me is that both Houses of Congress, the President, and our chief diplomats seemsunwilling to take seriously the human toll the Israeli offensive is taking on Palestinian civilians. Last week, the International Red Cross described the Israeli bombing and response to casualities as outside of international humanitarian law and the rules of war. In the midst of this carnage, which includes the wildly disproportionate injury to and death of Palestinian soldiers and civilians, what has the U.S. to say? We support Israel and it's all Hamas's fault.

Frankly, this response does damage to our credibility and potentially to our own national security. It will be impossible to play any significant role in the unfolding of a narrative of peace and the two-state solution if we are perpetually unable to differentiate between support for the continued existence and safety of Israel and lockstep approval for every decision Israel's political and military leaders make. Moreover, potential allies and friends in the Arab world will have difficulty explaining their continued friendship with the US so long as our government discounts the importance of Arab and Muslim lives by giving tacit and sometimes explicit approval to their virtual slaughter. (This is especially true if Prime Minister Olmert continues to suggest that the US President takes orders from him.)

Our internal struggles and hopes are understandably on our minds. But our world is too small for those of us who value justice to remain oblivious to the violence boiling over outside our borders, especially when our leaders lack balance when they speak on our behalf. I, for one, can't wait to hear what 44 will have to say about this when he finally breaks silence.

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