by James M. Wall
On October 10, 2010, I gave a talk to a small group at a United Methodist Church in Naperville, IL, a city in the western suburbs of Chicago.
In the talk I referenced the film, Grapes of Wrath. Recently, while searching the internet for information on the film, the talk popped up. Along with other references to the film was the line, “Draft: Talk on 10/10/10″.
The United Methodist Church (UMC) will gather in its General Conference, a quadrennial legislative assembly, in Portland, Oregon, May 10-20.
UMC leaders have asked its delegates, and the church members they represent, to prepare spiritually for that upcoming gathering of its largest legislative body.
One way to prepare spiritually for this Conference, is to look back at one moment when U.S. church leaders were slowly beginning to confront what was euphemistically referred to as the “Palestinian issue”.
The talk that I gave on October 10, 2010, was given at a specific point in recent history. It is, therefore, tied to that moment, five years and four months ago.
Below are segments of that talk which I trust will resonate with many others who have made, or will in the future, make the same spiritual journey I began in December, 1973.
John Wesley would expect no less.
I share this speech as a background resource for the United Methodist delegates who will meet in Portland, Oregon, May 10-20.
I share it also for readers who are watching as the United Methodists become the latest national church body to consider one of the most pressing and important issues of social justice facing the Church in the 21st century.
(I tell this story in much greater detail in my article published in The Link, a publication of the Americans for Middle East Understanding)
******* From 10/10/10: A talk in Naperville, Illinois
“My first trip to Israel/Palestine, initially planned for October, 1973, was postponed until after the Yom Kippur war. . . .
“After a two month delay, I flew to Tel Aviv in early December, of 1973. I brought with me a bible, an Israeli travel guide, the novel O, Jerusalem, and a collection of essays by Martin Buber, the noted Jewish philosopher.
“All I knew about Palestinians were that they were called Arabs; oh yes, and they were Muslims. At the time, I regret to have to confess that I was unaware that at least 15% of the Palestinian population were Christians.
“My education on this subject, like the vast majority of Americans, was limited to what I had read in the American media. . .
“I flew into Tel Aviv with absolutely no awareness that the airport was built on ground that was once was an Arab town, Lydda. The destruction of Lydda was part of a program of ‘ethnic cleansing’, well documented by Jewish scholar Ilan Pappe in his book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.
“This operation that was developed as early as the 1920s, led to what the Palestinians call the Nakba, Arabic for ‘the catastrophe’.
“In the Nakba, more than 60 percent of the Palestinian population was killed or expelled, and more than 530 Palestinian villages were depopulated and completely destroyed.
“The surviving Palestinians who were expelled now [in 2010] live in other parts of Israel (1.7 million), the Occupied Territories called the West Bank and Gaza, and other surrounding Arab states, primarily Lebanon and Jordan.
“BADIL, a Palestinian non-governmental organization, estimated at the beginning of 2005 there were more than 7.2 million Palestinian refugees and displaced persons in the region. [Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons 2004-2005].
“Israelis have not been bashful about describing the Nakba.
“Moshe Dayan, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces and Minister of Defense during the 1967 war, said:
“‘Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist, not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either…There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab Population.’ (Ha’aretz, April 4, 1969)
“[Today] ‘We shoot at those from among the 200,000 hungry Arabs who cross the line [to graze their flocks]… to collect the grain that they left in the abandoned villages and we set mines for them and they go back without an arm or a leg. [It may be that this] cannot pass review, but I know no other method of guarding the borders.” (from Righteous Victims, p. 275)
“At the funeral of an Israeli farmer killed by a Palestinian in April 1956, Dayan said:
“’Let us not today fling accusation at the murderers. What cause have we to complain about their fierce hatred to us? For eight years now, they sit in their refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we turn into our homestead the land and villages in which they and their forefathers have lived…
“‘We should demand his blood not from the Arabs of Gaza but from ourselves…Let us make our reckoning today. We are a generation of settlers, and without the steel helmet and gun barrel, we shall not be able to plant a tree or build a house.’ (Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall, p. 101)
“When I made my first trip to Israel in 1973, I was the new editor of the major American ecumenical religious publication, The Christian Century, I knew nothing of the true situation there.
“All I knew was that the American Jewish Committee has offered to arrange a trip for this brand new editor to visit Israel, standard operating procedure for new editors and politicians.
“Eager to travel I accepted the offer, with one important caveat: I would pay my own way, air fare, hotel, the lot. I may have been dumb about Israel and the Palestinians, but I was a journalist who knew not to take any money from a source.
“I was also not dumb about the civil rights struggle in the U.S, about which I had written a great detail for the [United Methodist] Christian Advocate and would continue to do so for The Christian Century.
“Growing up in a segregated American South I could recognize prejudice and the mistreatment of a minority people, when I saw it.
“What I did not know was that I was going to the bible land of my earliest Sunday School teaching where I would soon discover racial segregation in a form so vicious and all pervasive that by the year 2010 it would have to be enforced by prison walls and armed guards, more akin to South Africa than to my American South.
“It did not take me long on my first trip to realize that what I was to experience in Israel was the American South Redux, in which religious people would justify a conduct that completely violated the biblical demands of their religion, conservative Protestantism in my native South, and the Jewish Faith of the Hebrew tradition in Israel.
“In the American South, with a few courageous exceptions, church-going Christians believed they could combine their Christian faith with a defense of segregation, or as they put it, to keep ‘our way of life’. That was the prevailing political and cultural mindset that controlled Southern laws, morals, and all of our religious institutions.
“People who live a lie that so completely contradicts their religious tradition will not voluntarily give up that lie. It was true in South Africa; it was true in my native South and it is most certainly true in Israel today. . . .
“I brought these civil rights experiences with me when I landed in Tel Aviv in 1973. I just did not know at the time how much they had prepared me for what was to come.
“I was scheduled to be in Israel ten days on that trip. My itinerary did not include travel in either the West Bank or Gaza. This same Israeli tourist and media control continues to this day. We all know pastors and lay people who travel to Israel with groups that still organize the same sort of trip arranged for me in 1973. . . .
“Two nights before I was to fly back home, my AJC host had arranged a meeting for me at the Holy Land Institute, an institution of a more evangelical persuasion than that of The Christian Century, which was known in church circles as a ‘liberal magazine’.
“I was the guest of honor for the evening, but I was really there to be on the hot seat. The Century’s reputation was that of decades of hostility to Zionism prior to Israel’s becoming a state in 1948, a position shared by most Protestant missionaries in the Middle East and by most Jewish leaders in the United States.
“I recall sitting in a circle at the Holy Land Institute, surrounded by evangelical Christians who shared a perspective of an intense loyalty to Israel, based, they said, on God’s promise to give this land to the Israelites.
“Today, Christians with that perspective are known as Christian Zionists. Everyone there that night pounded away at me for the Century’s failure to champion Israel’s cause.
“When we broke for coffee, [a young man] slipped quietly up to me. His name was LeRoy Friesen, an American Mennonite pastor serving a three-year tour in Jerusalem. He asked if he could come by my hotel later that night for a chat.
“I was about chatted out, but his intense and concerned manner persuaded me I should see him. The Mennonites were, after all, one of the traditional peace churches in the United States who send young workers like Friesen to labor for justice and peace.
“As we talked later in my hotel, LeRoy told me I was hearing only one perspective of the situation in Israel and Palestine. He asked if I would travel with him the next day into the West Bank, first to Jericho, and then up to the Golan Heights.
“He explained that we would drive along the highway along the Jordan Valley, an excursion the AJC had not included on my itinerary. Since I was paying my own way (thankfully), my AJC host had no grounds to object to my breaking away from my next day’s meetings to go off on my own. . . .
“Driving northward from Jericho, [LeRoy and I] stopped along the highway to look at the fertile fields of Israeli crops that lay between us and the river. LeRoy had a banana farmer he wanted me to meet.
“We left the highway and drove on a dirt road up a hill to the home of a Palestinian farmer, who was sitting in front of his house. I remember him as rather elderly. I was struck by the resigned sadness in his manner.
“He pointed up the hill to the well that provided water to his modest-sized field. I was reminded of a Georgia sharecropper’s well. This farmer’s well was connected to a pump that provided water for his field.
“Quite a distance farther up the hill was an Israeli well, surrounded by barbed wire and enclosed in a concrete casing. That well was much deeper, LeRoy explained. Pipes carried its water down the hill where we could see it spraying onto the Israeli fields in the Jordan Valley.
“I knew enough about aquifers to know that the deeper, more sophisticated Israeli well (its pipes buried beneath the soil) would soon leave the farmer’s shallower well, with its open, above-ground pipes without water.
“That was my epiphany on the Jericho road.
“What I experienced that morning has shaped all of my subsequent understanding of the region. This was the strong dominating the weak: this was control in the hands of an occupying military force, backed by an American ally where a congress, a media and all mainline Christian religious communities sided totally with the military occupier.
“Something was seriously wrong with that picture. The existential reality of injustice witnessed first-hand, as LeRoy knew when he invited me to travel up the Jericho road, is a far more powerful teaching tool than injustice heard or read about. . . .
“That initial visit was in 1973. Thirty-seven years later [in 2010], Israel continues to control the aquifers which it still rations to Palestinian villages, cities and farms in amounts far below the standards set by the World Health Organization. . . .
“I continued to learn a lot from Israelis. I remember one early visit with an official in the Israeli Foreign Ministry who told me in what appeared to be the strictest confidence: ‘You should talk to the leaders of this new group called Hamas. They are doing good work with social services for the Palestinians’.
“That was in the early 1980s, when Israel still viewed the PLO, led from Lebanon by Yasir Arafat, as its major enemy. The strategy called for Israel to build up Hamas, a strategy that included supplying funds to Hamas, as an alternative to the PLO.
“That was then; today Israel makes it very difficult for journalists to get into Gaza where Hamas is the ruling political party. . . .”
What impact did this one 2010 talk from one moment in history, have on the small group in Naperville, Illinois? I have no idea. None of us knows what impact we have in support of a passion we wish to share.
We have no choice but, in the words from the old hymn, we are under a moral demand because we have no other choice. So I ask myself and I ask others: “How can I keep from singing?”
In less than three months the United Methodist General Conference will discuss and vote on resolutions calling on the denomination to strengthen its identification with the oppressed in Palestine and Israel.
In recent weeks, the UMC Pension and Health Benefits Fund took a strong stance in that direction when it voted to “divest”, remove its funds from two Israeli banks, because of the involvement of those banks in the military occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people.
United Methodists now have the opportunity to support that action by writing members of that Board Fund to thank them for taking this important step to divest from those two Israeli banks.
If you know any members personally, give them a call.
After that, keep a close watch on the proceedings in Oregon in May. If you are a delegate, when you cast your votes, remember the call to the General Conference, from Jesus’ Great Commission (Matthew 28), “obey everything I have commanded you”.