“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Bishop Desmond Tutu
My natural disposition is to side with those who are oppressed. I also prefer to hear people tell their own story rather than insert my opinions from the outside. Enter the Israel-Palestine conflict.
This longstanding (Western-created) conflict reentered my thinking in late June when the Presbyterian Church (USA) very narrowly voted to divest from U.S. companies that benefit from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. This decision was given much more attention than their equally significant (and overwhelmingly supported) decision to allow a process for gay marriage. (Quick aside: the relative silence about this decision in popular media suggests to me that, as a society, we are done with this conversation. Support of gay marriage remains an issue only in certain conservative communities. Move along, people.) The resolution was criticized by many Jewish and pro-Israel groups as tone deaf at best and anti-Semitic at worst.
*pause for deep breath*
And yet, the recent events leading up to and culminating in Israel’s so-called “Operation Protective Edge” demonstrate why the Presbyterian decision may be warranted. At the time of this writing (a running tally of the deaths is available here), Israel has launched more than 1,300 rockets into the Palestinian territories, killing at least 222 Palestinians (approximately 77% of whom are civilians) and injuring nearly 1,700 more. This in response to three Israeli teens who were (quite wrongfully) killed by Palestinian extremists. As one Palestinian advocate on Twitter put it, if a toddler bites the neighborhood bully and the bully retaliates with an axe, one is justifiably angrier about the axe.
To choose neutrality in this conflict is to side with the elephant.
Except… this is where it gets tricky. Historically, Jews have been oppressed by Christians. This previously referenced article gives a helpful history. And though the oppression spans centuries, one needn’t look far beyond Christianity’s primary documents to see the horror of anti-Semitism in its very foundations. (Quick qualifying statement: perceived anti-Semitism in the New Testament is in some ways anachronistic—the authors were members of a Jewish sect engaged in an intramural conflict.) Paul calls Jews children of a slave woman. The Gospel of Matthew unequivocally blames the Jewish people for Jesus’ death. The Gospel of John calls the Jews children of Satan. Statements such as these (and many more could be adduced) led to a horrible history of disenfranchisement, ghettoization, pogroms, and ultimately the Holocaust.
Jews are right to feel like the mouse whose tail is being crushed by an elephant.
In this context, it is fair to ask why the state of Israel was singled out by the PC(USA) for sanctions. There are a host of unjust regimes around the world, many of whom are far more vicious and cruel (Egypt, anyone?). It is also fair to ask why this conflict captures my attention and elicits more rage than those far more devastating wars in Syria and Iraq. What latent anti-Semitism may be operative in this focus on Israel?
Perhaps the PC(USA) had no holdings to divest themselves of with regard to first-tier actors in the other brutal conflicts that are unfolding. And perhaps it was some rhetorical break with the odd pairing of American Christianity and the state of Israel that grew from a peculiar eschatology. And certainly Israel’s actions rightly cause outrage and anger. But how do we speak to this injustice when we are part of a much larger and longer history of discrimination and violence, when that history is still fresh, still continues even in many forms today?
What do you do when you realize that you are the elephant?
David Creech is Assistant Professor of Religion at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. Before taking his teaching post up on the frozen tundra he worked for four years doing anti-hunger education and mobilization with ELCA World Hunger. When he is not herding cats (i.e., spending quality time with his three kids) he posts profound thoughts on Twitter @dyingsparrows.