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A Christian Perspective

By Kathleen Kern

Tikkun, March/April 1998


I am a Christian who came to Israel with a deep awareness--instilled by my parents and my academic background--of the horrific abuses the Church has inflicted on Jews for two millennia.

In the winter and spring of 1995, under the auspices of my organization, Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), I visited with numerous Israelis and Palestinians involved in peace and human rights work. After meeting with grassroots organizers in the West Bank city of Hebron, we received an invitation from the mayor's office to set up a project there.

I knew before the project started in June 1995 that my knowledge of the history of Christian anti-Semitism would be both a burden and a tool. On the whole, my knowledge has been a useful tool that has helped our team in Hebron establish warm relationships with dozens of Israeli peace and human rights activists. It has helped us connect Israelis with Palestinians who are facing home demolition and ongoing harassment from Israeli soldiers and settlers. To do our work, our team has had to open ourselves to the pain and suffering that begat the pain and suffering that begat the pain and suffering ad infinitum.

But at the moment, I only feel the "burden" part. I am tired and sick at heart from what I have seen over the last two years, and I have done almost nothing for the last three days besides deal with the fallout from death threats that some Kachnik--probably at the behest of the Hebron settlers--has made against my co-workers there.

When I first sent Tikkun my reflection piece on Israel at fifty, I tried to convey my ambivalence--how I juggle my relationships with Israelis and Palestinians, my evangelical/fundamentalist upbringing, the realities of what I see, and the historical context that gave rise to Zionism.

You, Michael Lerner, told me it came across as emotionally detached.

So you want to know how I really feel about Israel after having worked for nearly seventeen months as a human rights activist in Hebron? You don't want the sion that I give in presentations to Mennonite Churches that emphasize our conflict resolution work? You don't want the version I give Jewish friends to avoid seeing that veil of pain drop across their faces? You don't want the version that I tell the children in my household so they won't grow up thinking Israelis are bad people?

Are you so sure you want to open those doors that my rage has strained against for the past two years? Are you? Well here it goes. Israel makes me want to throw things at a wall until the plaster shatters and my arms are too sore to hurl anything else. Israel makes me wish that my theology permitted me a purgatory where folks like Ariel Sharon would have to experience every bit of the pain and terror they have inflicted on their victims over the last decades. Israel makes me want to point my finger, like Emile Zola, like the prophet Nathan, at Netanyahu and his cronies, and say: "J'accuse--You are the man," as silent wraiths heap corpses of ewe lambs, slaughtered on the altar of Israeli expansionism, at his feet. God! Do you have any idea what you are asking of me, when you say you want something less detached? I have expended enormous energy to subdue my passion so that I don't repulse those who are only moderately interested in my work. I walk on eggshells so that I do not detonate the passion of others who are too involved with the conflict.

Much of what I have witnessed, I can report only with detachment: I have seen a man with his hands and feet blown off, skin boiled red, thrashing about like a seal. I have seen men picking up little bits of people stuck to asphalt, walls, and trees in Jerusalem. I have seen Israeli soldiers in Hebron beckon settlers to come over and spit on terrified young men they have detained at a checkpoint. I have seen the huge grin on the face of a man holding me up by the hair with his left hand as he drew the other hand back to punch me in the ear. From the ground I watched him run away with my camera held over his head like a football, surrounded by other settlers in white shirts and black pants. They laughed and cheered as though he had made a touch down. I have been called "Nazi"; I have been spit at times too numerous to mention. I have on many occasions had Miriam Levinger cackle at me, "Don't say I didn't warn you."

I have listened as countless soldiers and settlers who have never had a civil conversation with a Palestinian--let alone eaten with them, lived with them, babysat for them as I have--tell me all about what Arabs "are like." I have heard Israeli soldiers tell me, "you have seen nothing," when I confront them about physically abusing young Palestinian men they had detained against the wall across from our apartment. I have stood one too many times in front of tearful Palestinian women asking me "Laish? Why? Why? WHY are they doing this? What have we done?" as they nursed the bruises of their children who had been attacked by soldiers or settlers. I have listened to their sobs and wails as bulldozers plowed into their houses while Israeli soldiers laughed and cheered. My bile, my tears, well up as I write. Before I went to Hebron I lived under the illusion that houses and human bodies were solid. I didn't know they could come apart so easily.

It is better to detach. It is better to think of myself as a biological organism, made up of a finite amount of fluids, because otherwise I think my tears, my vomit, would drown the Fertile Crescent.

The year before I joined CPT, I finished a book, We Are the Pharisees, in which I examined ways the Church has used Jesus' diatribes against the Pharisees as anti-Semitic propaganda. I wrote "... until we understand our horrible history of persecuting the Jews, we cannot really talk with [Jews] on issues surrounding the state of Israel and Israeli-Palestinian relationships. Some of my friends have expressed impatience with the way Jews "use" their past persecutions in order to justify Israeli policies. I believe this is the wrong approach. As long as we refuse to listen to the Jews regarding their history, the Jews have every right to refuse to listen to us. We need to understand why Jews throughout the world crave the security that came with the founding of the State of Israel." I received my author's copies a week before I flew to Israel for the first time. As I re-read my words today, I ask myself, "Do I still believe them? Do I still believe anything I believed before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict infected me?" I am able to rise above my rage long enough to realize that, yes, my words still hold true. Even given my experiences in Hebron, I don't think there is much I would add or change.

As a Christian white European American I want to take responsibility for the injustices in the Middle East. If I can take responsibility for what has happened, that gives me a small measure of control, right? The silence roils in my stomach. I will continue. I still believe I have an obligation to follow Jesus' command that I love my enemies. Can I love Mr. Shektman, Miriam Levinger, and the anonymous Kachniks currently threatening the lives of my friends in Hebron? Yes, I can love them. They were not born hateful. I know--no, I am certain--that God loves them.

Israeli friends have told me that W.B. Yeats' "The Second Coming" has become especially meaningful to them to them in the last few years--"things fall apart; the center cannot hold."

The lines from that poem that leap out at me are, "the best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity." Is that what you meant, when you said you wanted less detachment and more passion? Because there has to be some emotional force that matches those who vociferously defend their right to treat others with contempt? What if the passion only adds to the cumulative rage mushrooming in the region? What if it makes me lose control and betray the principles of nonviolence to which I have committed my life? What if my detachment is the only thing holding me together?

Kathleen Kern is the author of We are the Pharisees (Herald Press, 1995).

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