Weep Together

The Middle East Peace Talks appear to be at a dead end. It does not seem that either Israel or the Palestinians have the will to negotiate meaningfully. At the last minute Israel reneged on a promise to release Palestinian prisoners and, for good measure, announced the construction of yet more housing in territory claimed by the Palestinians for a future state. The Palestinians responded by applying for membership in United Nations agencies, something both Israel and the United States requested they not do. In an example of adolescent pique each side blames the other for the failure of the peace process. It does not seem that either side truly wants a resolution even though the continuation of the status quo will lead to a disaster for both, for the entire Middle East, and for the world. In the meantime, certainly as an expression of frustration and desperation, the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement is gaining momentum.

The editorial staff of the Christian Century invited a Palestinian Christian leader who was visiting and speaking in Chicago to meet with us last week. Two days later we invited a Chicago rabbi who is moving into a leadership position with a major national Jewish organization to meet with us. Both men are distinguished clergy and respected leaders. Both are faithful, articulate and compelling. Both are friends of mine.

After listening to them and engaging in conversation I was struck once again with the dynamic of conflicting narratives: how the same events in the same period of time and the same place sound entirely different depending on who is telling the story. It’s not at all unlike our own American story. Our birth as a nation, without exception, occurred in geographical space occupied by other people. Beginning with Jamestown and the Plymouth Plantation, European settlers faced incredible hardship, hunger and danger to establish themselves in the New World, even as they were pushing out and displacing native peoples. For the next several centuries brave pioneers pushed the frontier all the way to the Pacific Ocean, cutting down forests, clearing the land, planting the prairie, defending themselves from the people who already occupied the land. It is part of the founding myth of America, a narrative expressed in a thousand books, poems, music, motion pictures and art. It is an entirely different story when told by Native Americans. From the perspective of the people who were already here the founding narrative of America is one of brutal invasion, displacement, duplicity, racism, oppression and genocide.

We heard two distinct and very different narratives a few weeks ago. One is about a people subjected to a millennium and a half of relentless persecution: expelled from homes, confined behind ghetto walls, discriminated against in every conceivable way, nearly obliterated in history’s most appalling state-conducted genocide, finally, with the approval of the United Nations, claiming a nation state of their own, in a place their ancestors lived centuries before. The other narrative is about a people already living in the land, displaced violently, marginalized by the invaders, pushed into a sliver of what used to be their land, refugees in camps the size of cities, walled in, fenced out, denied basic freedoms, at the mercy of their oppressors.

There are a thousand nuances. “It wasn’t an empty land. We were here”…”Yes, but we were there as well and were there before you.”…”Yes, you were persecuted, but what you are doing to us is just as evil, maybe more so.”


The thing about competing narratives is that it seems that for one to be true the other one must be false: for one to be valid the other must be invalid. Is it not possible, however, for both narratives to be true and valid? Yes, Jews were victims of persistent, virulent and ultimately lethal racial hatred and anti semitism, and deserving of a place where they would be safe and secure. And yes, Palestinians are victims of the world’s guilt over the Holocaust, victims of that same understandable Jewish passion for a secure nation state. Yes, the State of Israel has serious and legitimate security concerns, surrounded by hostile groups committed to Israel’s demise and indifferent if not equally hostile neighbor nations. And yes, Palestinians have legitimate concerns about persistent Israeli expropriation and settlement construction on territory they love and want and need for their own viable and secure Palestinian state.

Dialogue between competing narratives comes to a dead end when both sides demand that the other side “let go of past suffering” and “get over it”. To ask a Jew to “get over” the systematic slaughter of 6,000,000 fellow Jews is, quite simply callous. To ask a Palestinian to “get over” his ejection from his family home and the forcible displacement of 700,000 fellow Palestinians is equally callous. Both narratives of suffering and oppression are true. Both people have been and are victims.Is it too much to hope that somehow both people, Jews and Palestinians, weep together?  Is it too much to hope that both acknowledge their own culpability? Is it too much to wish that the Church of Jesus Christ, the one we Presbyterians sometimes call a “Palestinian Jew”, play an honest and hopeful role in the devilishly difficult and complex challenge of peacemaking.

To that end it would be helpful to declare a moratorium on hateful speech and loaded terms: apartheid, racism, the treatment of Palestinians as a new crucifixion, Palestinian activists and patriots as terrorists. It would also be helpful if the churches, of all places, made every effort to be balanced and fair, recognizing the legitimacy of both narratives, avoiding placing blame on one side or the other.

In the May 14th 2014 issue of The Christian Century, Christopher Leighton urges us to “resist the messianic zealotry that animates Jewish settlers as well as Zionist ideologues who have jettisoned the role of peacemakers because they believe that Palestinians cannot win unless Israeli’s lose.”

As for my Presbyterian Church(USA), we said in the midst of a heated confrontation a few years ago that the church should “avoid taking broad stands that simplify a complex situation into a caricature of reality” when one side is clearly at fault and the other side is clearly a victim.That is sound advice.


  1. Phil Schechter says:

    There are many Jews who agree with John Buchanan’s position and several important national Jewish organizations which also support this balanced view.. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any Palestinian partners who respond! In kind

  2. absconn says:

    You talk about two narratives or two sides. Why only two? E.g., where is the narrative of the leadership class of neighboring states, for whom a continuing conflict was politically convenient? And so on: it’s more complex than you say.

  3. Jeffrey DeYoe says:

    John, you are trying mightily to understand and I see a little more movement than I have seen in years, but you are not there yet. Oppression is oppression is oppression and until you actually see that you see nothing. I’m sorry, the word “apartheid” is not “hateful language.” It is an international standard defining oppression. I know you are smart enough to know that, but denial is a strong dynamic I know. John, friends don’t let friends occupy other people and violate their human rights. Don’t abandon your faith in Jesus for the idol of “balance,” he never preached it when it comes to oppression.

  4. Fred Montgomery says:

    While the post is filled with insightful observations and advice (though I agree with Jeffrey DeYoe), it seems to me that none of it precludes support for the divestment overture which will be presented to the PCUSA General Assembly in two weeks. The more I’ve thought about the overture, the more I realize how it is designed to avoid taking a broad stand, and it does not try to simplify a complex situation. By focusing on specific activities of three U.S. corporations, it does not call for action against Israel or any Israeli companies. And by focusing on activities that enable the occupation, e.g. the demolition of homes and the construction of settlements, the overture does not affect the more intractable issues like security, borders, the right of return, and the status of Jerusalem. What the overture simply says is that PCUSA should not share in the profits that are made by U.S. corporations that enable the occupation and oppression of people. Opponents of the overture mischaracterize it when they say it takes a broad stand on Middle East peace or that it tries to simplify a complex issue. Hopefully they can recognize that PCUSA actually has a duty to invest its funds in companies that avoid treating people in ways that we do not want to be treated ourselves.

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