The Common Good
September-October 2001

Courage Among Friends

by Jim Wallis | September-October 2001

My wife, Joy, my son, Luke, and I had dinner recently with our friend Michael Lerner
and his wife, Debora, in their Berkeley, California home.

My wife, Joy, my son, Luke, and I had dinner recently with our friend Michael Lerner and his wife, Debora, in their Berkeley, California home. Two nights later, we shared in a Shabbat service in their living room. Luke especially loved the lively singing and dancing of the Beyt Tikkun congregation, which brings together Jews and other spiritual seekers each week from around the Bay Area. Michael is a rabbi, and it was a delight to see him in his element-leading prayers, teaching Torah, and joyously moving around the room with his hands clapping high over his head.

As I looked out his window over the San Francisco Bay, I remembered that the location of this very house, complete with address and directions for how to get here, has been posted on a right-wing Jewish Web site that labels Michael as a traitor to Judaism. Why? Because he has defended the human rights of the Palestinian people, protested the building of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza, and says that taking other people's land and bulldozing their homes is wrong. He says it violates Jewish law and ethics.

Michael is committed to the state of Israel and also has been outspoken against Palestinian violence. But he has shown the courage to challenge the policies of the Israeli government and the attitudes of many Jews toward the Palestinians. Michael Lerner calls for a new movement of nonviolence in the Middle East, and in the United States, toward a just peace in the embattled Holy Land. Because of his courage, his Tikkun magazine has lost many subscribers and, most critically, many donors. Michael has received death threats and a torrent of criticism from defenders of Israeli government policy. But Lerner's prophetic voice has also struck a chord, both with Jews looking for a voice of conscience and with others seeking a voice for peace.

Other American Jewish voices are rising up to protest the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. Arthur Waskow, another rabbi and friend of Sojourners, has been an articulate spokesperson for nonviolent alternatives to both occupation and terrorism. In August, he and other North American Jews planned to go to Israel to plant olive trees as a symbolic gesture, to begin replacing the thousands of Palestinian olive trees that have been destroyed by Israeli settlers and military forces. A recent meeting in Chicago brought together American Jews ready to criticize the settlement and closure policy of the state of Israel.

IT'S EVEN MORE dangerous for those in the Middle East to speak and act for peace. When I was there earlier this year, I met with Jeremy Milgrom of Rabbis for Human Rights. Soft-spoken but passionate for a peaceful solution to the terrible conflict of the last several months, Milgrom and this little band of rabbis in Israel has had an impact far beyond their numbers. The group's executive director, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, visited Sojourners in May and told of the tremendous opposition they receive for simply standing up for Palestinian human rights. Days after his return to Israel, we saw in The New York Times a photograph of Ascherman being arrested by Israeli police during a solidarity march to a "closed military zone" where Palestinian lands had been seized for a settlement outpost.

On my last night in Jerusalem, I had dinner with Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. I had seen Jeff in a BBC documentary, sitting in front of an Israeli bulldozer that was about to destroy a Palestinian home. Halper and his colleagues have been arrested and jailed many times for such actions, bringing embarrassing attention to Israeli policies that otherwise would go virtually unnoticed by the outside world. His insights into what's behind Israeli policy are some of the most penetrating I've heard (see "Against Impossible Odds"). In my article, I also speak of Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist who I kept bumping into on the West Bank and in Gaza. More than anybody in the media, Hass has shown the courage to tell the real story and describe the human impact of the Israel's closure policy in the Palestinian territories. Again, she does so as an Israeli Jew.

I was invited to the Middle East this time to speak at the Sabeel Ecumenical Center's Alternative Assembly, sponsored by Palestinian Christians who are, in my view, among the most unsung heroes of the Middle East conflict. Deeply identified with the suffering of their own people and courageously outspoken against the injustice of Israeli government policies, Palestinian Christian leaders are consistently calling for a nonviolent alternative to the cycle of revenge and retaliation.

Rev. Naim Ateek, known as a liberation theologian among Palestinians, is an Anglican priest and president of the Sabeel Center. Naim, one of the most articulate voices for justice and peace in the Middle East, was unequivocally clear at the Sabeel conference in pointing to the way of Jesus as both a spiritual and strategic imperative (see "Unmasking False Religion"). He functions as both a pastoral and prophetic leader in the midst of the present conflict, both comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Jean Zaru, Sabeel's vice president, is the presiding clerk of the Ramallah Friends Meeting and a Palestinian Quaker. Jean exposes the "structural violence" of the Israeli occupation and the necessity of nonviolent resistance to it. She has committed her life to the struggle for liberation.

And my old friend Jonathan Kuttab has been practicing law and nonviolence for almost two decades (see Against Israeli Apartheid"). As an internationally recognized human rights lawyer, he has co-founded several human rights organizations and trained many other lawyers. It is the courage of such friends that drew me back to the Middle East. Their daily experience is one of long-suffering, and all they ask of us is the solidarity of friendship.

THE SUN WAS SHINING over the Holy City as I enjoyed a panoramic view from the top of the Mount of Olives. One can imagine Jesus weeping over the city again because of what is happening down below in the contested streets of conflict. Day after day, I met and listened to courageous people, both Palestinian and Israeli, whose hearts are breaking but who are working to end the terrible cycle of violence.

I went into the areas of greatest conflict to listen, learn, and seek to understand people's anger and fear. I saw demolished houses, confiscated land, bullet holes, broken windows, and, of course, military checkpoints with Israeli young men who would later become haunted in sleepless nights (a Jewish therapist says). This violence needs healing, not fueling, but the political leaders seem incapable of that. So others must hear that call, and many are.

We prayed, cried, and strategized together, believing against present political realities that violence can end. We talked about moving from a peace "process," dominated by negotiations that didn't produce the promised results, to a peace "strategy" based on nonviolent resistance both in the Middle East and internationally. Together, we remembered how that happened in South Africa.

It was a refreshing conversation, but many in the region have seen their hopes dashed time and time again. Hope is a fragile thing in this land, despite the abundance of holy sites. Yet there is something about seeing trees that were here when Jesus was alive that brings his presence to mind again. We held candles by the gate to the Old City to invoke his presence in the midst of a deep crisis in the Holy Land. It was Naim Ateek, the host of our conference, who passionately called all of us again to the path of peace-by following the way of Jesus in the land of his birth and death.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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