Thursday, January 24, 2008

Anna Baltzer, Martin Luther King Jr. and Israel/Palestine

This is a recent letter from Anna Baltzer, a Jewish-American activist for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine, whose voice and rhetoric are prophetic--bound to prod, challenge, and provoke those of us who have not seen ourselves to the sort of clarity and purposefulness with which she lives:

Dear friends,

Here are some excerpts from a sermon I delivered in Minneapolis last Sunday, combined with some recent events:

This week, our country celebrated Martin Luther King Day and the official end to segregation and racial discrimination in this country. As we celebrate certain historic advances, we mustn't forget that these policies are far from over in this country, and that as we struggle against one injustice we are perpetuating another system of discrimination and segregation on the other side of the world in Occupied Palestine, a land where there are separate roads, schools, hospitals, neighborhoods, and legal systems, access to which depends on one's ethnicity or religion.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King "wept" from disappointment with the laxity of the church and its leaders in taking action against the status quo for fear of being considered "nonconformist." I recently met a young Palestinian Christian dancer (one of those censored in New England last December) who echoed similar frustration with churches around the world who are doing nothing to ease the suffering of Christians and others in the Holy Land. She spoke to a group of church-goers in Old Lyme, Connecticut:

"My name is Mary Qumsiyeh. I am an English teacher from the little town of Bethlehem. My husband works in tourism and I have met many groups that said `We are here to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.' But are they acting the way that Jesus did?

"Our churches are now like museums. Tourists visit, take pictures, and leave. What about the living stories? Jesus in his time was living under the Roman occupation. Today, after 2000 years, we are still living under occupation—now the Israeli occupation that has confiscated 88% of Bethlehem's land. If Jesus were alive today, would he permit this to happen? Jesus helped the oppressed and the ones in need. He made the blind see.

"I ask you all to see how many times in the Bible the word justice is mentioned. And remember that Jesus did not avoid politics. Please spread our message, a message of joy, happiness, and justice, a message from youth full of life, willing to live and die in the little town of Bethlehem."

Thankfully, churches eventually stepped up to play a large and historic role in the civil rights movement, and it's worth remembering how: It was not simply by hoping for change, or by praying for change,or even by voting for change. It was by making change happen, by Christians stepping out of their comfort zones and challenging the status quo even if it meant going to jail or being ostracized.

Making change happen is never comfortable. It's what Dr. King called "tension." He confessed, "I am not afraid of the word `tension.' I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth."

Notice the word "necessary." This necessity is often hard for people of privilege to grasp. We think, "if only we educate our leadership,or the Israeli government, they'll come to their senses..." How much more comfortable it would be if it were just a matter of waiting, and listening, and sharing! But we forget Dr. King's clear wisdom:

"We have not made a single gain without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges [until they have to]... Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."

Today in Gaza, Palestinians demanded freedom from the Israeli siege that has endured for years since the so-called "disengagement" and before. After several days under even tighter isolation by Israel,which had sealed the borders of the small strip and cut off electricity, food, medical supplies, and other lifelines, Palestinians
blasted through a wall of their collective prison and flooded into Egypt in search of medicine, soap, fuel, cement, and other desperately needed supplies.

Some might call blowing up a wall "extreme." In fact, just about any action taken unilaterally for Palestinian liberation is portrayed as such. Martin Luther King was also called an "extremist," and eventually embraced the word, calling on others to join him in creative extremism. Criticism of the status quo will always be dismissed as ideological or extreme, and that's what makes challenging power structures so uncomfortable. We would prefer to affect change through consensus and the blessing of communities that have traditionally supported the status quo, like mainstream Jewish temples and US legislators. But, my friends, this is unrealistic; these groups will hopefully become a part of the movement someday, but they will not lead the movement today. And while it would be nice to wait until a day when it feels more convenient, remember that change will never be convenient for those who are profiting off of the way things are.

Let us not forget that Palestinians, like people of color in Dr King's time (and still today), have not had the luxury waiting and choosing a convenient time... Indeed, there is no convenient time. But inconvenience and discomfort are a small price to pay for justice.

Remember that prophets have always been scorned in their own time.

In Palestine, that inevitable discomfort—or tension, as Dr King calls it—has taken the form of popular nonviolent resistance met with army brutality, checkpoints, roadblocks, invasions, curfews, house demolitions, and mass imprisonment. In this country, that inevitable tension has taken the comparatively mild—but admittedly
unpleasant—form of moral blackmail: anyone who dares criticize Israel's violations of human rights and international law is labeled anti-Semitic. But this is absurd. Occupation, oppression—these things have nothing to do with Judaism, and to oppose them in Israel,Palestine, or anywhere else in the world is simply not anti-Semitic. On the contrary, it is in line with the Jewish tradition of critical thinking, open debate, and social justice, which have been a source of pride for Jews through history.

The Israel/Palestine struggle is portrayed in our media and elsewhere as an endless religious rivalry, but it is no more a war between Jews and Muslims than the civil rights struggle was one between African-Americans and Whites. This is a struggle for justice, one that affects us all and in which we all play a part. In the words of Dr.
King, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."

This mutuality is clear in the collaboration today between Palestinians and the Israelis who support their struggle, working together towards an end to discrimination and the Occupation, towards a common future of integration and coexistence. In the United States, churches are once again taking the lead. The United Methodists, the Presbyterians, and others have started campaigns calling for boycott,divestment, and sanctions against the Israeli government until it complies with international law. This is a crucial campaign not only because it has the potential to be successful in conjunction with Palestinian resistance (after all, it was Black South African resistance supported by international solidarity and divestment that ultimately contributed to the end of Apartheid there), but also
because it was called for by Palestinian civil society. This is a Palestinian struggle, and we need to be taking our lead from Palestinians. They have been reaching out for support through the years, particularly this week in Gaza as they were cut off even further from the world. We need to reach back.


Anonymous said...

ANNA IS A FRAUD. Tune in to Jerusalem Pulse Radio as we will be systematically refuting all of her FALSE claims and accusations against the state of Israel. Anna Baltzer is a well paid "Palestinian" puppet. JPR will expose Anna with facts backed by historians and leading experts in their respective fields.

Philip Metres said...

Funny, when I met her I didn't see any strings attached. The quotation marks around "Palestinian" gives away your point of view too easily; you don't believe there is a Palestinian people. Incredible. Time to go back to the history books.

Abe Bird said...

I can hear the Falsetinian ProPALganda Shiite that Anna Baltzer, the Marxist Leninist, spreading all over. If you notice the pictures she show in the frame is quite ignoring the whole spectrum needed to understand the security problems that the Arabs create by their terror activity. When I say 'picture' I refer to the very picture in the locations as well as the wider meaning of the political and security picture which she avoiding to attend. Israel raised the check posts AFTER the Arabs re-started their wide terror attacks and NOT BEFORE!

Anonymous said...

Anna Baltzer is what she is: a liberal, nominally "anti-zionist" Jewess. She wants the Zionists to "be nice" to the Palestinians who, for their part, want their land back. All of it. This won't happen so long as the Zionist demi-state continues to exist. When Ms. Baltzer understands this and takes a stand against the fake-state of Israel itself, then we can all start to take her seriously.

Black Israel Supporter said...

Anna, I must confess, as a black man, I am deeply offended by your comparison between Palestinians and black Americans in the United States.

The situations are and were in no way comparable. At no point did mainstream black civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr. promote violence against White people. The whole goal of the civil rights movement was for blacks to have equality within the United States, not to destroy the USA or harm innocent people.

The goal of the mainstream Palestinian leadership is and has always been the extermination of the Jewish race, not only in Israel but around the world. They say this very clearly and repeatedly. You just don't want to listen.

Israel and the Jewish people are a model of human rights in their treatment towards the Palestinians. Considering their three wars of where they tried to exterminate Jews, plus the fact that Palestinian leaders were responsible for the deaths of 500,000 Jews, if this stuff was done to any other group, they would have committed massive attrocities against the Palestinians and expelled all members of this group. Israel hasn't done this and this is a sign of their humanity.

Philip Metres said...

Dear Black Israel Supporter,

Thank you for your input and opinion. All such comparisons are subject to critique, because each situation has its unique contours.

But your point of view lacks depth and understanding. You caricature the Palestinian side as bloodthirsty maniacs and sanctify Israel. Neither is accurate. Each side has its monsters, each has its victims. To pretend otherwise is to fall victim to your own ideology.

It's fine to disagree with Anna Baltzer's point of view; but don't let yourself off the hook by reaffirming a brittle and paranoid point of view. Charles Simic once wrote that poets must be aware that at some point, their tribe will ask them to justify murder. Our job is to never succumb to that seduction.

sal said...

Mr Black Supporter!,Where the heck do you get the figure of 500,000 Jews killed by Palestinians?
Kindly get the facts right before spilling the vitriol.Abe,JPR and others; Israel started the 67 war ok-fact,then hangs on to illegally occupied land.Led by a PM and foreign minister that are both experts in derailing every effort for a resolution.pity the shameless!