Two Empty Chairs

Fatally wounded dove.One of many stand-out moments at the Kairos Palestine conference came during the second panel discussion. The first panel featured Bishops from two churches in the Holy Land. Each was a signer of the historic Kairos Palestine document, where Palestinian church leaders make a theological case against the Israeli occupation of the land, the oppression of the people. One of them (we will just say one of them) appealed to the audience to lower the ceiling of expectations for the churches. He reasoned their efforts were modest in order to avoid being counterproductive.

 

I nodded gently as the translation reached my ears. While I was in Jordan, I lost my temper when I learned an Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem had spoken against Boycott, Divest, and Sanction actions (BDS), condemning them as ultimately harmful to Palestinians and calling for positive investment. I firmly believe in BDS as a practice, that ‘positive investments’ is empty rhetoric, and that most Palestinians support BDS even if it means self-sacrifice. Yet, I came to learn that the Anglican Bishop’s Jerusalem permit was in question. I decided to redirect my angst at those the talking heads which used his statement as an excuse to avoid the prickly divestment issue: churches invested in companies profiting from this occupation. When the bishop mentioned ‘moderate stances’, I was skeptical but receptive. During the first coffee break I saw them by the door with their coats on and wondered if they were going out to smoke.

 

During the second panel, a lady read a letter from a church-leader in Gaza who was, obviously, unable to attend the Kairos conference. There are only 2500 Christians in Gaza, among a population of 1.6 million. The Gazan’s message rang with a lonely timbre and, just as his words called for solidarity from West Bank Christians, the reader looked up from the paper and scanned the audience. She said, ‘I wish that Bishop [ ] and Bishop [ ] were here to hear this but, look, their chairs are empty.’

 

They had left. ‘For other engagements?’ I mused, though I could not imagine anything more pressing than Kairos Palestine. By then it did not matter: those two empty chairs chanted louder than the microphone. Kairos (in Greek) means ‘right timing’ or ‘God’s timing’, the wrong time to leave a chair empty.

 

The Bishops’ position is not easy but the ceiling of expectations belongs where it is. These men may have the right training to rise above the ceiling of expectations but not by operating on a part-time basis. They can operate below that ceiling, with Israel’s implicit approval, or they can be the difference that Christians in Gaza and the West Bank – Muslims too—need them to be.

 

As is often the case in the Holy Land, ‘moderate stance’ has become a cloak for compassion fatigue (temporary, we hope) or balking at opportunities for change. This kind of systematic soldiering – of lowering expectations– is the affliction of those afraid to embrace their grassroots power for fear they will lose their official powers.

 

It seems as if the ‘wrong’ people can find the ‘right’ thrust, regardless. People like you and me, readers.

Banksey dove in bullet-proof gear.

Hope has wings… and Kevlar, baby.

 

An Open Letter to an American

[Dear Respectable Church-Person],

Thank you so much for your comments. It seems, to me, that we are on a journey with the same issue but from different angles, in different amounts, and at different points in our lives. The fact that you engage me in a conversation about the situation in the Holy Land is more encouraging than hearing only things I ‘want to hear’. You actually touched on some important issues to think about.

Beyond the propaganda tools that might be in force I feel like there is another force at work in all of us: the golden mean. In most situations, taking a middle position is just plain smart. It’s much rarer that a situation gets enough out of control that we find ourselves over-riding that guideline to match the disproportion of the situation. It creates a challenge of proportions — how much do we pressure one side or the other? Activists can drift entirely and devotedly to one side and we know that is not wise. I lived out of my outrage and am focusing, this Advent, on living from my compassion instead. I confess it with my lips: I was so upset, it was hard to gain clarity the past two weeks.

The temptation is to look at the death-toll: there were at least thirty Palestinian deaths for every one Israeli … but what if that one were from our family? We also know, through Jesus, that it is in God’s shepherding character to leave 99 sheep to look for one. If there are disproportionate portrayals of the conflict it is, indeed, because the conflict is so disproportional. However, your compassion for Israelis in fear and desiring a peaceful solution is not at all misplaced. It’s exactly the perspective I need or I might be tempted to blindness.

We are not completely blind about Hamas. Actually, we met a physician who just left Gaza two days ago and she compared Hamas to the Congolese government: receiving massive aide (from Qatar, in Hamas’s case) but not distributing it well to the poorest people. Hamas is under constraints but it is a legitimate criticism. As Islamists, they are not ideal for women’s participation, nor adept at working in pluralist or secular settings. In short, I wish they were not the prevailing force in Gaza and I believe under different circumstances they would be out-competed by other parties. At the same time, the “terrorist” brand from the US government seems misleading because it associates them with international terror-groups like Al-Qaeda rather than placing them in a category with small, inept governments which they resemble more closely. They have their tactics and rhetoric to blame, of course. The IRA was similarly branded, though they now have an uneasy truce in Northern Ireland. As a pacifist, I am philosophically opposed to pipe-bombs and rockets.

Yet if Hamas set the proverbial fire-in-the-theater then it was the Israeli & Western media who yelled “FIRE!” instead of reaching for an extinguisher. We were sitting in the West Bank smirking at the coverage of the Tel Aviv bus-bombing. No one died but it floated to the top of the headlines — yet people were and still are dying in Palestine from Israel’s excessive military force. The Western media pushed the non-fatal bombing unusually hard — that creates fear in Israel and creates a problem of proportion for the rest of the world: people in the US and Canada begin to ‘feel’ that Israel is in greater peril. The Hamas arsenal is notoriously inaccurate, ineffective, and statistically unlikely to hurt anyone. So, I was left feeling ambivalent about the numerous public service announcement on Israeli television — do they promote safety or increase the perception of danger? When people live so constantly in fear, it can put viciousness in their hearts. It it heart-breaking.

My final conclusion on rockets is that they have nothing to do with a solution: neither their presence nor their absence seems to make a difference to bringing dignity back into the region. Hamas cannot be the heroes their people need. Israel will only strengthen them by continuing in violence.

The problem of proportion is second only to the problem of responsibility. Of course I can denounce Hamas, for good reasons, but I want to take the moral high-ground with a purpose. We, as a United States citizens, have no stake in Hamas. Nothing Hamas does has come in contact with our tax dollars and both the UM church and the government do not endorse them. For me, as someone who believes they would be defeated in a free-democracy, I feel sometimes like my denouncements of Hamas could distract from the conditions under which they hold power. Those conditions are Israel’s responsibility: they came from the occupation and now from the blockade. Since military aide comes for the United States to Israel, I feel responsible for raising awareness and changing our culture so that the blockade and occupation can end and peace can be achieved. The dream was closest when Prime Minister Rabin made the Oslo accords in 1994 but subsequent Israeli governments have taken the region further from a solution and now the middle-East is changing rapidly. This is why I have felt like I needed to weight my criticism of Israel more heavily. Again, how heavily is right?

So, we have a problem of proportion and a problem of responsibility when we talk about this conflict. I thought Hamas’s best tactical move (disappointly) was to continue firing rockets to get more global attention (I hoped nobody would be hit) but since they did not end the blockade with their rockets it’s fair to say the tactic failed for them and I am edified. It succeeded for the Fatah government as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) made a push for Observer State Status at the United Nations and won by a land-slide; we think that the world saw the PLO’s legal push as a middle-road. Only 9 countries voted against them. Some of the 45 abstaining countries said they would vote “yes” if Palestine promised not to pursue a case against Israel in the international criminal court. I think pursuing that case is the best thing possible, in spite of the short-term careers of politicians in Britain and elsewhere. There really have been many war crimes committed here since 1948 and I fear that by failing to lower the gavel we leave space for others to raise the gun. The over-do case is akin to cleaning a closet — there will be a bigger mess before things get better. Yet I believe the needed peace is locked in that closet. They needed to establish a truth-telling commission in South Africa, whose work is not yet over.

I do my best and try to keep learning. Thank you for your message of peace and your prayers.

Sincerely,

[Daniel Xavier]

An Open Letter about recent Palestine-conflicts

Mr. Ms. [Respectable-Person],

I know you are on a journey with the Palestinian question — and I have known. It’s not an easy journey. My journey has been trying to develop the maturity to be helpful on that journey. It’s a process that I have not finished. I know it: I only, just now, saw that my primary emotion has been outrage. The outrage is justified — but my primary emotion? It should be compassion, not anger. So, I admit that I was living in the former emotion. I don’t want to cause you distress but sometimes we feel bothered during our journey when our frameworks are challenged. You even anticipated how I might challenge you — that says something. I am going to do my best to challenge your framework in a different way.

I am and have been a pacifist. I shy away from having to reiterate that I condemn rockets at much as bombs because I feel like I should not have to do that. The solution to this conflict has never been in bombs or rockets — that would be easier. No, the solution is in laws and in boycott campaigns: in less glorious channels. That’s the point I am going to make today:

The air of Hamas legitimacy is an obvious mismatch with the terrorist image. That’s because terrorism is not an appropriate label: they are militants fighting on a particular territory. I am pacifist so I don’t believe in militarism as a long-term strategy — I also don’t believe it solves problems for Israel. However, I think we can draw a distinction between Hamas and Israel: Israel is supposed to be part of the United Nations whereas Hamas is a faction whose popularity hinges on resisting Israel in violent ways. If there were a legal channel to challenge occupation in Gaza, rather than a suffocating blockade, then Hamas would be what they are in the West Bank: a second or third party behind PLO member parties. I hold Israel responsible not just for escalating but for creating an environment of desperation via the blockade and then, at their leisure, escalating more. We hold children and adults to different standards about using their fists: when an adult uses force, that’s considered assault and it’s a criminal charge.

The power difference is also in-line with that analogy. I can feel compassion for Israeli parents but their fear is not because of actual Hamas capabilities but because of their supposed capabilities, as presented by Israeli and Western media. Israel’s “Iron Dome” defense-system is more than a match for rockets, according to their own leaders’ boasting. Those rockets are little better than fireworks and they killed 5 during the entire eight-day conflict. God help those families. Still, the death-toll on Israel’s account (just from those eight days) has climbed over 150 — and reports indicate that it inches upward even after the cease-fire. Hamas is complaining to Egypt rather than sending rockets because they already declared their petty ‘victory’. If I did not berate Hamas it is because they lack real control and I have no financial stake in their killings. US aide dollars go to Israel so I feel a sense of collective responsibility for those killings. Demonstrators in the West Bank who never raised arms have also been killed, imprisoned without warrants, and generally abused for the duration of my stay. Hamas is certainly not GOOD for Palestine’s future… but it would be a distraction from the real issue to keep-up the sense of false balance. It’s not a matter of guilt but of responsibility: the powerful party must be held more accountable. I will not waste breath on Hamas, in praise or condemnation.

I believe Hamas was put in a tactical position where they could be expected to use violence. I say with some sadness that they made their only rational move. The ultimate solution is not by rockets nor by stopping the rockets. Rockets have no part in the solution, by their presence of absence; it’s a matter of money-trails and legal battles. The best way to under-cut both the Likud (Israeli party) and Hamas is to support the PLO’s statehood strategies in potent ways. The Palestinian Authority government, despite all the criticisms aimed at them for being ‘collaborators’, have defied Israel by applying for Observer State status (similar to the Vatican), getting nay-votes from only nine countries — sadly, the US and Canada are among the pariahs. Forty-five nations abstained, which was the politically ‘correct’ thing to do… and well over 100 voted in favor of upgrading Palestine’s status. I want the PLO to do exactly what some countries in Europe do NOT want them to do: pursue a successful case against Israel in the International Criminal Court and gain some restitution for the Palestinian people. It will be an unpopular move in Israel… but I don’t think Israelis realize what peril they are really in, right now. They are losing legitimacy quickly. The legal wound might seem terrible, at first, but if that restitution were significant enough it would under-cut Hamas and simultaneously collapse Likud’s coalition.

Where we fail to lower the gavel, someone else raises a gun.

But to answer your challenge: the Palestinian to Israeli death-tolls compare as 30:1. If I failed to meet that ratio, then I am guilty. Did I fail to speak a sentence against Hamas for every thirty I spoke against Israel? It could be. I recognize that I am sympathetic with Palestinian resistance. It may very well be. For the record, I never want Hamas to gain permanent control of any part of Palestine. Were Palestine united and free, I doubt they could; fundamentalism grows under pressure and fades when exposed to the wonders of life. So, I say what I believe will move us closer to ending the occupation. I try not to hold Americans personally responsible but we are collectively responsible for the misused aide, for the vetoes at the UN, for putting muscle behind and apartheid government, and for allowing delusions to abound. Look at the UN vote: isn’t there something that we grew up not knowing?

Cordially,
–[Daniel Xavier]

Always Burning: 2

Prayer Vigil

Watch for the Smoke…

Always watching...

Always watching…

The evacuation began when the crack of the first stone hitting concrete sent shock-waves through our coffee cups. We were all sitting

down-stairs, together. Wa’el ran up the stairs to street-level in a flash, to check, and burst into the foyer again within seconds saying  “yulla, yulla… let’s go before the gas…”. We re-stuffed our bags and scrambled up the stairs and through the gate, showing our kefiahs to the protestors but hiding our faces from the tower guards. Wa’el, Drew, and I stopped

several times to glance over our shoulders—I felt like Lot’s wife: a pillar of

salt, transfixed. Any moment, noxious projectiles would rain down on the masked youths. Wa’el offered to give us something to drink, which in the spirit of Palestinian hospitality meant we were going to his house to hang-out indefinitely. He asked if we wanted to light the hookah, too…

* * *

I do not look for physical signs from God often. Some read extra amounts of Divine intention into happenings, especially around Jerusalem. I went to القدس الشرقي to show my solidarity with Gaza at the Dominican Church by the Garden Tomb. We lit candles and held vigil on International Children’s Day. The service was attended by Christian leaders from across the city, faces to match the names on the Kairos Palestine document. The atmosphere carried the unmistakable essence of reverence and urgency comingling, for God and humanity respectively. When the Lutheran minister prayed in English for the children in Gaza, my swelling emotions cascaded in droplets down my face tears. How had the world over-looked the source of this suffering? Hot droplets began to fall on my hand, jolting my eyes open. I tried to remain stoic but I could not resist glancing around the room at all the melting candles, to see if anyone else had flinched. Who can resist a funny moment in such difficult times? I searched nervously for another fast melting candle. Each person’s candle produced a neat trail of excess, except for one: mine. My candle was no brighter but it seemed to burn hotter, erupting with blobs of molten wax that stung my shaking hand.

* * *

We smoked. Every time I passed the hose away to Wa’el, laying sideways on an easy-chair, or Drew, looking pensively into space next to me, the heaviness slowly rose and engulfed me. The viscous sense of resignation stuck to my joints, immobilizing my body.  So, I breathed in the fire again. My rage quenched, I consecrated my lungs with every breath until the hollow spaces hummed with the sense of swimming, running, lifting, and punching but I never moved – fire never moves, it only spreads…

* * *

This summer, a new friend was staying in the second-floor apartment across the court-yard, above a capable young woman who has worked here for over two years. My friend commented that her downstairs neighbor seemed to be consistently annoyed with her. Why? I told her we are cruel to ourselves, sometimes, in our self-centeredness: it was not her fault nor about her. Our neighbor’s job in the difficult West Bank context, staying present with people, puts a heavy weight on one’s chest. Four months later, I know that I was right in ways I did not understand. I had never stayed for more than three months at a time, myself. When our new Wi’am volunteer arrived, I noticed myself becoming irritable with him, employing smoldering passive-aggressive tactics to put distance between us. I believe I am much more moody and much less capable than my experienced neighbor, too, yet when I finally became close enough with my ‘victim’ to confess he asked me:

“what makes you believe you are bad at your job?”

“I do everything I am asked; you’re right,” I replied, “Of course, the occupation remains…” Two possibilities dawned on me. One, that I finally feel part of what keeps my neighbor burning and, two, that people could see me like I see her: intense and dedicated.

* * *

The anxiety floated out of me on clouds, in jets of fragrant smoke cascading in reverse. The nicotine built upon the foundation we had poured in cups of pitch-tint Arabic coffee. This colloid of stimulants buoyed me; it retrieved my sense of reality from the tar-toned depths of my affected reservoirs. We also drank tea. Substances carry a shock as powerful as moving a thousand miles or can keep us moving at a snail’s pace for so long that we forget we are moving, can hardly sleep when their medicine is removed…

* * *

More than a week before, at Dar Eneidwa, the Swede and I saw a film about the Hungarian Revolution. It had a Hollywood-quality storyline and love-story that made me miss romance in my life, yet so many resonant snapshots of Soviet occupation. In one scene, Hungarians take the streets in Budapest and light torches when the authorities cut the electricity; I felt the upwelling of a burgeoning nation, just as I had in Manger Square a year before. I felt the surge of excitement when the students revolt and cut the hammer and sickle from the middle of their flag, just as I felt in March during Land Day when a young man scaled  the apartheid wall and planted the Palestinian on top. Yet I know I was oblivious to the shelling of Budapest, when the Soviets retaliate unexpectedly and place their iron fist of occupation back on the Hungarian people. I didn’t feel, deeply enough, what that meant. Gazans do – doubly. At the end of the film, the Olympic water polo player is separated from his lover by the conflict, he going to Australia to win Gold and she to a prison interrogation room. I drank too much at the reception and indulged in loneliness the rest of the night.

* * *

Addictions threaten to ensnare me as surely as they promise to free me, like a net that saves me from falling but tangles around my limbs. I have not had my moment of final triumph against them, neither substance nor behavior nor, worst of all, the attitudes of my heart. Following Gaza coverage late into the night, riding high on a magic carpet of outrage, I felt as if I had finally lost myself completely, by the next morning, until that burst of stimulants reanimated me on Wa’el’s back patio. A dozen pieces of quick-light coal later, my co-worker offered to reload the pipe.

“No; I really want to but ‘no’ because I will stay here all day and smoke.”
We have to leave and continue with our lives, after a while, nursing our fading buzz as the smoke clears…

A message at the tower's bottom.

Last week’s coat of paint is this week’s canvas for resistance.

Always Burning: 1

“There is always something burning,” I said. Drew wondered if the ominous nebula percolating between the buildings could be from the demonstration. When we saw a masked figure wheeling a dumpster toward the flashpoint, some neighbors had suggested an alternative route from the check-point.
“Something is always burning? Oh, you mean literally,” he said, as we sauntered down the deserted side-street, “I thought you were being poetic.”
“Yes, figuratively too. It would make a good poem title, if I ever remembered to write poetry…”
Then, a sensation like the sting of a thousand onions being shredded by power saws overwhelmed our eyes. I tried to laugh as the burn spread to my mouth and up my nose but, even at that distance, the fall-out from the tear-gas was miserable. We thumbed a ride to the next corner.
“They brew their gas stronger than anyone else would yet it won’t hurt enough to make people forget: over a hundred Palestinians murdered in less than a week.”
I harkened to the sound of stones striking against the concrete Wall and guard-tower in the distance.

* * *

I had lost the will. A month ago, in the wake of my last newsletter, I shied from reflecting at all. In distant Yanoun, near Nablus, I finally found just enough silence to feel the vacuum which had opened inside of me. Without any sense of what had drained from my soul, nor how, nor why, I

dreamteam - EAPPI

Members of EAPPI stationed in Yanoun, Bethlehem, and Yatta look out over the Jordan Valley.

was unnerved to my core and yet uncannily touched by the simple beauty of owls calling to each other from centuries-old olive trees. I felt I could be whole again but there were no guarantees.

Then Gaza was attacked. Yanoun evaporated and I ignited. Twitter became my life-line for everything important, everything that mattered to my heart, as I selected a generous roster of journalists to follow, foraging for articles to read and repost at regular intervals into the night. Solidarity makes me a wraith: why should I have the right to rest? It is difficult to tell myself “I need quiet” when the voices shouting from my depths say “the world must know!” With all of my fuel lines plugged in (tea, music, media) I hovered for hours, then burrowed into my bed as if it were the chrysalis that turns edgy missionaries into peace-gurus. I awake as myself, every day.

Meanwhile, my better sense is objecting to the cycle of push and crash. The signs were there long before the trip to Yanoun, the retreat in Jericho, or the day picking olives in Beit Jala. The first signs may have been my trembling hands, eating a sandwich with lady IOF soldiers who thought I was going to Haifa. Arguably, the writing was on the wall one winter day in Grand Rapids Michigan when I started lecturing my soapy dishes about divestment. I needed this Calling but I will be forced to examine my deficits again when the steam that fills my core cools, condenses, and runs away.

* * *

“Flatten their neighborhoods,” they said,

“as the United States did

twice in Japan, with no pause for mercy.”

They quoted from the book of Exodus

to Gazans without exits.

Whether ‘Pillar of Cloud’

or ‘Pillar of Fire’, Israel invoked

that column of permanent taint

and destruction that spread

over Nagasaki in Hiroshima’s wake.

That pillar of cloud seared

the fabric of our human heritage,

as it toppled institutions, buildings,

ravaging flesh and the very genes within but

especially our vision, our solutions— our

minds. Enthralled with quickening violence,

these politicians tapped the poisonous tree

to scare citizens more than rebels

but they called it a “Pillar of Defense”,

and made the Torah a shield of lead,

when their empire rained

fire upon the trapped people of Gaza.

* * *

They battered it down to the wire…

The technique must be key, though I make sure never to be around. One morning, a huge bite was missing from the charred base of the guard-tower by the big gate in the annexation wall. The heaps of smoking trash and tires had already been swept away by municipal workers in small earth-movers but the asphalt remained stained black and the air still smelled of gas and gas: kerosene from below and mace from above. All of the US tax money, poured-out solid and gray, becomes brittle when exposed to fire. The youth will first come in waves, running forward with kefiahs over their faces to cast a barrage of stones. Each stone whispers something just before it hits the fiberglass shield: “we are David and you are Goliath. We are the rightful inhabitants and you are the monstrous, foreign invader.” The soldiers have nothing but their orders: their society handed them cocktail after cocktail of pride and cowardice throughout childhood. When the stones fly they follow procedure, shooting rocket-propelled tear-gas. The stinking nebula is designed to push back and quell the indigenous voices but instead it provides cover as more masked protestors come forward with accelerants and pre-lit dumpsters. After a while, they dissipate to let the purifying flames take their toll. Then, another wave comes with old pipes and batters the foot of the tower down to the rebar. They cannot quite punch a hole, yet.

Israeli government applies cosmetic fixes to systemic problems.

Call Ahava: we need some illegal cosmetics for this illegal wall!

Within 24 hours of the ceasefire agreement, Israel laid the cosmetic foundations. They installed new barricades that slowed traffic and painted the burn marks with a bluish gray the color of sleeping Western skies in the early morning: backs turned to the sunrise. Yet the latticework of rebar remained exposed in the tower’s deepening scar, almost invisible for being that same, dull blue.

* * *

To be continued…