Diana Swancutt on US Complicity: Israel, Gaza, and the Restoration of Palestine

Published by Diana Swancutt, Boston Poverty Consortium

“Violence never brings permanent peace….Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible….Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”
-Martin Luther King Jr.

Palestinian children in Jenin, 2002. Photo by Tarek

In 1989 a politically naïve college graduate with a love for the Bible took her first trip to Israel. Like so many US Americans wed to the story of the “promised land,” I was drawn toward this tiny slip of earth an ocean and a continent away. I spent two weeks there doing what Christian tourists do. I walked Jerusalem, taking in its Muslim and Jewish and Christian quarters, smelling the mix of fresh cardamom and urine and just-worked leather bags in the dappled dark of Old City passageways. I felt intoned prayer at the Western wall reverberate from the scrubbed streets of the Jewish quarter; ambled through the archeological ruins, underground and above; surveyed the Temple Mount; and entered the stunning mosque of Al-Aqsa (smelling feet, I wondered simultaneously about its placement atop the Second Temple ruins…At the time, I was not thinking about things Islam—or things Roman). I remember using a ridiculous mix of classical and modern Hebrew to order cheese pizza, proud of myself in self-parody. Hopping a bus to see a model of the old ‘City of David,’ I was shocked back to reality by the Shoah survivor sitting next to me (Her tattoo was as unfaded as it was unhidden by her white cotton shift.). The next day, I visited Yad v’Shem and the Chagall windows—the juxtaposition difficult—and paid to have an “eternity peace tree” planted on a nearby hill. Two other days were filled by long bus drives, first north through the West Bank desert to Jericho, the Jordan, the Galilee and Capernaum, and then south to Qumran, Masada, and the Dead Sea (for while there was discord then, travel through the West Bank was not blocked by walls and check points; perhaps even now I would not be prevented from passing freely, since I am not Palestinian, and so for me, both the roads and the parable of the Good Samaritan make material and geographic sense).

I remember, in particular, one hot August day in the Old City. Early afternoon was already a dry swelter, and I needed water after walking so much. From the Mount of Olives, past the Jewish cemetery and Palestinian slum, I crossed the Kidron to the Temple Mount. I paused, facing east, before wandering wearily south to someone’s small restaurant. Open air, its low walls were white stone and its roof was a network of grapevines, their shade a welcome relief. I knew only Hebrew, ordered in Hebrew, and received food and water from the owner as I thanked him in Hebrew. He was Arab, generous, forgiving of my failure to recognize the difference in his speech, and as I ate my hummus and pita and olives in oil, he plucked grapes for me from the roof of his livelihood. They were delicious.

Then I heard a boom.

And together we turned to watch as soldiers at an IDF outpost right next to us sent mortar and gunfire at the Arab slums lining the Valley of Blood. It had been completely quiet just seconds before. We looked at each other for a slow moment. He said nothing. I understood almost nothing. This was Jerusalem in 1989, through the naïve eyes of a politically uneducated visitor.

But I have video.


* * *

Twenty five years later, I understand a little more of that moment—of its hospitality, forgiveness, suffering, political and ethnic tension, and the unrelenting liveliness of memory among Mediterranean peoples. I am a professor of the Jesus Movement and emergent Christianity under the Roman Empire. I have of course returned to Israel since 1989. But I have spent the bulk of my time in the States teaching and writing about the Bible, including the warping, sometimes murderous effects of power deployed for control, and especially of the scourge of Christian antisemitism, both materially as it has been leveled by Christians at Jews and ideologically through the cudgel of biased biblical interpretation. As a biblical scholar, I felt I could not teach the Jesus Movement without also laying bare the effects of Christian religious and political supercessionism. So I taught the Shoah several times at Duke University and at Yale to both Christians and to Jewish young people. Some of them are grandchildren of Holocaust survivors; it was the hardest, most humbling, and most transforming teaching experience of my life. Twenty-five years after first visiting Israel, I know a little more about racism and trauma and genocide and war than did my twenty-something year-old self.

Israel, too, has changed in the last twenty-five years. Permanent walls now separate Israel from the West Bank and Gaza and so, most Israelis from Palestinians. Cut off from each other, it has become too easy for each to see the other as non-beings (more on this below). Israel’s destructive occupation of and territorial expansion into the West Bank, Golan, and East Jerusalem has also usurped the vast majority of Palestinian owned lands. An“economically crushing blockade” of Gaza has reduced residents to near penury; ironically, they must rely on Israel (and Qatar) for food and other aid. Further, in the past eight years alone three brutal wars have left Gazan Palestinians nearly destitute and functionally imprisoned. The Palestinians are profoundly traumatized.

This situation is made worse because, in the States, many of “us,” like me, have a sense of the ancient sacrality of Israel and/or imagine the US as somehow akin to Israel, and that has caused us to be both blind to and actively participate in the destruction of the peoples of Palestine. Some of us fail to distinguish between the richness of Judaism, on the one hand, and the modern state of Israel, on the other. Israel is complex and like any other nation, possesses both good and bad elements. Our failure to see these differences has, in the words of Rabbi Michael Lerner, led “American Christian Zionists, the American Jewish community, and a super-compliant and fawning US Congress” to be hawkish for Israel. Israel receives over 3 billion dollars per year in US military aid (an average of 8.5 million dollars per day). It is “the largest cumulative recipient of US foreign aid since WWII,dwarfing any other country in the amount of aid received from the United States. And since almost all of it is military aid, Israeli wars against Gaza and military control of the West Bank have been funded in part by the United States.

This religious and cultural blindness haunts not just US politics but mainstream US media. From almost every quarter I read of “Israel’s right of self-defense” and the unnuanced “terrorism” of Hamas; thus described, Hamas is dismissed and Israel justified. The narrative of Hamas’ actions, past and present, are telescoped into single phrases lacking context or wisdom. Rockets. Human shields. Israeli civilian targets. Not: there have been three Israeli civilian casualties to Gaza’s 1400, and because of US-funded Iron Dome technology, Hamas’ rockets are largely (though not wholly) symbolic. Not: Hamas has fired 3000 rockets; Israel 24000. Not: Israeli military bases are located in the midst of cities, the national version of Hamas’ hide and seek street warfare. Not: Israel has used Palestinians and Israelis as human shields, as it accuses Hamas of doing. Not: like the US, Israel protects its warriors’ lives, so it stalks enemies by drone and strikes targets largely from the air. And in the case of the IDF, those targets have been whole buildings—schools, hospitals, homes, religious houses, as well as electrical and water lines. Tens of thousands of Gazan homes are gone. Over 40% of Gaza has been leveled. Nearly 350,000 Gazans have been displaced. The UN has called the level of destruction “unprecedented.” And yet, media memes largely remain focused on the “terrorism” of Hamas and “Israel’s right to self-defense.”

This should sound familiar. Stereotyped by the media in the US’s collective post-9/11 unconscious, Hamas has become the doppelganger of an Al-Qaeda the US did not kill. And that equation has enables the United States to ignore the fact that we have armed Israel militarily and thereby directly aid Israel’s killing of Palestinians. It likewise enables Israel, now armed to the teeth, to mime the US doctrine of “preemptive self-defense” (a US euphemism for our invasion of Iraq) and to attack and kill the people they have segregated, occupied, and economically destroyed. The icing on this deadly cake is arguably the near-circus diplomacy executed by a biased superpower: Secretary of State Kerry, who supports Israel, has tried to broker a ceasefire between warring enemies while weakly suggesting that the Palestinians should have “some” freedoms. Obviously, no one listened. On August 6, 2014, President Obama repeated and underscored our “diplomatic” position, with an ironic twist: While announcing millions of dollars in aid for religious minorities persecuted by the Islamic State in Iraq, he reiterated his support for Israel’s right to self defense and just to be clear, stated with grit that he “has no sympathy for Hamas.”

It is in this political and media environment that we get seemingly intelligent articles from outstanding sources like the Atlantic, asking a question many US Americans can understand, “what would you do if Hamas sent rockets at you?” Why of course, comes the rhetorical answer, we would “respond” to them. (Of course we would—look what we did in Afghanistan and Iraq.) If we would also “respond”—the logic of the article goes—Israel’s response to Hamas specifically and Palestinians in general is both understandable and small beans compared to our drive for “shock and awe.” We should then have empathy for Israel and “its need for self-defense,” on the one hand, and we should not speak of Israel without speaking of ourselves, on the other. On this latter point at least the article, though it emphatically asks the wrong question for Israel and Palestine, asks the right question for US Americans. Because this alone is what US empire understands—when you are in power and someone bombs you, threatening your geopolitical Pax, of course you take retribution 100,000+ fold and call yourselves righteous in the doing (and so we get: Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and drone warfare).

But what do you do if you are Israel, and you are not an empire but a nation of people with a powerful military and an equally powerful traumatic past? Perhaps you say, “Never again.” (As Michael Lerner wrote in Embracing Israel/Palestine, Israelis and Palestinians are both deeply traumatized peoples.) In 1945, if you are David Ben-Gurion, you pursue every avenue to secure nuclear technology so that never again will the people Israel be vulnerable to extermination by demonically racist maniacs. With the help of France, Argentina, and then the US, you create your nuclear security, while militarily kicking the pants of Palestinian natives and their Arab neighbors who attacked you in the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars. You secure new borders won fair and square. And if you are Golda Meir you promise the then-US President, who knows you have nuclear technology, that you will never be the first in the region to use the bomb. And you set about creating a current day promised land, one geographic space surrounded by well over twenty Arab countries, where you can be Jewish and safe. Surely that’s fair.

The problem is that modern Israel’s early history is not as golden as its story goes. In The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, renowned Israeli historian Ilan Pappe detailed irrefutably the destruction between 1947 and 1949 of four hundred Palestinian villages, the massacre of civilians, and the expulsion of a million Palestinians at gunpoint, with no right of return. For peoples with long and living memories, the Arab-Israeli wars that followed cannot be understood apart from either the colonial period of the British Mandate or the brutal treatment of Palestinian Arabs as Israel was becoming a nation. In the same manner, the unrelenting hatred on both sides of this present conflict cannot be understood apart from Israel’s expansion in the territories (both peaceably and by force of arms) and its refusal to recognize anything but this as the prime good: whatever it takes to be Israeli and safe is right. Whatever it takes, including ousting or killing Arabs so that this one place, this tiny spit of land on the huge ocean-filled globe, can be yours and safe is right. Whatever it takes. Because never, ever again.


* * *

I agree with Michael Lerner that both Israelis and Palestinians have PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). I know personally both the experience of severe trauma and the ongoing feeling of torture, post event. I know the reality of its daily terror, the fear of death. I know the feeling of waking each morning with nightmares, heart racing, and to know, from sunrise to sundown, the physical and emotional reality of fear draining your life force. So I can understand—in part, as an individual—the inclination to place tall walls around one’s safety, one’s possibility of recovery and refuge, with anger and even a big gun at the ready against anyone who might take that from you.

But the truth of the matter is that sometimes the tortured become torturers. Whether out of fear or out of a seemingly unfeeling, permanent resolve, the tortured can make another into the face of those who killed them—and this I can also understand but never accept. Perhaps I refuse it because I am not a “people.” Perhaps because I am not “the Jewish people” and my experiences of severe trauma are insufficient to really understand survival and death in the Shoah—or the thousands of years of ill treatment at others’ hands before and since. Perhaps I do not accept it because social realities of groups are simply different than individual trauma; they are collectively reinforced and more difficult to heal. I do not know.

What I do know is that despite these differences I am still asking the question, what has become of Israel? I must ask it because I know that Israel is acting out of trauma, not as the powerful nation it is but as the ghettoized Jewish people they once were, facing imminent demise. I must also ask because I, as a tax-paying US citizen, am complicit in Israeli treatment of Palestinians if I say nothing. Finally, I must ask because I cannot watch Israel’s violent, increasingly right-wing government occupy Palestinian territories for 50 years, deny right of return, kill West Bank residents, and repeatedly bomb Gazans in a series of supposedly “justified” wars—and say nothing while the dominant US answer is simply to dehumanize and dismiss Hamas as “terrorists.”

The people of Gaza are experiencing destruction that pundits and politicos condemning Hamas do not seem to understand. This is not a war between equals, but the third war in eight years between a national occupier and a people occupied, and it is Israel that is in power and armed to the teeth. Period. It is Israel that has created a humanitarian crisis in the occupied lands. It is Israel whose Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, Moshe Feiglin, has reportedly openly called for ethnic cleansing, a full take-over of the territories without regard for the fate of its inhabitants. It is Israel whose Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin reportedly agrees. It is Prime Minister Netanyahu who blames Hamas and the Palestinians for their own deaths and calls on the United States to help it avoid evaluation for war crimes. Likewise, it is Netanyahu who reportedly appointed Feiglin to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on the very day Feiglin called for the erasure of Gaza. It is the nation of Israel who has fostered an atmosphere in which far too many Israelis, segregated from Palestinians, dehumanize them and call for their deaths. It is Israel t hat is actively blocking Israeli dissent groups from protesting military action. And it is the government of Israel who has likely committed war crimes against the Palestinians they rule over as occupiers.

It is neither an accident nor a knee jerk reaction that led Nelson Mandela, in 2001, to call the  Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories apartheid. In Gaza, not even Palestinians’ fishing rights, off their own shores, are free to them. Modern Israel is doing to Palestinians what was done to them—devastating, dehumanizing, and killing—and in the process, it is corrupting Israel.

Hamas’ militancy—violent, counterproductive, and antisemitic—nevertheless reflects the (democratically elected) resistance of an occupied people refusing the brutality of their occupiers. We have seen it before—in Native American wars, US slave rebellions, the Mandela-led refusal of Apartheid, the Black Power movement, the IRA, and more. Study upon study has shown that oppression and impoverishment cause violence (and likewise violence causes impoverishment). People pushed to the point of collective death, physically, emotionally, and materially, will fight back against an occupying power—with tunnels, with force of arms, with stones, and with their bodies, if they have nothing else. Hamas is the expression of the incapacity of Palestinians any longer to endure Israeli oppression.

Understanding this is the beginning of mercy (chesed or “lovingkindness”) to Israel’s enemy.


* * *

The best means of bringing peace to the war between Israel and Palestinians, a war of impossibly mutual hatred, is to recognize the humanity and political reality of the warring occupied force. It is the opposite of Israel’s policy toward Hamas. It is the opposite of the United States’ treatment of Hamas. But it is the right thing to do.


As Rabbi Michael Lerner said:

“…Israel ignored the Saudi Arabian-led peace initiative, refused to stop its expansion of settlements in the West Bank, and imposed an economically crushing blockade on Gaza. Israel did all this in spite of the fact that the Palestinian Authority was promoting nonviolence, actively cooperating with Israeli security forces to prevent any attacks on Israel, and seeking reconciliation and peace.

The Saudi Arabian led peace initiative, which Israel never even responded to, would have granted Israel the recognition it has long sought, ended the hostilities, and given Israel a recognized place in the Middle East (though it had some imperfections, it was a generous first step toward a realistic peace accord with all the Arab states of the region). Even Hamas, whose hateful charter called for Israel’s destruction, had decided to accept the reality of Israel’s existence, and while unable to embrace its “right” to exist, nevertheless agreed to reconcile with the Palestinian Authority and in that context live within the terms that the Palestinian Authority would negotiate with Israel. Most Israelis ignored all this and were content to ignore the Palestinian suffering under occupation or the Gazans slowly being reduced to penury from Israel’s blockade.” (my italics)

The elder statesman, former President Jimmy Carter, completes the picture:

“This [current] tragedy results from [Israel’s] deliberate obstruction of a promising move toward peace in the region, when a reconciliation agreement among the Palestinian factions was announced in April. This was a major concession by Hamas, in opening Gaza to joint control under a technocratic government that did not include any Hamas members. The new government also pledged to adopt the three basic principles demanded by the Middle East Quartet comprised of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia: nonviolence, recognition of Israel, and adherence to past agreements. Tragically, Israel rejected this opportunity for peace and has succeeded in preventing the new government’s deployment in Gaza.” (my italics)

Israel refused these unprecedented moves toward peace by Hamas because, as Netanyahu has repeatedly said, he will never permit a free Palestinian state. Even now, in the midst of war, Hamas’ demands are eminently reasonable: for Israel to treat Palestinians humanely and for Palestinian Gazans to gain a seaport, an international airport, and free economic trade rather than the current Israeli blockade. Freedom rather than prison. Hamas is violent, and they will continue to violently resist Israeli occupiers who, they know all too well, cannot be trusted.

And so:

“The international community’s initial goal should be the full restoration of the free movement of people and goods to and from Gaza through Israel, Egypt, and the sea. Concurrently, the United States and EU should recognize that Hamas is not just a military but also a political force. Hamas cannot be wished away, nor will it cooperate in its own demise. Only by recognizing its legitimacy as a political actor — one that represents a substantial portion of the Palestinian people — can the West begin to provide the right incentives for Hamas to lay down its weapons. Ever since the internationally monitored 2006 elections that brought Hamas to power in Palestine, the West’s approach has manifestly contributed to the opposite result. Ultimately, however, lasting peace depends on the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel.” (my italics)

But the United States should go one step further. President Obama, who is genuinely the king of kindness when it comes to devastated children, has expressed his “dismay” at the death of innocent Gazan civilians at the same time that Congress has resupplied Israel’s military. We should now step into a full realization of our role in the occupation and in Palestinian civilian deaths. Not only should we stop sending 3.1 billion dollars of military aid per year to Israel (a call currently being made even by some of Israel’s top supporters), we should redirect that aid to the rebuilding of the Palestinian territories and the foundation of a Palestinian state. We should do it in coordination with the Middle East Quartet. We should do it as allies of Israel. And we should do it until it is done.

We should do it not only because one of the only strategies that has demonstrably stopped Israeli aggression in the past has been US threats to pull military aid. We should do it because we are Israel’s most powerful ally. And we should do it because many in this country love Israel. And sometimes being an ally means taking the hard road of calling out a friend’s brutality. Let us then, as a nation, call out Israel’s brutality, take the 3.1 billion dollars of yearly foreign war aid to Israel and redirect it to help the Palestinians rebuild their lands, free themselves, and make a future—as Israel also wants a future. Freeing Palestinians from Israeli occupation will also, ultimately, free the Israelis who are imprisoning them. For a future free of threat. A future free for children to play in safety. A future free for worship and the enjoyment of life, sublime and banal, with sunlight shining through olive groves on the slopes of the Mount–and by the Gazan sea.


Diana M Swancutt is the Director of the Boston Poverty Consortium and a professor of Bible and Emergent Christianity. See BPC’s “About” page for a fuller bio. As with all essays and articles, the opinions stated here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of individual members of the BPC.

Postscript and updates: This essay is worth the time if you are interested in one Palestinian point of view: http://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/you-happening-letter-israeli-friend/. Told to his Jewish friend, this letter is trenchant, precise, passionate, pained, and devastating. Sept 1: Israel and the Palestian leadership are in a period of “indefinite truce.” Israel has just begun annexing 1000 more acres of the West Bank for new Israeli settlers’ homes. Sept 23: the US has pledged 118 million in humanitarian aid to Gaza (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2014/09/231975.htm) and continues military funding of Israel.


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