from Institute on Religion and Democracy: Presbyterian News
Commentary: MRTI Trash-Talks Israel
CHICAGO—A deep-seated, unshakable, all-encompassing antipathy toward Israel marked the discussions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) June 1-2 in Chicago. While I listened for two days, the MRTI's frame of mind reminded me of a deeply flawed parent who has two children and believes the only way to love one is to detest the other.
This is a sad state of affairs, especially since the General Assembly in 2006 took pains to overturn such a slanted attitude from the 2004 General Assembly's actions, replacing bellicose political rhetoric about divesting with an irenic Christian statement about investing. General Assembly wisely sought care and respect for both the Palestinians and the Israelis. MRTI should be expected to follow the lead of a fairness-seeking Assembly.
However, this has not been the case. Great disdain for Israel seeped out of nearly every MRTI conversation on the Middle East. Harsh words about Israel coupled with uncritical fondness for all things Palestinian weren't occasional lapses into favoritism; they were frequent, prominent, and ubiquitous attitudes. Some MRTI members—Elizabeth Letzler, in particular—took the lead in Israel-bashing; however, they had plenty of company in that line of conversation.
There may be MRTI committee members who are not so inclined—Bill Saint, for one, cautiously ventured some ameliorating language at times, as did Lynwood Battle—but the few who spoke most often and most prominently were unremittingly harsh toward Israel. And no one else frowned upon such excess.
Hostile, Inflammatory Language
If the baseline assumption is that a country is simply wicked, then bellicose language about it will predominate, because one needn't even feign civility toward a pariah. Here are some examples:
- "Rachel Corrie murdered in 2003."—Elizabeth Letzler touting what a Palestinian calendar listed on March 14 about a tragic accident.
- "It's an apartheid system."—Elizabeth Letzler about security against terrorists at Israeli checkpoints.
- "It's an apartheid situation."—Elizabeth Letzler about security restrictions at airports.
- "It is in Israel's interest to maintain the conflict."—Gary Skinner.
- "At El Al in JFK [airport], I showed up, and the first interrogation was 'Do you speak Hebrew?' In other words, 'Are you a Jew?'.... Once they found out I wasn't Jewish, I was treated in a whole different manner, accused of being a felon and a terrorist."—Elizabeth Letzler, relating the one point she felt in real danger on her trip to the Middle East.
Thoughtless, Reckless Generalizations
Sometimes the offense was not entirely in what was said, but rather the careless way the statement was tossed out as a sweeping generalization.
- "They give every 18-year-old Israeli kid a machine gun. The kids are bored and try to look official." And again: "Every 18-year-old kid is given a machine gun and told to stand on a corner and intimidate people." —Elizabeth Letzler.
- "The Israeli government is not really into helping the Palestinians have a better life."—Elizabeth Letzler. This was followed by "That's an understatement!" from someone else.
- "What the Israel government wants is that the Palestinians not be seen."—Carol Hylkema.
- "Israel finds a way to be in the way all the time."—Elizabeth Letzler, who continued "and so the Palestinians use that as a handy excuse to do nothing" about their economic status.
- "One of the objectives of Israelis is to enlarge the size of the Jewish Quarter, so they go to any means possible to seize any property for a Jewish person."—Elizabeth Letzler, about the Old City of Jerusalem.
Half-Truths Covering Palestinian Culpability
There were times when the misdeeds of Palestinians were crying for denunciation, and MRTI seemed to take a circuitous route not to state the obvious. One conversation is a prime example.
Carol Hylkema was telling of her trip to the Palestinian territories. "They told us our bus would not be safe," she related. "It would be stoned, so we hid it" and took other transportation to a particular site.
"Who would stone the bus?" Gary Skinner asked.
"The Palestinians," Hylkema was forced to admit. "They would see the bus as a Jewish bus." Now you would think someone might think that attacking buses wasn't exactly innocent fun. Not this group.
"We were stoned in Ramallah and in Gaza," Skinner reminisced about an earlier trip. "In Gaza, it was a lunch hour, and the kids were at lunch by a school. They thought we were Israeli settlers. Finally their principal came out and stopped them." At least someone realized this wasn't sterling behavior!
"The puzzle to me is..." Let's pause Skinner for a moment and let you finish that sentence. What would puzzle you? That the children were so damaged by hatred and war? That the kids' immediate response would be violence and destruction?
Not that. What puzzled Gary Skinner was this: "Why would Israeli settlers be taking a bus tour?" Note that it wasn't "Why would Israelis be routinely attacked by school children?" Apparently, it was logical to assault Israelis, and the humor was that the kids picked a bunch of tourists instead.
There were other examples of not telling the whole story in order to bathe the Israelis in the most unflattering light and allow even highly culpable Palestinians to shine. For instance, Bill Somplatsky-Jarman screened a video clip decrying Jewish settlers in Hebron, and the documentary uttered not a word about settlers' treatment by Palestinians. When the terrorist group Hamas was briefly mentioned, not a hint of its violent history or genocidal threats toward the Jewish nation were given.
Another example: Somplatsky-Jarman claimed that "18,000 homes have been demolished since 1967." This statistic, of course, left the impression that the homes were only Palestinian, and that they were all demolished by Israel. In truth, Israel demolishes a major number of illegal Jewish homes each year, and even the Palestinian Authority finds it necessary to demolish illegally built Palestinian homes at times.
The Postulation of Sick Motives
Time and again, two MRTI members who had taken a trip to Israel simply assumed malevolence on Israel's part. From their reporting, apparently the evil Israelis must stay awake at night plotting new ways to victimize the saintly Palestinians. Certainly in a fallen world, people do do hurtful things, and power can create tyrants. But goodness does not rest exclusively in Palestinians and wickedness solely in Israelis. One would think it does, however, to hear this pair of MRTI members report on their trip.
- "The Israeli faction is working to remove any Arab trace, and the Muslim faction is pushing back to defend against being erased—and erased is an important word. But there is no one to defend Christians against erasure."—Elizabeth Letzler, explaining her theory that the Israelis—not radical Islamists—are out to "erase" Christian Arabs.
- "The Israelis want the Christians out."—Elizabeth Letzler, explaining why she figures that "Bethlehem will come down to being an Israeli-run theme park."
- "The [vendor's] trip has become so complicated by the checkpoints and all the other harassments."—Carol Hylkema, reducing security measures against real threats of terrorism to intended "harassment" against a Palestinian vendor.
- "The wall is temporary. At some point this village will empty out, and then the wall will move."—Elizabeth Letzler, with an alleged reason for an electric security fence near a Palestinian village.
- "Bethany is a Christian village, and basically they [Israel authorities] cut it off because they don't want them."—Elizabeth Letzler.
- "At the end of the day, the Israelis stack the game so that they win."—Elizabeth Letzler, on how Israel purposefully tries to destroy Palestinian business, such as by letting cut flowers perish by delaying them at a check-point.
At least Letzler had a secondary target for her disparagement of motives. She grabbed a chance to impugn her own country as well: "We need to have a real heartfelt conversation as to how we in the United States finance our lifestyle. How do we make a living? A big piece of it is inflicting violence, death, and misery on other people."
Honest, Unvarnished Observations
Every once in a while a little bit of clear-eyed honesty would sneak into the conversation, such as:
- "They've got to stop shooting each other!" —A Board of Pensions representative, suggesting what might help improve the economy under Hamas and Fatah in the Palestinian territories.
- "Those who didn't get their homes destroyed kind of wish they had!"—Elizabeth Letzler, explaining that a wealthy Arab prince had rebuilt Palestinian homes "mowed over" by a 2002 Israeli battle in the Jenin Refugee Camp, making other residents jealous that they didn't get new homes, too.
- "We're a third-world economy that needs to be in the first world, but we don't want to go."—Elizabeth Letzler's take on the Palestinian economic mindset.
With this pervasively prejudiced attitude, one wonders how MRTI can ever serve as an unbiased Presbyterian agent to do what is right by both Israel and Palestine, both of which deserve our goodwill and best efforts at fairness.