Let’s try talking to the ‘enemy’


May 30, 2018 | Viewpoints | Volume 22 Issue 12
Russel Snyder-Penner |

I have a few observations to make about the open letter from the Mennonite Church Canada network of regional working groups on Palestine and Israel (“MC Canada working groups call for sanctions against Israel,” May 21, page 28). You will need to read this letter to understand and evaluate my comments.

Taking sides
When people go to war, social pressure to take sides can become intense. Hesitating to declare oneself can feel like a betrayal of friends and acquaintances. This is one of the many reasons love of enemy is easier said than done.

To act out love of enemy may seem like a rejection of friends and acquaintances whom the enemy has injured. This is also why expressions of solidarity are such a risky business for a peace church. Expressions of solidarity easily get mixed up with the ancient social instinct to pull together with friends and family in the face of an adversary.

It is in this light that I observe that the open letter begins with a kind of declaration of allegiance. The authors align with “our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters,” and is a response to their call to end Israel’s illegal occupation.

Not only does the letter call for justice, it appears we are defending our own brothers and sisters against Israel. Lines are being drawn on a ground prepared for binary thinking: family/not family, insider/outsider, neighbour/stranger, friend/enemy. This binary outlook ends up influencing much of the rest of the open letter.

Moral certainty
When engaged in conflict one may be asked to do hard things to individuals on the other side. Many people are uneasy about this. We find it easier if our target is part of a group that is clearly in the wrong and obviously “has it coming.”

The open letter proceeds with a narrative that associates a particular group (Jewish Israel) with collective wrongdoing. To my knowledge, the facts in the narrative are materially correct and they are very troubling. What the narrative does not include are facts that would complicate the picture, that might make it difficult to decide what to do, or that might spread the blame.

In brief, this account strives for clarity and certitude. It justifies Mennonite alignment with our Palestinian brothers and sisters, and against Israel. It establishes the wickedness of the adversary.

Demonstrating commitment
In the final sentences of the open letter, the alliance with our brothers and sisters in opposition to Israel is sealed by a small aggression—a little metaphorical bloodletting. That is, the authors—and Mennonite Church Canada—advocate nonviolent sanctions against Israel until a “comprehensive solution is found.” Based on the 70-plus-year history of the conflict, that could be a long time.

It may seem a little harsh to describe such sanctions as aggression and “metaphorical bloodletting.” The fact of the matter is, economic sanctions have been part of the warrior’s toolkit throughout recorded history. Furthermore, sanctions tend to “work” by making someone, somewhere, suffer.

An extreme example may be found in Gaza, which has been suffering under economic sanctions and blockades by Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority. I am quite certain that the authors of the open letter do not intend these kinds of sanctions.

Unfortunately, it is not clear what they do intend. The authors do not explain how sanctions will help, or how deeply they may bite before ceasing to be “nonviolent.” One wonders whether this tactic may just as likely inflame or prolong the conflict as resolve it. What the push for sanctions does makes clear is who we are with, who we are against, and that we have joined the battle.

Knowing our enemies
In summary, by this very minor act of hostility directed at Israel, Mennonites have acknowledged not merely that they have enemies, but that they are quite capable of making them.

I am not arguing that there is anything shameful in having enemies, or even in making them, if it is done through an act of integrity. The problem, for people who purport to follow Jesus, is figuring out how to love one’s enemy.

My concern with the open letter is that it relies on polarizing rhetoric and resorts to an act of symbolic aggression, both of which are tried and true techniques of triggering ancient patterns of very real social aggression.

As an alternative, I suggest the following: Now that MC Canada has joined the struggle against Israel, congregations need to take seriously their calling to love their enemies. This should include trying to open lines of communication with the people who may receive that call for sanctions as a personal attack. Checking in with the closest synagogue could be a worthwhile first step to opening a difficult if crucial dialogue.

Russel Snyder-Penner works as a lawyer in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., and is a student of theology at Conrad Grebel University College.

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Thanks, Russel Snyder-Penner, for a well reasoned perspective on the May 21 MC Canada working group open letter. I have long thought that Mennonites choosing sides in the 70-year conflict is not an appropriate response for a professed peace church. But it is a predictable response, given the long history of Mennonite institutional and programmatic engagement with the Palestinian side.

In this most recent conflict between Israel and Gaza, my Facebook feed was flooded with two distinct perspectives of the conflict. My cousin and good friend posted the Palestinian perspective and a long-time Jewish friend who has lived in Israel for 40 years provided the Israeli perspective. With each side so polarized, it's hard to see how the two sides can find a path forward, but Lisa Schirch's research and writing provides some thought provoking analysis that Mennonites might well pay attention to: https://lisaschirch.wordpress.com/

Ironically, as Snyder-Penner points out, writing this open letter does indeed put Mennonites in the enemy of Israel camp, making it impossible for them to be effective peacemakers. I highly recommend Russel's modest proposal for peace: check in with the local synagogue and with Jewish agencies that are vigorously articulating an opposing narrative, and begin listening.

Yes, Russel, to use your words, it IS "a little harsh to describe such sanctions as aggression and 'metaphorical bloodletting.'" Actually, more than a little.

To be sure, economic sanctions are nasty. When they work, they create hardship for human beings. Therefore, a call for sanctions should never be undertaken lightly.

At this point, I do not know if anything will be effective in ending the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza. But I am certain that if there is to be an end to the occupation, international pressure (economic as well as other forms) will play a key role. To be effective, such pressure will have to be part of a larger strategy of peacemaking involving both Palestinians and Israelis. But without that pressure, there currently is no incentive for the Netanyahu government to negotiate or change course.

As a North American, it is not for me to say what the outcome of this conflict should be. Israelis and Palestinians will have to make those decisions. But I can decide where I buy my oranges, wine, or hummus, and where I invest my RRSPs.

"As a North American, it is not for me to say what the outcome of this conflict should be. Israelis and Palestinians will have to make those decisions." Hmm, Dean, your actions and words speak otherwise. You have framed the conflict entirely from the Palestinian perspective, judging the Netanayhu government as the sole obstacle to peacemaking. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the impasse that is the current state of affairs in Israel and Palestine and it is a misreading of Israeli and diaspora Jewish public opinion. This is a decades long multifaceted conflict with centuries long roots. It's sad, really, that senior Mennonite leaders have taken such entrenched, one-sided, black-and-white views of this conflict. As an aging senior myself, I see a lot more grey than I used to.

Thank you for articulating the concerns about the MC Canada working group in a measured and thoughtful response. One observation: does anyone within the MC Canada working group talk to and lobby the folks in positions of power in Gaza and the West Bank? I think not. The folks who funnel hundred of millions into armaments, militias and war from autocratic countries in the Middle East, and then have MCC pay for public health nurses and their training.

I do not see Mr. Netanyahu as a peace maker, but he is a guardian who opposes some unpleasant leaders opposite. Is there one who can make peace? These are men of violence, given to choosing that which they know.

Where to begin--as Mr. Snyder suggests: at the local synagogue.

I'm not sure "enemy" language is the right way to frame this discussion. Advocates for Palestinian human rights are not against Israel so much as against injustice. Many Israeli Jews are also confronting the travesty of justice that is Palestine. One of them, Ruth Hillier, once said, "You Mennonite are all about loving Israel, but isn't accountability part of love? Please hold us accountable. The occupation is not only harming Palestinians, it is harming ourselves." Let's talk about peace that comes with justice. Let's talk about nonviolent resistance to injustice on whatever "side" it occurs.

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