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A Jew Among Christian Peacemakers

Simone Zelitch
September 18, 2015

Prologue: My Christian Problem

by Simone Zelitch Simone 4 August 2nd I’M GOING TO HEBRON with an interfaith delegation of the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) because my rabbi asked me. Linda Holtzman loves that sort of thing — working with Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Animists — and she’s consistently challenged the Jewish establishment’s positions on Israeli policy from the pulpit and the street. Rabbi Linda’s an ethical powerhouse, unpretentiously brave and buoyant, and she’s known me for years and can talk me into pretty much anything, but frankly, this trip was a stretch. [caption id=“attachment_39383” align=“alignright” width=“300”]Linda Holtzman puts an orange on the seder plate -- a symbol of something that we don’t expect but that can nonetheless find its place. Linda Holtzman puts an orange on the seder plate -- a symbol of something that we don’t expect but that can nonetheless find its place.[/caption] The Christian Peacemaker Team grew out of a coalition of historic peace churches, such as Mennonites and the Church of the Brethren, who wanted to find a way to respond to the many U.S. funded “low-level” conflicts around the world — in Central America, Haiti, and Palestine. They “stand in front of the weapons and encourage less violent ways for change to happen,” according to their website. As of Summer 2015, full-time CPT staff are based in Palestine, Columbia, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Nigeria, well as Canada, where they work in solidarity with aboriginal tribes to resist corporate land-grabs. Their July convention, held in Detroit, focused on water rights. Delegations travel to these places for two weeks to strengthen CPT’s work and to go home and tell its story. As far as I know, this is the first time Jews have joined a CPT delegation. I’D GONE TO ISRAEL a few times in the past twenty years to research my novels, but never as part of a delegation. Sometimes I call myself a Buber-style cultural Zionist, and sometimes I identify as an anarcho-Bundist. Like many writers, I like to think I chew ideologies with my mouth open; I like to see what I’m eating, and I hope I know better than to swallow. As you can imagine, I have a resistance to groups and itineraries. I don’t like being told where to go and actively resist being told what to think. But to put it more starkly and specifically, I hesitated going on the Christian Peacemaker Team delegation because of my Christian Problem. [caption id=“attachment_39377” align=“alignleft” width=“225”]Author attempting to be good Bundist with Vilnius Yiddish Institute Diploma 2010 Author attempting to be a good Bundist with Vilnius Yiddish Institute Diploma 2010[/caption] I’m sure that the Mennonites who run the CPT-Palestine program know far more than I do about Israel and Palestine. Yet in the literature they gave us, they speak with a serenity that I find unnerving, and it fires up my paranoid synapses in ways that I know are completely unfair. Do they see themselves as cleaning up a mess that Jews have made? Where is the ambivalence and the wrestling? I don’t see these people breaking into a sweat. Why do they keep talking about “witnessing” and use words like “hope”? Who in their right mind would use a word like hope about the region, let alone where we’ll be spending most of our time, Hebron? Hebron is an ancient city, believed to be the site of the Tomb of the Patriarchs (and Matriarchs), which is, of course, sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Both populations have roots there. I’ve been reading Menachem Klein’s excellent Lives in Common, in which he considers the relative peace and neighborly relations between Jews and Muslims of the late Ottoman period, the effect of Zionism and burgeoning Arab resistance, the 1929 massacre of Jews by Arabs during their nationalist uprising, and the vengeance of the Jewish settlers after the territory was captured by Israel during the 1967 war, most fatally in Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of Palestinian worshippers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994. Now Hebron is a flashpoint, a place where the Israeli occupation takes its most brutal forms. [caption id=“attachment_39378” align=“alignright” width=“300”]Hebron, 2015 Hebron, 2015[/caption] So hope? Not bloody likely. At least not for me. I can feel despair and anger, I can feel outrage at the settlements, but I can’t extend that simple outrage to the entire Zionist project in all of its manifestations since the first Russian Jews landed in Jaffa in 1881. Who were those crazy men and women? Imperialists? The term implies that they represented an empire. Ah, face it: an accurate term is “settler.” Then I double back and wonder: If Jews have a right to return to a city like Hebron, where they were dispossessed eighty years ago, do Palestinians then have a right to return to a city like Haifa, where they were dispossessed, seventy-seven years ago? I’ve talked about this sort of stuff with Rabbi Linda, and she said it was all the more reason to come along and take those contradictions with me. Do the Christians struggle with this stuff? Are the terms simpler for them? Yes, I know, Israel is their Holy Land, but surely they don’t carry all the Jewish or the Muslim baggage. Maybe I resent their distance from these circumstances. Do they have skin in this game? And is distance an advantage? MY MOST RECENT NOVEL, Waveland, is about another group of outsiders who went to a brutal civil rights flashpoint: the volunteers who came to Mississippi in 1964 in the project we now call Freedom Summer. Nearly a thousand Northern college students went South to support the work of the Freedom Movement. They staffed project offices, taught in Freedom Schools, and registered voters for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Many of the students were white, and they were certainly outsiders. They could have stayed North and dealt with obvious discrimination in their own communities in Boston, New York, Minneapolis, Columbus, or Philadelphia. Instead, they chose to go to Mississippi, where racism was unambiguous, heroes and villains well-defined, and their own roles were prescribed. It was, as one white Mississippi Movement veteran said to me, “the baddest place.” From a distance, Hebron seems to be Mississippi’s Palestinian equivalent, with its separate roads for Jews and Palestinians, a city center where Palestinians are driven out of their own shop and streets by settlers, children who need protection when they walk to school, humiliations and outrages I can’t yet imagine and will discover and document in the weeks to come. And like Mississippi, Hebron has its outside agitators, CPT staff in red baseball caps who do the best they can to document what they see and bring it to international attention. Here’s the truth of the matter: like Freedom Summer volunteers, the Christians on the CPT Palestine project are outsiders. Maybe their serene distance isn’t an affront to Jews like me. Maybe it’s a gift. They weren’t dispossessed, and feel no need to repossess. They can — oy vey — actually think about the awful stuff that goes on in Hebron or Gaza as a humanitarian crisis without needing to dredge up histories and claims and family photographs and old property deeds. It may drive me crazy, but the value of this perspective is undeniable. So off I go, having made peace with the Christian Peacemakers by reframing them as Freedom Summer volunteers, with all the ambiguity that term presents: war-tourist, voyeur, outside agitator. I suspect the other Jews in my group made peace with them long ago, because they’re wise enough to understand that in the end, we’re all outsiders, neither Israeli nor Palestinian, and as Americans who essentially bankroll Israeli policy, we’re all culpable for what happens in Hebron. [caption id=“attachment_39379” align=“alignleft” width=“300”]The delegation in East Jerusalem—pre-Hebron, cranky delegate in the hat. The delegation in East Jerusalem—pre-Hebron, cranky delegate in the hat.[/caption] Still, at this point, I’m afraid I’ve self-identified as the “cranky delegate,” the one who is fascinated by Israeli culture and the revival of the Hebrew language, the one who finds something — I can’t know what — keeping me from whole-hearted support of the BDS movement, the one who kept wanting us to read a book together to prepare, who asked if there could be a way to let Palestinians in Hebron know that there were Jews in the delegation. Could we wear special red caps? In short, within this lovely interfaith group, I’ve set myself up for alienation. Well, I thought, at least I can occasionally vent to Rabbi Linda. Then, last week, Linda had an accident while walking her dog. She broke her shoulder, and can’t come with us. Wish her a speedy recovery, and wish me luck. Read other installments in this series. Simone Zelitch is the author of four novels, most recently Waveland, which follows a Jewish volunteer in the Freedom Movement in Mississippi during the 1964 Summer Project and the years that follow. A new novel, Judenstaat, is forthcoming from Tor Books in the summer of 2016. She lives and teaches in Philadelphia. Learn more about the author at