Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Op-Ed on the Morikawa Conference

Below is the text of an opinion piece by Michelle J. Kinnucan on last November's Morikawa Conference. It was submitted and accepted for publication in the Ann Arbor News before the conference. But the opinion page editor later contacted Michelle and told her it wouldn't be published except as a 250-word letter. That was unworkable and it was distributed to some of the conferees as a leaflet. Click here to download the leaflet.

On "Taking Sides" and the 2008 Morikawa Conference

by Michelle J. Kinnucan

The thematic question of this year's Morikawa Conference is: "In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how can Jews, Christians, and Muslims make religion part of the solution, instead of part of the problem?"

Just weeks after September 11, 2001, one of this year's three keynote speakers, Rabbi Marc Gopin, wrote an article entitled, "This War Is About Religion, And Cannot Be Won Without It." The main religion to which Rabbi Gopin refers is Islam and in the article he writes, "The time has come for a war for the soul of Islam."

While I disagree with Rabbi Gopin's diagnosis and prescription (as the late Edward Said observed in 1995, "the best response to terrorism is justice"), I share his assumption that religions are fair game for criticism even by outsiders, such as Gopin is to Islam. Jews, Christians, and Muslims can be "part of the solution" by bringing their universalistic justice traditions to bear upon the conflict. To do this, though, everyone will have to abandon particularistic notions of justice and make all of the narratives and supporting ideologies subject to forthright but fair criticism.

This will require Christians to courageously reject what Jewish theologian Marc H. Ellis calls an "ecumenical deal" requiring "eternal repentance for Christian anti-Jewishness unencumbered by any substantive criticism of Israel." Ellis adds, "Substantive criticism of Israel means, at least from the Jewish side, the reemergence of Christian anti-Jewishness."

Under the terms of the deal, Ellis says, "the main energy of ecumenical gatherings is spent on diverting the question that hovers over all discussions of Jews and Christians: the oppression of the Palestinian people by Jewish Israelis with the support, by commission or omission, of Jewish and Christian partners in the ecumenical dialogue." It is this situation that the late the Rev. Dr. Michael Prior had in mind when he lamented how "thoroughly Zionized Judaism infects the so-called Jewish-Christian dialogue."As Dr. Rosemary Radford Ruether states:
... [Western] Christians evade knowing and hence having to speak about [Palestinians] in order not to be denounced as anti-Semitic by those Jews with whom they wish to cultivate 'ecumenical relations.'

Christian repentance for the Holocaust and anti-Semitism have been effectively distorted into a silencing of Western Christians in regard to Palestinian human and civil rights, a view carefully nurtured and reinforced by the Jewish establishment, especially in North America. Any effort to break through this wall of self-censorship of Western Christians in regard to injustice to Palestinians ... encounters built-in walls of ignorance and self-censorship among Christians.
This year's Morikawa Conference could mark the beginning of a break with this sad history. But in promotional materials it is stressed: "This Conference is about religion and enhancing the human condition. It is not about taking sides." This signals, before the Conference has even begun, a profound betrayal of justice, one of the most vital principles of the best of our faith traditions. Justice requires us to takes sides.

In 1993, in its "Declaration Toward a Global Ethic," the Parliament of the World's Religions affirmed: "that a common set of core values is found in the teachings of the [world's] religions, and that these form the basis of a global ethic." It declared, "No person should ever be considered or treated as a second-class citizen, or be exploited in any way whatsoever. ... We must put behind us all forms of domination or abuse."

Mainstream American Judaism is committed to supporting Israel, the "Jewish state." Israel is built upon past and ongoing domination, abuse, and violence facilitated by decisive American financial, diplomatic, and military support. The Rev. Naim Ateek, the Palestinian founder of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, eloquently describes the resulting situation on the ground in his 2001 Easter message:
Here in Palestine Jesus is again walking the Via Dolorosa. Jesus is the powerless Palestinian humiliated at a checkpoint, the woman trying to get through to the hospital for treatment, the young man whose dignity is trampled, the young student who cannot get to the university to study, the unemployed father who needs to find bread to feed his family; the list is tragically getting longer, and Jesus is there in their midst suffering with them. He is with them when their homes are shelled by tanks and helicopter gunships. He is with them in their towns and villages, in their pains and sorrows.

In this season of Lent, it seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him. It only takes people of insight to see the hundreds of thousands of crosses throughout the land, Palestinian men, women, and children being crucified. Palestine has become one huge Golgotha. The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily. Palestine has become the place of the skull.
To look at it less metaphorically, in 2008 alone, according to the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, Israelis have, thus far, killed 434 Palestinians, 86 of whom were minors. The respective figures for Israelis killed by Palestinians are 30 and 4.

Just as people of conscience and faith opposed militarized, state-identified religion in the service of South African apartheid and today oppose it in the service of the US "War on Terror," they must also today oppose such religion in the service of Israel and Zionism. As the "Declaration Toward a Global Ethic" concludes: "Let no one be deceived: There is no survival for humanity without global peace! ... Let no one be deceived: There is no global peace without global justice!"

Contra the call of the Morikawa Conference, both faithfulness and justice demand that we do "take sides." As the Rev. Allan Boesak, a Black South African anti-apartheid activist, wrote in 1977: "Neutrality, as you know, is the most abominable demonstration of partiality because it means choosing the side of power and injustice without assuming responsibility for them." As Elie Wiesel, put it in his 1986 Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere."

Christians and other people of faith and conscience would do well to consider the example of this year's University of Michigan Wallenberg Endowment honoree. Archbishop Desmond Tutu came to prominence as a result of his active opposition to South African apartheid but the disappearance of that racist state has not silenced him. On April 13, 2002, he told a Boston audience:
... the Israeli government is placed on a pedestal, and to criticize it is to be immediately dubbed anti-Semitic, as if the Palestinians were not Semitic. ...

People are scared in this country to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful–very powerful. Well, so what? This is God's world. For goodness sake, this is God's world! We live in a moral universe. The apartheid government was very powerful, but today it no longer exists. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pinochet, Milosovic, and Idi Amin were all powerful, but in the end they bit the dust.
This is, indeed, God's world and as the Psalmist reminds us "The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed." Fortified by Tutu's inspiring words and example let us go forth confidently "to say wrong is wrong," to challenge Zionism—Christian and Jewish, and to do our part to work for justice and to toss Israeli apartheid onto the dust heap of history. The Morikawa Conference is as good a place as any to start.

About the author: Michelle J. Kinnucan is a member of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor and she can be contacted [via]. Her writing has previously appeared in, Critical Moment, Palestine Chronicle, Arab American News, and elsewhere. Her 2004 investigative report on the Global Intelligence Working Group was featured in Censored 2005: The Top 25 Censored Stories (Seven Stories Pr., 2004) and she contributed a chapter to Finding the Force of the Star Wars Franchise (Peter Lang, 2006).

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