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Barton GingerichNovember 13, 2012
On November 8-11, liberals from across the southeast retreated to United Methodism’s Lake Junaluska Center for the 2012 Peace Conference. Though United Methodists comprised the majority of attendants, spokespeople from a wide array of faith traditions provided the coveted interfaith flavor. A civil rights legend and a Nobel Peace prize winner added a historic dimension to the event. However, one workshop harshly condemned Israel and concluded, “We have to think in terms without an Arab state…there must be an end to a ‘Jewish state’…There must be complete equal rights and an end to this idea of a Jewish state.” The event was sponsored by the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, the Metta Center for Nonviolence, The Fellowship of Reconciliation, North Carolina Peace Action, and the American Friends Service Committee.
The Rev. Dr. Bernard Lafayette opened as the Thursday evening speaker. The Candler School of Theology Distinguished Scholar shared his insights and experiences as a prominent leader of the civil rights movement, where he proved to be a master strategist of nonviolent activism. He instructed, “First, the thing with nonviolence is you’ve got to work on yourself.” “I can understand not attacking your enemies, but love your enemies?” he rhetorically inquired, “The purpose is transformation…Once people become transformed, they join your movement.” Just as prominent was Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee. She inspired the audience with her account of how she helped end Liberia’s civil wars.
The lingering warm sentiments ceased with a Friday afternoon workshop by Miko Peled entitled “Non-Violent Resistance in Palestine.” “Americans are perhaps the most misinformed about this issue…, and they often pay the most into this issue,” he complained. Peled further warned, “My point of view isn’t balanced.” Indeed, his roots run throughout the modern nation of Israel’s short history. His grandfather signed the Israeli Declaration of Independence; his father, Mattityahu Peled, served as a high-ranking general before converting to peace activism and liberal politics. Miko has continued down the latter path. His latest book, The General’s Son, critiques Israel for its acquisition of territory, especially from war.
Peled set out to change the popular narrative surrounding the Israel-Palestine situation. He observed that, in the 1947 partition resolution, larger portions of land were given to the smaller immigrant community. Peled understood Palestinians to be victims: there were two nations in one country (Israelis and Palestinians), but only the former had a significant fighting force. The new government soon engaged in “a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing.” He condemned the forced eviction of Palestinians from their homes; he even described Israeli Defense troopers as “looters.”
As for the Six Day War, Peled argued, “We hear…that the Arabs attacked immediately…but which Arabs are they?” Other nations—not Palestinians—directly threatened Israel. “We always heard that Egypt wanted to attack us and wipe us out,” he reminisced, “We always heard about existential threats.” Peled found this misleading. While the Egyptian Army did occupy the de-militarized zone in the Suez Canal, it “was not prepared for war for another year.” Regardless, Israeli commanders recommended preemptive strikes. Peled reported, “They’re not talking about a threat, but about an opportunity.”
Overall, Peled colored Zionism as a concept of conquest, ethnic cleansing, de-Arabizing, and imposition of a racially segregated society. He had no sympathy for theological arguments that favored support for Israel, expressing significant doubts about the historicity of the Old Testament. He had even less sympathy for U.S.-Israel relations. He summarized the American interventionist foreign policy as “anyone in the world can be called a terrorist and then killed and captured.” As for U.S. aid, he exclaimed, “There’s no question that a lot of the money goes to the settlements.” Peled thought dual American-Israeli citizenship was “definitely a big problem.” He deemed the 2-state solution as “completely unrealistic” and “a fig leaf that Israeli and American politicians use.” He thought one of the best actions to take against the problems was the BDS strategy of boycott, divest, and sanction.
A liberal rabbi in the audience demurred somewhat: the Syrians were shelling civilians around the Golan Heights before the Six Day strikes. “I don’t think this is an apartheid state…It’s a nation of laws in its administration. 7% [of the people] are Arab; they have civil rights.” He added, “I think we need to delineate between the situation in the West Bank and Israel generally.” Nevertheless, he did think that the United States supported Israel so loyally since “Israel is an unsinkable American aircraft carrier in the Middle East.”
No less controversial was pastor Alan Storey of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. He opened with a reinterpretation of the Noah’s Ark story, musing especially on the fear that had to overtake those left outside in the Deluge. Storey demanded empathy for these victims, since only faulty logic makes the distinction between “righteous” and “wicked” people, noting, “Once the flood had subsided, wickedness remained.” The speaker made sure to slash at the term “axis of evil.” Further exploiting 21st century buzz words, Storey contended, “God’s war on terror became a war of terror…And God repents.” Storey’s goal was obvious: “It is impossible to be a peacemaker if we serve a violent God.” He considered the thought process behind the belief that “evil people” are “cast into Hell” was “nothing more than hate speech.” “God can do all things except use violence successfully,” Storey thought.
The South African clergyman worried about how a violent picture of God has infected American policy. The U.S. habit of war-mongering threatens rather than achieves safety and security. “The greatest threat to America is not terrorism; it’s not China; the greatest threat to America is America,” he warned, “Empires implode…because they spend more than they have trying to defend…who they are.” Storey also observed, “God is the heavenly parent of both the murdered and the murderer…The divine takes persecution personally.” On the other hand, he bemoaned, “It’s very difficult to transform a system that we are defendant upon for our livelihood.” There was little room for patriotism in Storey’s analysis. He found inspiration from none other than Bradley Manning, who is detained as a capital offender for passing along classified material to WikiLeaks (and thus enemies of America). Storey implored his listeners, “When is the Methodist church of this country going to refuse to allow their children to enter the military?”
The 2012 Lake Junaluska Peace Conference had its highs and lows. Reflecting on civil rights and peace victories past and present no doubt encouraged the rather aged participants. On the other hand, some workshops and dinner conversations tended to devolve into heavily leftist screeds, exacerbated by a life in the Bible Belt. However, the stunning defeat of BDS legislation at the United Methodist General Conference this past summer points to an uphill battle for anti-Israel activists.
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