The power of an idea, an experience
Note: this post was written during Steven Martin's recent trip to the Palestinian territories, joining a delegation from Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice (pcpj.org).
The more time I spend here the more certain I am that I have no answers. There are no easy explanations, no possibility of taking sides, no way through the intense tangle of injustices committed through history on both sides. But one small idea dawned on me that I would like to share with you.
It seems that much of what is taking place here in Palestinian lands is based upon a simple phrase you've probably heard before: "Never again." I'm going to try to explain how a two-word phrase can determine the destiny of two peoples and the world around them.
First, when I refer to Palestinian lands, I am referring to the lands inside the "Green Line," the internationally recognized borders of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, areas that remained under Palestinian control after the 1948 war that created the State of Israel. The validity of these borders are disputed more by religious and secular ideologues than by international institutions and laws. Outside of the Green Line are the lands that belong to the Israelis, and inside are the lands of the Arabic-speaking people, both Christians and Muslims, that call themselves Palestinians.
"Never Again" became the de facto slogan of the Jewish people after the horrors of the Holocaust. I have spent the last six or seven years of my life investigating the Christian church's complicity in the Holocaust and building a platform of Jewish-Christian reconciliation based upon this knowledge. I have visited Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and all of my films on this subject are on permanent display at both museums. I have visited the concentration camps of Dachau and Sachsenhausen and have taken my young children to both camps precisely because I join with the Jewish people in declaring, "Never Again." I have taken many of my fellow parishioners to task as they have unconsciously used anti-Semitic language in their Bible lessons (have you ever thought about the term "Old Testament" as being an anti-Semitic term?), making myself unpopular at times. "Never Again" drives me, a follower of Jesus Christ, to my human rights work, my anti-torture work, my peace and reconciliation work. I feel the need to state this openly because critique of Israeli policy is often taken as anti-Semitism. I am not anti-Semitic in these statements, and work to overcome the systemic anti-Semitism that is unfortunately part of my American and Christian culture.
"Never Again" also forms laws and policies that have a real effect on people. Many systems in the world begin with a simple idea and become codified into laws and eventually bureaucracies and governments. Let me give you an example of how this works.
As a result of the Nazi government's systematic persecution of the Jews that resulted in the industrialized murder of over six million Jews, more than half of the Jews in the world at that time (itself a bureaucracy born of an idea), Jews decided that they would never, ever be in a position to see their children murdered again. In the tension following World War II and the Israeli War of Independence, set of laws ensued that protected Jews from danger in hostile territories. The Israeli government guarantees that if a Jew goes into an area outside the towns and cities that are already established as Jewish areas, that person will be guarded by the Israeli military.
So hypothetically it might go like this: if an Israeli goes into an area largely unoccupied in order to till the soil, set up irrigation, and build a home, that Israeli will be guarded by a small outpost of soldiers. Other Israelis might follow this pioneer and join this desert outpost, thus creating a new village that will continuously be guarded by soldiers for the safety of the inhabitants. "Never Again" will any Jew be left abandoned and unprotected.
Now, let's take this to the real-life situation in Hebron. Hebron is a city inside the Green Line, occupied by Israel but, under international law, governed by the Palestinian Authority. Hebron is also the second holiest site in Judaism. It is where Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah are buried. It is where King David's offices were before he moved them to Jerusalem. It is the first piece of land purchased by a Jew in history. But for hundreds of years it has been a Muslim city. Abraham is not only the father of Judaism, but also of Islam and Christianity. Abraham is buried in a cave upon which a mosque sits, and this too is one of the most important sites in Islam.
A small number of Jewish settlers came to Hebron (actually a colony of Jews had existed there for centuries), and by laws based upon the phrase "Never Again," were followed by the military. In other words, it was illegal for them to be in the city unguarded. And when soldiers are present in a city controlled by another government, it is the textbook definition of occupation.
As these bold settlers gain ground, the military clears out space around them to create a protective barrier. Checkpoints are set up. Palestinian families are relocated from homes owned for hundreds of years. Shops are closed. Streets are left vacant. Young men are routinely and randomly detained as a method of intimidation. Violence erupts on both sides.
Then more settlers come in to fill the apartments left behind in these safety zones. The settlements expand. The military presence expands. Fears abound that a broader agenda is coming to fruition, a plan by the Israelis to take the whole of the Palestinian lands. Looking at maps showing the closures of areas, the lands confiscated by the wall, and the shrinkage of Palestinian territories over the years since the Second Intifada, it's not hard to imagine that this is indeed the policy.
All born out of a horrific experience in history, and the phrase, "Never Again."