Thursday, July 31, 2008

Methodists and Quakers

Significant actions have been taken by the United Methodist Church in their strong, principled responses to human rights abuses of Palestinians and other oppressed groups. PIAG's Anne Remley has put together a comprehensive (and continually updated) list of Methodist actions supporting Palestinian human rights, several of which are described below.

The Methodists' vigorous discussions around human rights in Palestine/Israel and the actions they have agreed to take bring up a central set of questions that Quakers have wrestled with throughout their history:

Does Quaker faith and practice require us to be a-political, that is, to concentrate on relieving immediate suffering rather than "taking sides" in a conflict?

If we are not to take sides, what does it mean to "speak truth to power"?

Shall we hold that "truth" is always partial and relative, and that each person, group, or nation, has one version of the truth, that all versions should be respected and taken into account?

Or should we align ourselves with human rights advocates who insist there is a bottom line of fair, humane treatment that every human being deserves, and that those who violate human rights should be called out and, through nonviolent action, restrained from violence and oppression?

Or shall we imagine a third way, one that persuades aggressors to change by addressing fundamental needs and grievances and fears that they themselves have, while at the same time seeking to say, "We will not cooperate with your actions in any way, and we will speak up about the wrongness of those actions"?

We encourage readers, Quakers and otherwise, to give their own views on these questions using the comment function below.

The United Methodist Church General Conference has established a "socially responsible investment task force" focusing on Sudan, China, and the Middle East to examine how church investments may avoid linkage with companies involved in human rights abuses in all of these lands.

Some regional conferences now expect to continue their own ethical investment action to end corporate support for the Occupation under long-standing guidelines in the Methodist Book of Discipline that ask churches, regions, and agencies to avoid "investments that appear likely, directly or indirectly, to support violation(s) of human rights."

For example, in June, 2007 the Baltimore-Washington Conference "join[ed] a significant number of regional Methodist bodies in calling for a vigorous response to the occupation. Their declaration states that "our General Rules hold us first accountable to 'Doing no harm.'" But "financing the oppression and violence caused by the military occupation . . . with our investments harms every Israeli and Palestinian, including Christian, child, woman and man." The Conference joined "a proven means of non-violent protest to actively promote a peaceful resolution to the political violence [that is] harming, maiming and killing Israelis and Palestinians" -- violence that in fact "violates Christian principles, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and international law." The Conference called upon Methodist boards of pensions and health benefits, administrators, and financial councilors to determine which corporations supported by Methodist investments profit from the Occupation, as by demolishing homes, constructing the wall, or supporting violence against Israelis or Palestinians. They are to engage such corporations to end such practices and, if they fail, they are to sell the investments and notify all member churches. The Conference concluded with the prayer that these actions "will give hope to Palestinians and Israelis . . . including our Christian brothers and sisters in the region who have not been forgotten."

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Psychiatrist in Gaza

This piece is an excerpt from "The Grief Counselor of Gaza" written by Palestinian psychiatrist Eyad Sarraj for the July - August 2008 edition of The Link (Volume 41, Issue 3), published by Americans for Middle East Understanding. A link to the full article can be found at the end.

The Martyr as Suicide Bomber

One day, in my clinic, a boy of 16 came to see me. He said: I am not a patient. I need your help.

I said: What is it you need?

He said: I need a bomb.

I said: What do you need a bomb for?

He said: I lived all my life in Gaza. I’ve read all the books on Palestine that I can get my hands on. And I’ve figured out a solution. And the solution is this: each one of us should kill a Jew and kill himself. And this is why I want a bomb.

I don’t know what happened to this boy. I didn’t give him his bomb. But it is a graphic example of how a Palestinian youth can feel after a long history of traumatization, victimization, and humiliation.

For a long time I, too, dreamed. I imagined myself attacking the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, rounding up its members and pinning them with my arrows to the ceiling.

A journalist once asked me to introduce him to a potential martyr.

“Why would you blow yourself up?” he asked the young man.

The young man replied: “Would you fight for your country or not? Of course you would. And you would be respected in your country as a brave man. So will I be remembered as a martyr.”

In the Koran, the most influential book in Arabia for the past 14 centuries, God promises Muslims who sacrifice themselves for the sake of Islam that they will not die. They will live on in paradise. Muslims, men and women, even secularists, hold to that promise. Heaven is the ultimate reward of the devout who have the courage to take the ultimate test of faith.

What the potential martyr did not say was that he was burning with a desire for revenge. What he did not say was that, at the age of six, he had witnessed his father being beaten by Israeli soldiers. The sight of his father being dragged away, blood running from his nose, never left him.

A 16-year-old boy in Gaza today is somebody who thinks of life as a prison. He’s not allowed to leave Gaza. He has seen bombings, and killings, and murders, and blood, and humiliation. He doesn’t think he has a future as a scientist, a doctor, an engineer. Sadly and tragically, many of them think that the best thing to do is to become a martyr.

As a psychologist, I look at this as a product of our environment. People are not born to become martyrs. People are not born to become heroes. If you have an environment of hope and joy, people will do everything to deter death, and killing, and murder. If you have an environment of hopelessness and despair, you have a martyr, someone who thinks death is the beginning of life.

There is a moment for any potential martyr when he or she decides to be one. But there is a process that takes them through this path, a process of a kind of internal transformation. Then the moment comes when the would-be martyr meets somebody—in a mosque, or on a street, or in a school, wherever—and that person introduces him to others who are prepared to help him attain heaven.

I have been asked over the years to explain to Western audiences why anyone in their right mind would want to kill themselves along with innocent people. Six years ago Paula Zahn of CNN asked me that question. I responded that today’s suicide bomber—or martyr, as we call them—are the children of the first intifada, many of whom, at the age of 6 or 7, witnessed soldiers beating their fathers or spitting at them in contempt. So much revenge has been bottled up within them. Now teenagers, their identity has become molded with the identity of their people who have been suffering for over a half century, since the uprooting from their homes in Palestine.

Zahn then played a video clip of United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claiming that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was giving thousands of dollars to the families of Palestinian martyrs.

Our interview continued:
Zahn: So Dr. Sarraj, how much of a motivating factor is this big money? We all know the economy in the Occupied Territories is in shambles.

Sarraj: Yeah. Well, in fact, from all the cases I have observed myself, in the clinic and outside the community, money or financial situation has never been a motive for anybody to kill himself really in such a way at all. The economy factor, or the education factor even, was not a significant one. What was very significant, in our research, was the personal history of trauma. The culture in which the people are brought up in and the type of—or the degree of faith these people have and their own interpretation of themselves, the nation, the conflict and Islam itself. That is the most—these are the most important factors.

With that, our interview came to an end.

I have said that the struggle of Palestinians today is how not to become a bomb and that the amazing thing is not the occurrence of suicide bombings, rather the rarity of them.

The outside world still finds it hard to grasp why this is so. It’s so much easier to say they do it for the money. They do it because for them martyrdom is a form of power, the power over death and life. In an environment of absolute despair, the model of the martyr tells you exactly what you feel, that life and death are equal. So the bomber becomes the model. And, yes, this is very sad.

Beyond Martyrdom
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter recently visited Gaza. In an article for The Guardian (May 8, 2008) he wrote: “The world is witnessing a terrible human rights crime in Gaza, where a million and a half human beings are being imprisoned with almost no access to the outside world. An entire population is being brutally punished.”

In his article, President Carter makes reference to a report by B’Tselem, a leading Israeli human rights group, which says that 106 Palestinians were killed between February 27 and March 3 of this year. Fifty-four of them were civilians, and 25 were under the age of 18.

The president could have also cited an earlier report from B’Tselem showing that, after the Israeli disengagement on September 12, 2005, through July 25, 2007, 668 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip by Israeli security forces. Over half were non-combatants and 126 were children. During this same period, Qassam rockets and mortar shells fired by Palestinian militants killed eight Israelis, half of them civilians.

As Professor Sara Roy and I concluded in our Boston Globe article (Jan. 30, 2008), Gaza is no longer approaching economic collapse. It has collapsed. Given the intensity of repression it is facing, can the collapse of its society—family, neighborhood, and community structure—be far behind? If that happens, we shall all suffer the consequences for generations to come.

I have listened to so many stories of children who have been traumatized by what they have seen and heard, who suffer from loss of appetite, insomnia and fear of going out of their homes. For years parents have had to give their children sleeping pills at night because otherwise they cannot sleep. Now, we are running out of sleeping pills. And the question is: Are we running out of hope?

I agree with President Carter’s condemnation of Hamas’s rocket attacks on the Israeli town of Sderot. I concur with his urging Hamas to declare a unilateral ceasefire or to orchestrate with Israel a mutual agreement to terminate all military action in and around Gaza for an extended period.

Hamas leaders told the president they have made such overtures in the past that Israel has rejected, but that they were prepared to support a mutual ceasefire restricted to Gaza. This offer, too, Israel has rejected.
I have spent many years observing Hamas at close range and debating politics with its leaders. I believe it has an incentive to halt its terrorist activity. Following its astounding victory in Gaza’s municipal elections in May 2005, it now has a guaranteed political future when and if it chooses to abandon the armed struggle.

I believe, with President Carter, that the time has come “for strong voices in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere to speak out and condemn the human rights tragedy that has befallen the Palestinian people.”

My hope is that the new American administration will seek the path of diplomacy, not confrontation, in the Middle East. I believe that if you sit with Hamas and recognize that it is a major player, the question of the rockets can be resolved. If you don’t, and you continue to isolate the movement, the rockets will continue. There is no popular movement against the firing of rockets. How can people oppose this kind of resistance, if there is no hope of ending the occupation? People cheer rockets against Israel and will continue to do so until there is hope that Israel will end the occupation and give Palestinians back their land, their rights and their freedom.

To be sure, the chances of some kind of Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation are remote. Even if Palestinians want reconciliation, I think there is strong American resistance to the idea of any dialogue with Hamas.

The real player in the game today is the fundamentalist regime in America, and I doubt it is ready to talk to Hamas. Washington will simply collude with Israel to continue the siege. Our hope is that the next American administration will see things differently. Reconciliation is possible only if there are leaders of courage and wisdom on both sides.

I do see some hope on the Israeli side. Three years ago, I was stopped at a Gaza border crossing along with some colleagues. Inside the fortified post was an Israeli soldier, his face appearing every few minutes through a small opening in the concrete. To my surprise he called me over to ask, “Your friend says you are a psychiatrist. Can I ask you something?” “Yes,” I replied warily. The soldier said, “I have a problem, doctor. I live in a settlement in Hebron, and I want to leave.”

I hid my surprise and played the psychiatrist, listening calmly as this young man with his baby face and thin beard continued: “My parents want me to stay, but I know it will only lead to more killing. I don’t like it there, but I don’t want to anger my father and mother who have devoted their lives for me.”

After a moment, I said, “I think it is best if you talk about your feelings with your mother and your father. It will be best if you convince them of your decision. But I want to tell you something else, my friend. The soldier smiled in anticipation as I continued: “By choosing to talk to me about yourself, you made me feel proud of humanity and sure of its future.”

He stretched his arm through the hole to shake my hand, saying, “I trust you."