That Pile of Spectacles
This year has publicly brought to the fore some of my thinking around the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and in my work promoting the efforts of Palestinian Christians my approach is both praised and criticised depending on the starting view of those hearing me. Naturally my critics see me as being anti-Israel. Upon reflection over the last couple of weeks I have come to the conclusion that this is partly due to a failing of mine to adequately express where I am coming from and what sparked my initial interests in that part of the world. For that failing I wish to publicly apologise and take this opportunity to share a little deeper. As with all things, I can’t please all people but hopefully sharing my motivations a little more may shed a bit of light on my approach for some.
Allow me to be clear, this is not the only issue in the world I seek to address with my life - the global story of poverty and injustice is my life focus, but this is one issue I am aware that I am known for, hence my desire to speak to it right now.
Many years ago the Auckland Museum here in New Zealand hosted an exhibition about the Holocaust. I took the chance to visit the exhibition. Up until then my knowledge of that event and the history of the Jewish people in Europe leading up to it was extremely thin and limited to snippets in school. The exhibition had a profound impact on me and acted as a catalyst for more study of European history, the place of the Jewish people in it and the poor treatment of them - with Christianity (my faith) being used as a means by which to dehumanise them. The culmination was my study of Nazi propaganda against the Jewish people, with the Holocaust being the grave and dark outworking of that.
I remember very vividly standing in front of a pile of spectacles at the exhibition. They had been removed from people as they were coldly processed and sent off to their deaths. There were also shoes, bags, books and other items, but the spectacles moved me. The spectacles sat on people’s faces, they were needed, they felt intimate and therefore their removal felt like a violation - a dehumanising degradation of those souls as others exercised a power over them that regarded their victims as no more than rats. There were spectacles from men, women and children. Each with a story. Those spectacles had been used to read books - fiction, non-fiction, children’s stories, romance novels and classics. They had been used to see loved ones more clearly - family, friends and lovers.
Those wonderful human beings were confined to ghettos designed to break them and kill them. They were moved on trains as less than cattle, treated like insects in concentration camps and then put to death simply because of the people group they were born into. I felt ashamed that anything relating to the faith I hold to could be used as a justification for that dehumanisation. It was the darkest thing I had encountered in my existence up until then and it imprinted itself into my deepest being.
The suffering of the Jewish people at the hands of the people and authorities around them in European history, culminating in the height of the demonic forces of Nazism under Hitler, intimately connected for me in that moment in front of that pile of spectacles, to the suffering of Jesus - his arrest, trial and crucifixion. To some that may seem like a crude and almost offensive connection, but to me at that time, it was a connection that felt inescapable.
That suffering is not something I have allowed myself to escape from. From time to time I watch bits of the epic documentary, Shoah (a film by Claude Lanzmann) and I listen to the stories of concentration camp inmates who survived the horror, SS commandants who played their part in committing unspeakable crimes and eye witnesses of what took place. I have intermittently followed a TV series called Nazi Hunters that tracks the arrests of those who committed the crimes and the darkness of the evil they perpetrated. It is all unsettling and leaves me disturbed. My sense of that evil and my continued processing of it is something that feels like a very personal matter, hence I don’t talk about it much… which is probably why many on both sides of the argument have probably not fully grasped my approach to the current conflict.
It is impossible to imagine the grief, fear and desire for security and safety that this dark event in history and all that led up to it must have created for the Jewish people. I couldn’t begin to fathom it when I first encountered that exhibit and I still can’t. That said, I knew that as my journey of trying to know more and understand better delved into the creation of the modern state of Israel, the formation of that nation and that pile of spectacles could not be separated.
From the way I humbly see it, at the heart of the formation of Israel in 1948 and the events leading up to it; at the heart of the desire to declare Israel a Jewish state and at the heart of the very relentless public desire for national security is European history and the Holocaust. When I first ‘got’ this I cried - literally. My heart broke. My heart broke for the Jewish people. I shed tears, wishing I could have done something to change the course of history at that time. Wishing that I could have been around to subvert what the Nazis were doing - to save someone, anyone. But I couldn’t. The history was set in stone. Thankfully there were heroes of mine like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who did what they could. All I am left with is the now and the difference I can make in the present.
This understanding, emotion and perspective, sparked by that exhibition and all that flowed from it for me was at the heart, and still sits at the heart of my views around the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, how I approach it, the work amongst it that I support and what I see as the most desirable outcomes.
These things inform my deep seated desire to see the Jewish people live in shalom - peaceful, secure and flourishing in a place they can call home. Historical events have cemented that home in what is now called Israel and was formerly called Palestine (the land known as ‘Israel’ in biblical times).
The modern history of that piece of land is fraught with difficulty and turbulence that has left it far from real shalom. The nations around it never agreed to the UN partition plan set forth to create the state of Israel there. What resulted in 1948 and following clashes was a situation that places blood on both sides of the divide - on the hands of those who understandably fought hard to secure a Jewish home and on the hands of those who opposed it - caught in the middle was the Arab population of then Palestine, many who fled their homes out of fear, never to return again. They are now a people with no place to truly call ‘home’. The grief of that displacement is now one of the factors that drives the Palestinian people who live in the West Bank and Gaza and the voices they adopt that give an outworking to that grief in both very positive and very negative ways and make no mistake, both sides have outworked their grief in positive and negative ways.
All the politics of the surrounding nations, the modern state of Israel, the Palestinian authorities (Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank), militant groups in the region and powerful nations abroad have fed it and continue to feed the issue. People could argue around such matters till they’re blue in the face about who’s right and who’s wrong - indeed, I’m guilty of it. All that aside though, the inescapable fact is that shalom for the people of modern Israel is intricately tied to salam for the modern Palestinian people and vice versa. One will not attain shalom or salam without recognising the need of it for the other and pursuing it for the other. No amount of military might or action on either side will truly achieve that. A few things are intricately connected to achieving this - recognising the full humanity of the other, hearing the stories of the other including the stories of grief that drive them, facing up to the sins of the self that have exacerbated the conflict, being willing to grapple with the hard work of what seems like irreconcilable differences and aspirations with love for the other at the heart of that pursuit, and being willing to lay aside offence.
All of this is easy to say from afar. Also, from a distance and I would imagine, within it, it seems impossible. That said, hope must remain. I’m not a person who believes that there is no positive outcome - that it will result in a cataclysmic war. I’m not a Christian who believes that God will make himself known by obliterating modern Israel’s enemies. How I understand scripture does not lead me to that conclusion as it does for some. Rather I believe in the God revealed in the sacrificial lamb and in the action of the cross - a God that ‘so loves the world.’ As God is working through a story of reconciliation and redemption as demonstrated and enacted through the life of Jesus, so I believe he calls us to pursue reconciliation and redemption in the darkness of our world and when that comes to fruition, the result being shalom, I believe God reveals himself. What better place for that revelation of such a God to take place than in the seeming impossible reconciliation of the people of Israel and the Palestinians.
You see, I walked away from that pile of spectacles not seeing it as a simple mass of people, but as individuals who had lost their lives to evil - individuals who had been subjected to gross injustice and the most heinous acts of atrocity that could come from human sin. That same weakness in humanity is not isolated to that event, it works itself out in many forms all the time and the only way to combat it and truly say ‘never again’ is to actively pursue its opposite - the upholding of the humanity of the other, the pursuit of shalom and salam and a life driven by love for all, even those we would normally define as ‘enemy’.
I will never compare the pogroms against the Jewish people throughout history where the Holocaust is the grossest atrocity amongst those, with the eviction of Palestinians from their homes in 1948 - the two aren’t comparable - but I will recognise the grief of both, honour the desires that come from them and do what I can to play a part in the realisation of shalom and salam for both peoples. That cannot be achieved apart from the pursuit of reconciliation and all the hard work, pitfalls, failings, tears and successes associated with it.
No doubt I will make mistakes along the way and so will the people and organisations I support in that process. I will say dumb things that don’t help at all and so will the people and organisations I support but hopefully and prayerfully I can humbly be a part of supporting those working towards shalom for the Jewish people and salam for the Palestinian people. I truly want to be able to say ‘never again’. I don’t expect to know what shalom will ultimately look like for both people groups or even how to really get there aside from my own shallow musings.
My fear is that those working for such reconciliation are being squeezed from many sides, they are not doing an easy work - they are despised by many - I pray that they do not lose hope. I currently give more of my time to the Palestinian Christian community as I believe there are real sparks towards reconciliation coming from them and I believe they are a voice largely unheard in the Christian evangelical community - the tradition I exist within, yet they are in danger of disappearing (for many reasons). That said, my greatest personal support goes to an organisation run by both Palestinian and Israeli Christians working to bring people from the two sides together towards reconciliation. They are loved and loathed by people from both sides. I know many would disagree with my approach and I understand that, but it is what I will continue to do.
Right now I humbly and prayerfully stumble my way along doing the best I can with what I have and trusting that God can use the little I bring to the table for his purposes. I rely on the hope that somehow, through his people on both sides of the divide in that land, God will work out his story of reconciliation in one of the most entrenched conflicts in the world - that he will cause the impossible to happen.
My prayer is that I never have to stand before a pile of spectacles like that again, whether they be Israeli, Palestinian or any other people group around the world. May we all work towards that in some way.
Where there have been unknown elements of true ignorance in this post, I beg for your forgiveness.