Home PeopleAnniversaries Gaza, catastrophe and 75 years of Mennonite witness in Palestine and Israel

Gaza, catastrophe and 75 years of Mennonite witness in Palestine and Israel

0 comment

From left, Wurud, Mina, Farah, and Amasy have been leaders for multiple years in summer camps run by MCC partner Culture and Free Thought Association in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. [Full names withheld due to security considerations.] MCC has provided support to these summer camps, in which child leaders like these girls plan all aspects of the camps. January 2023. MCC photo/Alain Epp Weaver

By Alain Epp Weaver

As I struggle to grasp the soul-crushing scope of the destruction in Gaza by the Israeli military over the past three months—85% of Gaza’s 2.2 million residents displaced from their homes, more than 60% of housing across the Strip damaged or destroyed, around 1% of Gaza’s population killed and over 2% injured—my mind focuses on the young people I met during a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) program visit to Gaza in January 2023.

Where are the teenagers and young men studying in the Near East Council of Churches’ vocational training centre in Qarrara village, who shared excitedly about their dreams of gainful employment?

Where are Wurud, Mina, Farah, and Amasy, who spoke with pride about their roles as peer leaders in summer camps organized by the Culture and Free Thought Association in Khan Younis? Are they and their families alive? Have they lost their homes? What will their future be like if they survive this war?

These questions swirl in my mind on the 75-year milestone of MCC work in Palestine and Israel. With Israel carrying out bombardment identified by analysts as the deadliest military assault in recent history, as scores of Israelis remain in Hamas captivity and as Israel’s repressive and deadly military occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank grows harsher by the day, this is not an occasion for celebration but a time for Anabaptists to raise their voices and act.

Anabaptists in the United States, Canada and beyond must heed the call of the Palestinian churches and of brave Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilders to demand a permanent ceasefire, a release of captives, an end to Israel’s military occupation and steps to secure a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis alike.

Our action arises from experience. Contemporary Mennonite history in Palestine and Israel began in Gaza in the wake of catastrophe, with the arrival of MCC worker Titus Lehman in the Gaza Strip in 1949 to serve as chief nurse in a field hospital in the camps around Khan Younis operated by the American Friends Service Committee.

There Lehman provided medical care for some of the more than 700,000 Palestinians driven from their homes by Israeli military forces in 1948 as part of what Palestinians came to call the nakba, Arabic for catastrophe.

During the 1948 war that led to the establishment of the state of Israel, Palestinian society was shattered, with two-thirds of the Palestinian population becoming refugees in the Gaza Strip, the western and eastern banks of the Jordan River, Lebanon, and Syria.

For the past 75 years, MCC has accompanied Palestinian churches and communities facing an ongoing nakba of unrelenting violence and dispossession and has supported efforts by Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilders who envision and press for a shared future and an alternative to the politics of separation and violence.

Today, Palestinians in Gaza are undergoing another catastrophe of mass displacement, destruction, and death. Israeli ministers call for “Nakba 2023” and the “voluntary migration” of Palestinians out of Gaza (which would, in reality, be forcible expulsion and ethnic cleansing), while Israel’s military strategy aims, in the words of retired Israeli general Giora Eiland, to bring about “system collapse” for Palestinian civilian life in the Gaza Strip.

Gazans now face starvation conditions, struggling daily to find food and potable water, while pandemic illnesses begin to proliferate. The United Nations reports that all Gazans are in imminent danger of famine, with over 60% of Gazans facing emergency or catastrophic levels of food insecurity.

In the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, Palestinians are experiencing increased repression, violent attacks and the depopulation and destruction of 16 Palestinian agricultural communities.

Reflecting on current events and MCC’s history in Palestine and Israel, I see lessons for Anabaptists seeking to witness faithfully for peace today.

Remember history: The horrific attacks by Hamas militants on Israeli communities and military outposts on October 7, 2023, that left around 1,200 Israelis killed and over 200 Israelis and people of other nationalities taken captive into Gaza, did not emerge in a vacuum. To work for peace, MCC has learned, means taking history seriously. Considering specific acts of violence within broader historical contexts is not to justify or condone that violence, but instead to reckon with the full scope of violence and thus the full challenge of the peacebuilding task.

Confronting the violence perpetrated by Hamas on Oct. 7 must go hand-in-hand with facing the violent dispossession by Israel of Palestinian refugees in 1948 and the violence of nearly 57 years of military occupation since 1967, with land expropriation and ever-intensifying forms of Israeli repression, such as mass indefinite administrative detention without charge or trial, including of Palestinian children.

MCC’s Israeli peacebuilding partner Zochrot explains: “Precisely out of a commitment to prevent the terrible cost of all types of violence—whether raw, direct and bloody, mediated through advanced technologies, or applied through systematic mechanisms of dispossession and humiliation—we learn and teach about the contexts that produce violence, and about ways to correct wrongs and achieve reconciliation.”

Tell the story, become advocates for peace: As they carried out humanitarian assistance and economic development programs in MCC’s first decades of operation in the West Bank, MCC workers confronted the stark realities of the catastrophe that had shattered Palestinian society and realized that they could not remain silent but must advocate for peace by sharing the story of Palestinian dispossession with Anabaptist churches in Canada and the United States.

In 1950, MCC set up a humanitarian assistance program for Palestinian refugees around Jericho that operated into the mid-1960s, with MCC Pax men and others distributing layettes for newborns, clothing, canned meat and other foodstuffs. MCC also established a Palestinian needlework program, working with Palestinian women’s groups to produce embroidered goods for sale through the nascent SELFHELP Crafts venture and established Christian schools in Hebron and Beit Jala.

In the course of these efforts, MCC workers bore witness to the aftermath of the nakba. Writing in the early 1950s, MCC worker Irv Kennel lamented how Palestinian refugees had been “driven ruthlessly out of their homes” during the 1948 war. Around the same time, another MCC worker, Waldemar Schroeder, stressed that “the Christian Church and the world should know about the injustice of the situation.”

In the years after Israel’s conquest of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem in 1967, MCC increased its efforts to engage Anabaptists and other Christians about the harsh realities of Palestinian dispossession and life under military occupation. Even as MCC’s agricultural development program supported Palestinian farmers seeking to protect their land from confiscation by the Israeli military for the eventual construction of Israeli settlements illegal under international law, MCC workers organized learning tours that highlighted these repressive measures.

MCC also undertook public policy advocacy against Israel’s military occupation and settlement operations. In one prominent moment, MCC representative Paul Quiring testified in the late 1970s at an early U.S. congressional hearing examining Israeli settlement construction. MCC peace worker Kathy Bergen explained in the late 1980s that this public engagement was an essential part of MCC’s work: “MCC has a responsibility to be part of people’s education because of who we are, what we do, and what we experience here.”

Listening to Palestinian churches: Mennonite witness in Palestine and Israel is but a very small part of the church’s history in the land called holy, with Palestinian churches tracing their spiritual lineage back to Christianity’s earliest years. MCC has learned that understanding Palestine and Israel requires listening to and learning from Palestinian churches. Many churches in the West (and beyond) have celebrated Zionism and the State of Israel as part of Christian Zionist visions about the restoration of the Jewish people to the land as part of a divine plan.

Palestinian Christians, in contrast, have experienced Zionism as a settler-colonial movement that aims to take over a maximum amount of Palestinian land while driving out or subjugating the remaining Palestinians. Palestinian Christian theologians and church leaders such as Naim Ateek, Mitri Raheb, Michel Sabbah, Jean Zaru, Samia Khoury, and Munther Isaac have helped Mennonites read the Bible in ways that do not legitimate Zionist dispossession of Palestinians while also presenting visions in which Palestinians and Israelis both sit securely under vine and fig tree (Micah 4:4).

As Sami El-Yousef of the Latin (Roman Catholic) Patriarchate of Jerusalem recently wrote: “at a time of severe polarization between people with calls of killing, revenge, and hatred filling the streets, the Christian message of forgiveness, coexistence, tolerance, love, and peace does not change. . . It is critical that this message continues to guide our society so that some tracks can be found to move forward to reach justice and peace for all who call the Holy Land home.”

Rejecting antisemitism, Islamophobia, and anti-Palestinian racism: To join with Palestinians and Israelis committed to peace means firmly standing against all forms of racism and hatred, including antisemitism, anti-Palestinian racism, and Islamophobia. The rise of right-wing nationalist movements globally over the past decade has inflamed both antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Mennonite churches in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, like other Western churches, inherit legacies of antisemitic prejudice. Mennonites in Europe before and during the Second World War intersected in different ways with Nazism, up to and including complicity with the Holocaust, while MCC relief efforts to Mennonite refugees from the Soviet Union were entangled with those legacies.

Grappling with legacies of Mennonite antisemitism is essential. Such vital work should not lead to Anabaptist silence about the catastrophe Israel has perpetrated and continues to carry out against Palestinians, but instead to standing firm against antisemitism and all forms of racism, including racism that erases and devalues Palestinian lives, and to advocate firmly for a future of equality and freedom for all peoples in the land.

The time to act is now: Ayman Odeh, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and a member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, poignantly underscored in a recent article that “Seven million Jews and seven million Palestinians are not going anywhere. The fates of the two peoples are intertwined, and we have no choice but to find a solution in which both peoples can live normal lives side by side. We have to understand that there’s no other path than the path of peace.”

Amid a new nakba, MCC is responding with humanitarian assistance to displaced Gazans, as it did 75 years ago. Yet walking on that path of peace envisioned by Odeh calls for Anabaptists to act, including urging elected officials to champion a permanent ceasefire along with steps towards lasting peace for both Palestinians and Israelis. MCC provides ways that Anabaptists can urge their representatives to act for peace. A new, independent initiative, Mennonite Action, is mobilizing Anabaptists to work for a permanent ceasefire and to advocate for an end to occupation.

Omar Haramy of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, an MCC partner, stresses that “the Bible does not let us sleep,” with the gospel message of captives liberated prodding us to action for justice and peace. Palestinian Christian theologian and pastor at Bethlehem’s Christmas Lutheran Church, Munther Isaac, underscores that prayers for peace must become visible in “faithful prophetic courage.”

In the face of an ongoing nakba, which will long-term be a catastrophe not only for Palestinians but also for Israelis, may we as Anabaptists act with conviction now to advocate for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, an end to Israel’s military occupation, and long-term peace and liberation for all people in Palestine and Israel.

This article was originally published in Anabaptist World on Jan. 12, 2024. Used with permission.

Leave a Comment