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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Netanyahu's Speech, White Privilege and Evangelical Paternalism

I have always considered Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be the best-looking world leader.

I'm not sure why, really. That American air of self-confidence; the navy suits with light blue tie, his short and self-satisfied laugh, his passion for his country ... Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he shares a first name with my husband, that he doesn't shy away from a strong statement.

I probably have poor taste in world leaders, as sometimes I think there is even something to those shirtless photos of Russian President Vladimir Putin fishing or killing a bear.

It's embarrassing, really. And yet as I watched Netanyahu address a (mostly) fawning congressional audience on Tuesday, to be replayed with much ardor on cable news that evening, I found I wasn't alone.

A confident, even cocky, Netanyahu bounded up before Congress. He could barely begin speaking with all the applause, and then laughter, as he joked with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D, Nev.).

What other world leader could do this? Is it possible Congress shares my odd attraction to Netanyahu's light blue ties that match his piercing blue eyes?

Or is something else entirely at play here?

***

I remember waking up in Bethlehem at around 5:30 a.m., paralyzed with fear.

I had never ever heard this sound before: a wailing, mournful voice powered past the loudspeakers and into the dark, predawn streets of David's City, where Jesus was born.

It was the Muslim call to prayer.

And eight years after 9/11, my eyes filled with images of extremist Islamic terrorists, blowing up embassies and crashing into towers and suicide bombers in Kabul ... I associated this noise not with faithfulness, prayer or peace but rather with violence, war, and fear.

I think what made me the most (irrationally) fearful was that almost everything in the West Bank felt so unfamiliar.

Fashionable women in wool coats and headscarves bustled up and down the crowded streets; street vendors noisily sold trinkets and olive wood. We ate chicken with bones and without preservatives; had fresh yogurt and cucumber and dates for breakfast and I found myself both astounded and overwhelmed.

Even Christianity was unfamiliar. Many Palestinian Christians come from Orthodox traditions. The Church of the Nativity, built over the traditional site of Jesus' birth, is administered by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic authorities. The smells and paraments and rites were strange; the music minor and decidedly un-Western.

Yet these are, of course, the Original Christians: the founders of our faith. And they sang hymns on Sunday morning at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church.

***

A few days later, our group left Bethlehem for the day and went up to Efrat, a Jewish settlement in the hills overlooking Bethlehem. Our Palestinian Christian guide Naim did not come.

We left the smoky smells of Bethlehem, the Call to Prayer ringing in our ears and the jostling of the streets echoing in our minds - recalling the Second Intifada and the time in 2002 when the Church of the Nativity became the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Our bus strained up the hills and suddenly we found ourselves in suburban America. We drove through the gates of Efrat, past Southwestern style homes with tile roofs and, I remember, even a Curves fitness center! The familiarity was uncanny. I saw grocery stores and orderly streets and trash cans and American made cars. We entered into a home where the residents spoke barely accented English and welcomed us heartily. Many were proud to display American and Israeli flags. Thousands of miles and oceans away from America, it felt like a base.

***

I was sad in Efrat. Perhaps it was the culture shock of being in too many different places and among people of such different religious convictions at the same time in the same small parcels of land. Maybe it was the stories we heard of Palestinian refugees, of Jewish and Muslim and Christian lives lost in conflict that seemed to have no end, maybe it was the lack of a cohesively shared vision and any sense of a future homeland the Israelis and Palestinians could share peacefully.

***

I thought of Efrat, and of Bethlehem, as I reflected on Netanyahu's speech to Congress this week, and the ways it polarized Americans. I thought too of our current president, our nation's first black President, and how his first name, Barack, was much more unfamiliar than Benjamin.

It makes me uncomfortable to realize that perhaps why I identify with Netanyahu has little to do with what he says or what he stands for and most to do with how he looks and how he talks.

Netanyahu is, of course, a wealthy, white man who spent much of his life in America. Like Efrat, the shining settlement on the hill, to other wealthy white men (who make up the majority of the Congress) Netanyahu is comfortably familiar.

Standing next to President Obama, an inch shorter but with gray hair, blue eyes, and white skin - with a Pennsylvania accent - for some portions of the American populace, perhaps it is the Israeli Prime Minister who seems to them to be more "American."

This is an ugly, racist truth of our country, and it by no means speaks to the wholeness of what America is and strives to be: a place where people of all colors, ethnicities and backgrounds are able to make lives for themselves and be viewed equally, where even a "skinny kid with a funny name," as Obama called himself in 2004, could become president.

But as made apparent by national reaction and polarization after Netanyahu's speech: there are still places in America where Netanyahu is more respected and accepted than President Obama. Race speaks.

***

American Evangelicals are some of Israel, and Netanyahu's, biggest supporters. Evangelical groups send millions to Israel and Israeli interest groups each year. Tours of the Holy Land for Evangelical Christians often skip over the Palestinian territories entirely, with perhaps the briefest glimpse of Bethlehem.

Perennial Presidential candidate and Evangelical Pastor Mike Huckabee leads tours in the Holy Land, though his groups don't stop in Bethlehem; they have met personally with Netanyahu. Huckabee tells the Washington Post that the Masada, a desert butte and sort of "Jewish Alamo," is one of his favorite places in the world.

It was here, 30 years after Jesus' resurrection, that Jewish Zealots rebelled against Roman rule and - rather than being captured - took their own lives for the hope of a future Jewish nation.

Masada is a decidedly nationalist place, having really nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus, and yet Huckabee calls it - not the Mount of Beatitudes, not the Mount of Olives, not the Garden of Gethsemane - one of his favorite places in the world.

***

I wonder, if what American Evangelical Christians like most about Israel is not its faith but its American-ness: its shiny high rises and Curves and New York and Pennsylvania accents.

We can relate to these people, it's easy to think, much easier than to relate to a Palestinian Christian raised on stories of Return and growing up in the shadow of a foreboding wall.

Evangelical Christian support of Israel is, of course, a bit paternalistic. The pastors who travel with Huckabee on his tours quote a lot of Genesis, but they don't seem to pay much attention to Paul's letter to the Galatians, where "there is no longer Jew or Greek," and Jesus' coming changes the Old Testament forever.

And I would guess that Huckabee and Netanyahu don't talk a whole lot about Jesus, his crucifixion, his disdain for the Pharisees, and that inconvenient truth that Christians believe Jesus was God.

Many Evangelicals believe that ultimately Christ will reign in Jerusalem, and the necessary number of Jews, perhaps 144,000 - will be converted to Christ. They don't say much about the rest of them.

As for the Jewish people, our shared history and Old Testament - or Torah - notwithstanding, Jesus of Nazareth was a fraud. To say Jesus was God is blasphemy!

Of course we don't say these things to one another, as Huckabee slaps Netanyahu on the back and the two white, American-educated men regale one another with tales of greatness.

***

We don't say it because it makes us uncomfortable: that the Israeli-American partnership may hold within it racism or Evangelical Paternalism, painting over deep religious divides that declare one another's most cherished convictions null and void.

There is the shadow of the Holocaust: of European Christians' pogroms and slaughter of Jews. We are deeply ashamed, but we must not atone for our mistakes at the expense of the Palestinians - or by paternalistically supporting Israel without acknowledging the depth of difference in our faith.

The truth is worth examining: as Americans and Israelis seek what kind of "special relationship" our countries will share in the years ahead, as Christians seek to follow the Way of Jesus; as Christians who don't look or sound like American Evangelicals are slaughtered in Syria and Libya, as Netanyahu and Obama stand toe to toe, and the everyday peace sought by everyday Israelis and everyday Palestinians seems ever pushed out of reach, not only by Gaza rockets and suicide bombers - but by dug-in American Evangelicals who seem to have chosen a path more consistent with our skin color and affluence than our faith.

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