Mennonites, Divestment and Non-non Violence

A couple of years back, I took enough interest in the Mennonite Church’s flirtation with divestment to pen this piece regarding some back-and-forth I had in the comments section of an editorial in a Mennonite newsletter regarding the subject.

The reason this church divestment debate didn’t generate the kind of obsession I developed over the Presbyterians’ decade-long fight over divestment is that (1) I never realized Mennonites still existed until this controversy hit my BDS radar; and (2) decisions by a tiny sect (there are currently between 75,000-80,000 Mennonites in the US – or a quarter of the number of number of Jews just in Massachusetts) don’t pack the same propaganda punch as votes by well-established (if also declining) churches whose members number in the millions.

The church’s historic eschewal of violence likely made them a tasty morsel for a propaganda campaign like BDS desperate to portray itself as non-violent, despite the BDSers flipping between refusing to renounce and actively encouraging violence within the wider anti-Israel “movement.”  So while it’s clear what the boycotters get out of owning the Mennonite “brand,” it’s still not particularly understandable what the Mennonites get out of such a deal.

Their desperation to join the BDS project, whatever the cost, is apparent in the “Third Way” concept they came up with in the two years between 2015 (when church support for BDS was tabled based on further contemplation) and 2017 when divestment was voted in nearly unanimously.  This “Third Way” consisted of the church balancing its divestment decisions targeting Israel (and Israel alone) for financial punishment with a commitment to devote time and energy confronting the Church’s own history with regard to anti-Semitism, particularly, as it relates to the Holocaust.

Now I will admit that the Mennonite role in the attempted annihilation of every Jew in the world was unknown to me, but apparently church history during World War II does lend itself to some soul searching.  Personally, I have no interest in tarring today’s Mennonites with things their forefathers said and did, but if current member want to spend some time probing those issues, more power to them.

Trouble is, what they claim to be a long-overdue confrontation with their own past (1) only began when they started talking about joining a project (BDS) dedicated to assaulting the most important Jewish project of the last century (the creation of the Jewish nation); (2) established as a “Third Way” the equivalence between the behavior of that Jewish nation and the murderous anti-Semitism of the last century; and (3) refused to even acknowledge any role for contemporary anti-Semitism in the conflict they’ve decided to threw themselves into.

A church that has supposedly dedicated years to contemplating the problem of anti-Jewish bigotry might, for example, notice that they are allying with traffickers in Jew-hating rhetoric as incendiary as those they condemn themselves for ignoring decades ago.  To grasp such an obvious fact does not even require them to wade into the quagmire of defining where anti-Zionism ends and anti-Semitism begins.  It just requires them to pay attention to the fact that Mein Kampf and the Protocols of Zion are best sellers and staples of political discourse among the very societies today’s Mennonites are dedicating their entire historical reputation to support.

The rhetorical techniques to avoid these matters I saw in play during my brief foray into discussion with church members are always available to Mennonites to justify their morally unjustifiable behavior, as are the usual tricks of claiming Jewish support from marginal groups like Jewish Voice for Peace to “prove” divided Jewish attitudes towards their project.

But a genuinely moral movement dedicated to grappling with tough issues before lending their reputation for justice and non-violence to those actively supporting one side in a violent conflict would not rely on such flimsy devices to avoid the moral conversation they simultaneously claim to crave.

While I have engaged with fewer Mennonites than I have with members of other Churches, I suspect as individuals they are no less intelligent and decent than the many religious men and women I’ve debated over the years on matters related to Israel and BDS.  Which leaves open the question of how smart and honorable people could have come up with (and now celebrate) something as immoral and intellectually vacuous as their “Third Way.”

Once again, the drug of choice that inevitably leads to such intellectual and moral rot goes under the name of BDS.

Uphill Battles – Anthropologists and Mennonites

It’s no secret that the most successful way to stop a community from being taken advantage of by the forces of BDS is for members of that community to organization against it.

As we have seen in places like food coops, where both members and leaders have been hesitant to hand the reputation of their institution over to a group of single-issue partisans, some solid organization by anti-boycott activists has quickly and effectively countered demands that boycotting Israel was the only possible moral choice.

And, even on those college campuses where BDS makes a lot of noise, keep in mind that struggling to get toothless student government resolutions passed is what BDS has been reduced to after nearly two decades of failing to get any actual divestment to take place.  So even if pro-Israel students aren’t as noisy as their anti-Israel counterparts, much of the success keeping BDS at bay goes to our side’s efforts over those same two decades.

But my heart goes out most to those dealing with the uphill struggle of trying to turn around an organization that seems hell-bent on joining the “BDS movement,” no matter what the cost.

One example of such fighters are the folks behind Anthropologists for Dialogue on Israel/Palestine, a site that went up recently after the same Anthro-BDSers who tried and failed to get the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to join the long-discredited American Studies Association (ASA) academic boycott of Israeli scholars.

Given that such boycott efforts are driven by relentlessness, the return of the AAA boycott was inevitable.  And, like ASA, the boycott is being driven by people who are BDSers first, teachers and scholars second, who cannot be appealed to in the name of professionalism, scholarship or academic integrity.

This is why I feel for people like those within AAA who have begun to organize against such a boycott.

Being genuine scholars (vs. partisan poseurs), their instincts push them towards reasoned argument (like those found on the Anthropologists dialog site).  And since they have to organize other genuine scholars (many of whom are too busy with research and teaching to dedicate time and effort into preventing an academic association they may have little involvement with from doing stupid things), they will always lack the numbers of disciplined followers compared to the side willing to take over an organization just to hand it over to Omar Barghouti.

Another group of people I encountered recently trying to stop an institution from going over a cliff are the people who took on those within the Mennonite Church who have been pushing BDS for years.

It might seem strange that a church long associated with non-violent opposition to war of any kind might be flirting with participation in the propaganda component of the war against Israel.  But over the years it seems the seeds the religious wing of that propaganda war (such as Sabeel and Kairos) have planted have taken root within the Mennonite Church.  And, as we saw with the Presbyterians, the fact that church leaders are four-square in the BDS camp has made it very difficult for those fighting against a pro-BDS “consensus” driven from the top.

I recently discovered a thoughtful article published on a Mennonite news site in which a group of church members took on the unfair and lopsided approach Mennonites have taken to the Middle East conflict.  And, against my better judgement, I decided to make my once-a-year foray into online debate by joining the dialog triggered in the article’s comment section.

Actually, I had hoped that participating in this debate might trigger some high-quality interactions so lacking in most discussions of this subject.  After all, the Mennonites have a lot riding on their reputation, since the entirety of their moral authority rests on an unequivocal denunciation of war and violence.   Certainly, I thought, within such a group there would be someone who could eloquently square those principles with the fact that the church seemed to be throwing its weight behind one side in a political conflict (a side that has not only NOT renounced violence, but is in the midst of encouraging, executing and celebrating it).

To my great disappointment, however, all I encountered from BDS supporters were the same rhetorical tricks and psychological dodges one finds in most debate forums covering this subject.

First, there were claims that I was critiquing not a political position but a “consensus” within the church, implying that a controversial political decision driven by some must be treated as the received wisdom of all.

Then there were all the usual attempts to narrow debate, to the point where asking questions one would think would be central to a group like the Mennonites (such as the aforementioned one regarding how they square their dedication to non-violence with support for a violent political movement) were either ignored or dismissed as distractions from the only issue worth talking about (Israeli crimes against the Palestinians).

And then there is the power dynamic so central to Mennonite conceptions about themselves, specifically their claim to always support the weak over the strong.  Needless to say, for Mennonite supports of BDS the story of powerful Israelis vs. powerless Palestinians, is clear.  But when I mentioned that if what we see in the Middle East is actually the Arab-Israeli conflict (one which pits dozens of wealthy and powerful states and their allies against one small – albeit not helpless – Jewish state), I though at least one person would want to reflect on the possibility that the church might have thrown its lot in with Caesar.

Shockingly (but not surprisingly) the best BDS supporters could muster when trying to answer that question was denial, one interlocutor going so far as to claim there was “no evidence of an established coalition of Arab states intent on the destruction of Israel,” oblivious (or at least ready to turn a blind eye towards) a century of boycotts, invasions, military attacks, funding and execution of terror wars, and the turning of international bodies (such as the UN) into engines of propaganda (something the one Jewish nation is not capable reciprocating).

Other forms of denial were repeated elsewhere in the debate, in one case through an effort to narrow the Palestinian circle of guilt vis-à-vis the embrace of violence as much as possible (a generosity never afforded to the nation being attacked as an “Apartheid state”).  Thus, Palestinians stabbing elderly Israelis in Jerusalem were individual actors who in no way diminished the Palestinian movement (including its Sabeel and Kairos branches which have never lifted a finger to stop violence on their own side) receiving support for their “non-violent” struggle against oppression.

What seems so odd to me is that an organization truly committed to non-violence and a peaceful resolution to conflict has a perfectly simply and reasonable way to support the Palestinians (and even BDS) without corrupting their core principles: by embracing an anti-Israel position but insisting that no action (including BDS) would be taken until the party that could benefit from those actions ceases to engage in violence.

The hostile reaction to the mere mention of the Mennonites truly acting on their principles (rather than letting someone else leverage their reputation for propaganda purposes) reflects a sad state of affairs within the Mennonite church.

Even if church leaders get their fondest wish and see the Mennonites become official supporters of “BDS Global,” one of two results will occur.  The wider war against Israel (of which BDS is a part) will be successful and Israel will no longer be (with all the obvious results that entails), which will make the Mennonite Church party to genocide.  Alternatively, Israel will continue to thrive while the Mennonites Church will (like so many denominations) close its doors sometime this century with an asterisk next to their Wikipedia entry specifying that – at the end – non-violence was no longer their concern.