Improving Mennonite support for a just peace in Israel and Palestine

Western Christians need to hear both Palestinian and Jewish narratives

Graffiti on the separation wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, photographed on an Eastern Mennonite University trip in 2017. — Lisa Schirch Graffiti on the separation wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, photographed on an Eastern Mennonite University trip in 2017. — Lisa Schirch

This week is Passover, the Jewish holiday remembering Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt. Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, refers to the plagues in Egypt, which “passed over” Jewish homes. It is also a call for compassion or the ability to feel the suffering of others.

Compassion only for Palestinians or only for Israelis undermines progress toward a just peace. Mainstream media tends to erase Palestinian voices and offer a Christian Zionist narrative that blends guilt from the Holocaust with beliefs that Jews must rule the Holy Land before Jesus’ return. 

Many Mennonites fall on the other end of the spectrum. Mennonites widely support compassion for Palestinians, particularly now with the urgent need for a cease-fire in Gaza, a political solution and tying U.S. aid to Israel with human rights criteria. 

Growing up Mennonite, my church taught me that powerful forces like the U.S. government were supporting Jews, and I didn’t need to raise my voice to call for their safety. I was wrong. 

Mennonite Church USA’s 2017 resolution on Israel-Palestine tied support for Palestinians with concern for antisemitism. It called for Mennonites to build relationships with Jews. 

But Mennonites have done little in response. Mennonites still tend to focus on Palestinian trauma and safety and are mostly silent about Jewish trauma and safety. 

Compassion for Jews and Palestinians does not require us to stay silent during today’s mass atrocities. We can call for a cease-fire, express dismay over the mass atrocity and mass starvation in Gaza and insist on tying U.S. tax dollars to human rights standards, with no special exceptions for Israel. 

But we must also understand that there are real threats against Jews in every country and that Iran and its regional allies continue to call for the destruction of Israel, implying the large-scale killing of Jewish civilians. 

In response to progressive Western Christians only voicing compassion for Palestinians, 1,700 rabbis wrote an open letter stating that “placing all the blame on one party, when both bear responsibility, increases conflict and division instead of promoting peace.” 

My Jewish colleagues urge Mennonites to call for a just peace for the safety and dignity of all Palestinians and Jews. They also challenge Mennonite activism because of the self-righteous tone we take, assuming we are innocent in Palestinian suffering.

Write ourselves into the story

Mennonite publications on Israel and Palestine have largely placed all the blame on Israel, with little to no mention of threats to Jews by Christians and Muslims. The book The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History, written by a Palestinian and an Israeli,  offers a new way of understanding the links between the past and the present. 

Mennonites were widely supportive of Nazism. In return, Nazi leaders directly took Jewish homes and businesses and gave them to Mennonites. Mennonite scholars have detailed the unique and extensive support Mennonites gave to the Nazis in Europe, North America and via MCC, as detailed in these articles in The Mennonite, Mennonite World Review and Anabaptist World and books such as European Mennonites and the Holocaust, published in 2022. 

For over 60 years, Mennonite leaders have participated in church-funded tours of Palestine that provide little exposure or effort to understand Jews, Judaism and what Israel means to Jews. We cannot be effective advocates for a just peace without listening to and building relationships with Jews or understanding our role in today’s tragedies.

Acknowledge threats to Jews and Jewish trauma

Both Palestinians and Israelis have deep intergenerational trauma from direct acts of violence. Some on both sides perceive their choice as to “kill or be killed.” 

Trauma is compounded when a group’s suffering is ignored or diminished. A just peace depends on all sides being seen. Western Christians have a responsibility to see both Palestinian trauma and Jewish trauma. 

When Mennonites hold protest signs that show concern only for Palestinians, my Jewish friends see this as simply another chapter in a long history of Mennonites ignoring and belittling Jewish fear and trauma. They ask me, “Where do Mennonites think we should have gone when they started killing us in Europe?”  and “What do Mennonites think we should do about Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah?”

Listen to multiple narratives of the crisis

As a Mennonite raised in institutions that provided only Palestinian narratives of the ongoing crisis, I was ignorant of Jewish narratives for most of my life. I learned a simple story of Jewish colonialists simply leaving Europe and taking Palestinian lands. 

Then, Jewish colleagues explained that almost all countries blocked immigration for Jews escaping the Holocaust. Thinking they had no other choice, Jewish forces attempted to make room for Jewish refugees. I learned that Muslim countries from Morocco to Egypt forced Jews from their homes. 

In 2017, I co-led a four-month multinarrative study abroad with a student group from Eastern Mennonite University. Unlike most Holy Land tourists, we hired both Israeli and Palestinian tour guides committed to multinarrative tours fostering compassion for both Palestinians and Israelis. My research contrasted the distinct narratives of each group. 

Develop a more consistent human rights ethic

Many Jews distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and antisemitic critique of Israel when it delegitimizes, demonizes and uses double standards against the Jewish state.

Delegitimization refers to denying Jewish history, trauma or connection with biblical lands or advocating for a Palestinian state while denouncing Zionism. Demonization refers to portraying Jews and Israel exclusively as wealthy, evil oppressors drawing on ancient antisemitic tropes demonizing Jews. Mennonite references to Israel in our church publications are almost universally negative and do not acknowledge that many Jews continue to see Israel as a refuge from a hostile, antisemitic world. 

Double standards refer to judging Israeli actions by human rights standards not applied to others. Mennonites pass resolutions condemning Israel’s occupation of Palestine while doing little to respond to the pleas for our help by Congolese Mennonites or Indigenous groups in the Americas. 

Supporting a just peace in Israel and Palestine requires us to be partial to human rights ethics but impartial to human beings. Listening and helping people feel heard is the central work of peacebuilding. 

Building a broader movement for a just peace requires new relationships with the thousands of Jews who stand against Israeli occupation but see too much antisemitism embedded in pro-Palestinian movements like those in Mennonite communities. 

In this season of Passover, may Mennonites find new ways of showing compassion by calling for a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis.

Lisa Schirch is a professor of peace studies at the University of Notre Dame with 30 years of experience working to support a just peace with Palestinians and Israelis. She is an adviser to a range of Palestinian and Israeli peace initiatives. She attends Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind.

Lisa Schirch

Lisa Schirch is a professor of peace studies at the University of Notre Dame with 30 years of experience working Read More

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