Why couldn’t Obama say “Palestine”?

I’m really not trying to be a hater. This isn’t part of a subversive strategy to delegitimize Obama as a president. But there was a word he specifically avoided saying last night, and it made my heart hurt. When Obama said we must balance our support for Israel’s security with our support for peace, he couldn’t bring himself to say the word “Palestine.” I guess it’s because if he had actually said, “Palestine,” then the number of Americans who believe Obama is a Muslim would have gone up by ten percentage points. Maybe he had to clear his speech with AIPAC before he said it. Why couldn’t he at least acknowledge the name of the other group of people in the territory controlled by the Israeli government who have the right to security and peace also?

Palestine. That was the invisible chair in Obama’s speech. A whole nation of people whose original sin is that they lived in the wrong place. There weren’t supposed to be any people in the land that Lord Balfour dubbed Israel on behalf of the British Empire in 1917. But there were. And they were violently removed from their homes by people who had almost been wiped off the face of the Earth themselves. And they reacted violently to that. And innocent people have been brutally murdered and terrorized on both sides since then. And it was the two categories of people who are always oppressed in every country: the indigenous and the immigrants, oppressing each other. I’m not trying to argue for any sort of moral equivalence, only to say that it’s complicated and it involves intense suffering and there are two sides — Israelis and Palestinians, though our government gives a tremendous amount of military aid to one side and an amount of humanitarian aid several orders of magnitude smaller to the other.

And all of our politicians from both parties bend over backwards not to hold the side accountable that we’re actually giving our money to, the side whose behavior we could actually change by shifting their cost/benefit analysis if only we had the courage to say no more Patriot missiles until you stop building those settlements. So they keep bulldozing Palestinian homes, building settlements on top of where they were, and destroying the possibility of there ever being two independent territorially contiguous states. And they keep enforcing a siege of collective punishment that has made Gaza into an open air prison where the guards take no responsibility for the survival of the inmates and where desperation breeds a more radical form of Islam just as it would with any other religion. And the president of the United States cannot even say the word “Palestine” in a speech for fear that he will be slaughtered by my fellow evangelical Star-of-David flag-waving cowboys for doing so (I say that because Jewish people themselves are much more honest and troubled and compassionate when they talk about Israel and Palestine than my fellow evangelicals who want to fan the flames so that Jesus will come back without stopping to think what Jesus would have to say if He came back in those circumstances). The reason this issue burns such a deep hole in my heart is that I feel responsible for how the Christian Zionists who share my religious heritage and intuitions have become such an obstacle to the pursuit of peace.

The Israelite prophet Daniel wrote about an apocalyptic vision in which a desolating sacrilege would pollute the Jerusalem temple. Jesus referenced this prophecy in his own apocalyptic visions in Mark 13 and Matthew 24. Many scholars think Daniel was referencing the actions of the awful Seleucid king Antiochus IV Ephiphanes who set up a statue of Zeus in the Jewish temple. That may be so. But I think the most desolating sacrilege of our time is the farce that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has become because the Obama Administration  (like the Bush Administration before it) is too cowardly to actually use its purse strings to break through the inertia with which one side can live indefinitely in happiness while they slowly expand their territory and push out the invisible people whom our president can’t bring himself to name. This desolating sacrilege is the catalyst of so many other geopolitical problems. It creates rage. And while this rage causes people to do things that are amazingly tragic and sinful, I don’t think it’s wrong to acknowledge that rage as a reflection of God’s wrath against injustice and the blasphemy of His name.

This is not the Zion that the Israelite prophet Isaiah dreamed about, where “the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established… and all nations will stream to it” in order to listen to the God who “will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples” so that they can “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:2-4). Isaiah’s dream remains unrealized. Instead what we see is a “land full of silver and gold [where] there is no end to their treasures [and a]… land full of horses [where] there is no end to their chariots” (Isaiah 2:7). Even in Isaiah’s day, the Zion that was supposed to be the home of the temple where the nations could receive peace from God had lost its vocation and become just another nation-state relying on its man-made weapons and treasures, which is why God raised up Assyria and Babylon against them.

But Isaiah’s vision still lives. God put those words in His Bible to say, This is My will for humanity and I will accomplish it even if it looks entirely ridiculous and impractical. And the way that God accomplishes His will in such impossible circumstances is to eat a hole into our hearts by not allowing us to ignore the desolating sacrilege that so many politicians are so dishonestly refusing to name. Obama is not the only one who cannot say “Palestine.” Romney was even uglier. On his obligatory trip to Israel to kiss the ring of Netanyahu, he actually said that “culture” explains the difference in economic prosperity between Israelis and Palestinians. The cruelty of Romney’s statement lies in the fact that most Palestinians are unemployed simply because the Israeli soldiers won’t let them through the checkpoints to get to the jobs they once had. I wish that I knew of a store that sold sackcloth, because then I would do what Israel’s prophets always used to do: make a hideous robe out of it, pour ashes on my head, and fast in front of the White House until I felt like our president could bring himself to acknowledge aloud the humanity and dignity of which the Palestinian people are worthy just like the Israelis.

5 thoughts on “Why couldn’t Obama say “Palestine”?

  1. Morgan, your blog is excellent, as always…but if you allow, I take issue with one statement. I have seen, lived, and worked in both Israeli and Palestinian communities for four years, and developed deep, lifelong friendships. I assure you that God is, indeed, working in the hearts and minds of those individuals that are in power, and well as those who are oppressed—on both sides of the coin. Horrific oppression does not always bring about inconceivable retaliation and distruction. I have seen many most affected by this ongoing war—Palestinian and Israeli alike—acknowledge God’s hand and allow God’s justice, without bloody interference. Your comment, “I don’t think it’s wrong to acknowledge that rage as a reflection of God’s wrath against injustice and the blasphemy of His name”, hit a raw nerve. My only daughter was at Sabarros Pizza hours before the tragic bombing, enjoying lunch with some of her Israeli, Druze and Palestinian co-workers. She literally was standing where the bomb was ignited hours later. My son, an American citizen, was detained for hours and “man-handled” under suspicion, with no more explaination than he was traveling in the city with his Palestinian friend. So many other first hand stories to relate. I do not believe that God was showing wrath against my children, their friends, or “allowing for (innocent or otherwise) collateral damage” to prove His point. Humans might understand the depth of such emotional reactions to oppression, but aside from biblical recounts of old, I believe it is incorrect and incendary to attribute such rage as a (righteous) reflection of Gods wrath, or as an explanation of war, in general. Sin is sin. I would join you in front of the White House, for sure…can’t wait to see the burlap pics..

    • Thanks very much for your gracious corrective. I speak in ignorance because I have no first-hand exposure. No, I don’t think terrorism is ever a legitimate expression of God’s wrath. I do think that when we are grieved by injustice, we are feeling a weight that God’s wrath has placed on us. The way that God dealt was His wrath was to be crucified through Jesus, so whatever we do in response to injustice must be likewise cruciform and nonviolent. And I recognize that suicide bombings are injustice just like economically debilitating checkpoints and I think that God’s wrath burns against both.

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