Overcoming Bullying, Racism, Fear

View from Kalorama Guest House, Washington, DC

Recently my wife, Faye, and I spent a week in Washington, DC.  Our primary reason for the trip was the annual meeting of the national United Church of Christ Palestine – Israel Network (UCC PIN) Steering Committee. There were dozens of other groups meeting in the city planning to lobby their senators and representatives on issues driven by their convictions and passions.  These assorted groups included the annual “Ecumenical Advocacy Days” conference and J-Street.  As we went from appointment to appointment on the Hill, we overlapped with delegations from J-Street.  UCC PIN and J-Street have different positions on Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. However, we learned that both were advocating for a vote against Senator Benjamin Cardin’s Israel Anti-Boycott Act, S720.  Both see the Act as a freedom of speech issue. This bill makes it a crime to support or advocate boycott, divestment, and sanctions of Israeli products.  Also, both delegations were urging an end to the Israeli military shooting across the armistice line at un-armed demonstrators in Gaza.

In addition, UCC PIN was asking our Representatives to co-sponsor and support the Betty McCollun bill: H.R. 4391, Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act.  It extends an absolute prohibition against the torture and ill treatment of detained minors, in keeping with both U.S. and international law. It requires that the Secretary of State certify that American funds do not support Israeli military detention, interrogation, abuse, or ill treatment of Palestinian children.

We visited the offices of Senator Shaheen, Senator Hassan, and Representative Kuster.  We met with Legislative Assistants and a Senior National Security Advisor. We were warmly welcomed and given ample time for a thorough discussion of our “asks” and the reasons for supporting them.  Information was shared, questions were asked, and the developing positions of our legislators were explained.  They received our background literature and promised to consider the contents.  Each session ended with encouragement to keep in touch and offer any additional information that might develop.  Noticing the rain outside, one aide even offered to arrange a ride for us to our next appointment on the far side of the Capital building.

However, also included in these visits and throughout our five days in Washington was a cloud of apprehension. The infusion of power abuse, hegemony, lies, and bullying tactics of President Trump and some others in the administration infected the mood and spirit of the city.  Conversations contained hints of caution and despair. We heard it in congressional offices, in the voices at a demonstration on the lawns around the Capital, and in overheard discussions in the street, on the Metro, or in a cafeteria.  Several times we heard the words, “In this political climate it is not possible…” Lobbying groups exhibited anxiety and caution. Friends hesitated to delve into controversial issues.

Therefore, we were surprised by an experience at Kalomara Guest House.  Early in the morning six sleep-deprive strangers straggled in and pulled up chairs around the breakfast table laden with eggs, potato cakes, bacon, cereal, coffee, tea, and orange juice.  There was even a plate of home-baked chocolate chip cookies sitting on a side table! Cautiously we tested each other’s tolerance for early breakfast conversation. Names were exchanged. Hometowns revealed. Comfortable accommodations and a good, if short, nights sleep were affirmed.  Then the more courageous among us began to ask about why each of us was visiting Washington, D.C.  The conversation soon became energized.  Interest blossomed.  Awkwardness disappeared as we shared our stories.

During the next hour, regional accents from the South, Midwest, New Hampshire and Maine blended into the conversation.  Four of the people around the table were in D.C. to meet with their Congressional delegations or to testify at Congressional hearings. The other two were a daughter and mother visiting the college where the daughter had been accepted for the fall term.

One by one the breakfast guests expressed their commitment for improving the human condition.  The student from a small town in Maine was seeking to expand her horizons, study with other young people from a variety of ethnic and cultural origins.  The woman at the end of the table was scheduled to testify at a Senate hearing. Her organization advocates for immigrant children, as young as four, who have crossed the Mexican border and been separated from their parents or other adults.  By executive order, President Trump has taken away their grant funds. She is asking for funds to defend these children at risk.  The man sitting across from me was lobbying for convenient, affordable mass transportation by financing improvements in the rail system.

When our turn came, we explained our membership on the Steering Committee of UCC PIN and our efforts to lobby for the protection of Palestinian children living in the occupied Palestinian territory. Then the man sitting across from me said, “I am Jewish.”  After a pause he smiled and acknowledged the difficult struggle in Israel and Palestine.  For the next 20 minutes we shared our positions and passions concerning the Israeli – Palestine situation. Around that breakfast table grew trust and respect for the honesty of our varied convictions.

I give thanks for that early morning breakfast at Kalorama Guest House. The conversation among six strangers affirmed that the lies, bullying, racism, and all the current phobias have not won the day.  The Greek root of “kalorama” means “beautiful, wide view.”  Our day of advocacy on the Hill was validated by this small group of strangers who were willing to take in the wide view of listening to one another and extending love, care, and peace with justice for all human beings.  It is a beautiful view when walls come down to reveal honest sharing among neighbors, no matter from where they come.


Advocate for the Rights of Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation

Concord Monitor “My Turn,” published April 8, 2017

The phone rang at 2 in the morning. Our friend Mafaq said, “Two Israeli military vehicles have come into the village. Soldiers have entered the house of our neighbor and taken away fifteen year old Khaled.” We dressed quickly and hurried through the dimly lit maze of narrow streets to Khaled’s home. A small gathering of men, women, and children stood across the street, distancing themselves from the armored military vehicles holding Khaled inside.

We were a World Council of Churches international team of four Ecumenical Accompaniers living for three months in a farming village forty kilometers northwest of Jerusalem.   As we approached Khaled’s home, the front door opened. The family clustered around as we entered: mother, father, two young children, and a grandfather who leaped from a mat on the floor against the far wall. We were invited to sit on the mat while the grandfather demonstrated what had happened. Speaking Arabic and greatly agitated, he raced back and forth across the sparsely furnished room showing how the soldiers had forced open the door armed with United States M16 rifles, asked for Khalid, herded the family into the far bedroom, rousted Khalid from sleep in the other bedroom, put him in handcuffs, and took him outside to the waiting vehicle while they searched his room leaving his possessions scattered.

By the time the grandfather had finished his pantomime, tea had been served and the military vehicles had driven away with Khalid. His parents, speaking English, explained the soldiers had refused to give a reason for taking Khalid and would not tell the parents where they were taking him. We sat with them as they vented their helplessness, fear, and controlled anger.

We learned later that while we had been listening to this family, a sound bomb had been thrown into a home in another part of the village and another teenage boy had been taken away. These incursions into this Palestinian village in the Israeli occupied Palestinian territory were repeated four times during our three-month stay. They continue in Palestinian villages and refugee camps to this day.

A United States State Department Human Rights Report released in March 2017 highlighted “grave violations against Palestinian children living under Israeli military occupation.” Among the issues cited were the ill treatment of child prisoners and denial of fair trial rights. Other violations included excessive use of force against children and unlawful killing, use of administrative detention (held without charges), and coercing Palestinian Arabic speaking children to sign confessions written in Hebrew. The report noted a “significant increase in detention of minors in 2016.”

Between 2012 and 2015, No Way to Treat A Child and the American Friends Service Committee reported that 97% of children had no parent present during interrogation or access to legal counsel. 84% of children were not informed of their rights. Three-quarters of detained children endured some form of physical violence. “Interrogators used position abuse, threats, and isolation to coerce confessions… 66 children were held in solitary confinement, for an average period of 13 days.”

Our experience with Khalid’s family and these human rights reports challenge the relationship between the United States and Israel. Vice President Penze said on March 31, “President Trump and I stand with Israel… because her cause is our cause, her values are our values, and her fight is our fight.” This statement is disconnected from the plight of Palestinian children. Our country’s cause is not to inflict military injustice upon children. The Israeli military’s abusive treatment of Palestinian children since 1967 does not reflect our values. The United State’s fight is not against Palestinian children.

Therefore, in order to “stand with Israel,” the United States must negotiate common values to support the relationship, guided by the State Departments 2017 report on human rights in Israel – Palestine concerning children. Meanwhile, consistent with U.S. values and considering 50 years of continuing violations by Israeli’s military, U.S. Senators’ and Representatives’ actions should include withholding military aid to Israel until acceptable uses are defined. The U.S. Foreign Assistance Act supports such action. It states that no assistance will be furnished to “any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.”

With its over $3 billion a year military aid to Israel, the United States is complicit in the military injustices inflicted on Palestinian children. Before any more aid is given, the Israeli military must cease human rights violations, insure basic due process rights, and establish an absolute prohibition against torture and the ill treatment of detained Palestinian children. Requiring these actions is not only consistent with our own values and sense of justice but also supportive to the many Jews and Israelis who are speaking out against the Israeli military’s unjust treatment of children in the occupied Palestinian territory.

The “phone” still rings since I’ve returned to my home in Concord. We still receive posts on Facebook from Palestinian friends, “last night the Israeli military came into our village at 3AM and took away two of the children.” As Jews, Muslims, and Christians, we need to support our leaders’ efforts to withhold military aid to Israel until the military no longer perpetrates fear and hopelessness against desperate Palestinians crying out for justice. Then, perhaps, the next communication from a Palestinian will be the joy of a great olive harvest or the success of the youth volleyball team. (names in article are fictitious)

Note:  The United Church of Christ General Synod; June 30 – July 4, 2017; will consider the resolution:  A Call for the United Church of Christ to Advocate for the Rights of Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation.  See <ucc.org> General Synod resolutions for detail.

alternative healthcare debate

March 15, 2017

The debate about the Affordable Care Act, the attempt to repeal and/or replace it, is an invitation to examine the core values embedded in the various assumptions of the discourse. Three values that have become apparent are: the primacy of financial considerations, an individual’s freedom, and the right to health care for every human being.

Financial implications, for example, are emphasized in the March 13, 2017 email issue of “The White House” proclaiming, “Americans were promised that Obamacare would bring down healthcare costs Americans were promised that Obamacare would not raise taxes on the middle class.” Senator Rand Paul said on Face the Nation, “we’re not going to vote for it” (Ryan’s plan) because it creates a system of refundable tax credits. In addition, the recently released Congressional Budget Office analysis focused on costs of insurance premiums and federal deficit reduction.

Representative Paul Ryan, speaking on CBS’s Face the Nation, March 12, 2017, advocated for the primacy of the value of an individual’s freedom. He seeks to eliminate any mandate on individuals to buy insurance saying, “People are going to do what they want to do with their lives because we believe in individual freedom in this country.” He proposes a plan where people are free to buy insurance in the private market. Also, National Public Radio interviews with people who are critical of ACA reveal a positive attitude toward acquiring health insurance but a resistance to any “mandate” telling them they must have it.

The problem with being guided by the primacy of economic considerations traps us in a debate about the value of a healthy human being and which of us has earned the right to be healthy. Adhering to the mantra of ‘individual freedom” leads us into a society where every person must fend for him/her self. Both of these approaches are divisive and contrary to the vision of freedom and justice for all. They ignore the reality that we’re all in this together. The freedom and health of each individual affects the freedom and health of our communities and nation.

However, there is a value that can serve us well in the debate about health care in our country. Senator Annie Kuster, in a March 10, 2017 e-mail, suggested valuing the importance of health care for every human being. She wrote, “I am ready to get to work to… find ways to help improve healthcare for every citizen.”  Logically extending her focus on improving health care for every citizen invites us to begin a serious discussion by first seeking agreement to value good health for all human beings, no matter who they are, their economic situation, or where they live.

Some cynics will suggest that it is the nature of human beings to center on individual and family fortune. For example, in the current debate of ACA some healthy young people say, “I don’t need health insurance so why should I pay for the coverage of those who are unhealthy?” However, there is another side of human nature that may be worth cultivating. Consider the times and situations that bring out empathy and care for others. How often have we observed the ways people rally after a natural disaster or a tragedy in the life of an individual, a family, or a community. People are energized and heartened as stories are told about volunteers contributing their time, skills, and money to support victims. People celebrate these situations as evidence that human beings are really good people supportive of their neighbors. It seems, in times of crisis the glorification of rugged individualism is subverted. The people of our country have a history of standing with each other. In the early years it took a village to raise a barn. Not so long ago, neighbors would help one another get the hay in before a thunderstorm descended.

It is time to refocus the healthcare debate based on personal economics and individual freedom values to the basic value of communal support for every person in our society. Contributing to this discussion can be the many stories and examples of empathy and commitments to helping others in need. In the course of the conversation the evolving nature of the human condition may surface. Could it be that rugged individualistic self-interest is giving way to communal concern? The task for elected officials and the American people will be to embrace this new possibility.

With this groundwork, the means of developing a healthcare system of economics that shares wealth and benefits and a society that recognizes freedom to be supportive of one another will begin to fall into place. Returning to the barn-raising example, once we agree that a barn is needed to shelter a given number of animals and store a given amount of hay, the details of the shape and size of the barn will soon be resolved. In the same way, when we agree we are together responsible to provide adequate healthcare for all people, the economics to make it happen will take shape. It will be a triumph for our basic cooperative human nature working for a greater America.





U.S. Must Push Israel on Justice for Palestinians.

August 3, 2016

On July 27, during the Democratic National Convention and a week after the Republican National Convention, it was reported that 20 single and multi-family Palestinian homes were demolished in East Jerusalem by Israeli authorities. One Palestinian, Noor, reported that he found a demolition notice tacked to his door less than twenty-four hours before the destruction of his home. He had no opportunity to dispute the order, show his papers of ownership, or remove the family possessions. His home was one of the twenty single and multi-family homes destroyed that night. There have been 76 demolitions thus far this year in the Jerusalem municipality. In 2015 there were 74 and in 2014, there were 52 demolitions.

Also on July 27 it was reported that a 52 year old woman, Miriam, living in the Gaza strip was refused a visa for the third time to enter Israel for medical treatment in the hospital where she had previously been treated for cancer with chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. She now experiences bone pain and seeks follow-up examinations in the same hospital using equipment that is not available in Gaza. This equipment is forbidden by the Israeli government to be imported into the Gaza Strip. (Noor and Miriam are not their real names).

These incidents of injustice are important to lift up because such injustices are not recognized in either the Republican or the Democratic platforms concerning the relationship of the United States to Israel. Both platforms commit to an unexamined uncritical relationship of United States with Israeli political, economic and military policies.

Israel/Palestine may not be a primary concern for the electorate choosing a new president and congressional delegation. However, in the sections on Israeli relationships with the United States, both Convention platforms are blind to the conditions of injustice toward Palestinians such as the two incidents above. This should trouble the conscience of any citizen who values equal rights and justice for all people living in a democracy.

The Republican platform reads, (Israel is) “The only country in the Middle East where freedom of speech and freedom of religion are found. Therefore, support of Israel is an expression of Americanism, and it is the responsibility of our government to advance policies that reflect Americans’ strong desire for a relationship with no daylight between America and Israel.”

Furthermore, the platform seeks to discredit and limit the freedom to non-violently act contrary to the Party’s advocacy of an uncritical relationship with Israel. It reads, “We reject the false notion that Israel is an occupier and specifically recognize that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS) is anti-Semitic in nature and seeks to destroy Israel. Therefore, we call for effective legislation to thwart actions that are intended to limit commercial relations with Israel, or persons or entities doing business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territories, in a discriminatory manner.”

The Democratic Platform is briefer, focusing primarily on actions perceived to “delegitimize Israel.” It reads, “A strong and secure Israel is vital to the United States because we share overarching strategic interests and the common values of democracy, equality, tolerance, and pluralism. That is why we will always support Israel’s right to defend itself, including by retaining its qualitative military edge, and oppose any effort to delegitimize Israel, including at the United Nations or through the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement.”

How do common values between the U.S. and Israel and the commitment to democracy work in Israel where the Palestinians lack freedom of movement to medical facilities, schools and the workplace or where Palestinians have limited access to Palestinian water, experience home demolitions, and taking of farmland? And what does it mean for the United States with it population diversity of race, religions, cultures and ethnic origins to bind itself to a state with such injustices? Do we in the United States want to support Israel’s oppression of ethnic and religious groups of Arabs, Christians, and Muslims? Do we want to support the perception that all Arabs, Christians and Muslims are dishonest and terrorists? Do we want to support, uncritically, a country that seeks to create conditions that will force these people to leave their homeland? Is not this support inconsistent with our American efforts to learn and grow from the mistakes we’ve made in our relationships with Native Americans, African Americans, and others?

Another issue of concern in the platforms is the opposition to United Nations approach to humanitarian law, resolutions concerning the Palestinian occupation and its administration, and recognition of a Palestinian state. Blanket opposition without deliberation, understanding, and seeking a variety of solutions may delegitimize the effectiveness of this international organization.

Perhaps, for United States citizens, the most distressing concept in the platforms is the opposition to non-violent boycott and divestment actions. The Republican platform also advocates the adoption of legislation to thwart BDS activity. Attempts to restrict boycott and divestment activity is a violation of first amendment rights to use economic measures to bring change. Boycott and divestment are tools to motivate serious negotiations to end the economic, political, and military injustices against the Palestinian people. They are appropriate non-violent actions following nearly fifty years of failed negotiations between unequal powers. They are in the tradition of boycotts that have been used to influence change in South Africa, segregation in the United States, and farm workers rights. Finally, labeling boycott and divestment as anti-Semitic or delegitimizing of Israel is spurious and dangerous to people seeking non-violent change for justice. It is also inaccurate to suggest that critique of the conduct of the Israeli government is in any way a comment on the Jewish faith.

When talking to candidates for Senate, Congress, and the Presidency this election season it is important to question their understanding of our relationship with Israel expressed in these two platforms. What is their understanding of the party platform on Israel in relationship to the injustices being perpetrated on the Palestinians in the Palestinian occupied territory of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip?

This is the time to seek their support for justice and peace in Palestine/Israel. It is time to encourage candidates to pledge the use of economic, political, and military leverage to move the Israeli government toward actions of justice for all the people. It is time to use the billions of dollars in United States military aid to Israel as leverage for a more just administration of the occupied Palestinian territory and to advance credible negotiations toward a just peace for Israel and Palestine. Palestinians, such as Miriam and Noor, are counting on us to help them get their freedom back.




Hope in our Time

My Turn                                                                                                                            March 2, 2016  Concord Monitor

Daily print and electronic reports are filled with disheartening news. This past week these reports invaded conversations I had over dinner, over a cup of coffee at the True Brew Barista, on conference calls, and at meetings. We inevitably found ourselves mired in despair over the state of affairs at home and abroad. There are stalemates in Congress. Our country is involved in chaos in the Middle East. The danger of terrorist attacks invades our daily lives. There was a tangle with the Pope over the ethics of wall-building verses bridge-building. Our economy is not supporting the wellbeing of the middle class. The frontrunner in the Republican primary process is a candidate proven to speak misinformation approximately 75% of the time. The Democratic Party options are framed as choosing between practical responses to the issues of the day or ethical visions and goals that may be laudable but unrealistic aspirations.

In this primary season, many of these problems have been laid at the feet of our President and Congress. We are being told that the “American people” want a change. The Executive and Congress are stalemated on almost any issue. Bills are proposed and others stalled based upon pledges of non-cooperation with the Executive Branch. Many members of Congress are clear that their recalcitrance is based upon personal antipathy toward President Obama. The latest expressions of non-cooperation include declarations to refuse to participate in the process of nominating a Supreme Court Justice or considering the merits of closing Guantanamo Prison. Other issues dividing us include the Iran nuclear agreement, Mexican Border Reform, and gun regulations. Add to these denials of human induced climate change, acceptance of huge amounts of money for campaign financing, and introducing bills into Congress written by lobbyists that favor big business and the wealthy. The result is a formula for failure.

However, even amidst protests of this troubling state of affairs, the same conduct we witness in the halls of our Senate and House of Representatives is being magnified in the daily debates and commercials in the Republican Presidential campaign. Those who identify themselves as “outsiders,” free from the influence of the vagaries of Congress, are choosing an even lower road littered with antics of name-calling, crude imagery, interruptions and yelling at each other and at anyone else who dares to challenge them. It seems obvious that when a candidate resorts to personal attacks on rivals it demonstrates a weakness in the candidate’s position and/or the inability to communicate effectively. The default position is to declare, “Never mind the issues, my opponent is a bad person and a loser, I’m a good person, a winner!” Focusing on winning trumps any process toward understanding and problem solving. This approach is hardly a formula for effective change.

Chris Christie has suggested, “There is no better fighter than Donald Trump.” Evidently the “better fighter” is the one who has perfected the technique of personal attacks on critics and the demonization of whole groups and categories of people. Particularly in the Republican primary contest, some candidates are learning to mimic the “fighter” rather than seeking to be an effective debater. Courtesy, consideration, understanding, and empathy are relegated to weakness and being “politically correct.” It is interesting that respect and love of neighbor wears this derogatory label. A potential president who is the best “fighter,” skilled in hurting and destroying any who are different or who disagree, is hardly fit to demonstrate the way to “make America great again.”

However, there is already a great America buried beneath all of this tough simplistic talk of building an America in the image of bombastic bravado. Burdened by the despair of my friends and colleagues, I’ve looked for respite by recalling the America I’ve experienced over the years, not only in New England but also in the Mid-West, the west coast, and the south. Here in New Hampshire I know and live with people who support our refugee community, work with the homeless, advocate for prison reform, attend churches open and affirming to GBLT folks, collect food for the hungry, volunteer to teach English as a second language, organize to end racism, raise consciousness for establishing a living wage for all workers, collect money for disaster relief around the world, and serve as volunteers in international settings.

When I was in the military, training in Texas, two of my Yankee friends and myself were regularly invited into homes for Sunday dinner after church. They remained hospitable even when we laughed at the name of one of their grocery store chains: “Piggly Wiggly.” Living in a barracks at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, DC I experienced for the first time the contrast of my New England cultural upbringing with the culture of men from the African American community. Together we figured it out.   When I lived as a student in the San Francisco Bay area, I experienced a community of extreme diversity, where people argued and demonstrated with great energy and then ate together at the same table and mingled during intermission at a symphony concert. In the Mid-West I lived with people who were troubled by my love for controversial debates. However, they put up with me and at the same time taught me the values of compromise and nurturing those in distress. In South Dakota I learned a new expression of hospitality. “Stop by our home for a visit” meant come by unannounced on any Sunday afternoon – in contrast to the New England way of going home and anticipating an invitation with a specific date and time.

This is the greatness of the America I’ve experienced. It gives me hope in this time of disconnect, common among many people. I’ve been reminded there are countless other people across our country demonstrating what it means to be a neighbor: learning about, recognizing, and celebrating the diversities of cultures and ethnicities among us. It’s easy to devalue one another. It takes courage and effort to risk changing ourselves prompted by relationships with others. However, as we give voice to our changes, our government and country will be influenced to change. This is what it means to be strong. This is what it means to be a real winner.

Rev. John Buttrick