Am I My Palestinian Brother’s Keeper?


Am I my Palestinian brother’s keeper?
Marrickville Council, BDS, and the politics of shame

In December 2010 Marrickville Council (representing various suburbs in the inner-west of Sydney) voted to support the global ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign’ (BDS) against the Israeli government, aimed at ending the Palestinian Occupation.

In the months that followed, and most especially in the lead-up to the State election in the March 2011, Council’s pro-BDS stand came under increasing criticism. Councillors who were party members were put under pressure to publicly withdraw their support for the campaign by senior party officials. Others were threatened with various forms of legal action. Almost all were threatened with physical violence via anonymous calls and emails.

Some critics attacked the BDS campaign itself as being naive or misguided. The majority though simply attacked the presumption of Council for meddling in international affairs when such issues should be left to the federal government’s Department of Foreign Affairs.

For those whose Biblical knowledge is hazy, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is one of those archetypal Scriptural questions that the Bible doesn’t deem to be worthy of an answer. It was first enunciated by Cain in one of the early chapters of Genesis, as Cain attempts to squirm his way out of God’s probing interrogation about the fate of his murdered brother.

Along with “who is my neighbour?” and a handful of other disingenuous queries (that likewise never receive a direct response in the Bible) such questions are intended as rhetorical, and are asked solely with a view to excusing the questioner from fraternal responsibilities.

I see a similar dynamic at work in so many of the questions that have been raised around here of late, concerning whether it should be the responsibility of local government to take a stand on international human rights issues, such as that taken by Marrickville Council in their support of the global ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ campaign (BDS) that protests the Palestinian Occupation. Is it really the job of local government to worry about such things? Shouldn’t Council stick to the job of maintaining roads and taking out the garbage? Since when did we become our Palestinian brother’s keeper?

I’m not suggesting that all those who raise such questions do so with evil intent – not at all. I’ve heard these questions raised by good people of good conscience, and yet I do think that such questions inevitably reveal something of the mindset of the questioner.

Here is the response I now give to those who raise this question over whether it is appropriate for local government to get involved in international affairs:

“If you had members of your own family living in Gaza, and if it had been some of your nieces and nephews who had been killed in the last IDF incursion, would you really be objecting to the fact that your local government was trying to do something about it?”

Now… take a deep breath before you answer. Be honest! Even if you do hold strong opinions as to the proper roles of the various levels of government, if it were your own sisters and brothers who were suffering, would you really object?

And here’s the kicker, of course – these people are your sisters and brothers!

This is the real problem I believe. We don’t think of the Palestinian people in this way. Perhaps we feel a closer kinship with the white citizens of Israel? Perhaps we don’t feel any kinship with anybody beyond our own shores? Either way, this is the problem, and it’s the real issue that lies behind so many of these questions.

Indeed, this is the problem I see behind all of the kafuffle that has been going on here over the last few months – the debates about appropriate governmental responsibilities, backed up by a well-coordinated smear campaign against those who support BDS, which is labelled as racist and extremist (extraordinary labels to apply to a strategy of non-violent resistance to a military occupation)! The real problem is not lack of clarity about correct political procedure nor a misunderstanding of the exact nature of the BDS campaign, but a simple lack of compassion!

In all these debates about procedure and about the electoral value of pro-Palestinian policies, the suffering people of Gaza and the West Bank are completely sidelined! What we need to come to terms with here is the fact that these people are not simply a policy issue. The men, women and children of Palestine are human beings worthy of respect, and the violation of their human rights is something that should offend us all. When we feel this offence deep down in our souls, the procedural issues are put into proper perspective. Indeed, they are seen for what they are: a simple excuse for inaction!

I recently finished reading an excellent biography of Dietrich Bonheoffer (the great German Christian leader who was a part of the plot to kill Hitler) and the most startling thing I learned from that book was that most of Hitler’s generals were apparently opposed to Hitler most of the time. For almost the entirety of the war, most of Germany’s key military leaders hated Hitler’s policies and wanted to get rid of him as their leader! So what stopped them? Apparently it was primarily a concern for proper procedure!

There were appropriate and inappropriate ways of replacing a leader, and this action needed to be pursued through the appropriate mechanisms of government, etc., etc. And so, apart from heroic individuals like Bonheoffer and Von Stauffenberg, who cared more about the fate of their Jewish sisters and brothers than they did about governmental protocols, nobody did anything!

The author of the Bonheoffer biography attributed the generals’ inaction largely to ‘German stuffiness’ and the desire to do things ‘by the book’. I suspect though that all such stuffiness really only functions as another convenient excuse for inaction.

For we human beings are great at avoiding our responsibilities while maintaining an air of self-righteous virtuosity! And so we bluster on about the need for political correctness and how we must avoid doing anything rash or inappropriate, and perhaps we even go so far as form a committee to discuss the matter further at an appropriate time. And all the while the world burns!

Wake up, people of Marrickville! Wake up, world! What we lack here is not political nous but compassion. We need to take the suffering of the Palestinian people seriously – recognising them as our sisters and brother in the human condition. And we need to be honest with ourselves and stop hiding behind questions like, “Is it really our responsibility?” and “Am I my Palestinian brother’s keeper?”

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.


About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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