Monday, July 27, 2015

Jesus the Settler

In an ideal world, one of the nice things about being Jewish is that one would not have to answer the impossibly anachronistic historical thought experiment "What Would Jesus Do?" What Jesus would do is pleasantly irrelevant to either my theology or my political morality, and so by all rights it shouldn't concern me.

In the real world, of course, Jews in the West live under the constant shadow of Christian domination, and so it is often quite essential that we play the tremendously silly game of enlisting Jesus to this or that cause. The latest rendition of this spectacularly stupid charade comes from former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, who stated that were he around today, the Bethlehem-born Jesus Christ, along with Mary and John the Baptist, would be "considered Jewish settlers." This statement, in turn, led to a hystrionic response by Ryan Rodrick Beiler (for many years a Mennonite activist in East Jerusalem) who contended that Oren "may have crossed the line from belligerence to blasphemy" (an interesting choice of words, to be sure) in so labeling Jesus.

I want to reiterate, once more, what a profoundly stupid exercise this is. Taking historical figures from the vastly different geopolitical and moral context that existed 2000 years ago and importing it into the present-day is one of those ridiculous, open-ended rorschach blobs that allows one to see whatever one wants to see. But since we're apparently forced to tackle the subject, let's see if there is in fact anything useful that can be mined out of it.

Oren's case for saying Jesus would be "considered" a settler is very simple:
1) Jesus is a Jew residing in the modern-day West Bank;

2) Jews residing in the modern-day West Bank are considered settlers, therefore;

3) Jesus would be considered a settler. Q.E.D.
Beiler's response is to contend that Jesus, well-known friend of the downtrodden, would in no way affiliate himself with the settlement enterprise. He would instead protest it, and identify himself with oppressed Palestinians laboring under occupation. But this, you'll note, isn't actually responsive. It doesn't disprove Jesus' status as a settler, it just argues that he'd be a settler with left-wing, pro-Palestinian views.

Beiler, for example, cites to the Geneva Conventions (specifically, Article 49 of the 4th Convention) as to what makes a "settlement" a "settlement" and thereby a violation of interntaional law. That Article states that
The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.
Settlements, as most international legal scholars agree, represent such a "transfer" of the civilian population and are therefore illegal. But you'll notice that there is no proviso that says "...unless a member of the transferred population really sympathizes with the cause of those under occupation." Beiler's argument is a non-sequitur -- it isn't a political litmus test that would render our hypothetical modern-day Jesus a settler; it's that he'd be considered a member of the occupying power's civilian population living in the occupied territory.

What is interesting is that Beiler does not make the strongest textual argument for Jesus not being a settler -- namely, that he wasn't "transferred." Jesus wasn't "transferred" to Bethlehem, he was born there. The Israeli government would have nothing to do with it. The problem, of course, is that there are plenty of Jews born inside settlements who are still deemed to be "settlers" even though they were never "transferred" to the territory (the implications of this observation resulted in a fascinating argument between international law scholars Eugene Kontorovich and Kevin Jon Heller -- links collected here). One could make a similar observation regarding persons who move to a settlement from a country other than Israel (e.g., the stereotypical Ariel resident from Miami) -- they would not part of Israel's "own civilian population" and thus would seem to fall outside the scope of the provision. Nonetheless, such persons are "considered" settlers all the time.

The result of this line of thinking does less to make me think that a Jew born in Ariel isn't a "settler" than it does make me continue to believe that we over- (and usually mis-)rely on international legal concepts to frame our understanding of the relevant issues and terms surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What is clear is that who is and isn't deemed a "settler" is more of a political and moral judgment than it is a legal doctrinal question, which is why it strikes Beiler as so outrageous to ascribe the label to Jesus -- the problem isn't one of qualification but of implication.

Yet Beiler's position is more than just misguided; it is positively dangerous. Stripped to its roots, Beiler's argument for why Jesus is not a settler boils down to the following:
1) Settlers are bad people;

2) Jesus was not a bad person (in fact, he was a very good person), therefore;

3) Jesus was not a settler. Q.E.D.
This is dehumanizing; it presents the problem of settlements (which are, it is worth noting, a state infraction of international law, not an individual one. The legal proscription contained in the Geneva Convention is against the state which transfers, not upon the person transferred) as one of snarling monstrous settlers who are categorically excluded from the realm of persons who might have sympathy for or advocate on behalf of the Palestinians. As a question of sociology this is assuredly overstated (I remember reading Israeli election returns and seeing that someone from Kiryat Arba voted for Meretz -- though for the life of me I wonder what his or her story was). Obviously, settlers come in all shapes and sizes, from religious true-believers to people searching for cheaper property values to, yes, the snarling monsters who carry out the "price tag" terror attacks. Moreover (and this is equally important), that large swaths of the settler community are not snarling monsters does not in any way obviate the injustice the settlement enterprise imposes upon the Palestinian people, for injustice is not the sole, or even primary, enterprise of snarling monsters. This is the truly dangerous wrong Beiler commits: the conflation of bad structures with bad people; the worse the structure is, the more irredeemable the people implicated inside it are. Ultimately, this logic can lead only to dehumanization and hatred, and will always fail as an avenue of just social change.

In sum, Oren's logic is right: Jesus, as a Jew living in the West Bank, would be considered a settler today. This does not mean that he would not take pro-Palestinian positions; nor would the possibility of him taking such positions justify the settlement enterprise. The contours and legitimacy of Israeli settlements exist independently of the character of the individuals who live inside them, and it is a serious mistake to conflate the two.

2 comments:

Moebius Stripper said...

The "settler=>bad person" heuristic is often invoked where I live, where pro-Palestianian and pro-Indigenous rights activists often cross paths. Some time ago, a local group held a protest against Sodastream, calling for a boycott of Sodastream until they closed their plant in the West Bank. At the top of the poster advertising the protest was a note: "We recognize that we are holding this protest on unceded Salish territory."

That is, the protesters require only a modicum of self-awareness to be exempted from settler status, whereas the Israelis running the Sodastream plant need to leave the area.

EW said...

"Michael Oren, who stated that were he around today, the Bethlehem-born Jesus Christ, along with Mary and John the Baptist, would be "considered Jewish settlers." This statement, in turn, led to a hystrionic response by Ryan Rodrick Beiler (for many years a Mennonite activist in East Jerusalem) who contended that Oren "may have crossed the line from belligerence to blasphemy" (an interesting choice of words, to be sure) in so labeling Jesus.

I want to reiterate, once more, what a profoundly stupid exercise this is."


Profoundly stupid? Only among the heathen who are unlearned in the Gospels!

Do ye not know that the Gospels repeatedly refer to Christ as the bridegroom, and we Christians as the bride of Christ? (So why are so many Christians hung up about same-sex marriage? Just roll with it for now….)

So when Oren is saying that Jesus was a settler, he’s saying that Jesus could have held out for a better bride, but he just settled for us instead! Beiler correctly perceived that Oren was saying about the Lord of Hosts the same thing that Jews have been saying for millennia – to wit: “Maybe, you know, find a nice Jewish girl, settle down, join her dad’s accounting firm, get tickets to the symphony, and in a year or two … who knows? Could do worse….”

NEVER! Jesus was much too scruffy for the symphony. So Beiler was entirely justified in his response.

And you call this dispute “profoundly stupid,” – well, who’s lookin’ profoundly stupid now?