Opinion: With whom will you stand today?

Palestinian children play in front of rubble at a makeshift camp housing displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Jan. 28, 2024, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Palestinian children play in front of rubble at a makeshift camp housing displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Jan. 28, 2024, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. AFP via Getty Images / TNS


Published: 02-11-2024 6:00 AM

Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at robertazzitheother.substack.com

When, in November 2023, and again in January 2024, more than 1,000 Black Christian faith leaders took out full-page ads in the New York Times, saying, “We are faith leaders in the African American faith tradition, in the Black church prophetic tradition, and we are people familiar with pain and suffering enacted by state actors,” I was not surprised.

When they called “for an immediate bilateral ceasefire in the Middle East for the sake of our shared humanity and our collective security,” I was not surprised; I was pleased.

To my mind their courage was a reminder of a pernicious hierarchy that affects America to this moment; a reminder that, as German theologian and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued in the 1930s, “Today the general picture of the church in the United States is still one of racial fragmentation. Blacks and whites come separately to word and sacrament. They have no common worship.”

As readers know, I have been following commentary on the current war between the settler-state of Israel and Palestinians since Hamas terrorists overwhelmed Israeli defenses on Oct. 7, 2023, and killed 1,200 (mostly) Israelis and took hostages, many of whom are still being held in Gaza.

Since that time I have been paying particular attention to the reactions of Christians — particularly to the role that white Western Christians - supremacists, nationalists, centrists, unaffiliated — might play, might rise up to listen to the shofar above Mount Sinai, to the muezzin from Al-Aqsa’s minaret, to the peel of bells from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and negotiate convening spaces between sister and brother monotheists, between Jews and Muslims, to find sacred spaces between carnage and conciliation.

Together they have failed.

I should have known better: I should recognize that it’s not about justice, it’s about power, privilege, and race, especially in America, the land between sea to shining sea from where arms and complicity flow.

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“Race, in the United States,” Isabel Wilkerson wrote in “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent,” “is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin.”

Wilkerson defines caste as “the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.”

And in Palestine, as we witness the ongoing genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people and the deliberate destruction of its institutions and culture, especially in Gaza, everything is being withheld — justice, shelter, dignity, medicine, food, life itself — and too many are silent.

I know that within established hierarchies, within those intersectional spaces inhabited by people I know and love, within the spaces between Gaza and Ferguson, between their footsteps as they struggle for survival and respect and resist the burdens placed upon them by their oppressors and occupiers, they are being deliberately denied their humanity because they are Other.

“Caste is the bones, race the skin.”

Today, Palestine is the skin, the tragedy of our prejudices, our privileges, our hubris.

On Nov. 17, 2023, Josh Paul, former director in the U.S. State Department’s political-military affairs bureau published an op-ed in the New York Times: “I knew U.S. military aid would kill civilians and undermine Israeli security. So I quit ... [I resigned] ... because I could not support the provision of U.S. weapons into the conflict in Gaza, where I knew that they would be used to kill thousands of civilians ...”

Over 2,000,000 displaced, over 27,000 killed, over 66,000 wounded, thousands missing under the rubble... there is no end.

On that very same day UN official Juliette Touma, while being interviewed by the BBC on Nov. 17, 2023, five weeks after Hamas’ terrorist attack, said that more than 830,000 people had come to shelters run by UNRWA, the UN’s relief agency for Palestinians.

“They all depend on assistance,” she said, and recounted the experience of a colleague in Gaza. “He went to one of our shelters, where there were little children asking him: ‘Did you bring a piece of bread for me with you? Did you bring a sip of water for me with you?”

“Did you bring a sip of water for me with you?”

“The vast majority of African Americans,” Wilkerson wrote, “who lived in this land in the first 246 years of what is now the United States lived under the terror of people who had absolute power over their bodies and their very breath, subject to people who faced no sanction for any atrocity they could conjure.”

Today, the Palestinians know that very same terror, inflicted upon them not only by people who face no sanction for any atrocity they can conjure but by the people who supply them with arms and political support.

By people complicit through silence.

These are the moments when I most realize that for the privileged there will be no cost for their equivocations and inaction, no interruptions to their comforts, no challenge to their primacy, no penalty extracted for their collaboration with oppression.

“Did you bring a piece of bread for me with you?”

These are the moments when I live at a heightened state of vigilance, and little sleep, knowing that this persistence of racism, sustained by power, threatens all people lacking privilege and power.

Within hours of the International Court of Justice’s interim order to Israel to abide by the Genocide Convention and stop killing Palestinians, the state of Israel, without providing proof, alleged that 12 of UNRWA’s 13,000 employees were involved in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks.

UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, provides aid to 5.9 million, ranging from food and housing to education, welfare and medical care. It is the primary — and in most places — the only source of nutrition and care for the mostly Muslim, mostly brown, Palestinians, especially in Gaza.

To deny aid to the over 2,200,000 Palestinians in Gaza, as well as to Palestinians in the occupied territories of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, as well as in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon is to be complicit with crimes against humanity.

On Feb., 2, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations released a statement demanding, “States must reinstate and strengthen support to UNRWA amid unfolding genocide in Gaza,” and expressed “... grave concern at the recent harmful decision by some 18 states [17 white states plus Japan] to suspend funding to ... [UNWRA].”

“These announcements come at an existential moment for over two million Palestinians in Gaza enduring catastrophic living conditions due to Israel’s large-scale military attack that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) considers a plausible genocide,” the experts said.

Joan Baez said, “... it is what I do in the world that matters. When I traveled for three months in the Mideast, the places I wanted to go back to were Turkey and the Gaza Strip. It has to do with what Gandhi said: he found God in the eyes of the poor. Those are the places which were so moving that they were just unbearable.”

Today, with whom will you stand? With whom will you share a piece of bread, a sip of water?