After a break for cookies and coffee and milk (the uber-rich chocolate torte with a glass of milk was absolutely perfect to perk me up midafternoon) we broke into, well, breakout sessions. I went to the International Relations (peace and justice, war on terror, etc) session, led by Andrew (Semitism.net) and David (Faith in Public Life.)
Andrew talked about how he started his blog to put a stake in the ground and to show that there are Jews who don't support the Israeli Occupation. He cited a comment he got on his blog once by a guy who calls himself Buber's Tuber: "For the left, Israel is a divisive issue," this fellow said. Tuber acknowledged that the Jewish community has done great work on the Left, but it's hard for him to talk to Jews about Israel; often coalitions split apart over Israel; the left tends to take hardline positions against Israel, and this causes a real division, and the left is losing a lot of Jewish support for that reason. So what should be done?
"I'm not going to try to answer that question," Andrew said, "but I want to note that this is an explosive question. Blogging in this arena is really difficult...It's easy to offend both sides." Through writing his blog, Andrew said, he's come to understand both the Palestinian perspective, and how heartfelt the support for Israel is in much of the Jewish community. He acknowledged that no major powers read his blog; that his blog doesn't get to impact policy in any way; but at least his blog allows the conversation to happen, allows the dialogue to happen, and he thinks that's a value in itself.
David spoke about religion and international relations -- "not natural bedfellows, according to most diplomats," he pointed out. Religion causes conflict; diplomacy aims to end conflict; so most diplomats don't think of these two things at the same time. But this is shifting. Religion is coming to be understood as a real force in the political world. Progressive political scientists and diplomats are only now beginning to come up with coherent understandings of how religion and politics intersect. (He mentioned Madeline Albright's The Mighty and the Almighty as a sign that the progressive diplomatic community is coming to grips with these issues.)
So what impact do blogs have on international relations? Very little, in one sense; the leaders of the free world don't read our blogs! But in another sense, after 9/11 people care about international relations in a whole new way, and on both the right and the left blogs are starting to exercise the kind of influence over international relations policy that they do over other kinds of policy. Look at the blogging momentum around standing up to torture in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, for instance. So there is a potential for the blogosphere to have an impact on American policy.
We think of the religious right as a domestic entity, he pointed out, but they're increasingly organizing around international issues. Some of this distresses us (the right's policy on AIDS and sexual abstinence); some of this pleases us (the religious right's response to Sudan, e.g. -- as I noted, when I'm in agreement with Senator Sam Brownback, it's a weird feeling indeed!) Then the conversation opened up to the broader table.
When the Episcopal bishop of Boston joins a pro-Palestinian demonstration, what does that do to Jewish-Christian relations? "I don't even know who to have a meaningful dialogue with," Chris noted, "because there are old anxieties and stereotypes on both sides that make it difficult to know who I should be talking to."
Reb Arthur talked about prophetic religious involvement in the Israel/Palestine issue. The Jewish community is both religiously and ethnically identified with the matter of Israel. The first time he visited Israel he also visited the West Bank and Gaza, to make a religious argument for a two-state solution. This reached its apogee at the famous handshake just before Rosh Hashanah that year -- for religious and political reasons both sides were affirming a two-state solution! But because of the second intifada, this broke down. And this is one of the major fault lines in the progressive religious community.
This relates to Iraq, too. There's a mainstream coalition against the Iraq war -- MoveOn.org, Sierra Club, National Council of Churches... and yet the only Jewish organization affiliated with the antiwar movement is the Shalom Center. Which is ridiculous! One of the strongest voices for religious rights and gay rights in America is the Reform Movement -- but this isn't an issue where they speak out well.
The Shalom Center constantly struggles against both demonization of Israel, and demonization of the Palestinians. "We argue against some behavior of the Palestinians, and against the Occupation," he said. More recently they've shifted focus to the war in Iraq because, as he put it, "we need to oppose the big Empire," the addiction to oil and torture at Guantanamo and so on. Within the last week there's been more of a need to speak out about the situation in the Middle East again. But, he said, "at least now there is a solid critical base -- not in the mainstream Jewish organizations but in the alternative ones." He cited Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace.
Shanta from the National Council of Churches noted that the evangelical community has a natural affinity for Israel. The theology ultimately says that if all the Jews don't convert to Christianity, they're going to be destroyed in the end! But there's a political affinity that serves Israel's purpose, which is why the alliance is there. He arguesdthat what's going on now in the Middle East these last two weeks is perhaps the most important issue in international relations...so how do we talk about it? How do we frame what we think about it in a way that speaks the prophetic word, but does not alienate the Jewish community? This would be truly profitable. (Prophetable? :-)
Jesse from the forthcoming Faithful Democrats site brought up developing world poverty, debt relief (per Jubilee USA) -- Israel/Palestine is a crucial issue, he says, but so are all of these other things. Steve from CrossLeft expressed shock that there was no sustained protest against the war in Iraq, and asked how much energy is spent blogging about these issues instead of really sticking our neck out. (Does blogging necessarily preclude taking action?)
From there, we moved into talking about how we can, or should, transfer blogging into action. To what extent, Islamoyankee asked, is our blogging raising consciousness? We all know our current president has a deep millenarian streak (one could joke that our foreign policy has some Left Behind in it), but bear in mind that Ahmadinejad is also millenarianist. He honestly believes the apocalypse is here and it's his duty to bring it on. Where do we go from here?
We had to wrap up then; I thanked everyone for making this a productive and civil conversation, and Andrew urged us to live by our principles, act by our principles, and trust that we will make a difference in that way. We can speak in harmony, he said, despite our differences. What a tremendous force we can be.