My church recently ran an adult education series on the history of antisemitism in Mennonite culture. I don’t often make a habit of attending our “Second Hour”, but I felt that this series was important enough that I needed to be there. What I learned has fundamentally altered my understanding of the progressive Mennonite discussion around the Israel-Palestine conflict.

To give a brief overview of what we covered:

In the 1920s (well before WWII), Mennonites began to join the Nazi movement in Germany. Throughout the rule of the Nazi Party, German Mennonites broadly supported Hitler’s agenda. They helped to theologically justify the Holocaust and benefitted from the abuse of Jews; only a small minority helped Jews escape the Holocaust. For further reading, Ben Goosen has written extensively on this topic. 

Mennonite Central Committee was fully engaged and complicit in this activity. After WWII, they helped Nazi-associated Mennonites immigrate to North and South America en masse. These immigrants founded major white supremacist organizations, such as — an early, antisemitic voice on the World Wide Web.

MCC offered no official support to Jews during the Holocaust and continued this position afterward. As Israel began to establish itself as a state in the late 1940s, MCC did little to aid Jewish refugees fleeing Germany — instead investing heavily into the Palestinian rights movement. To this day, the Mennonite church has not offered any reflection on how our history with the Nazi movement may impact our views on Israel and Palestine today.

It’d be nice to look at all of this as history, but it’s still playing out today. Progressive Mennonites are quick to denounce Israel for their colonialist practices, but are loath to make restitution a part of their own lives, many of which are lived comfortably on land violently taken from indigenous peoples across North and South America.

I write this not to paint Jews as the ‘real victims’ or to attempt to negate Palestinian suffering. The Israeli government has and continues to commit atrocities in the name of their citizens, just as Hamas does in the name of Palestinians. However, wars at a similar scale are happening around the world; in Myanmar, Sudan, and the Maghreb region of Africa, to name a few. 

Yet, Mennonites have not deigned to weigh in on the morality of any of these conflicts. Our only official response to any of these conflicts has been to offer aid in South Sudan. In contrast, Mennonite Church USA released a resolution in 2017 titled “Seeking Peace in Israel and Palestine,” calling for Mennonite divestment from Israel, despite the American Jewish Committee denouncing other, similar resolutions

Since MCUSA joined the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement in 2017, BDS has only gotten more popular. Their ultimate goal is “the dismantling of Israel,” according to their co-founder Omar Barghouti. At the same time, the MCUSA Resolution calls for “Opposing Antisemitism and Seeking Right Relationship with Jewish Communities.” If we hold both of these statements as true, they are fundamentally contradictory: anti-Zionism (“the dismantling of Israel”) is generally considered fundamentally antisemitic, although this is a topic of ongoing debate.

Now that I have learned more about the violent history of Mennonites and Jews, I understand how Jews might see our continued, unilateral support of Palestine as antisemitic. When considering the Israeli perspective, it’s easy to see how “from the river to the sea” — a slogan that many Palestinian activists say is a call for peace — can be understood as an antisemitic call for the elimination of Israel.

I think people move far too quickly to demonize one side or the other, leaving little or no room to understand what basic needs their actions stem from. I’m not here to offer a solution but to challenge us to self-reflect.

There is no one ‘true’ story. There are many. Just because Palestinians are suffering does not mean that Jews are not also suffering, and vice versa. 

Many Mennonites would still consider the culture to be one of martyrdom: the Martyr’s Mirror is frequently referenced in Mennonite history. The exact number of Mennonite martyrs is unknown, but likely under 4,000 throughout history. We must imagine, then, how the Jewish culture feels, with over six million dead in a much more recent event. While this by no means excuses their actions and use of force in Palestine today, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that Jews may feel a legitimate threat to their safety — something that I rarely hear discussed with any seriousness.

We need to do better at understanding our roles in these stories. Mennonites are not innocent bystanders in this narrative; we were actively involved and have done little to acknowledge that or attempt to make amends. As we lend our voices to call for the safety of our Palestinian siblings, we have alienated many of our Jewish siblings in the process. 

Palestinians have nowhere else to go. Israelis have nowhere else to go. Until we can recognize the fear, anger and hurt on all sides — and our contributions to that — progress toward peace is impossible.

This was a difficult article to write. Other scholars, like Ben Goosen, are much more knowledgeable than I am on this topic. But I am certain that this is an important part of my, and others’, cultural history — one that needs to play a larger role in our conversations today.

Conrad is a senior sustainability major from Goshen. He is one half of The Record’s photo editing team. In his free time, he’s been getting back into rock climbing and helping to organize EcoPax activities.

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