Muhammad Madani, the Palestinian governor of Bethlehem, has barricaded himself inside the Church of the Nativity. With him are 200 others – Palestinians and Christians; terrorists and priests; gunmen and nuns.

Charles Goddeeris
Johanna Hanink

Over the centuries, additions to the church have developed an architectural ambiance reminiscent more of a medieval fortress than a house of worship. Today, convents and cloisters buttress the shrine built above what is now a cave, but which Christian tradition tells us was once the spot where Jesus was born, wrapped in swaddling clothes and put to bed in a manger meant for holding the feed of livestock.

Since I’ve started paying attention in earnest to what we often can only euphemistically call “what’s happening in Israel,” there’s always been a part of me that cringes when I hear activists on either side of U.N. Resolution or Peace Plan x, y and z rant about their holy land. I want to childishly stomp my foot and demand that it’s my holy land too. Forget about Moses and Muhammad, it was Israel where Gabriel announced, John baptized and Jesus preached, Jerusalem where he arrived on Palm Sunday to await crucifixion. No! I want to yell, feeling left out. It matters to me, too!

So it seems that when Madani and his friends hold themselves and the Church of the Nativity hostage, knowing that Israeli Army colonel Olivier Rafowicz speaks for Israel when he says “We do not fire on that church,” they have finally made it personal for the Christians. I’ve heard friends and the talking heads say as much.

This, though, is a problem. It’s always been personal.

But it hasn’t been personal because of a few buildings built on spots made memorial only through tenuous tradition and a great deal of effort. It’s not even personal because what’s happening in Israel desecrates the soul of a city and a land, a soul which I think that I would feel more deeply than any other place’s soul.

There are plenty of reasons to care about Israel – and arguably to care about the politics of Israel more than the politics of Angola. The international spotlight is, like it or not, on this particular conflict. And like it or not, it has grown bigger than its roots in cultural and religious loyalties. Israel is the place where President Bush is blowing it right now. Israel is an enclave of the European in an otherwise Arab region. Like it or not, Mr. Said, but Samuel P. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” argument holds some water. The implications for the international political scene are bigger in Israel and the West Bank than they are on two warlord turfs in Somalia.

But what’s happening in Israel can no longer be the summation of people’s personal ties to the place. The place is important to millions worldwide – but it shouldn’t hurt the Christians more that people will probably die at the threshold of the birthplace of Jesus Christ. To think that way makes it less important when people die in Kurdistan. In Afghanistan, in Nepal. In a war of identity politics, it’s time to remove identity from the equation.

Last week I was forwarded an e-mail that had been sent to Hillel’s Orthodox Minyan e-mail list. The e-mail contained a column by Catherine Ford that had been reprinted in the Montreal Gazette from last Saturday’s Calgary Herald, called “Today I am a Jew.”

Ford recounts the story of King Christian X of Denmark, who asked all of his subjects to wear a yellow star after the Nazis ordered the Jews to do so. She writes, “Today, those who hate Jews are able to do so because too many gentiles will not stand up and be counted … No more. Today, I proudly echo (Daniel) Pearl’s last words: I am a Jew.”

There is a danger in donning the blindfold of identity politics – and contrived identity politics at that. There are plenty of academic reasons to support Israel. I do. But it’s not because I present the disjunctive and foolish assertion that I am a Jew. I am not a Jew. I look at Israel and I look at its history and I say that I support Israel’s right to exist because I am a person; because I am a sympathetic human being.

Over winter break I stood in the unremarkable office of a remarkable man. Prof. Noam Chomsky was running behind and was half an hour late meeting with me. The president of a British Kurdish political advocacy group had been talking with him and wanted to have her picture taken to be put in the group’s newsletter.

He politely asked if I didn’t mind waiting a minute, then told his secretary (who was taking the picture) that he wanted to be photographed in front of Bertie. “Bertie” was a poster of Bertrand Russell on his office wall, a poster that I’d been staring at for the last 20 minutes.

“Three passions have governed my life,” read the poster (and thus Bertie) “The longings for love, the search for knowledge, and an unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.”

It’s Russell’s last passion that offers the most compelling “why” to “the gentiles who will not stand up and be counted.” It’s not because we have to contrive a connection to the place. It’s because of an empathy for human suffering that we don’t have to say “I am a Jew” or “I am a Palestinian,” to be justified in crying just as much as anyone else for the sorrow in Israel.

Johanna Hanink can be reached at jhanink@umich.edu.

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