Canadian Mennonite
Volume 13, No. 20
Oct. 19, 2009


Redemption through suffering

Last in a Series

Dick Benner


Dick Benner

How can Mennonites, who belong to a religious and ethnic community with a long history of being persecuted and murdered in the name of religion, work to “mainstream” a man who has incited genocidal religious hostility against Jews in the Middle East? Dexter Van Zile, the passionate critic of what he thinks Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Christian Peacemaker Teams are doing to promote anti-Semitism in the Middle East, wants to know.

This charge refers, of course, to the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmad-inejad, who in recent weeks has again made headlines for his harsh rhetoric at the United Nations, calling for the annihilation of Israel.

Van Zile, who bills himself as the Christian outreach director and member of the executive committee for Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East, is outraged that MCC is “defending Ahmadinejad and helping to rehabilitate his reputation” by calling together Christian and Muslim leaders on three different occasions to discuss with the outspoken leader possibilities for reversing the conflict between the United States and Iran, especially at it relates to the various religious factions.

In Van Zile’s well-known Zionist view, “talking” is tantamount to “tacit approval” of a person’s stance and political views. This is where our critic is dead wrong. The fact is that the meetings with Ahmadinejad were for the precise purpose of toning down his rhetoric and to point out how his reckless language was indeed fanning the flames of a centuries-old conflict.

“MCC’s goal in these meetings was to pursue respectful, peacebuilding dialogue,” says Paul Heidebrecht, MCC’s Ottawa director, “not to honour or ‘mainstream’ the Iranian president. On all three occasions Ahmadinejad was di-rectly confronted for his views on Israel.”

We highlight this episode to show how deeply entrenched are hearts and minds on both sides of this never-ending conflict, which can be boiled down to the tragedy of personal suffering in a tiny piece of God’s earth, where a country of nearly six million Jews is holding hostage some four million Arabs in occupied territory (2.5 million in the West Bank and 1.5 million in the Gaza Strip).

It is, in the words of the late Israeli social critic Amos Elon, “a place where Israel holds the wolf by his ears, and can neither hold him down nor safely let him go.” In their “fear and fury,” both captor and captive have “irrevocably resorted to tragic choices—rooted in the disastrous struggle between two rights, a clash between two irresistible compulsions.”

We got a glimpse of this epic tragedy recently when Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian physician and peace advocate who lost three of his daughters and a niece when Israeli tank shells shattered his house earlier this year, spoke to an overflow crowd of students and community members at Conrad Grebel University College. He said, “We share 98 percent of our DNA. We [Jews and Arabs] are cousins. We need to focus on what we have in common and work at the differences later.” (See story on page 22.)

How amazing! The sufferer, who has every right for revenge, takes the initiative for a path to peace. This should have us all on our knees seeking redemption, not at the podium hurling theological and political insults at each other.

Tobi Thiessen

Meet your board member

Tobi Thiessen from Toronto is treasurer of Canadian Mennonite Publishing Service, and a member-at-large for the board. Mostly a stay-at-home mom raising three pre-teen sons, she has done part-time writing on topics related to Canada-Japan trade under contract for Canadian and Japanese business or government organizations. She holds an MBA degree from York University’s Schulich School of Business. Also spending many hours in volunteer positions within the church, she and her husband Harold are members of Toronto United Mennonite Church. In addition to her board duties, she is on the Mennonite Church Eastern Canada administrative and services council and is a member of her congregation’s personnel committee. She can be reached at 416-622-7850 or via e-mail at

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