This is part 2 of a series on rethinking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a Christian, inspired by the most recent assault on Gaza. Part 1 can be read here.
When I was a kid, I had a t-shirt with a picture of Snoopy carrying an Israeli flag, trailed by Woodstock marching with an American flag. The caption below read, “America is right behind you.”
So yeah, I guess you could say I was pro-Israel. After all, how could you be an evangelical and not be a supporter of the Israeli state?
The dominant narrative of the American evangelical subculture says the Holy Land belongs to Israel alone. It’s an everlasting inheritance rooted in an irrevocable, unchanging covenant with God himself. (More on that in another post perhaps.)
The establishment of the Israeli state in 1948 is looked on not just as an important event in the life of the Jewish people, but as nothing less than the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, inaugurating the beginning of the end times.
Israel’s defense, then, is America’s sacred responsibility, our first and greatest foreign policy commitment. (That was something both candidates in the recent presidential campaign actually agreed on.) As such, no criticism of Israel will be brooked. Palestinians are, at best, squatters with no rightful claim to the land — and at worst, terrorists who would ignite a second Holocaust, given the chance.
Add to the mix our present-day worries about “radical Islam” and our tendency to paint all Arabs with the same brush, and it becomes far too easy for us to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in simple terms of good guys vs. bad guys. Christians and Jews together on one side, presumably, and Palestinian Islamists on the other.
That is, until cracks begin to appear in the façade we’ve created to help ourselves sleep at night.
Like the fact that many of those working hardest for peace among Jews and Palestinians are members of the Jewish community. Organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace belie the supposition, popular in evangelical circles, that Jews and Palestinians are destined to be forever at war.
Or the fact that not all Palestinians fit the radical-jihadist-with-a-bomb-strapped-to-his-chest caricature. Not by a long shot. Not only are most Palestinians nonviolent (whatever their religion); many happen to be Christian. My spiritual brothers and sisters, united by a common faith.
For some reason, in my church we never talked about Palestinian Christians. Oh, we discussed at length the persecution of Christians in other part of the world, but never the suffering of our fellow believers in Palestine. We were oblivious to their existence.
For me, that changed four years ago, during what until this month had been the last major assault on the Gaza Strip. One of my colleagues at the time was a Palestinian Christian who grew up in the West Bank and later moved to America.
One day, she told me about her experience in the West Bank.
She and her family had no freedom of movement, thanks to the 430-mile barrier the Israeli government began building in the mid-1990s. The barrier is rationalized as keeping would-be suicide bombers out of Israel. Yet it doesn’t just separate Israel from the West Bank; it cuts into the West Bank at several points, isolating Palestinian villages from each other.
For my colleague, this meant being cut off from her family in the next village over. Going to church meant risking arrest because there were just too many checkpoints. She wasn’t just deprived of her freedom of movement; she was deprived of her freedom to worship.
Freedom of movement is considered a fundamental human right, as is the freedom to worship. Both are enshrined in our Constitution. If these violations happened anywhere else, we would protest that freedom itself was under attack. We would call it persecution.
My colleague also described the experience of Palestinian children who have to walk past Israeli settlements on their way to and from school, subjected to taunts and physical violence from other children who’ve been taught by their parents to hate the Palestinians. Imagine if this were your daughter’s walk to school:
My colleague told me of Palestinian friends — particularly in East Jerusalem — whose homes were demolished by the Israeli government, usually on the pretext of not having the proper permits. (Never mind the homes and their occupants have been there for years.) In many cases, families have just minutes to gather what belongings they can carry before the bulldozers close in. They have no recourse, no due process.
Finally, my colleague revealed that she had no idea whether she’d ever get to see her family again. You see, if you’re Palestinian and you leave your homeland, the Israeli government (which controls who comes and goes in the West Bank) may not let you back in. Consider this example, reported in the Baltimore Sun a few years ago:
Abdelhakeem Itayem, a Palestinian with American citizenship, was counting on a simple overnight stay when he traveled from the West Bank to Jordan on a business trip. Six months later, he is still there, trapped in bureaucratic limbo.
Itayem, 41, said the long delay has kept him away from his wife, Lisa, and their seven children, who remain in the family’s home near Ramallah. It has also cost him his job as a manager for a Palestinian distributor of foreign consumer goods. “It’s breaking my heart,” he said.
Activists say scores of Palestinians who carry foreign passports, mostly American, have been denied entry this year after Israel moved to close a loophole that once allowed residents to enter repeatedly on renewable Israeli tourist visas.
The policy has created a quandary for the Palestinian Americans who remain: If they leave to get a new three-month stamp, they might not be allowed back. If they stay, their current Israeli visas will expire. Many say their past applications for formal residency in the Palestinian territories were rejected by Israel or never acted upon.
These and other tactics are part of a concerted effort to make life as unbearable as possible for the Palestinians. Then, when they leave, the Israeli government locks the door behind them.
Similar measures have been taken against people in Gaza, arguably the world’s largest refugee camp. Israel controls everything that goes in and out of that tiny, arid strip of land; Gaza’s fishermen can’t even fish their own waters on the Mediterranean coast without fear of being shelled by Israeli warships. In 2006, one advisor to the Israeli prime minister revealed that his country was deliberately trying to impoverish the people of Gaza. “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet,” he said, “but not to make them die of hunger.”
Imagine if a vastly superior military power had brought you and your community to the brink of starvation in order to teach you a lesson. How would you feel? How would you react? Would you be tempted to fight back?
And even if you believe modern-day Israel is one and the same with the Israel of the Bible …
Even if you believe the biblical covenant that promised the land to ancient Israel is somehow still in force today…
Even if you think Palestinians are outsiders with no rightful claim to the land (despite the fact they’ve been living there for hundreds of years)…
If that’s how you rationalize what’s going on in Palestine today, then surely you accept that Israel is duty-bound to follow the whole covenant, not just the part that supposedly gives them the land?
So what about Leviticus 19?
When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
What about Deuteronomy 10?
You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.
Ancient Israel knew what it felt like to be a refugee population at the mercy of a far more powerful nation. They were told by their God never to forget — and never to repeat — the hostility which they experienced at the hands of the Egyptians.
So can it be said the Israeli government truly loves the Palestinians in their midst? Can they claim to have treated the Palestinians as they treat their own? Or have they already forgotten what it feels like to be a refugee?
Because if they have forgotten, then they have broken the very covenant that promised the land to their ancestors.