5 Things You Need to Know About the Accusations Against World Vision’s Gaza Director

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Last week, the Israeli security agency Shin Bet accused a World Vision staffer of funneling millions to Hamas. Mohammad El Halabi, who ran World Vision’s Gaza branch, was arrested back in June.

I used to work at World Vision. For the past eight years, my wife and I have sponsored a child in Gaza. Which means it’s not just their money at stake. It’s ours. And I don’t want a penny of it falling into Hamas’ hands.

Guess what? Neither does World Vision. It would be their ultimate nightmare scenario—which is why it’s hard to imagine they’d be so careless as to allow $50 million to be stolen right under their noses.

World Vision is not perfect. They can be big and bureaucratic. They make mistakes. (Show me an NGO that doesn’t.)

But they are not stupid. One of the things I came to appreciate when I was at World Vision is just how perilous their work in Gaza is—and they know it. Not just because their staff is at risk every time there’s another war. (Though they are.) But also because even the slightest criticism of Israel’s government can lead to a backlash. It could cost them the ability to work in the Palestinian territories. They also risk antagonizing a good share of their American donor base, which is largely conservative, evangelical, and very pro-Israel.

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So, money falling into Hamas’ hands? That’s something World Vision would work very hard to avoid. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t (or didn’t) happen. But there’s big, big difference between “alleged” and “proven.”

So what about the allegations against Mohammad El Halabi? Consider the following…

1. Israel detained Halabi for 50 days before bringing any charges.

They also denied access to a lawyer for at least 21 days. During this time, Halabi was interrogated without anyone present to safeguard his interests or legal rights.

2. The security agency detaining him has a history of using torture to extract confessions.

Israeli courts prohibited the “systemic use of torture” in 1999, but Shin Bet continues to use sleep deprivation, physical violence, and other means widely viewed as torture to get information out of suspects. And by the way, if you think that’s just “Palestinian propaganda,” it’s not just Palestinians who complain of being tortured. Right-wing Israeli activists have also accused Shin Bet of torturing Jewish detainees.

3. Right after the story broke, Israeli diplomats launched a propaganda war on social media.

Wanting to turn public opinion against Halabi and World Vision before any conflicting evidence could be presented, Israel’s Foreign Ministry instructed its officials to spread the accusations far and wide, treating them as if they were already establish fact. This not-subtle attempt to have Halabi declared guilty in the court of public opinion undermines his right to a fair hearing in an actual court.

So you’ve got denying access to a lawyer, a track record of torture, and using your diplomats to try the accused on Twitter. Any one of these is evidence of a disregard for the rule of law.

But there are two more things to consider…

4. Like most reputable NGOs, World Vision has safeguards in place to keep this kind of thing from happening.

In World Vision’s case, these include a recurring audit by Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC). Now, it’s true safeguards can be bypassed. But the burden of proof remains on the accuser, not the accused. It’s up to Israel to document the money trail and back up the numbers they’ve been throwing around.

Which they may not be able to do, because…

5. Israel’s numbers appear not to add up.

Israeli officials have variously claimed the following amounts were diverted to Hamas:

  • 60% of World Vision’s entire Gaza budget
  • $50 million since 2010
  • $7.2 million per year

There’s one problem. World Vision’s entire Gaza budget is reportedly $2-3 million per year. Over the past decade, they’ve allocated $22.5 million to Gaza. That’s far short of the amount Israel claims was funneled to Hamas. Even if 100% of World Vision’s budget had been diverted, it wouldn’t amount to what Israel says was stolen.

Israel also says Halabi has been diverting large sums to Hamas since at least 2010. But according to World Vision, he was only put in his current position in 2014—prior to that, he only had control over a small part of the organization’s Gaza budget.

These are big discrepancies in Israel’s story. Which begs the question: how is Halabi supposed to have diverted more of World Vision’s money than he had access to or than even exists?

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The only evidence offered by Israel so far is a confession reportedly extracted from the suspect—Halabi’s lawyer disputes Israel’s claim that he confessed. Halabi has not been allowed to present his side of the story. World Vision still has not been given evidence to corroborate Israel’s allegations.

Whatever you think about the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel’s handling of the case against Halabi raises more questions than answers. Accusations like these could be used as a pretext for shutting down vital humanitarian work in Gaza, one of the few remaining lifelines for people trapped there. Even if the charges are eventually discredited, the damage will have been done—for World Vision and for the people they are there to serve.

World Vision should give a full accounting—and their latest statement outlines the steps they’re taking to do just that. If any amount of money fell into Hamas’ hands, the organization should act to make sure it never happens again.

But Israel’s disregard for the rule of law and the apparent holes in their case against Halabi should give us pause. At the very least, we should not accept their version of events without careful scrutiny.

For the people of Gaza more than anyone else, there’s too much at stake.

Related: World Vision’s August 4 statement on Mohammad El Halabi’s arrest
Update: World Vision’s August 8 statement

Images (top to bottom): Zyklon Nargis, World Vision Deutschland / CC BY 3.0; ISM Palestine on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0; Physicians for Human Rights on Flickr / CC BY 2.0 

The problem with using the Bible to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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“God gave Israel the land. Unconditional. Everlasting. Period.”

For some evangelicals, that’s the definitive answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. End of discussion. This sentiment was echoed in some of the comments to my recent post on why we shouldn’t equate modern-day Israel with the ancient biblical kingdom.

It’s what came to mind as I listened to the appointed readings in my church last Sunday. (It’s funny how the lectionary is able to speak into real-life events sometimes.) As I heard the words of Romans 9, it was impossible not to think about Israel and Palestine. I thought of the 1,300+ Gazan civilians who were killed in the latest round of fighting—400 of them children—and how their deaths were dismissed by some on account of Israel being God’s “chosen people.”

I thought about the volatile—and lethal—combination of politics and theology, which makes reasonable discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so difficult. I thought about what happens when we miss what it means to be God’s chosen people.

Against this backdrop came the words of the apostle Paul:

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.
— Romans 9

The people of Israel occupied a special place in Paul’s heart—not just because he was one of them, but because they occupy a special place in God’s story. Paul left no doubt about this. They were adopted by God, he says. They have the covenants. The law. The temple. (Paul wrote these words about a dozen years before Rome destroyed the Jewish temple.) The people of Israel have the promises and the patriarchs. The Messiah was one of their own.

But isn’t it interesting what Paul doesn’t say they have? The land. Oh, he mentions covenants and promises all right, which some might read as including the land. But he never comes right out and says, “Theirs is the kingdom,” or, “Theirs is the territory.”

Romans 9–11 is the most extensive discourse on the role of Israel to be found in the whole New Testament. This is where Paul deals with the question of Israel’s future in light of the new covenant. If land was part of that future, surely this would have been the place to spell that out.

Yet there is nothing here about territory. Israel has a future, all right. God still cares about them. The fact that many of Paul’s own people chose not to believe in Jesus had opened the door for him to bring the message about Jesus to the Gentiles. As far as Paul was concerned, opening the doors like this was part of God’s plan from the beginning, going all the way back to Genesis 12. But God was not through with Israel. “All Israel will be saved,” Paul insisted.

Still, Paul says nothing about Israel being restored to a particular piece of real estate. Nowhere in this passage does he mention land. Not once.

He’s not alone in choosing not to depict Israel’s restoration in geographic terms, either. In the book of Acts, Luke records the disciples asking Jesus, “Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” just as Jesus is about to return to heaven.

In other words: “Are we going to reclaim our land now?”

Jesus dismisses the question out of hand. He’s going to do the opposite, in fact. He’s going to send them out of the land. Luke’s first volume depicts Jesus moving toward Jerusalem as he brings Israel’s story to its culmination. But in his second volume, Acts, the movement is away from Jerusalem. It’s not about one parcel of land anymore. It’s about Samaria*, too. It’s about Asia Minor. It’s about Europe—and even Rome itself. It’s about the whole earth.

This is not a case of God not keeping his promise to Israel. It’s a case of God over-fulfilling his promise. It’s no longer restricted to one particular piece of earth or just one group of people. It’s all nations. All people. That’s why in another letter, Paul declared Gentile Christians to be descendants of Abraham and “heirs according to the promise.”

“Now you,” Paul goes on to say, “like Isaac, are children of promise.”

Like Isaac.

Whose son was Jacob, otherwise known as Israel.

So central to Paul’s message is this idea that God is over-fulfilling his promise to Israel that he keeps returning to it. In Ephesians, a letter addressed to Gentile Christians in Asia Minor, he writes:

You… were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel, foreigners to the covenant of promise… But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
— Ephesians 2

In other words… excluded from citizenship in Israel no longer.

To be clear, classical supersessionism—the idea that the church has replaced Israel—gets some things wrong. The church doesn’t replace Israel as recipients of God’s blessing. Instead, the rest of us are invited to join with Israel in receiving that blessing—a blessing that has grown to encompass the whole earth, which is going to be renewed and restored by God someday.

This is where the biblical drama was heading all along. This was the whole point in God choosing a Mesopotamian nomad named Abram and giving his descendants a home at the juncture of three continents. It wasn’t an end unto itself, but the start of something much bigger. God was making “one new humanity.” The old divisions and identities—and all they carried with them, including territorial claims—would be rendered obsolete. A new identity—and with it, citizenship in a kingdom uniting heaven and earth—is here.

That’s the story of the New Testament. That’s the story of Jesus’ kingdom. This story says nothing about a particular piece of land for a particular group of people, because the story has moved beyond that.

When Christians use Scripture to defend the territorial claims of the modern Israeli state, we miss the story the New Testament is trying to tell us. In fact, you might say we’re moving in the opposite direction of that story.

Of course, this doesn’t settle the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians today. We shouldn’t think we can resolve a dispute like this based on the assumptions of one religion. (Not even that—the assumptions of one subset of one religion.) It should be resolved on nonreligious grounds. For Christians to use Scripture to validate the territorial claims of one side is to misuse the Bible.

*Disclaimer: I’m using the term Samaria as it’s used in the New Testament—i.e. the central part of ancient Palestine, the territory formerly associated with the northern kingdom of Israel. I’m not using it in the way that modern-day Israeli settlers do when trying to claim the West Bank for themselves.

14381016166_cd1e784260_zRelated post: 
Why evangelicals should think twice about equating modern Israel with Israel of the Bible

When I think about my sponsored child in Gaza…

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His name is Bahaaldin. He’s 13, and he lives in Gaza.

My wife and I have been sponsoring Bahaaldin for almost 6 years now. Or, as time seems to be measured in Gaza, through three wars and counting.

Recently, the bombs began to fall on Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city. Where Bahaaldin lives. A ceasefire that was supposed to last three days didn’t even last 30 minutes. Both sides, of course, blame the other for breaking the truce. The bombardment added dozens more to the list of casualties. Some 1,500 dead and counting. An overwhelming number of them civilians.

I have no idea if Bahaaldin is OK.

Scratch that. I know he’s not OK. Even if he and his family made it through the bombing physically unscathed, he won’t be OK. Not by a long shot.

How could he be?

Would you?

World Vision has spent the last several years in Gaza trying to help kids cope with the inevitable trauma, mental and emotional, that comes from living in a perpetual war zone. They’ve been trying to halt the cycle of violence. Trying to show kids another way. Trying to show them they don’t have to fight. They don’t have to throw their lives away in a futile quest for retribution.

Saher, 5, a World Vision sponsored child killed in Gaza (photo credit: World Vision International)

Saher, 5, a World Vision child killed in Gaza (credit: World Vision).

Earlier this summer, several World Vision kids gathered on a beach in Gaza and sent kites into the air, carrying messages of peace. One of those kids was 5-year-old Saher. He was killed a month later when an Israeli warplane bombed his home.

For now, World Vision has been forced to suspend all but the most basic humanitarian operations in Gaza. It’s not easy rendering aid when even the shelters are being targeted. Another World Vision sponsored child was killed recently when the Israeli military bombed a UN school where families were taking shelter.

Altogether, five World Vision kids have been killed so far.

I have no idea how groups like World Vision go about picking up the pieces after this. What I do know is that every bomb dropped on Gaza—every mortar, every missile—undermines their peace-building efforts. Every bombed-out school or shelter is yet another setback as they try to show kids a way out of this never-ending cycle of violence. 

After all, you can only help kids learn to sleep again at night so many times. You can only ask them to endure so much trauma. You can only tell them it’ll be all right so many times before it starts to ring hollow.

This is the third war these kids have lived—and died—through in six years. You try telling them there’s another way out. Every Hamas rocket, every Israeli missile sends the same message: the only way out is to shoot your way out.

I’d like to tell you that there’s something you can do, that you can help by sponsoring a child in Gaza. But if you go to the World Vision US website and look for a Palestinian child to help, you won’t find one. I was only able to sponsor Bahaaldin was because I worked at World Vision at the time.

Because let’s talk reality. We both know what would happen if they were to offer child sponsorship opportunities in Gaza. They would get an earful (and then some) from those who put politics—or, in this case, a toxic combination of politics and eschatology—ahead of compassion for kids.

In the end, that’s what makes peace so difficult to achieve. We see kids being killed, and somehow our first impulse is to start a political or theological argument. If that’s not screwed up, I don’t know what is.

If we can watch kids in Gaza die and our first impulse is anything other than to say, “This has to stop NOW,” then we do not have the mind of Christ. We do not have the answer.

And unless we repent, we’re part of the reason kids like Bahaaldin will be so very far from being OK, even if he and his family survive.

Why evangelicals should think twice about equating modern Israel with Israel of the Bible

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The other day, I raised a question for evangelicals who think standing with Israel means supporting them no matter what. How do you reconcile a “never criticize Israel” mentality with the overwhelming witness of the biblical prophets?

If you’ve been told that unconditional support for Israel is the only “biblical” position, that the modern-day state enjoys the same kind of “most favored nation” status with God as ancient Israel did, then here’s another question. If Israel today is entitled to the covenant blessings spoken by the Old Testament, what about their covenant obligations?

The Bible never spoke of Israel’s covenant blessings apart from their obligations. It’s no use trying to have one without the other. And at least one of these obligations poses a bit of a problem for the modern state of Israel, if it is indeed the same nation as the one in the Bible.

Ancient Israel was not supposed to have a standing army. They weren’t supposed to stockpile weapons. There were no taxes to fund a permanent military. Israel’s rulers were forbidden from amassing large numbers of horses (Deuteronomy 17:16-17)—which was about as close as you could get to an arms race in the ancient Near East. Israel’s king was not supposed to make foreign military alliances. God stipulated that Israel should remain militarily weak so they would learn to trust him for protection.

Israel wasn’t allowed to conscript anyone into military service. If you didn’t want to fight, you didn’t have to fight. Note this remarkable command from Deuteronomy 20:

When you go to war against your enemies… the officers shall say to the army: “Has anyone built a new house and not yet begun to live in it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else may begin to live in it. Has anyone planted a vineyard and not begun to enjoy it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else enjoy it. Has anyone become pledged to a woman and not married her? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else marry her.” Then the officers shall add, “Is anyone afraid or fainthearted? Let him go home so that his fellow soldiers will not become disheartened too.”

There were times when God whittled down Israel’s fighting force to an impossibly small number—as a reminder that they were not supposed to rely on their own military strength.

Micah 5—the same passage which said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem—also said that in that day God would destroy Israel’s horses and demolish its chariots. Israel’s military implements are mentioned in the same breath as other signs of their apostasy: witchcraft, idols, sacred stones, Asherah poles. The prophets considered militarization a form of idolatry—a blatant violation of Israel’s covenant with God.

If modern Israel is the same covenant nation written about in the Old Testament, then they are under the same covenant obligations. And that covenant forbids militarization. It declares militarization a form of idolatry.

If the modern Israeli state is not bound to these covenant obligations, then they aren’t entitled to the covenant blessings, either. You cannot have one without the other. If the laws that governed Israel in the Old Testament do not apply to Israel today, then they are just another nation, and they should be held to the same standard as every other nation.

Would we stand for any other democratic nation on earth driving people off of land that’s been in their families for generations? Would we stand for any other nation building settlements on land that almost everyone agrees belongs to someone else? Would we stand for them restricting people’s freedom of movement, bulldozing their homes, and killing thousands of innocent civilians?

Of course we wouldn’t. And we shouldn’t stand for violence committed by Palestinian groups either. But evangelicals keep giving Israel a free pass. They do so because they believe it is God’s covenant nation. Yet when it comes to holding Israel to the stipulations of that covenant… silence.

So which is it? Is modern Israel bound to the covenant or not? Either way, you’ll have a hard time justifying its treatment of their Palestinian neighbors.

RELATED POSTS: 
If you think “standing with Israel” means never criticizing them, you’re going to have to get a new Bible
When I think about my sponsored child in Gaza
The problem with using the Bible to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Note: For a helpful summary of covenant stipulations forbidding militarization in ancient Israel, see chapter 3 of Preston Sprinkle’s book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence

Photo credit: Israeli Defense Force on Flickr (image cropped) / CC BY-SA 2.0

 

If you think “standing with Israel” means never criticizing them, you’re going to have to get a new Bible

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Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that from a biblical perspective the modern state of Israel and the Old Testament nation are one and the same. Let’s say the old covenant is still in force, that the founding of modern-day Israel in 1948 fulfilled biblical prophecy.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Paul’s assertion that “all Israel will be saved” was a political statement rather than an expression of his belief that Jesus would rescue his own people from sin and death, along with Gentiles.

Many evangelicals take some or all of these assumptions to be indisputable fact (though evangelical support for Israel may not be as unanimous or unilateral as commonly thought). A plurality of evangelical leaders believe the founding of modern Israel fulfilled biblical prophecy. White evangelicals overwhelmingly sympathize with Israel in their conflict with the Palestinians. Half of evangelicals reject any possibility of peace between Israel and Palestine. Only 12% of white evangelicals believe the US should scale back its support for Israel.

The belief that the modern state of Israel is entitled to the blessings and benefits of what Christians regard as the “old covenant” gives way to yet another evangelical sentiment: namely, that it’s never OK to criticize the Israeli government. That “standing with Israel” means supporting them no matter what they do.

No matter how many Palestinian children are killed in the crossfire.

No matter how many homes and farms they bulldoze.

No matter how many walls they build.

No matter how many settlements they establish on Palestinian land, knowing full well that each one makes a viable Palestinian state more unlikely.

This sentiment was on full display in the aftermath of the reprehensible kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers and the subsequent retaliation by Israeli extremists. As Benjamin Corey wrote:

What bothers me most is that when news broke of the death of the Israeli teenagers, the internet lit up with your standard “stand with Israel” cheers, yet whenever Israel is the agent of aggression or retaliation, things go silent. The only voices who speak up are a few brave souls who are willing to be castigated by other Christians for having the courage to stand up against the violence and oppression of the nation state of Israel.

Why do we do this? Why does Israel get a free pass in doing whatever they want? They bulldoze communities so they can build illegal settlements, and we say and do nothing. They systematically use violence and oppression over their neighbors, and yet we say and do nothing. When things over heat, they retaliate—burning children alive, and we say and do nothing.

Why? Why would we be so foolish as to completely ignore behavior on the part of Israel that would in any other circumstance result in international sanctions or worse?

Let’s say modern Israel IS a continuation of the Old Testament kingdom (with the noticeable absence of a king or a temple). Let’s say the new covenant promised by Jeremiah and inaugurated by Jesus didn’t bring the old covenant to completion. Let’s say God didn’t expand the definition of Israel (in a spiritual sense—that is, his chosen people) to include Gentiles alongside Jews. Let’s say the dispensationalists are right.

Or, to put it as Benjamin Corey did, let’s say the “stand with Israel” folks are right.

How do we conclude from any of this that it’s not OK to criticize the Israeli state—especially when so much of the Hebrew Scriptures are themselves a prophetic critique of Israel? 

If “standing with Israel” means never saying anything negative about the Israeli government and berating anyone who does, then we should have nothing but contempt for the biblical prophets. We should cut them out of our Bibles. They should be condemned for treason against Israel.

In fact, they were. Amos was accused of conspiring against the government and was driven out of town. Jeremiah was thrown in prison by the king of Judah for predicting Jerusalem’s downfall.

The prophets routinely condemned Israel and its leaders for wishing destruction rather than mercy on their enemies (Jonah); for wrongly assuming that their military advances and territorial expansion were signs of God’s favor (Amos); for murder, theft, and adultery (Hosea); for coveting and seizing other people’s fields and houses (Micah); and for relying on military power instead of trusting God to protect them (Isaiah).

The prophets did not hold back. For them, “standing with Israel” meant speaking out whenever the nation fell into idolatry and injustice. Being God’s chosen people didn’t mean they got a free pass. If anything, they answered to an even higher expectation of integrity.

The prophets understood what Benjamin Corey states so well:

The best way to bless someone who is caught up in destructive behavior is not to condone or to support the behavior, but to lovingly confront the behavior and show them a better way.

Believing that the Israeli state is synonymous with the Old Testament kingdom shouldn’t change how we respond when it acts unjustly toward its Palestinian neighbors. Nor should our response be different when Palestinians perpetuate the cycle of violence in their own ways—though, as Benjamin Corey argues, those with greater power should be held to a higher standard.

It would be disingenuous to read the prophets as divinely inspired Scripture yet condemn others for doing and saying what they did. The best way to truly stand with Israel is to follow the prophets’ example, to lovingly but firmly confront evil and injustice, whoever the perpetrators might be.

Image credit: Zach Evener on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

If this had happened here, we would call it persecution…

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The Nassar’s farm, before and after demolition (courtesy Tent of Nations/Nassar Farm Facebook page)

Earlier this week, the Israeli government bulldozed 1,500 fruit trees on a family farm near Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.

The Tent of Nations farm has been owned by the Nassar family for nearly a century. But the military declared the trees were on “state land” and had to be uprooted. The Nassars appealed to the courts and were awaiting a verdict when the illegal demolition took place.

It’s a relatively common story. For decades the Israeli government has used a complex bureaucratic system and a powerful civil planning authority to take control of more than half the land in the West Bank. During Operation Cast Lead in 2009, farms in Gaza were targeted and in some cases destroyed.

But what if something similar had taken place here? You see, the Nassars are a Christian family. Their farm, Tent of Nations, is a Christian ministry registered under Bethlehem Bible College, an evangelical institution.

Can you even imagine the outrage here if the US government targeted an evangelical Christian ministry and bulldozed its headquarters?

The truth is, if what happened to the Nassars had happened anywhere else, Christians would be justifiably outraged. We would call it persecution. We would stage protests. We would take to our Facebook and Twitter feeds en masse. We would demand justice. 

So what happens when the persecutor is someone most evangelicals consider a friend? Will we call this act for what it is? Will we speak truth to power? Will we stand in solidarity with our Christian brothers and sisters, as we are biblically obligated to? Or will we put politics ahead of the body of Christ?

There should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for the other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it… You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is part of it.
—Paul, 1 Corinthians (NIV)

Update: This is a video RELEVANT Magazine made about Tent of Nations a few months ago, called “We Refuse to Be Enemies.” Well worth watching.

(HT Jonathan Damico @damicojc)

How President Obama’s trip to Israel makes me wonder . . .

By the time this gets posted, President Obama will have wrapped up his brief visit to the Palestinian West Bank on day two of his Middle Eastern tour.

On which occasion, I’d like to ask:

Where else in the world would we not just accept but actively promote the idea of two separate states formed along ethnic lines?

Almost everyone talks about the two-state solution — which appears less viable with every new Israeli settlement in Palestinian territory — as the only path toward peace.

While it may be the best (or perhaps only) way forward at this point, it seems worth pausing to ask: Would we accept such a solution elsewhere? Would we accept it on our own soil?

Would we accept a state or community in our own backyard that was defined largely on the basis of ethnic homogeneity (or at least the apparent desire for such homogeneity)?

What would happen if someone proposed carving up America into three separate ethnic states: a black state, a white state, and a Latino state?

We would immediately reject any such proposal with all due revulsion, that’s what.

And yet we don’t even blink at the thought of carving up 25,000 square miles of Mediterranean soil along ethnic divisions.

Why not?

I know the counterargument: that Israel isn’t entirely homogenous, that there are many Israeli citizens who are Arab. And there are. But they are often treated as second-class citizens and spoken of as a threat to the rest of the population — Israel’s “demographic bomb.” Besides, the price of their citizenship is that they have to acknowledge and submit to a state that defines itself according to one ethnicity.

To put that into perspective, let’s imagine a parallel a bit closer to home. What if someone said it’s only OK for blacks to live in the United Stated if they affirmed it to be fundamentally a “white state”? Or what if someone said it’s only OK for Catholics, Muslims, and Jews to live here if they affirmed it to be fundamentally a Protestant Christian nation?

Sadly, there are people who have thought along these lines before. You’ll recognize them by their white hoods and their flaming crosses.

So where did those of us who are Christian get the idea that such thinking could ever be part of God’s plan for the world?

How can we defend policies of apartheid-esque nation building — wherever they may be found — while praying to a God whose aim was to “[destroy] the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” between nations?

If, as we read in Scripture, God intends to bring all nations (Greek, ethnos) back together — and in fact began doing so the minute Christ ascended to heaven — then how do we justify our support for policies that seem geared toward doing the opposite?

One final question . . .

Let’s say you believe the modern-day state of Israel is somehow connected to the biblical version. Let’s say your interpretation of Scripture leads you to the conclusion that they are forever entitled to the land because of a promise God made in the Old Testament. Setting aside for a moment the dangers of basing foreign policy on one religion’s sacred text at the expense of another’s . . . what are we to make of the prophet Ezekiel’s directive to his fellow Israelites returning home from exile some 2,500 years ago?

You are to allot [the land] as an inheritance for yourselves and for the foreigners residing among you . . .

Can this be reconciled with the current state of affairs otherwise known as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

If you’re a Christian, this is not just bad policy. It’s bad theology.

A Palestinian Christian’s view of the occupation

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.