Israel-Palestine: The Church Needs to Reclaim Judeo-Christian Values

By Wissam al-Saliby

On September 11, 2016, my baby girl Nour was born.

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My friend, Hassan Karajah

Two weeks later in Jerusalem, my Palestinian friend Hassan Karajah became a dad, too. His wife gave birth to twin baby girls, Sarai and Kenza. However, Hassan has not yet had the pleasure of holding and cuddling his daughters. On July 12, 2016, the Israeli military seized him at a checkpoint in the West Bank and put him in prison without any accusations or trial. This is the second time Hassan has been imprisoned. Between January 2013 and October 2014, Israel imprisoned Hassan without any accusations or due process, let alone an apology or any compensation for his unjust one year and nine months imprisonment.

Unlike everywhere else in the world, in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, the Israeli military can detain Palestinians for an unlimited amount of time, without trial, and without due process. Israel calls it “administrative detention.” There are over 600 Palestinian administrative detainees in Israeli prisons, including activists, journalists and even a 23-year-old Palestinian circus performer imprisoned without trial or charge since December 2015.

Why have Hassan and many others been imprisoned without charge? The likely reason is their non-violent resistance against the humiliating and degrading Israeli occupation, and their stand against the settlements that are encroaching on the livelihood and lives of the Palestinian people.

Israeli Settlements Have Put an End to the Prospect of Peace

Despite the global consensus over the illegality of Israel’s settlements in the 1967 Occupied Palestinian territories – covering 22% of mandate Palestine – Israel and its advocates in the US and elsewhere seem to have moved beyond the two-state solution, beyond the peace process (which is already a façade), and beyond the ideal of a just and lasting peace. During president Obama’s eight years in office, the illegal Israeli settler population swelled by 100,000, to a total of well over 600,000. The growth rate of the Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories was more than twice the growth rate of Israel.

It is important to note that establishing Jewish settlements outside Israel’s internationally recognized borders is not motivated by security. Neither are the demolition of Palestinian homes, the severe controls on Palestinian movement, or the control over aquifers and other vital natural resources in Palestinian territories. To the contrary, these actions are a source of destabilization, a cause of despair for Palestinians and fuel for the conflict.

Every day, Jewish settlements encroach further on Palestinian-owned land in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and strengthens the racial segregation system beyond Israel’s 1948 borders. An elaborate maze of roads, road blocks, barriers and checkpoints connects settlements and dismembers and disenfranchises Palestinian communities. They are part of a “Matrix of Control,” as described by Jeff Halper, co-founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

By 2020, the Palestinians (a population which consists of Arab Israelis and Palestinians under Israeli occupation) will outgrow in number the Jewish population. Israel is moving towards a system whereby a privileged minority rules over a deprived and militarily subdued majority which is confined to small overcrowded cities.

A Crisis of Values among Global Actors

With this bleak outlook, the United Nations Security Council condemned in December 2016 Israel’s ongoing settlement activities with a 14-0 vote and one US abstention.

Commenting on Israel’s vehement rejection of the UN resolution, Yousef Munayyer, Executive Director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, wrote:

Since 9/11, “Judeo-Christian” and Muslim have become increasingly racialized categories, often propelled by right-wing voices that have placed Israel at the forefront of the battle with Islam and sought to distract from any criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians by pushing a “with us or against us” worldview. (…)

The reactions we are seeing from the Israeli right today, which are not only the official voices in Israel but increasingly dominate the pro-Israel establishment in the United States, reflect the doubling down on a view of the world that is anti-multicultural and anti-equality.

Munayyer’s assertions were relayed in a BBC article with a frightening title: “Are we heading towards a ‘post human rights world’?” in which the author claims that, almost 70 years after the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “the ideals of the 1940s are starting to look a little threadbare.”

Such analyses are taking place against the backdrop of a generalized disregard for the laws protecting civilians in armed conflict in Syria and Yemen, of Western hostility towards Syrian refugees, of the regression of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa (that I wrote about in May 2016), of the persistence of Western-backed oppressive and/or authoritarian governments (Egypt, Bahrain, and Ethiopia, for example), and, as the director of Human Rights Watch puts it, a dangerous rise of populism which has translated into global attacks on human rights values.

Church Discourse Must (re)Affirm Judeo-Christian Values

In the Old Testament, time and again we read the prophets calling for justice and defending the poor and powerless. In Micah 6:8, we read:

“He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Ezekiel scolded the leaders of Israel:

“You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. … but ruled them harshly and brutally” (34:4).

In the name of God, Zechariah admonished:

“Judge with true justice, and show kindness and compassion toward each other. Do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the resident alien or the poor” (7: 9-10).

Today, the Body of Christ must espouse and communicate these commandments and prophetically oppose Israel’s settlements and the violation of Palestinian human rights – just as terrorism and attacks against civilians by Palestinian groups is condemned by virtually everyone. Today’s leadership of the State of Israel needs to hear these commandments from the Church before hearing it from secular human rights actors. There is no shortage of opportunities to communicate such a message. To give just one example, churches across the US could have supported in June 2016 the twenty members of the United States Congress who signed a letter to President Barack Obama, urging the appointment of a Special Envoy for Palestinian Children to ensure the U.S. government prioritizes the rights of Palestinian children.

In the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-27), we are called to be neighbors to those who are in need. Jesus demonstrated this incarnational ministry Himself. In my July 2016 blog post, I wrote that:

“As respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms erode globally and in the Arab world, the Body of Christ can play a role to heal and restore justice. In the Middle East, this role begins with listening, visiting, and engaging Arab Christians, and learning.”

Today, churches and Christ followers on pilgrimage to the Holy Land have an opportunity to visit and meet with the local Palestinians, Christians and Muslims, and to hear their cry for justice and freedom that we need to listen to as good Samaritans, and to equally communicate the Biblical commandments of justice and mercy to them. One opportunity out of many for being a neighbor is joining the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel, through which a volunteer can spend three months living in Palestine and Israel as an Ecumenical Accompanier, monitoring human rights and supporting local peace groups. Another opportunity is the May 2017 delegation to Israel-Palestine of the Washington based Interfaith Peace-Builders.

We are called to be peacemakers, not security brokers or eschatological brokers. Palestinian pastor Alex Awad recently wrote from Nazareth:

“In the last 100 years, Evangelicals, in general, have not once contributed to peace in the Middle East. (…) Evangelicals must move toward a more informed position, acknowledging the human rights of Palestinians and Israelis alike, before the Holy Spirit can use us to end this conflict.”

Churches and Christ followers need to staunchly affirm the Judeo-Christian values of honoring the image of God, of calling out injustice, of doing justice and living mercifully, and of being a neighbor to those who are in need. If we dismiss our peacemaking role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and if we fail to listen to our Arab and Palestinian brothers and sisters in Christ, and if we fail to call out the Israeli leadership for the injustice they are inflicting upon the Palestinians, our Christian witness is hindered to Israelis and Palestinians alike, to Jews and Gentiles (read: Muslims) alike.

2 thoughts on “Israel-Palestine: The Church Needs to Reclaim Judeo-Christian Values

  1. I completely agree, with one caveat: the Gospel must have primacy. Our human rights witness is rooted in the Gospel and its efficacy radically depends upon our faithfulness in maintaining that emphasis in each and every appeal.

    Think about it! Human rights are rooted in the biblical doctrine of creation (in which God placed His image in us), which, ultimately, is only authenticated by the Resurrection itself. We are for justice because Jesus is alive!

    Tom

    • Thank you Tom for your feedback. I believe that the Gospel and human rights can go hand in hand, because human rights advocacy can serve as God-glorifying gospel witness. Advocating justice, caring for the poor, and showing compassion are part and parcel of our Christian witness, which, otherwise, could be hindered by a Gospel message devoid of compassion. The words of Jesus in Luke 4:18-19 come to mind:
      18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
      because he has anointed me
      to proclaim good news to the poor.
      He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
      and recovery of sight for the blind,
      to set the oppressed free,
      19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

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