Inspired by my grandmother’s delight in visiting the Holy Land, I too made a pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine eight years ago. I was profoundly moved by being in the places from which my faith stories emerged. However, this joy was overshadowed by the reality of Israel’s military occupation and its effect on Palestinian people.
While I was reading stories of Jesus speaking out against the injustices of the occupation under which he lived, I expected Christian churches to be united in vocal opposition to this current occupation. However, this is not the case.
Seventy years ago, the United Nations drew up a plan to partition then-British controlled Palestine, forming ‘two states’ for ‘two peoples’ – Israel and Palestine, with Jerusalem as a shared international city. This plan was never implemented, however. Instead, through military conquest, Israel formed a State on 77% of historic Palestine, while 750,000 Palestinians were displaced, many of whom remain refugees today, along with their descendants. In 1967, following the Six-Day War, Israel began military occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza. Since 1967, despite calls by the entire international community, Israel has not ceased this military occupation.
Military occupations are inherently brutal. Population must be suppressed to prevent them from rising up against you. In Palestine, this includes the blockade of Gaza, and in the West Bank a maze of checkpoints, permits, closed military zones, military incursions, walls, and fences permeate the everyday life of Palestinians. Thousands of Palestinians are in Israeli military jails at any given time, many without being charged with any offence.
Palestinians & the churches
As I have engaged with church leaders and forums, I believe two factors influence their reticence to speak actively against the Israeli occupation.
The first is a theological position, predominantly affecting conservatives. This theological position, known as Christian Zionism, flows from a literalist reading of Scriptures. It interprets the Abrahamic promise in Hebrew Scriptures as a literal ‘real estate deed’ granted exclusively to the modern State of Israel (see Church of Scotland paper). In addition, it often includes an eschatology that Jewish people must return to the land of David as a precursor to the second coming of Jesus. This theology has been thoroughly challenged by Palestinian Christian Leaders, and, given that this type of theology implies that Jews need to ‘turn or burn’ in the last days, it appears inherently anti-semitic itself.
The second factor is much more nuanced, and predominantly affects Christians who usually unite in calls for social justice. This is abhorrence of the suffering inflicted on Jewish people over the centuries by anti-semitism among Christians and others.
I believe it is vital for Christians to appreciate deeply the historical reality of various forms of anti-semitic thought and action in Christian traditions. Some of our great heroes of the faith, including Martin Luther and Bonhoeffer, as well as some early popes, shared some anti-semitic prejudices, often based on dominant misreadings of the New Testament.
Many Christians today feel rightly that the churches did not do enough to combat the anti-semitism which ran to astonishing extremes in the horrors of the Holocaust, in the failure to confront internal antisemitism, in some cases in direct compliance with the Nazi regime. Formal apologies by Protestant churches and papal clarifications have been vital in recognising historical injustices.
Jewish people live directly in the shadow of anti-semitism, particularly the horror of the Holocaust. We must be mindful absolutely that, for many Jewish people, to criticise the policies of Israel triggers concerns for their security.
We must interrogate our theology and practices for vestiges of anti-semitism, as we would for all other forms of oppression.
As well as holding the Jewish people in respect and honour, Christians also need to hold in respect and honour the Palestinian people. Ten years ago, Church leaders in Palestine released a joint statement, the Kairos Document: A moment of truth: A word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering, pleading with Christians globally for solidarity. “Our question to our brothers and sisters in the Churches today is: are you able to help us get our freedom back, for this is the only way you can help the two peoples attain justice, peace, security, and love?”
The request of Palestinian Christians is threefold. The first request is to challenge any theology which supports oppression. The second is to come and see their reality, in order to ensure that any pilgrimages to the Holy Land engage bravely with the ‘living stones’. And, thirdly, that, as fellow Christians, we ‘help them get their freedom back’, to speak out against the injustices they experience.
We must be sophisticated enough to honour both Jewish and Palestinian peoples. We must ensure that our complicity in injustices of the past do not mean we are silent in the face of present injustices.