Will mainline American Protestants give Palestinian Christians a voice?

Israel/PalestineMiddle EastUS Politics
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B’nai B’rith has issued a statement criticizing the recommendations of the Middle East Study Committee of the Presbyterian Church USA. These recommendations include possibly withholding US military aid to Israel in order to encourage it to abide by international law as well as an endorsement of the important Kairos Document, recently put forth jointly by the leaders of the Palestinian Christian community.

Among B’nai B’rith’s complaints is that the PCUSA Middle East Study Committe’s report

"fails to recognize that Israel is the Middle East’s only free, pluralistic society and the only country in the region whose Christian population has grown in actual numbers."

Of course, such a statement conveniently fails to mention that as much as 35% of the Arab population of pre-1948 Palestine was Christian, whereas today the Palestinian population in the 1948 borders is perhaps 5% Christian (9.1% of the Palestinians in Israel are Christians).  Birthrates and emigration cannot explain this precipitous collapse in numbers. The Nakba, however, can.

Picking up on this one sentence may seem to be a small point, but it actually matters quite a bit for a number of reasons.

1. There is the question of the ‘clash of civilizations.’ Post 9/11, Israel garnered much sympathy in many quarters because it was viewed as a bastion of Western civilization holding out against the dark and obscurantist forces of radical Islam: the Arab-Israeli conflict is often simplistically reduced to a Muslim-Jewish binary. Lost in the black-and-white are the Christians of Palestine–a significant minority whose members, from George Habash to Edward Said to Hanan Ashrawi, have played an important role in the Palestinian struggle. Sadly, many (most?) Americans have no idea that there is even a Christian population in the Middle East or in Palestine. In my own experience, for example, I have been asked if my family were Muslim converts to Christianity. I would laugh at such questions if they were not so sadly ignorant. Palestinian and Middle Eastern Christians are in fact the oldest Christian communities in the world and their existence has the effect of throwing a wrench in Huntingtonian perspectives on the conflict; such (racist, tribalist) perspectives, I suspect, unfortunately account for a lot of soft support for Israel in the US.

(I should add that if you are only going to begin supporting justice for Palestinians once you discover there are Christians there, then I don’t want your support.)

2, There is the question of representation. What we are dealing with is nothing less than a battle for the right to speak and represent oneself and not have others arrogate that right to themselves and presume to speak for you. The B’nai B’rith statement attempts to do just this–part of Israel’s legitimacy, it suggests, rests in the treatment it has granted Palestinian Christians (as opposed, the implication is, to the treatment meted out to Christians in other parts of the Middle East by various Arab regimes). I remember during the Second Intifada watching an Israeli government official speaking from Beit Jala (a majority-Christian town in the West Bank, near Bethlehem) with the 700 Club and talking about what the Christians there in Beit Jala liked and didn’t like; unsurprisingly, to hear him tell it, Israel was on the side of the Christians.

My reaction was: why don’t you go down there and ask them themselves rather than let a paid minister of the Occupation tell Americans what the Natives prefer?

The Kairos Document, by contrast, written by Palestinian Christians themselves, condemns in no uncertain terms a litany of familiar Israeli abuses of Palestinians: the separation wall, the humiliation of occupation, illegal settlements, Israeli restriction of access to holy places (thus giving the lie to common Zionist assertions about the freedom of worship in Jerusalem), the denial of the right of return, the plight of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, etc. In short, Palestinian Christian criticisms of Israeli policies and the Zionist project are pretty much the same as those of Muslim criticisms. What we are dealing with here are human beings, Christian and Muslim.

3, and perhaps most importantly, is the larger question which is raised by the Middle East Study Committee’s recommendations: that of the unanimity of the Zionism of the American Establishment. Andrew Sullivan was recently unable to come up with an example of any columnist in any major newspaper who was anti-Zionist.  Indeed, the entire mainstream discourse within this country operates within a Zionist framework: non- or anti-Zionist perspectives are ipso facto excluded as beyond the pale. This means that the only Palestinian, Arab or Muslim voices that are allowed to be aired are those which are perhaps the least representative of the Palestinian perspective and experience–the kind of Arabs the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy likes to bring in and use in much the same way minorities are used as window-dressing at every GOP convention. In terms of getting their voices heard and their perspectives expressed, the best Palestinians are usually allowed is the pen of a liberal American Jew or the voice of a left-wing Israeli.

This near-systemic exclusion of Palestinian and non-Zionist views on the question of Palestine is one of the main reasons why the American discourse on the issue bears so little resemblance to the views of much of planet earth. By endorsing the Kairos document and by expressly valuing the voices of indigenous Christians in coming to their conclusions, the Middle East Commmittee’s recommendations represent an important reversal of the traditional pattern of Westerners dictating to the indigenous population of the Middle East how they should think, feel and behave and deciding the fate of that population with little or no consideration for their own wishes.

Although the Protestant mainline is demographically in the decline, it is still part of the American Establishment, still very wealthy, and still wields considerable, though perhaps dwindling, soft power. Of the various institutions in the American Establishment–elected politicians, the media, universities (the institutions themselves, not individual professors)–the Protestant mainline, and especially the Presbyterian Church, represents perhaps the wobbliest support for the Zionist project. Historically, there have been very strong ties between Presbyterianism and the Middle East–the American University of Cairo was a Presbyterian foundation, for example–and the legacy of these ties abides in terms of continuing connections between Middle Eastern churches and Presbyterian churches in the US, and also in the form of the children of Presbyterian Middle Eastern missionaries, now often white haired, who can be sitting in the pews of many Presbyterian churches on any given Sunday morning.

If the PCUSA adopts the recommendations of its Middle East Study Commission, we would have the first significant crack in the facade of Zionist support in the US Establishment. This could be a bellwether for further cracks.

The PCUSA General Assembly will begin July 3. Attacks on the MESC report have already begun.

In the coming several weeks, I expect we’ll be seeing many more.

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