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The role of Christians in the struggle for justice in Palestine

Israel/Palestine
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The occupation of Palestine is often erroneously portrayed as a conflict between the Jewish and Muslim faiths. This narrative obscures the fact that Zionism is a settler-colonialist movement inspired by 19th century European anti-Semitism, which was shunned by many Jews in the past and continues to be shunned today. What’s more, instead of addressing the ongoing issues of inequality, injustice and apartheid within a rational, political realm (thus making these issues resolvable), it resorts to an ahistorical portrayal of an age-old and violent, irrational conflict. Finally, it ignores a sizable and influential Christian Palestinian population that is part-and-parcel to Palestinian history, heritage and culture.

Sami Awad is a Christian Palestinian from Bethlehem. He is the executive director of Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian nonprofit organization focused on empowering communities and promoting social justice, the arts, nonviolent resistance, compassion and love. In this interview, Awad discusses the role of Christian theology and nonviolence in the struggle for Palestinian justice.

Yoav Litvin: As a Christian who works out of Bethlehem, how do you interface with Christian Zionists who visit your ancient and holy city?

Sami Awad: Most Christians, whether Zionists or not, rarely meet and interact with the local Palestinian population and particularly the Palestinian Christian population. In fact, most are discouraged from doing so by their group leaders or Israeli guides who claim Palestinians are “dangerous.”

Christian Zionist pilgrims are dogmatically set in their fundamentalist views that the modern state of Israel is a biblical manifestation that must be accepted as an integral part of Christian faith, and a crucial step toward the end-of-times prophecy. Christian Zionists expect Palestinians (Christians or otherwise) to fully accept the Jewish state not as a political entity – a nation-state – but as a Godly construct that cannot be debated. Our rejections to inherently oppressive Israeli policies are immediately perceived by these pilgrims as anti-Semitic and anti-biblical. Further, some accuse us of promoting replacement theology (a doctrine that was historically used by some, mostly Christian Europeans, to justify violence against Jews). They defend Israel by undermining legitimate Palestinian rights to freedom and liberty.

Participants run along Israel’s controversial separation barrier, which divides the West Bank from Jerusalem, in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem during the 5th Palestine Marathon on March 31, 2017. (Photo: Wisam Hashlamoun/APA Images)

How do you view Christian Zionist conceptions about Palestine and the rights of Palestinian people, Christian and Muslim, versus those of Jews?

Christian Zionists reject Palestinian rights and claims to the land, erasing our deep-rooted, historic and ancestral presence here. In concert with the Christian Zionist belief in an end-of-days prophecy that demands full support of Israel as a Jewish state, there is growing xenophobia among their followers.

Nowadays, Christian Zionism presents Islam as an evil/Satanic religion, demonizing its followers, and Israel as a defensive, Godly force on the front lines. Many Christian Zionists attack or ridicule Christian Palestinians such as myself for simply having relations with Muslims who are an integral part of our Palestinian national/cultural community. This xenophobia scapegoats all Muslims as radical, extreme and militant (e.g. groups like ISIS). They claim that we must condemn, reject and fight our Muslim Palestinian brothers and sisters and collude with our oppressors, Zionists — not as a means of attaining human rights, but for the salvation of our souls.

Christian Zionists ignorantly support Israel. That said, the more “liberal” Christian Zionists can be open to criticizing Israel…. However, their critique and activism rarely transcend finger-wagging at Israel for using too much force. Christian Zionists certainly refrain from demanding an end to the occupation and/or full and equal rights to Palestinians.

Palestinian boys walk beside the controversial Israeli barrier in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on July 6 2009. Photo by Najeh Hashlamoun

Was Jesus Christ a dark-skinned Palestinian? How do the notions of race and white supremacy play into the Zionist narrative and where do you attempt to challenge these notions?

Nowadays, as a dark-skinned Palestinian, Jesus Christ would have been treated very harshly and rejected for numerous reasons. He would be discriminated against for the color of his skin, undermined for a lack of capitalist money-making agenda, ridiculed and defamed for the people he associates with, and persecuted for his criticism and attempts to stand up and resist the system of control and fear.

Colonialist-based ideologies have reshaped theological and religious understandings of the world. This revisionist trend has manipulated theology to justify ideologies that promote racism, oppression, manipulation of resources and discrimination against others.

The notion of a unity between Christians and Jews captured by the term “Judeo-Christian” is one such example. It conveys a strongly rooted connection between Christians and Jews; a common biblical foundation of faith – same God, prophets, etc. As such, Islam is perceived as an outsider and a threat. This “Judeo-Christian identity” is purely Western, mid-20th century, capitalist and consumer-based, and mostly a white-supremacist construct.

The conception of a “Judeo-Christian” identity is grounded in a European/US white Evangelical Christian alliance with European Ashkenazi Jews. It is a construct that privileges white people at the expense of others, promotes racism and discrimination, including of members of Christian and Jewish faiths who do not fit its specific mold.

I aim to challenge this ahistorical conception with the purpose of promoting equality and justice and a true return to the core of our faiths.

Sami Awad. (Photo: samiawad.wordpress.com)

What would Jesus Christ do today in Palestine/Israel? What sort of struggle for justice would Jesus support? Please address the notions of violent versus nonviolent struggles.

I feel that if Jesus were here today, he would firmly (though nonviolently) reject the modern constructs of religious-political-economic-ideological systems of oppression and marginalization of others, exactly as he did some 2,000 years ago. The beauty of the teachings of Jesus Christ is that, in addition to being a reformer, he believed in transforming humanity and driving it toward its fullest potential; i.e. he did not want to simply fix the system or make it more tolerant, but revolutionize it. His nonviolent resistance would include healing work of both oppressed and oppressor groups.

True justice is not defined as revenge or retaliation, but a holistic means to address violence through accountability, repentance and forgiveness for the atrocities that have been committed and the pursuit of a future that is based on equality, rights and opportunity for all.

Unfortunately, nowadays the challenges seem even more stark and overwhelming than during the times of Jesus, some two millennia ago.

Palestinian Christian scouts perform at the Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity as people gather for Christmas celebrations in the city of Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on December 24, 2016. (Photo: Wisam Hashlamoun)

Briefly describe your work and the aims of Holy Land Trust and how these conform to a nonviolent strategy that is partly inspired by the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Holy Land Trust is a Palestinian organization located in Bethlehem. Our aim is to discover and analyze the underlying issues that prevent a manifestation of peace and justice in the holy land. While some define a peace process as one that intends to reach a political agreement or settlement (a treaty), we define it as the practice that creates a space for understanding, respect and dignity for all in this land. Our three pillars of engagement are nonviolent activism (which addresses the institutions and structures of violence, marginalization and oppression), acknowledgement and healing of the collective trauma (the inherited traumatic events that shape identity to be suspicious of- or demonizing others); and leadership transformation (a methodology to develop leaders’ decision-making ability to engage in achieving what is practical but also that which is seen as impossible).

As an organization, we provide space for international guests to visit, see, hear and experience what life is like for Palestinians. A key sector we aim for are Christians from the Western world who come to the holy land as pilgrims without the opportunity to experience the current reality, or worse: have a strong one-sided theological view that promotes violence and discrimination. In addition, Christian Evangelicals have substantial political power in the United States in general, and in Donald Trump’s administration in particular.

What are some of your future projects and goals?

I believe that the Holy Land is a microcosm to what is happening globally, and therefore any change here, in this deep sense, can also have a profound global effect.

The situation in the Holy Land and the world seems to be getting worse. Fear and its manipulation [are] the predominant means of holding on to power at all levels — social, economic, political, ecological and religious. Racism and dehumanization are on the rise. The white Judeo-Christian culture has entrenched its privilege and oppressive practices via the global capitalist market system. A collective rejectionist voice echoes the need for reforms, though a complete paradigm shift is absolutely necessary.

That said, our future projects in the holy land will continue to challenge such oppressive and racist systems through nonviolence and engage in trauma healing through individual work and community building, as we do with the Bet Lahem Live festival. We will challenge the global Christian community to play a more Christ-centered role and to undermine any theology that promotes fear and not love of others as Christ commanded. We will also continue to seek leadership that is committed to a new vision for the holy land. We will continue to focus on promoting women leaders, peace and justice activists, young adults and religious voices who share our philosophy.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission.

About Yoav Litvin

Yoav Litvin is a doctor of psychology/behavioral neuroscience, a documentary photographer and writer living in New York City. You can find him at yoavlitvin.com.

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13 Responses

  1. Stephen Shenfield
    Stephen Shenfield
    September 11, 2018, 3:25 pm

    I had the idea of attempting a dialogue with Christian Zionist theologians. I surveyed a few books by them and selected one who seemed less fanatical than others. I don’t feel I got very far with him, though he did eventually acknowledge that he may have an anti-Palestinian bias and should do something to correct it. Looking back on the exchange, I am struck by how little of what he said had anything to do specifically with Christianity. He was mostly regurgitating positions identical to those of Jewish Israeli Zionists. Our arguments were therefore almost identical to those I have had with Zionist Israeli Jews. This is not so surprising when one considers how much time he spends in Israel, almost solely with Israeli Jewish friends and colleagues. I am undecided about whether it is worth the effort to repeat the exercise with another Christian Zionist theologian. I might make a better job of it second time round.

  2. JLewisDickerson
    JLewisDickerson
    September 11, 2018, 5:26 pm

    RE: “The conception of a ‘Judeo-Christian’ identity is grounded in a European/US white Evangelical Christian alliance with European Ashkenazi Jews. It is a construct that privileges white people at the expense of others . . .” ~ Sami Awad

    Israel and Iran. Benjamin Netanyahu talks to Benny Hinn.

  3. Marnie
    Marnie
    September 11, 2018, 11:38 pm

    “Was Jesus Christ a dark-skinned Palestinian? How do the notions of race and white supremacy play into the Zionist narrative and where do you attempt to challenge these notions?”

    This struck me as hilarious. Was Jesus black? I’ll never forget a Donahue segment from the late 80s or very early 90s on that very subject. To watch people squirm and claim, well he (Jesus) was ‘dark’, but he definitely ‘wasn’t black’. Followed up by, of course, the mostly white splaining ‘color doesn’t matter’ (as long as it’s white). Color always matters. Nariman Tamimi said it was the reason Ahed has gotten so much attention and got out of prison. Speaking of Ahed and israeli jews sense of entitlement forever and above all non-jews, Ahed not only couldn’t go to music festival Lana Del Rey cancelled on, but she and her family can’t leave Nabi Saleh for a 20 day speak tour in Europe they were invited to.

    Israel bars Palestinian teen Ahed Tamimi and family from … – Haaretz
    https://www.haaretz.com › Middle East News › Palestinians

    And zionists who troll these pages complain about how the world reacts to their atrocities. Slow learners this lot.

  4. Blake
    Blake
    September 12, 2018, 3:37 pm

    Almost from the start, Palestinian Christians played a prominent role in combating Zionism, first and foremost through the Arab press. This was particularly evident in the Palestinian press; the vast majority of newspapers in Palestine were owned and run by Christians, and were stridently anti-Zionist. Typical was the position adopted by the newspaper ‘Filastin’, founded in Jaffa in 1911 by the brothers Isä and Yüsuf al-‘ Isä, both Orthodox Christian and strongly anti-Zionist. ‘Filastin’ was one of the most widely read newspapers during this period, and one of the few to survive the First World War intact.
    Another important Christian-run paper was ‘al Dustür’, founded by Khalil al-Sakäkini, also Orthodox, in Jerusalem in 1910. As with the ‘ Isä brothers,Sakäkini was strongly anti-Zionist and a staunch Arab nationalist. During this period, Christians were, in many respects, more vehement than Muslims in their opposition to Zionism; early on in fact, many Zionists were convinced that early on in fact, many Zionists were convinced that opposition to Zionism was limited almost entirely to Christian Arabs [“Attitude to the Arabs” in Middle Eastern Studies, Volume IV, No. 3 (London, 1968), pp. 198,206,212-213].
    One of the earliest organised efforts against Zionism was initiated by Christians in 1891-an official protest against Jewish immigration directed at the Ottoman Government. Christians would remain at the forefront in the struggle against Zionism well into the twentieth century. Thus, it was the Protestant Christian editor of the newspaper ‘al-Karmil’, Najib Nassär, who in 1910 organised the first association aimed at persuading the Government to prohibit the sale of land to Jews. He also was the first Arab to publish a book on Zionism.

  5. Pdxmuscle@comcast.net
    [email protected]
    September 12, 2018, 4:56 pm

    This article is an advertisement for Holy Land Trust and its point of view or “agenda”. Unfortunately, one reading this article will come away less informed about Palestine and its Christians. Why? First of all, Palestinian Christians are not ecumenical. Meaning few ascribe to Western Christianity or Christianity introduced to Palestine by the crusades, British colonialism or Western American evangelism. Statistically, 97% of Palestinian Christians are either Eastern Orthodox or Latin Catholics. The 3% who accepted western Christianity were and are given many privileges over the other 97%. The non-violence principles are rooted in the US, where almost all their funding comes from. The non-violence and yes non-resistance are held as a model of proper Christian conduct by their allies here in the West.
    We Palestinian Christians are not a monolith and one sect of us isn’t any better or worse than any other. However, certain sects have been given greater privilege because of their non-resistance to Western power. An understanding of Settler-Colonialism anywhere always has a few natives who promote their people’s domination by either accepting the religion or culture of their oppressors. When posting articles on Palestinian Christians, Mondoweiss should not continue to promote the privileged 3% of Palestinians Christians as “peace-makers” while ignoring the 97% who can trace our lineage to Ancient Palestine and not to a headquarters in either London or New York.

    • echinococcus
      echinococcus
      September 13, 2018, 7:26 am

      Thank you, pdxmuscle, for ripping off the mask.
      In fact, interviewer and interviewee give away the game with their typically American obsession with skin color. Beyond ridiculous.

  6. y_litvin
    y_litvin
    September 14, 2018, 12:59 pm

    Hi,
    Re the worthy initial comment – No doubt there are many levels and layers of Palestinian Christian society. I agree that the title of the piece can be misleading but the content is obviously from a singular perspective.

    Re the second comment- it is absolutely ridiculous. A focus on White supremacy is hardly an “American obsession”, but a realistic view of the oppressive forces on this planet. The mask is yours alone for not seeing it.

    Thanks for reading.
    YL

  7. echinococcus
    echinococcus
    September 14, 2018, 2:21 pm

    “realistic view of the oppressive forces on this planet” from the ridiculously narrow “liberal” US identity politics, which obviously prefer whichever nonsense will obscure the nature of the ruling class and its policies of invasion, murder and nationalist abomination. The anticolonial and revolutionary movements of the world are not a matter of skin color; neither is imperialism and colonization. It’s ridiculous to ascribe a skin color to empire and beyond contempt to do so for the Palestinian people, result of one of the most thorough cases of “race”-mixing in the whole world.

    • y_litvin
      y_litvin
      September 15, 2018, 1:07 pm

      Actually, there’s nothing “liberal” about viewing white supremacy and patriarchy as part and parcel of capitalist/colonialist domination and oppression, in its service and even predating it. Your either/or approach is simplistic, and reactionary.

      Engels: “Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-à-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction…According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form.”

      • gamal
        gamal
        September 15, 2018, 4:27 pm

        “Actually, there’s nothing “liberal” about viewing white supremacy and patriarchy as part and parcel of capitalist/colonialist domination and oppression, in its service and even predating it”

        but if white people aren’t going to save Black and Arab people, especially the girls who is?

        “Your either/or approach is simplistic, and reactionary” I made it up myself alone in a room without any considerations of social realities but rather only of my ideals, pristine not a speck of reality on them..

        “also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form.”

        but people got to find a new way to talk, instead of trying to “solve” that “other”, white people that is, much appreciation for “preponderate” I am going to try it, at first alone then I may go public if my paternalism holds up.

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