What is Our Role in Peace for Palestine?

Yesterday afternoon, the Committee for National and International Concerns heard testimony on about 12 resolutions encouraging the church to act in support of the Palestinian people. Even our own Diocese of Maryland put forth a resolution on this complex issue. After reading the resolutions and listening to the testimony, here is my distillation of the arguments at hand.
No one disagrees that Palestine and the minority community of Palestinian Christians are being oppressed, persecuted, and denied basic human rights. Everyone also agrees that in the United States, the story of the Palestinian Christian people is not widely known and they feel forgotten by their brothers and sisters in the West.

But how do you fight the oppression and discrimination of a people?

Some resolutions called for only taking action that was in support of Palestine: building relationships, supporting education, making pilgrimage, investing in their economy, telling their story and being very careful not to paint a negative picture of Israel. These resolutions were endorsed by the presiding bishop and others as a way to move towards justice with our Palestinian brothers and sisters without alienating our relationship with Israel. Presiding Bishop Katharine wrote, “The process towards peace is often unbearably and indefensibly slow…” But this is the path that keeps us faithful to all of our relationships in the Middle East.
Other resolutions called for more aggressive measures, calling for all the same action of the more conservative resolutions and pressure for the divestment of the Israeli settlements, economic boycott of Israel, and endorsing materials for education about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict that criticize the unjust policies of Israel. The two controversial materials are “Kairos”, a document written by the Palestinian people about their situation and “Steadfast Hope”, a teaching resource adopted from the original publication by the Presbyterian Church that criticizes Israel for their treatment of the Palestinian people.
One man testified, “One side does not hold all the blame, but one side holds all the power.” He continued to describe how “behind the scenes work towards peace and justice is no longer working. Putting pressure on unjust policies of the Israeli government is not anti-semitism, it is the only faithful thing we can do.”
Another man testified that the education materials being recommended told a one-sided and false account of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. He criticized Kairos and Steadfast Hope as unhelpful and vilifying the people of Israel, “this is not the kind of education we need to be promoting.”
When I first entered the room for the hearing I quickly noticed a few people with yarmulke’s and I wondered what kind of testimony they would be giving. Serving a parish in Pikesville, MD – a predominately Jewish community – and having been part of conversations between Christian and Jewish clergy about Israel and Palestine, I am very sensitive to the way the Jewish community refuses to publicly criticize Israel. I was surprised and moved by what they had to say because of their passion and their unusual willingness to speak critically of Israel.
One woman, an 80 year old survivor of the holocaust who escaped as a child. Her entire family was killed in Auschwitz. Her parents had been anti-Zionist. She spoke passionately about the need to support the Palestinian people. She saw their persecution in the light of her own experience of persecution and had spent her life traveling and speaking out in defense of them, even though it caused her much criticism from the Jewish community.
A man who was raised in a Jewish settlement, served in the Israeli military, and was now a Cantor in a reform synagogue said that the only faithful response was to criticize Israel so that they might move towards respectful relationships with Palestine and benefit from a peace with their neighbors instead of constant fear of terrorism from an enemy.
After listening to all of the testimony offered, I was even more convinced that this issue is terribly complicated and even with the best of intentions, it is unclear what is a faithful path forward. The only thing I am clear about is the need to stay in relationship. Be in honest communication with everyone about the injustices that have been witnessed and proclaim the hope for reconciliation that will bring healing for all involved.

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3 Responses to What is Our Role in Peace for Palestine?

  1. Randall Stewart says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful commentary. One point I would make, having been raised in a non-Anglican tradition. Many Americans tend not only to not know about the problems of Palestinian Christians, but many American Christians… don’t consider them Christians. Because they come from ancient tradtions that have not been filtered through post-Enlightenment American evangelicalism, many Americans do not see the face of Christ in their brothers and sisters. Add in bad eschatology relating to the State of Israel, and you have a real cocktail for bad policy on a national level. The Episcopal Church would be wise to draw attention to the problem in a way that will not be fodder for the national media.

  2. MarkP says:

    Thanks for this. Hard questions all. Let me offer anecdotal data:

    I have always been vaguely pro-Palestinian, without being particularly engaged in the issue. This spring, someone in my parish asked me to be part of a group watching “Steadfast Hope”, and I agreed.

    I find it hard to watch anything that feels like propaganda, whether on my side or the other — I spend all my time thinking, “someone else could make exactly the opposite case here.” So large parts of the presentation were lost on me.

    But there’s one thing that has stayed with me and is working to radicalize me on the issue: the images of the settlements themselves. Some of them, at least, are little paradises with boutiques and al fresco bistros and swimming pools and flower gardens, dropped right into the middle of the desert. The images of the dirt-poor farmers standing within sight of these places are heart-breaking and eye-opening. It awakened everything in me that’s uncomfortable with many of the gated communities I know in this country, but amped up a hundredfold by the fact that those farmers are dealing with survival issues relating to their lack of water while the settlement dwellers swim in their pools and, worse, by the fact that the settlements are heavily subsidized by a government that’s heavily subsidized by my country. Whatever one thinks of the subtleties of the geopolitical situation, those images speak of injustice.

    Anyhow, I don’t know what the answer to your overall question is. But the place of the plight of the Palestinians in my thinking has been changed by the fact that the bishop of my diocese decided to send a copy of “Steadfast Hope” to every parish in the diocese. The church at work, if in a very small way!

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