By Andrew Miller and James-Michael Smith
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
We are writing to you, our fellow Christians from the United States, with which the State of Israel has enjoyed a unique relationship since its founding, because we are concerned with the nature of support that many American Christians provide for Israel’s policies.
Like you, we support the right of Israel to exist and thrive, to be a democracy based on principles of justice described in the Law and the Prophets, and to live in peace with its neighbors.
Like you, we feel a deep reverence for the land in which many of the Hebrew prophets, and Jesus himself, lived and spoke.
And like you, we deeply respect the Jewish people for preserving the Hebrew Bible, for the immense suffering that they have valiantly endured, and for so many other reasons.
Unfortunately, this is not enough for many of our fellow Christians. For them, being truly “pro-Israel” seems to mean that one must never suggest that Israelis could do more than they currently do to live in peace with their closest neighbors.
We are concerned that leaders such as Mac Hammond, Gary Bauer, and John Hagee regularly criticize any suggestion that Israel’s policies could take better account of the rights of Palestinians living within the territories that Israel occupied in 1967. It disheartens us that such leaders often justify discrimination against Palestinians by painting all of them as terrorists. While violence against innocent civilians is a major concern, statistics show that the vast majority of Palestinians have nothing to do with it.
It troubles us that we cannot tell from the public rhetoric of such leaders if they really believe that Palestinians, like Israeli Jews, are human beings made in the image of God, and therefore worthy of the same fundamental rights. It concerns us that such voices regularly accuse anyone who advocates for the creation of a sovereign state of Palestine that will live in peace with Israel as being “anti-Israel”, “hostile” to Israel, or worse.
Each is run (primarily or fully) by Israeli Jews. It is unreasonable to accuse these organizations of being “hostile” to their own country. Each has taken painstaking care, over many years, to document and protest widespread violations of the rights of innocent Palestinians by the Israeli military and/or settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. These violations include severe restrictions on movement; systematic theft of land, water, and other resources; arbitrary detention of children; torture, and many others.
To the extent that self-critical human rights organizations like these flourish within Israel, they are one indication that Israel is a robust democracy. Along with millions of other Christians around the world, we very much want this democracy to continue to exist and to thrive.
But the fact that Israel consistently oppresses innocent Palestinians in the occupied territories can’t be ignored. There is simply too much documentation.
Part of the reason that there is so little discussion of the rights of Palestinians among American Christians seems to be that many believe that the Bible tells us to provide unwavering support for Israel’s policies, regardless of how it actually treats non-Jews. One serious problem with this view is that it ignores the fact that the government of Israel, like any other government, is composed of human beings who might be capable of making mistakes.
Another problem is that this view misrepresents the focus of the Bible. It is based on prophetic passages that are difficult, if not impossible, to interpret with precision, but it ignores straightforward passages such as the following:
For the LORD your God… shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Perhaps the biggest problem with such views, however, is that they force many American Christians to avoid showing solidarity with the Palestinian Christians living in the occupied territories.
If one listened only to American Christians, one might never realize that there has historically been a large Christian presence among Arabic-speaking Palestinians. Here are some of the basics of this history. Looking at the data, a number of facts become clear.
First, tens of thousands of Palestinian Christians still live in the West Bank. Many live in the area around Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ.
Second, like most Palestinians in the West Bank, Christians there suffer various forms of oppression from the Israeli military occupation.
Third, the number of West Bank Christians has fallen dramatically since 1967. They cite the occupation of the West Bank as largely responsible for the mass exodus of Christians from their ancestral homes.
Fourth, some of these Palestinian Christians are evangelicals, and they accept precisely the same doctrinal statements as American evangelical Christians.
Fifth, American evangelicals have, as a community, done little to advocate for the rights of Christians living in Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank. Rather, the most visible efforts of evangelical leaders have been directed at labeling people who speak up for the rights of Christians (and other Palestinians) as “anti-Israel,” “hostile” to Israel, etc.
In this and other ways, American Christians have contributed to discrimination against tens of thousands of Christians in the Holy Land, and have contributed to the exodus of tens of thousands more Christians from their ancestral homes.
This situation is intolerable. Very soon, one of us will be traveling to Bethlehem to participate in a conference hosted by Palestinian evangelical Christians who live there. It breaks our hearts to participate knowing that our community has contributed to the suffering of our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters who live so close to Christ’s birthplace.
If we could express our hearts to you, our fellow American Christians, we would say the following: First, please stop spending so much time trying to apply with precision the imagery and symbolism of the Bible, particularly the Apocalyptic passages. It is good to support Israel’s right to flourish, but it is also good to do so without trying to help God bring about the battle of Armageddon. God does not need our help to fulfill his predictions.
Second, please pay attention to those things that God wants us to pay attention to. The prophets of old make it clear that God wants us to focus on seeking impartial justice, supporting the disadvantaged, seeking true shalom, and other such actions, which they emphasized over and over again.
Finally, when you see American Christians justifying discrimination against innocent Palestinians (Christians or otherwise), speak up. Explain to them why this is unhealthy for us, as well as for both Palestinians and Israelis. We are showing friendship to no one when we allow the oppression of the innocent to go unchallenged.
In closing, please consider again the following passages from the Biblical Prophets. They are only a small sample among many, many others that speak the same message.
And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
For if… you do not oppress the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, or walk after other gods to your hurt, then I will cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.
Therefore, because you tread down the poor
And take grain taxes from him….
Afflicting the just and taking bribes,
Diverting the poor from justice at the gate…
Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD!
For what good is the day of the LORD to you?…
But let justice run down like water,
And righteousness like a mighty stream.
James-Michael (“JM”) Smith is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and author of “Cleansed and Abiding: A Proposed View of Christian Perfection.” He is the founder of Disciple Dojo (JMSmith.org), an ecumenical discipleship resource ministry.
Andrew Miller is an American Christian living in Bordeaux, France. He blogs (sometimes) at http://andrewsbethlehemblog.wordpress.com/ and elsewhere.