Last week’s Christ at the Checkpoint conference in the West Bank town of Bethlehem brought evangelical Christians together with their Palestinian sisters and brothers to ask what their faith has to say about the Israeli occupation. Christian Zionists aren’t happy about their answers.
Text and photos by: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org
Two of the most potent forces insulating Israel from any political accountability for the occupation are right-wing lobbying groups, most notably AIPAC, and the Christian Zionist movement of which the largest U.S. organization is Christians United for Israel (CUFI).
Recent months have seen cracks in AIPAC’s influence, most notably defeats on Syria and Iran policy. Now, groups like CUFI are sounding defensive as more and more prominent and influential evangelical Christian leaders are expressing solidarity with Palestinian suffering and asserting that true support for Israel means ending the occupation and establishing a just peace.
The media is noticing the change: A batch of articles with headlines like, “Israel’s Grip on Evangelical Christians Loosens,” “New Evangelical Movement Seeks Split From Pro-Israel Line,” and “Are American Evangelicals Fracturing When It Comes to Support for Israel?” have appeared in recent months, many of them from right-wing sources sounding the alarm bell. Such voices have often resorted to accusations of anti-Semitism and of “demonizing” and “delegitimizing” Israel. Or, as one CUFI statement puts it, [t]he enemies of Israel are no longer overseas or even outside of our church walls. They are right here at home, in our communities and even in our churches.”
But if one ignores their smear tactics, their criticism reveals an encouraging trend among U.S. Christians — especially the youth. As CUFI’s executive director David Brog recently wrote:
With every passing month, more evidence is emerging that these anti-Israel Christians are succeeding in reaching beyond the evangelical left and are influencing the mainstream. In particular, they are penetrating the evangelical world at its soft underbelly: the millennial generation. These young believers (roughly ages 18 to 30) are rebelling against what they perceive as the excessive biblical literalism and political conservatism of their parents. As they strive with a renewed vigor to imitate Jesus’ stand with the oppressed and downtrodden, they want to decide for themselves which party is being oppressed in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Though Brog misapplies the “anti-Israel” label, his complaint reveals what advocates for Palestinian rights have always known: expose a compassionate, open-minded person to the reality of the occupation, and they will oppose it and the matrix of Israeli government policies that sustain it.
Last week’s Christ at the Checkpoint (CATC) conference hosted by Bethlehem Bible College aimed at doing just that — bringing Christians to see and experience the occupation firsthand in Bethlehem, the birthplace of their faith, and to study with their fellow Palestinian believers how their faith requires them to respond.
Conference speaker Ruth Padilla DeBorst of the faith-based development agency World Vision identified a key theological phenomenon that the conference hoped to address:
The conflation of the biblical people of God with the secular modern State of Israel and [an end-times theology] that subjects Jesus’ return to the reestablishment of Jews in the promised land — all of these nourish an evangelical Zionist stance and knowing ignorance regarding the plight of Palestinian Christians.
‘Manipulation of Religion and Politics’
Even before the conference began, it was met with a flurry of opposition, including a strongly worded statement from Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor:
The attempt to use religious motifs in order to mobilize political propaganda and agitate the feelings of the faithful through the manipulation of religion and politics is an unacceptable and shameful act. Using religion for the purpose of incitement in the service of political interests stains the person who does it with a stain of indelible infamy.
Though originally reported by the Christian Zionist outlet Israel Today as an “official” statement, according to Christianity Today, a mainstream U.S. evangelical publication, Foreign Ministry officials later told conference leaders that Palmor’s comments were genuine, but that “he spoke in a personal capacity.” A Haaretz report that summarized Palmor’s comments seemed to gloss over that nuance, and Israel Today continues to insist that the statement was official and not merely personal.
Israel Today also published additional comments, presumably by Palmor, saying that the conference “is particularly problematic, because it is designed for the evangelical Christian leadership – an extremely important audience to us.” He went so far as to acknowledge that, “we have already actively targeted specific participants in the conference, as well as leaders of the groups who will attend the event, in a coordinated effort to expose them to our side of the story.”
Though this and previous CATC events in 2010 and 2012 have drawn attacks from groups like CUFI, CAMERA, NGO Monitor, and the Institute on Religion and Democracy, this was the first time that Israeli government officials went on record opposing it. Conference director Munther Isaac responded:
It is unfortunate that an Israeli official would consider a conference that aims to provide a platform for international and local evangelical leaders and theologians to discuss the Palestinian Israeli conflict as ‘political propaganda.’ The conference manifesto … underlines our commitment to peacemaking and reconciliation and our rejection of violence. At the same time, we are Palestinian evangelicals, and we believe that we have a perspective that needs to be heard. The comments of Mr. Palmor seem as an attempt to silence us and to intimidate evangelicals from engaging with us and listening to our perspective.
The conference’s speakers were not limited to Christians only. Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish of Gaza was an emblematic speaker on the conference’s themes of nonviolence, peacemaking and reconciliation. Abuelaish lost three daughters among the 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis who died during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-2009. Yet despite his loss, as author of the book, I Shall Not Hate, he condemned violence and revenge, declaring, “The bullet is the weapon of the weak. We all have the strongest weapons. It’s the kind, courageous and strong word and the good deeds.”
“Palestinians and Israelis … should live as neighbors on the basis of human values and justice,” said Abulaish. But rather than reinforce the false symmetry often promoted by reconciliation rhetoric, he did not equivocate in his description of the occupation’s power dynamic, saying:
We need to have an accurate diagnosis. Palestinians are occupied. The Israelis are the occupier. Palestinians are the weak. Israelis are the strong. Palestinians are the oppressed. Israelis are the oppressor. But in order to get rid of this oppression and occupation, all should be free in order to live together.
Abuelaish, who now lives in Canada, had to offer his address to the conference via Skype because Israel denied him entry. “Have faith, have hope, but most important, you need this faith and this hope to be translated into action,” he said in his concluding remarks. “Faith and hope without action means nothing. We need to act in order to make a difference in this world.”
Moss Ntlha, General Secretary of the Evangelical Alliance in South Africa, also offered a clear political perspective while rejecting the zero-sum approach of the conference’s critics. He described traveling to the Holy Land first with Jewish South African friends, and then returning later to be hosted by Palestinians. “For me, this looks like apartheid,” said Ntlha, recalling conversations with his friends at home. “I said, between you and me — I am black, you are white South African Jews — who do you think has more credibility in deciding whether or not whether this is apartheid?”
Ntlha’s solidarity with Palestine does not diminish his deep respect for Israel. “To this day I continue to love Israel,” he said. “Everything I know about God I was taught by the people of this land. … But it is precisely because we love Israel that we must help Israel recover a sense of the God of justice who they revealed to us.”
Grace Matthews of India articulated an experience that encapsulated the goal of the conference. “I feel that the church has a responsibility not to be silent when it comes to injustice,” she said, after describing her visit the previous day in Hebron, where she heard testimony of children terrified by military invasions of their homes. “We need to speak out.”
For his part, Rev. Alex Awad, dean of students at Bethlehem Bible College and pastor of East Jerusalem Baptist Church, offered a provocative response to critics and a challenge to the churches:
Our critics have recently accused Bethlehem Bible College and Christ at the Checkpoint of starting an intifada — an uprising — in the evangelical church. I hope they are right. We want to see an intifada against injustice. We want to see an intifada against violence and terrorism. We want to see an intifada against racism. We want to see an intifada against theologies that promote war and bloodshed. I want from this podium to call on evangelicals everywhere to re-examine these detrimental theologies and shake them off.