The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Six Things I Believe
This paper was presented to a gathering of Palestinian Christians, Israeli Messianic Jews, and American Christians and Messianic Jews on December 5, 2013.
In 2010 I spoke at the first Christ at the Checkpoint Conference in Bethlehem. I gave a talk called “It's All About Jesus: A Personal Journey.” I chose that title because my engagement in the Holy Land was a very personal attempt to follow in the way of Jesus. I had been spending considerable time in the region and was brokenhearted by the suffering that resulted from ongoing and violent conflict. I believed that what Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs, needed most was to see Jesus incarnated in his followers in the Holy Land. I came to Christ at the Checkpoint with the desire to encourage and lift up the Christians in the land. To stand in solidarity with them.
I had learned by that time that this issue could be theologically controversial. I was still caught off guard, after my talk, when a Messianic Jewish theologian from Israel told me he believed I had totally violated scripture by talking about the plight of the Palestinians. He reminded me that God had given the land to the Jews, and if the Palestinians were suffering it was because God’s will regarding the land was being violated. If I thought the treatment they were receiving was unjust it was because I didn’t understand God’s purposes in the world.
It was a very awkward and disturbing conversation.
Now, fast-forward two years. In 2012 I spoke at the second Christ at the Checkpoint conference. Again that same Messianic theologian approached me afterwards. I assumed we would again have an awkward conversation.
But instead, he said, “Thank you for that talk. That was a great talk. In fact, I think you should give that talk to some of our Jewish congregations.”
What happened during the two years separating those conversations?
What happened in me is that a very wise friend—actually a Palestinian Christian—challenged me to spend as much time with Israelis as I had been spending with Palestinians.
So I began doing that. In subsequent trips I met with secular mainstream Jews. I met with people in the Israeli peace movement. I ate Shabbat meals with Orthodox families. I talked with Israeli families who’d lost children to the violence of suicide bombers. I listened to the perspective of Messianic Jews. Perhaps most significantly, I walked slowly through the halls of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.
In my second talk in Bethlehem, I described those experiences.
I also said, “I will never bring a group of people to visit Israel and Palestine again, without taking them to Yad Vashem. How can we begin to understand this place without holding the reality of Jewish history in our conscious awareness?”
So, my heart had been broken on a deeper level for the Jewish people and that came through in my talk—and made a difference to the Jewish theologian.
What also happened during those two years was that the Jewish theologian spent time with Palestinians in the West Bank, and he actually saw the reality of their daily lives. He said to me, “I still support the State of Israel and believe the Jews have a unique role to play in God’s redemptive plan. But the kind of injustice I’ve seen in the West Bank, and that you have described in your talk, is unconscionable. It can’t continue. But few Jews actually know what’s going on here.”
That story—of those two very different conversations—is so encouraging to me. I’ve been similarly encouraged by many people with whom I may disagree on some points of theology, but for whom I have the deepest respect, because they manifest a level of compassion and wisdom that challenges and humbles me. Honestly, when it comes to my engagement in the Holy Land, I’ve been blessed by gracious mentors from many different directions.
At the same time that I’ve been encouraged, however, I have also been greatly discouraged—especially recently—by the increasing number of blogs and articles and emails written about or to me that question not only my theology, but also my motives, my calling, and my intelligence.
I’ve been called a threat to the state of Israel, a subtle (and therefore extremely dangerous) anti-Semite, a spokesperson for the PLO, and a Christian Palestinianist who traffics in anti-Israel propaganda and historical misinformation.
And I’ve been described as part of a massive effort in the heart of the evangelical church to lure its members—especially its youth—away from the pro-Israel position God commands to an uncritical and unbiblical support for Palestinians.
I am not new to the world of criticism. Forty years ago my husband and I started a church in a movie theater where we used drums and guitars in worship. We were immediately denounced by the evangelical establishment that called us a cult and warned its young people to stay away from us. Since then, we’ve taken plenty of other actions that many people deemed worthy of criticism. Generally we don’t respond to our critics, unless they approach us personally. If we responded to every anonymous or public criticism, we would have little time to do anything else.
But, rightly or wrongly, I feel that I need to respond to the criticism related to my involvement in Israel and Palestine. I’m choosing to do it in this setting, not because I believe my harshest critics are here; I don’t think they are. But the recent criticism has challenged me to strip down my message and say very clearly what I mean and what I believe about the conflict. I’m doing it here because this is supposed to be a forum where we can speak honestly, if we do so carefully.
I want to clarify that I’m not speaking on behalf of my husband, my church, the Willow Creek Association, World Vision, The Telos Group, or any other organization with which I might be associated. I am speaking strictly as an individual.
In the next few minutes I’ll make six “This Is What I Believe” statements. Each of these statements deserves extensive discussion, which we don’t have time for today. So this is basically an outline, which needs to be developed more fully in another setting.
1. I believe it is possible to be truly pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian at the same time. On my first meaningful trip to the region both Israeli and Palestinian leaders said, “This is not a zero-sum conflict; in the Holy Land, nobody wins unless everybody wins. Either Israelis and Palestinians learn to live together, or we will die together. If you’re here to pick a side, go away. We don’t need that kind of help. But if you are willing to figure out how to be a common friend to Israelis and Palestinians, then we welcome you.”
With each trip I make to the region my commitment to that perspective grows.
When I say I’m pro-Israeli, I mean that I support the existence of the State of Israel as a home for the Jewish people. I want Jews to be able to live there without the fear of rockets falling from Gaza, or suicide bombers attacking civilians, or any other kind of violence against them. In a world in which anti-Semitism is, tragically, still alive and well, I am thankful for the State of Israel. The fact that I may disagree with some of the policies of the government of Israel doesn’t mean that I’m anti-Israel or anti-Jew, anymore than my disagreement with certain policies of the US government means that I’m anti-US or anti-American.
When I say I’m pro-Palestinian, I mean that I believe the Palestinians have an equally valid right to live in the land and should have the same civil rights that are afforded to Israeli Jewish citizens, whether that’s in one state, two states, or however many states. I believe Palestinians should be free from military occupation. They should be able to travel freely between their own communities, engage in commerce, and have easy access to the outside world.
2. I believe that if we want to engage in the Holy Land as peacemakers, we must recognize that Israelis and Palestinians have very different, and often conflicting, histories and narratives, each of which must be sought out and respectfully heard. I have been accused of trading the Jewish narrative for a false Palestinian narrative. I have to say, I just don’t understand that accusation. How could two groups of people on opposite sides of a violent conflict not have different experiences of what happened, and different memories?
When you pay attention to both narratives, it’s easy to understand why the Jews would want a homeland and why they feel they have a legitimate claim to the Holy Land based on biblical promises. And it’s easy to understand why the Palestinians feel they have an equally valid claim on the land based on centuries of residence in the land.
Certainly, either narrative can be mythologized and distorted and used to demonize the other. So, part of our task as people seeking peace is to listen with a discerning ear, to study well, to question what we hear, and to learn from a wide variety of people.
About year ago in Bethlehem I had just such an opportunity. I attended a meeting of Palestinian women, both Christian and Muslim. There were two speakers at the meeting. One was an Israeli Messianic Jew who traveled into Bethlehem, actually breaking the Israeli law that forbade her to go into the West Bank, because she was so determined to meet with these Palestinian women. The other speaker at the event was a Palestinian Christian woman. Each of these women, in turn, described the typical narrative that is commonly held by her people, and then she critiqued it.
The Jewish women said, “You won't like what I'm going to say, but this is what most Jews believe. They believe that Jewish violence in the war of 1948 was purely defensive; Jews were simply defending themselves against Arab aggressors. But before you get mad at me, I need to tell you that I realize that is not true. The tragic truth is that in 1948 many Arabs were aggressively forced from their land and/or brutally killed by Jewish fighters.” She said, “Admitting this makes me pretty unpopular with some Israelis, but we must be open to self-criticism.”
The Palestinian woman described some of the hardships of the occupation, but then she said, “We Palestinians tend to think that all our problems are caused by the occupation. But that’s not true.” She said, “We must accept culpability for allowing a victim mentality to dominate our actions and for making many poor choices along the way that have hurt us collectively.” That was hard for some of the Palestinian women to hear, and they discussed it at length. But at the end of the meeting they asked to meet again so they could continue such discussions.
It was such a privilege to be able to sit in on that meeting. How admirable, how wise, how courageous, for these women to be willing to listen to the narrative of the other and also to critique their own. Surely, they are laying a foundation for peace, and modeling that for all of us.
3. I believe biblical theology leaves room for Jews and Arabs to live together as neighbors and equals in the land. I recognize there are differing theologies of the land, based on differing hermeneutical approaches. These differing theologies often appear to be at odds when it comes to the question of who rightly belongs in the land that we call holy.
I hesitate to speak about this because I’m not a theologian, and I can’t enter theological battles. But I so appreciate a book written by two people who will be speaking here: Salim Munayer (Palestinian Christian) and Lisa Loden (Messianc Jew). They edited a book called The Land Cries Out, which includes essays by a wide variety of Messianic Jews, Palestinian Christians, and a few international voices. There are many different theologies of the land presented in this book, but because most of the writers actually live in the land and deal with the complexity of reality, they speak with the careful, nuanced voices that complexity requires.
Some of the essayists make a strong case that the birth of the modern State of Israel in 1948 and the ingathering of the Jews to the Holy Land is a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy that’s tied to end time events, to the second coming of Christ, and to a particular physical place. Others focus on Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, on access to God’s blessings being available to all who are grafted into the community of God’s people, and on God’s Kingdom as a spiritual Kingdom not connected to a physical place.
But running throughout all the chapters of the book was an image of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, living together in the land in peace.
For some of the writers (including both Palestinian Christians and a number of Messianic Jews), that peace could conceivably be manifested, to a degree anyway, in the two-state solution that is being discussed in current peace talks. For others, that vision of peace is for a time far in the distance, when Jesus’ Kingdom is here in fullness.
But what strikes me as critically important is that people with different theological perspectives, who are willing to look at reality honestly and think carefully, can envision Jews and Arab living peacefully and equally as brother and sisters.
4. I believe the ongoing military occupation of the West Bank and the continuing blockade of Gaza is a violation of human rights; as such, it deeply harms the security, freedom, and dignity of both peoples. The very fact that I use the word “occupation” has led some people to judge me as an enemy of the State of Israel; they have told me the only “occupation” is the one perpetrated by the Arabs who are occupying the land of Judea and Samaria that belongs to the Jews.
I won’t try to argue with the religious logic behind that claim, but I will say that I know many Israeli Jews who believe that the occupation is wrong; that it violates their Judaic ethic; that it breeds hostility and undermines security; and that it has to end.
Just last week I read an op-ed by an Israeli journalist, an American Jew who moved to Israel as an adult because she loves Israel and wants to live there. She wrote, “Why can’t ‘pro-Israel’ mean anti-occupation, support for human rights, equality, democracy for all peoples under Israel’s control? Why should we perpetuate the conflict, by supporting Israeli government policies that perpetuate the conflict?” She suggests, in fact, that that’s about “as anti-Israel as you can get.”
Some of my critics say that people who talk like the woman I just quoted, are left wing radicals that we as Christians should not be aligning ourselves with, or they’re self-hating Jews who should be silenced. I can only say that I’ve met some left wing radicals who are also ardent Zionists who seem to be wise and compassionate people and who, in their words, are patriots who are fighting for the soul and security and integrity and future of their country. I may be wrong, but I respect them and I think their voices ought to be heard in America.
5. I believe that any violence against civilians, whether carried out militarily or through guerrilla tactics, is illegal under international law, damages prospects for peace, and should be stopped immediately. I want to state that clearly, because my critics have asked why I don’t spend more time talking about Islamic extremists and Hamas and the battle between Muslims and Christians. Part of my reason is that I think we hear plenty about that. I have no desire to give more airtime to the voices of violence.
The other reason is that I’ve traveled to the Holy Land specifically in search of those who are committed to nonviolence, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Interestingly, those voices of peace have come from a variety of directions. While I believe Jesus is the Prince of Peace whose power will ultimately unleash peace, I have met Muslims and Jews, who may or may not give any conscious consideration to Jesus, but who seem to be living out Jesus’ ethic of peacemaking. In fact, they often challenge me to take Jesus’ way of living more seriously. As I get to know them and become friends with them, I pray that the gentle community we create will become a space in which Jesus can do his best work of healing, redeeming and transforming each of us in the ways we most need.
6. While I hope and pray for an official diplomatic resolution to this conflict, I recognize that what happens on the grassroots level of relationships is equally as important as any political peace plan. And we are all positioned perfectly to make a difference there, as we build little enclaves of peaceful relationships from which peace can bubble up.
Several weeks ago, thirty American, Israeli and Palestinian women met for two days in Washington DC. We were Christians, Muslims and Jews, religious and secular, youngish and oldish—united by our commitment to human rights in the Holy Land.
Some of the Palestinian women had been criticized by their friends in the West Bank for attending a meeting with Israelis, their oppressors. Some of the Israeli women had been criticized by their friends for attending a meeting with Palestinians, their enemies. Some of the American women showed up at the meeting licking wounds sustained from journalists who wrongly judged our character and motives.
So, there was a rather high degree of emotional "rawness" in the gathering. While that rawness could have pushed us all to put up protective barriers, it actually had the opposite impact. There was an unusual level of honest communication and vulnerability, with Israeli and Palestinian women talking about the fears they have for their children and the loneliness they often feel as women committed to peace and reconciliation.
There was a particularly profound connection between a young Palestinian woman and an older Israeli woman. They were both psychologists, highly educated and articulate, but neither could quite contain their emotion as they spoke.
The young Palestinian woman described what it was like to send her teenage son through a checkpoint, knowing that he would feel frustrated and humiliated; she feared that the humiliation, repeated over and over again, would turn him into an angry young man, maybe even a violent young man. She tried to keep him away from checkpoints, but she couldn’t keep him locked in one little neighborhood. So she feared for his future.
The older Israeli woman described what it was like knowing that her teenage grandson was an IDF soldier, standing at a checkpoint with a gun in his hand, terrified of using the power of that weapon, and yet terrified not to. She didn’t want him to become the oppressor, but he was. She feared what that would do to him, inside.
The two women agreed: “We are both victims of this conflict, this occupation, this ongoing tragedy. We are both victims of the fear that sets our people against each other.”
Then the Israeli woman spoke out of the wisdom of her years: “But look at us here,” she said, “in this room. Today we talked about our fear, and instead of fear driving us apart, it has brought us together. We need to keep talking with one another, deeply and honestly. We need to use this fear to draw us together.” I have to tell you there was magic in that room. I have nothing against men, but I’m not sure that magic would have been felt in a roomful of men.
The only thing that saddened us was knowing that, despite the wonderful connection we had in Washington DC, once the Israeli and Palestinian women went back home there would be no place for them to meet—except, one of them joked, at a checkpoint. Interestingly, that idea of “pitching a tent of meeting at a checkpoint” became sort of a metaphor for our remaining conversations that day. I wouldn’t be surprised if it continues to describe our future meetings.
I'm telling you this because I left that gathering deeply moved by the potential women have to establish healing relationships, and to advocate for human rights in a profoundly personal and captivating way.
One thing we speakers were asked to do in our presentations today is to share what we believe we can do for the sake of peace. I have concluded that one of the most valuable things I can do is to create more and more connections between Palestinian, Israeli, and American women—which will be my focus in the future.
Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
My goal will be to remind American and Israeli and Palestinian women that we do, in fact, belong to each other, and together we can do a work for peace that we could not do without each other.
That is my vision for the future.