Palestinian Christians: “The Occupation is a Sin”

Last week, a group of Palestinian Christians representing a variety of churches and church-related organizations issued a powerful, prayerful call for an end to the Israeli occupation.  My friend Rabbi Brian Walt was present at the meeting in Bethlehem in which the statement – known as  “The Kairos Palestine Document” – was released. Upon his return, he described to me his profound, often painful conversations with Palestinian Christians and he told me that as a Jew, he considered the Kairos Document to be an enormously important spiritual/political statement. Having now read the entire 12 page document, I must say that I agree wholeheartedly.

Palestinian Christian liberation theologians such as Naim Ateek of the Sabeel Institute have been doing important work for decades and I believe their ideas present important spiritual challenges to the Jewish community. Many Jews point to the more radical incarnations of these theologies – and while I share some of these concerns, I believe that we make a profound mistake by dismissing Palestinian Christian theology wholesale. (Frankly, I am much more troubled by the “End of Days” theologies of fundamentalist Zionist Christians such as Pastor John Hagee than I am by Naim Ateek and the authors of the Kairos document.)

My friend and colleague Father Cotton Fite of St. Luke’s Church in Evanston, tells me he hopes that American Christians will study the Kairos Document carefully. I mentioned to him that I hoped Jews would read it as well. In fact, I think we should create opportunities to read it together. Despite our differences, I believe it offers both of our communities an ideal place to begin meaningful dialogue over the spiritual implications of this conflict.

One of the more important and challenging passages:

Our presence in this land, as Christian and Muslim Palestinians, is not accidental but rather deeply rooted in the history and geography of this land, resonant with the connectedness of any other people to the land it lives in. It was an injustice when we were driven out. The West sought to make amends for what Jews had endured in the countries of Europe, but it made amends on our account and in our land. They tried to correct an injustice and the result was a new injustice.

I can already predict that many Jews will bristle that this passage does not specifically reference the Jewish connection to the land as well. To this I would say, how deeply do we Jews ever honor the reality that we are not the only people who are “deeply rooted in the history and geography of this land?” Moreover, how deeply do we ever face the true injustice that was committed when a people with deep roots in the land were driven out and not allowed to return?

Another sobering passage in the document describes the Occupation as no less than a “sin:”

We also declare that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is a sin against God and humanity because it deprives the Palestinians of their basic human rights, bestowed by God. It distorts the image of God in the Israeli who has become an occupier just as it distorts this image in the Palestinian living under occupation. We declare that any theology, seemingly based on the Bible or on faith or on history, that legitimizes the occupation, is far from Christian teachings, because it calls for violence and holy war in the name of God Almighty, subordinating God to temporary human interests, and distorting the divine image in the human beings living under both political and theological injustice.

Many of us view the Occupation as a political problem to be solved. But indeed, as Jews, we must admit basic human rights are rooted in our religious tradition. Like Christians, we also believe that all human beings are created in the image of God. We also believe that when the basic dignity of anyone’s humanity is diminished, the Divine Image is diminished as well. How then, can we fail to understand that the Occupation is not only a geo-political problem but a spiritual/moral problem as well?

This conclusion leads to a logical next step:

Love is seeing the face of God in every human being. Every person is my brother or my sister. However, seeing the face of God in everyone does not mean accepting evil or aggression on their part. Rather, this love seeks to correct the evil and stop the aggression.

The injustice against the Palestinian people which is the Israeli occupation, is an evil that must be resisted. It is an evil and a sin that must be resisted and removed. Primary responsibility for this rests with the Palestinians themselves suffering occupation. Christian love invites us to resist it. However, love puts an end to evil by walking in the ways of justice. Responsibility lies also with the international community, because international law regulates relations between peoples today. Finally responsibility lies with the perpetrators of the injustice; they must liberate themselves from the evil that is in them and the injustice they have imposed on others.

Again, the Occupation is viewed not as a diplomatic issue to be negotiated but a spiritual evil to be resisted.

I have no illusions that for many Jews, suggestions such as these present daunting and painful challenges.  So will many of the ultimate political ramifications of the Kairos Document. All I can hope for is that political disagreements will not keep us from honestly facing the profound spiritual dimensions of this conflict.  Speaking for myself, I do believe this statement was written in good faith, genuine love and true religious conviction:

Our message to the Jews tells them: Even though we have fought one another in the recent past and still struggle today, we are able to love and live together. We can organize our political life, with all its complexity, according to the logic of this love and its power, after ending the occupation and establishing justice.

What can I say to this except “Amen?”

6 thoughts on “Palestinian Christians: “The Occupation is a Sin”

  1. I have not read the document yet, but I assume “resistance” to the occuapation is meant as a peaceful and non-violent one?

    • Yes, the document specifically advocates resistance in the form non-violent direct action:

      Palestinian civil organizations, as well as international organizations, NGOs and certain religious institutions call on individuals, companies and states to engage in divestment and in an economic and commercial boycott of everything produced by the occupation. We understand this to integrate the logic of peaceful resistance. These advocacy campaigns must be carried out with courage, openly sincerely proclaiming that their object is not revenge but rather to put an end to the existing evil, liberating both the perpetrators and the victims of injustice. The aim is to free both peoples from extremist positions of the different Israeli governments, bringing both to justice and reconciliation. In this spirit and with this dedication we will eventually reach the longed-for resolution to our problems, as indeed happened in South Africa and with many other liberation movements in the world.

      As I’ve written before, I know that advocacy for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions is a non-starter for many Jews – and I understand why this is so. At the very least, however, I think it’s important that we understand that it is a form of grassroots non violent resistance on the part of the Palestinian people. (Worth thinking about the next time you hear someone ask “where are the Palestinian Ghandis?”)

  2. This all seems so wrong to me. I see nothing in the document to say “Amen” to. The document only continues the kind of misinformation that rather than moving us towards a responsible peace, supports a vision that will only lead to continued conflict.

    The occupation is not a sin. After surviving the Arab war of genocide in 48, and losing 1% of its population, the new Israel found itself surrounded by hostile Arab countries. Israel was attacked again in 67 from the Jordanian annexed west bank. Israel’s victory led to the legal occupation of the west bank territory and was bound legally to administer it. One can discuss if Israelis or Israeli governments sinned in their administration of the territories, but occupation in itself is not a sin.

    The document ignores the invasion of 48, and Arab and Palestinian violence against Israel prior to the occupation.

    The document ignores the right of Jews to live and exercise their right to self determination in their homeland by ignoring the continuous history of Jews in Palestine and throughout the middle east.

    The document wrongly implies that the Arabs of Palestine were driven out by the Jews. This is not supported by the old histories, nor the new histories, and not even by reputable Arab histories of the conflict. The general thrust of the history is no other than an exodus of Arabs from Israel due to an Arab invasion led by foreign Arab forces and local Arab mafia families. Examples of extreme Jewish acts of violence can not be used to whitewash the actual cause of the refugee problem. Understanding this may enlighten you to the same conclusion today, namely, foreign Arab powers and local mafia families are preventing any chance for real peace.

    The document does not self-reflect in any way as to Arab responsibility for any aspect of the current condition of the Palestinians. It sees no “sin” in Arab and Palestinian actions against Israel and Jews.

    It is foolish to expect peace, while ignoring those responsible for the problem…the invading Arab armies of the Arab States and the local power brokers of the Palestinians. They must be held accountable for the 60+ years of conflict that followed. It is those countries who should be held responsible for solving the refugee problem. Examples: close down your refugee camps and let the Palestinians become citizens in your countries; pony up $$$$$ for the new Palestinian State.

    This document only confuses any hope for clarity. The first real step towards real peace will be a Palestinian movement that seeks reconciliation by acknowledging its own responsibility for the situation, just as so many Israeli movements, leaders, and activists have done for decades.

    Finally, I am very confused by a Rabbi who sees Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions as a non-starter for other Jews but not himself. Israel has the right to exist, to defend herself, to be the Jewish homeland, to flourish, and yes, to make peace too. This document will only push the needed peace partner further away from the self-reflective responsible partner that is required.

    • Ken,

      It’s not clear to me how you differentiate between Israel’s occupation and its “administration” of its occupation. Either way, the occupation has has been a corrupt and corrupting enterprise. Israel was not “legally bound” to begin colonizing the West Bank immediately after capturing it in 1967. Israel has not been “legally bound” to settle and expand these colonies steadily over the past forty years. Nor has it been legally bound to extend one form of law to Jewish settler residents and another for the Palestinian population.

      I take exception with many of your historical claims – and though I’m tempted to address each of them in turn, I don’t think it would accomplish anything to engage in rhetorical ping-pong. I will only say that your comment reads more like “Israel Myths and Facts” than an honest response to a heartfelt theological statement.

      I’m astonished that you find no “self-reflection” in this document. I find it suffused throughout with such a spirit. Statements such as “we cannot resist evil with evil” and “we do not resist with death but rather through respect of life” are not only direct references to Palestinian violence – they are important spiritual imperatives.

      I understand that you disagree with the statement, but I’m saddened by your cynicism toward it. As I wrote in my post, I believe it makes an important starting point for inter-religious dialogue. Dialogue does not begin with total agreement but with a good faith attempt at engagement. Hardened attitudes such as yours do nothing to further this critical conversation.

      • Rabbi,
        Thanks for responding.
        There is nothing disingenuous here. One can, as the U.N. has done, require Israel to administer the territories while not condoning settlement building.

        I agree that there is no need for a ping pong match but associating my comments with a Myth & Facts approach is your attempt to discount my point of view by connecting it to a hasbara book that you obviously don’t believe exists in its leftist version. Being pro Israel is misinforming and the critics are enlightening. I think Benny Morris would disagree.

        Here is another statement from the document that speaks to Palestinian violence.

        “We respect and have a high esteem for all those who have given their life for our nation. And we affirm that every citizen must be ready to defend his or her life, freedom and land.”

        Do they make the same affirmation for Israelis?

        Here is a statement from a Christian organization that perhaps you will reject as being too myths and factsy.

        “Fair Witness therefore strongly encourages the U.S. Churches to read the Kairos Palestine document with an open heart but not with an uncritical mind. We also encourage our churches to seize the current opportunity to act as peacemakers — and not to fan the flames of conflict by showing contempt and punishing one side through acts of divestment and boycott.”

        Here is their website: http://christianfairwitness.com/index.html

        Are these Catholics, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists and Lutherans disingenuous and cynical? I appreciate their measured response, their questioning approach, and their rejection of boycotts, divestments and sanctions.

  3. Dear Rabbi Brant Rosen,

    I am heartened by your appreciation of the Kairos document.

    I heard that somewhere in the Tanakh it speaks of the rights of all people who live in Zion. Specifically, it mentions that in the Messianic Age, all of the inhabitants’ rights would be honored, and the sense was that this did not just refer to the rights of those who followed the customs.

    Indeed, it seems that from a moral point of view those like Palestinians who believe in the Tanakh and follow Noahide laws should be shown respect.

    Further, isn’t it technically correct that Zionism proposes that the Jewish people gather themselves together and return to Zion, but that the Tanakh technically says that the Messiah would be the one who gathers the Lord’s people, as the nonZionist Orthodox interpret it?

    Finally, while the doctrines and interpretations may be done either way, shouldn’t love and morals for our neighbor be our guide?

    Shalom!

    Rakovsky

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