Breaking the Misconceptions
Samantha Borders- Future Voices of America
“God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.” ~Matthew 5:9(NLT)
That single name, label, is often the cause of heated discussion and high emotions whenever it is uttered in any circle of people; but amongst Christians, it can be the difference between acceptance and alienation. Palestine evokes thoughts and ideas of the conflict between the peoples of what is known as “the Holy Land” and what it means to be a descendant of Abraham, so to speak its name is a controversy in and of itself. Recently, a conference called Christ at the Checkpoint was held in Bethlehem, West Bank, which called for followers of Christ from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, countries of origin, and theological views to engage with each other in discussion over the Christian community’s role in the current and ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This event stirred up a great deal of controversy and praise from the global Christian community, and continues to generate discussion amongst the Body of Christ.
Simple answer: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself.
This particular struggle has the potential for creating deep divisions between groups of people, and in the Christian Church, it wreaks havoc amongst the body of believers. Among the many narratives concerning the conflict, the one people in the United States are most familiar with is known as Zionism, which espouses the thought that what we consider to be the Holy Land, stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river, belongs historically to the Jewish people. Although elements of religious belief can be found in Zionist ideology because of God’s promise to Abraham concerning the land, it is primarily a secular movement founded in nationalism, and indeed is challenged by factions of Judaism throughout the world, though the American media seldom makes this important distinction. The Evangelical and Jewish lobbies in the U.S. pour a great deal of support and funding into the country of Israel ($115 billion since World War II and an estimated $3.1 billion in the 2013 fiscal year) with minimal accountability. It is frequently assumed that those who are in opposition to the Israeli government and Zionism are anti-Semitic, or rather, racist and haters of the Jewish people and are going against the very dictations of God. However, Zionism is just one aspect of Christian thought.
The other, less discussed viewpoint in American media is that of the Palestinian church and the historic communities within the Holy Land that have existed since the time of Christ. Although Christians are a minority in the West Bank and Gaza (8% in the West Bank and 0.7% in Gaza), they are an integral part of the Palestinian community and are an important and vital voice within the conflict, championing the use of non-violence and loving reconciliation between their people (of any religious creed) and the entirety of Israelis. But what do they stand for?
This is what Christ at the Checkpoint sought to clarify and expound. Outlined clearly in the conference goals were the following statements of intent to:
- · Empower and encourage the Palestinian church.
- · Expose the realities of the injustices in the Palestinian Territories and create awareness of the obstacles to reconciliation and peace.
- · Create a platform for serious engagement with Christian Zionism and an open forum for ongoing dialogue between all positions within the Evangelical theological spectrum.
- · Motivate participants to become advocates for the reconciliation work of the church in Palestine/Israel and its ramifications for the Middle East and the world.
Essentially, the organizers of this annual conference (members of the Bethlehem Bible College such as Munther Isaac, Alex Awad, and staff working with Sami Awad at the Holy Land Trust) sought to provide answers to the questions people, within and outside of the conflict, many have concerning the Palestinian church’s view of the struggle at hand and to break the misconceptions that plague the Palestinian people. Inviting speakers from the entire spectrum of Christian ideology concerning this topic, both Zionist and otherwise, Christ at the Checkpoint addressed the difficult, and sometimes tense, theological questions surrounding the issue. While the conference itself cannot be entirely explained in this article, some key points will be addressed.
In short, the Palestinian Christians represented at this event are against the extremism of Zionism and its consequences, but not the Jewish people themselves or those who believe in a call for the Jews to have a homeland of their own. Rather, they embrace Israelis, Messianic Jews, and Christian Zionists as their brethren and partners in achieving a lasting peace in the Holy Land. However, under the banner of Zionism, Palestinians in both Israel and Palestine are subjected daily to methodical humiliation and dehumanization, in the forms of arbitrary security checkpoints, deprivation of resources, and racial profiling by the Israeli government, as well as violent skirmishes that are often ignored or defended, regardless of which party is at fault, and results in the pervasive killing of innocent men, women, and children. This conference opened up a forum for discourse on how these differing groups can come together, despite their disagreements, and formulate a lasting solution to the violence at hand.
With the slogan “hope in the midst of conflict” as their mantra, the week opened on Monday evening with representation from the Palestinian Authority, which is the interim government presiding over the West Bank and Gaza until Israel’s borders can be defined through a one or two state solution. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Mayor of Bethlehem Victor Batarseh both addressed the attendees on the conference’s opening night, voicing their support of such a gathering despite the accusations that Christ at the Checkpoint was not held in high esteem by their governmental bodies. The following day would plunge directly into the issues surrounding the Palestinian church and the popular misconceptions many individuals outside of the Middle East possess about it.
The very first speaker was a Palestinian Christian pastor named Labeeb Madanat, who very early on entreated both sides of the spectrum to follow Christ’s teaching in Matthew 11:15 to hear the stories of the opposition, because only then can we begin to understand his pain as our own and defeat the prevalent “victim mentality” within Palestinian society. This set the tone for the remaining speeches throughout the week, as men and women took to the stage to present their views and stories of what the conflict looks like to both sides. Topics such as dual covenant theology, God’s purpose for all branches of His Church, and how the land of Israel/Palestine is biblically delegated were covered by adept speakers such as Pastor Wayne Hilsden, who spoke on the behalf of the Christian Zionist perspective, and Pastor Stephen Sizer, who argued that according to multiple biblical passages such as Leviticus 25:23, the land belongs to God alone. Women from all ideologies and walks of life also gave their insight into reconciliation and the challenges female populations, both Israeli and Palestinian, face due to the on-going violence as well as their efforts at fostering cooperative peace.
However, the concept of reconciliation was very powerfully manifested in a joint presentation called “This Day I Choose.” Evan Thomas and Salim Munayer, a Messianic Jew and Palestinian Christian respectively, together spoke to the congregation about the heart of the division between Christian Zionists and Palestinians. Within this particular discourse, they emphatically charged their fellow Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians to see beyond their own suffering and to relate with the pain of the other, to acknowledge the mutual struggle that is so prevalent. Regardless of the proper “right to the land” terminology, the crowd was encouraged to take a stand against the systematic oppression and violence that degrades Messianic Jewish, Christian Zionist, and Palestinian Christian beliefs. Munayer and Thomas splendidly broke the misconception that all who believe Zionistic principles are anti-Palestinian, drawing a picture of how peace can be achieved despite the odds at hand.
In support of the conference were numerous peace organizations such as the Holy Land Trust and the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolition (ICAHD), as well as the Messianic Jews who were in attendance and participated. Countering the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC)’s accusation that Christ at the Checkpoint was “anti-Israel and, indeed, [of] unbiblical nature,” an open letter from Richard Harvey, Wayne Hilsden, Dan Juster, David Loden, Lisa Loden, and Evan Thomas expressed that they “did not feel compromised in any way, but were able to freely express …[their] own points of view, and were treated with respect” and were “particularly impressed with the genuine attempts to meet with Messianic Jews and Christian supporters of Israel.” Organizers of the conference were also “targeted by the Israeli authorities” in response to the gathering’s title itself, which was seen as inflammatory at best. However, this too was adeptly handled by Sami Awad, a Palestinian peace activist and member of the organizing board for Christ at the Checkpoint. During his own presentation, he replied to the criticisms from the Israeli government in loving firmness:
Christ at the Checkpoint means Christ is standing for the dream, and for the life, and for the salvation of every person at the checkpoint.
As the upcoming generation of America’s leaders, we must ask ourselves what it is that we stand for, what we fight for, and how it affects others on a daily basis. The voice of the Palestinian church, and indeed, people, are so often drowned out from our own comfortable perceptions of how things are and what they should be. It is the duty of every American citizen to be informed about these issues and where their tax dollars and support is given. What does this aid without accountability represent?
I charge both my peers and all others to read up on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, considering both sides of the story, and formulate for themselves a vision of just peace based in historical fact and not on the rhetorical traditions of others. It is time that we stop fearing the ideologies and peoples that do not look or think like us, because perhaps in our apprehension, we give way to misunderstanding and cultivate irrational terror, which in turn, breeds violence and conflict. We are a generation that is alive, aware, and tired of apathy. Remember the words of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu,
My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.
We are all called to be peacemakers, the question is: Will you rise to the occasion?
Just outside of the Jerusalem checkpoint in Bethlehem, and the inspiration for Christ at the Checkpoint’s logo. Photo by Samantha A. Borders.
For further information on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the reality of life for the Palestinians, you can visit the websites below:
Christ at the Checkpoint- http://www.christatthecheckpoint.com/
Holy Land Trust- http://www.holylandtrust.org/
Jewish Voice for Peace- http://jewishvoiceforpeace.org/
Stephen Sizer’s 7 Biblical Answers to Popular Zionist Assumptions- http://www.sizers.org/articles/7answers.pdf
Author Unknown. “West Bank.” CIA World Factbook. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world- factbook/geos/gz.html.
“Gaza Strip.” CIA World Factbook. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/we.html.
“Conference Goals.” Christ at the Checkpoint. http://www.christatthecheckpoint.com/index.php/about-us/conference-goals.
Awad, Sami. “Non-Violence.” Vimeo. 0:38:45-0:39:00. http://vimeo.com/38585838.
Harvey, Richard and Wayne Hilsden, Dan Juster, David Loden, Lisa Loden, Evan Thomas. “Brief Response to ‘Christ at the Checkpoint’ from Messianic participants.” Israel Watcher- A Second Opinion. http://israelwatchera secondopinion.blogspot.com/2012/03/brief-response-to-christ-at-checkpoint.html.
Lawrence, Emily. “Palestinian Christians attacked for challenging Christian Zionism.” ElectricIntifada.net. http://electronicintifada.net/content/palestinian-christians- attacked-challenging-christian-zionism/11049.
Liberman, Paul and Joel Chernoff, Howard Silverman, Russell Resnik, Jeff Forman, John Fischer, Joel Liberman. “Joint statement on ‘Christ at the Checkpoint.’” http://umjc.net/home-mainmenu-1/news-mainmenu-40/1-latest/750-joint- statement-on-qchrist-at-the-checkpointq.
Sharp, Jeremy M. “U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel.” Congressional Research Service. March 12, 2012. http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33222.pdf (accessed March 24, 2012).
Sizer, Stephen. “Seven Biblical Answers to Popular Zionist Assumptions.” Stephensizer.org. http://www.sizers.org/articles/7answers.pdf.
Speakman Jr., Porter and Munther Isaac. “The Fight for Recognition and Against Ideology.” The Blog of Porter Speakman Jr. http://porterspeakmanjr.com/2012/03/15/the-fight-for-recognition-and-against-ideology/.
 Jeremy M. Sharp, “U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel,” Congressional Research Service, March 12, 2012, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33222.pdf.
 Author Unknown, “West Bank,” CIA World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/gz.html and Author Unknown, “Gaza Strip,” CIA World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/we.html.
 Author Unknown, “Conference Goals,” Christ at the Checkpoint, http://www.christatthecheckpoint.com/index.php/about-us/conference-goals
 This implies either a completely united Israel including Palestinian territories or separate Israeli and Palestinian states.
 For more on this story, read Porter Speakman Jr. and Munther Isaac, “The Fight for Recognition and Against Ideology,” The Blog of Porter Speakman Jr., http://porterspeakmanjr.com/2012/03/15/the-fight-for-recognition-and-against-ideology/
 Stephen Sizer, “Seven Biblical Answers to Popular Zionist Assumptions,” Stephensizer.org, http://www.sizers.org/articles/7answers.pdf.
Paul Liberman, Joel Chernoff, Howard Silverman, Russell Resnik, Jeff Forman, John Fischer, and Joel Liberman, “Joint statement on ‘Christ at the Checkpoint,” UMJC.org, http://umjc.net/home-mainmenu-1/news-mainmenu-40/1-latest/750-joint-statement-on-qchrist-at-the-checkpointq and Richard Harvey, Wayne Hilsden, Dan Juster, David Loden, Lisa Loden, and Evan Thomas, “Brief Response to ‘Christ at the Checkpoint’ from Messianic participants,” Israel Watcher- A Second Opinion, http://israelwatcherasecondopinion.blogspot .com/2012/03/brief-response-to-christ-at-checkpoint.html.
 Emily Lawrence, “Palestinian Christians attacked for challenging Christian Zionism,” ElectricIntifada.net, http://electronicintifada.net/content/palestinian-christians-attacked-challenging-christian-zionism/11049.
 Sami Awad, “Non-Violence,” Vimeo, 0:38:45- 0:39:00, http://vimeo.com/38585838.