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The Role of Christians in the Struggle for Justice in Palestine

Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust discusses the role of Christian theology and nonviolence in the Palestinian struggle.

Political and social mural paintings and graffiti on the Israeli West Bank barrier in Bethlehem, Palestine, March 13, 2018.

The occupation of Palestine is often erroneously portrayed as a conflict between the Jewish and Muslim faiths. This narrative obscures the fact that Zionism is a settler-colonialist movement inspired by 19th century European anti-Semitism, which was shunned by many Jews in the past and continues to be shunned today. What’s more, instead of addressing the ongoing issues of inequality, injustice and apartheid within a rational, political realm (thus making these issues resolvable), it resorts to an ahistorical portrayal of an age-old and violent, irrational conflict. Finally, it ignores a sizable and influential Christian Palestinian population that is part-and-parcel to Palestinian history, heritage and culture.

Sami Awad is a Christian Palestinian from Bethlehem. He is the executive director of Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian nonprofit organization focused on empowering communities and promoting social justice, the arts, nonviolent resistance, compassion and love. In this interview, Awad discusses the role of Christian theology and nonviolence in the struggle for Palestinian justice.

Yoav Litvin: As a Christian who works out of Bethlehem, how do you interface with Christian Zionists who visit your ancient and holy city?

Sami Awad: Most Christians, whether Zionists or not, rarely meet and interact with the local Palestinian population and particularly the Palestinian Christian population. In fact, most are discouraged from doing so by their group leaders or Israeli guides who claim Palestinians are “dangerous.”

Christian Zionist pilgrims are dogmatically set in their fundamentalist views that the modern state of Israel is a biblical manifestation that must be accepted as an integral part of Christian faith, and a crucial step toward the end-of-times prophecy. Christian Zionists expect Palestinians (Christians or otherwise) to fully accept the Jewish state not as a political entity – a nation-state – but as a Godly construct that cannot be debated. Our rejections to inherently oppressive Israeli policies are immediately perceived by these pilgrims as anti-Semitic and anti-biblical. Further, some accuse us of promoting replacement theology (a doctrine that was historically used by some, mostly Christian Europeans, to justify violence against Jews). They defend Israel by undermining legitimate Palestinian rights to freedom and liberty.

Sami Awad.
Sami Awad.

How do you view Christian Zionist conceptions about Palestine and the rights of Palestinian people, Christian and Muslim, versus those of Jews?

Christian Zionists reject Palestinian rights and claims to the land, erasing our deep-rooted, historic and ancestral presence here. In concert with the Christian Zionist belief in an end-of-days prophecy that demands full support of Israel as a Jewish state, there is growing xenophobia among their followers.

Nowadays, Christian Zionism presents Islam as an evil/Satanic religion, demonizing its followers, and Israel as a defensive, Godly force on the front lines. Many Christian Zionists attack or ridicule Christian Palestinians such as myself for simply having relations with Muslims who are an integral part of our Palestinian national/cultural community. This xenophobia scapegoats all Muslims as radical, extreme and militant (e.g. groups like ISIS). They claim that we must condemn, reject and fight our Muslim Palestinian brothers and sisters and collude with our oppressors, Zionists — not as a means of attaining human rights, but for the salvation of our souls.

Christian Zionists ignorantly support Israel. That said, the more “liberal” Christian Zionists can be open to criticizing Israel…. However, their critique and activism rarely transcend finger-wagging at Israel for using too much force. Christian Zionists certainly refrain from demanding an end to the occupation and/or full and equal rights to Palestinians.

Was Jesus Christ a dark-skinned Palestinian? How do the notions of race and white supremacy play into the Zionist narrative and where do you attempt to challenge these notions?

Nowadays, as a dark-skinned Palestinian, Jesus Christ would have been treated very harshly and rejected for numerous reasons. He would be discriminated against for the color of his skin, undermined for a lack of capitalist money-making agenda, ridiculed and defamed for the people he associates with, and persecuted for his criticism and attempts to stand up and resist the system of control and fear.

Colonialist-based ideologies have reshaped theological and religious understandings of the world. This revisionist trend has manipulated theology to justify ideologies that promote racism, oppression, manipulation of resources and discrimination against others.

The notion of a unity between Christians and Jews captured by the term “Judeo-Christian” is one such example. It conveys a strongly rooted connection between Christians and Jews; a common biblical foundation of faith – same God, prophets, etc. As such, Islam is perceived as an outsider and a threat. This “Judeo-Christian identity” is purely Western, mid-20th century, capitalist and consumer-based, and mostly a white-supremacist construct.

The conception of a “Judeo-Christian” identity is grounded in a European/US white Evangelical Christian alliance with European Ashkenazi Jews. It is a construct that privileges white people at the expense of others, promotes racism and discrimination, including of members of Christian and Jewish faiths who do not fit its specific mold.

I aim to challenge this ahistorical conception with the purpose of promoting equality and justice and a true return to the core of our faiths.

What would Jesus Christ do today in Palestine/Israel? What sort of struggle for justice would Jesus support? Please address the notions of violent versus nonviolent struggles.

I feel that if Jesus were here today, he would firmly (though nonviolently) reject the modern constructs of religious-political-economic-ideological systems of oppression and marginalization of others, exactly as he did some 2,000 years ago. The beauty of the teachings of Jesus Christ is that, in addition to being a reformer, he believed in transforming humanity and driving it toward its fullest potential; i.e. he did not want to simply fix the system or make it more tolerant, but revolutionize it. His nonviolent resistance would include healing work of both oppressed and oppressor groups.

True justice is not defined as revenge or retaliation, but a holistic means to address violence through accountability, repentance and forgiveness for the atrocities that have been committed and the pursuit of a future that is based on equality, rights and opportunity for all.

Unfortunately, nowadays the challenges seem even more stark and overwhelming than during the times of Jesus, some two millennia ago.

Briefly describe your work and the aims of Holy Land Trust and how these conform to a nonviolent strategy that is partly inspired by the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Holy Land Trust is a Palestinian organization located in Bethlehem. Our aim is to discover and analyze the underlying issues that prevent a manifestation of peace and justice in the holy land. While some define a peace process as one that intends to reach a political agreement or settlement (a treaty), we define it as the practice that creates a space for understanding, respect and dignity for all in this land. Our three pillars of engagement are nonviolent activism (which addresses the institutions and structures of violence, marginalization and oppression), acknowledgement and healing of the collective trauma (the inherited traumatic events that shape identity to be suspicious of- or demonizing others); and leadership transformation (a methodology to develop leaders’ decision-making ability to engage in achieving what is practical but also that which is seen as impossible).

As an organization, we provide space for international guests to visit, see, hear and experience what life is like for Palestinians. A key sector we aim for are Christians from the Western world who come to the holy land as pilgrims without the opportunity to experience the current reality, or worse: have a strong one-sided theological view that promotes violence and discrimination. In addition, Christian Evangelicals have substantial political power in the United States in general, and in Donald Trump’s administration in particular.

What are some of your future projects and goals?

I believe that the Holy Land is a microcosm to what is happening globally, and therefore any change here, in this deep sense, can also have a profound global effect.

The situation in the Holy Land and the world seems to be getting worse. Fear and its manipulation [are] the predominant means of holding on to power at all levels — social, economic, political, ecological and religious. Racism and dehumanization are on the rise. The white Judeo-Christian culture has entrenched its privilege and oppressive practices via the global capitalist market system. A collective rejectionist voice echoes the need for reforms, though a complete paradigm shift is absolutely necessary.

That said, our future projects in the holy land will continue to challenge such oppressive and racist systems through nonviolence and engage in trauma healing through individual work and community building, as we do with the Bet Lahem Live festival. We will challenge the global Christian community to play a more Christ-centered role and to undermine any theology that promotes fear and not love of others as Christ commanded. We will also continue to seek leadership that is committed to a new vision for the holy land. We will continue to focus on promoting women leaders, peace and justice activists, young adults and religious voices who share our philosophy.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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