israel and palestine
Saturday, July 2nd, 2016: It was again my privilege to be invited to speak at an Al Quds Day event, this time in the grounds of the Kingsgrove Mosque.
I was surprised to receive applause about half-way through my brief address and I wasn’t sure at first what prompted it. It was afterwards that a Palestinian man came up to me and said “you said what we needed to hear. You told us not to forget Palestine. We are afraid that the world is forgetting us”.
Indeed the man’s plea makes sense. When there is so much trouble at home and abroad to absorb our energies, it is easy to forget the ongoing trauma of the Palestinian Occupation. The longer it goes on the more we are tempted to normalise it! In truth, we must never forget Palestine!
The video below covers the first half of my address. Please see the transcript below for the complete version.
Al Quds Day 2016
As most of you would know, I returned not long ago from Syria – my fifth visit there in the last four years. One of the great tragedies of Syria (and there are many tragedies associated with that great land at the moment) is that the violence and injustice being visited upon the Syrian people is so extreme that it can easily absorb all of our time and emotional energy and so distract us from other tragedies in our world that also deserve our prayers and our attention.
It’s not only Syria, of course. When we think of the suffering of the people of Yemen, and also of Iraq and Libya and the suffering of so many of our sisters and brothers around the world, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and have no space in our hearts left for the people of Palestine. After all, there’s only so many people you can pray for at any one time!
I recognise in myself that I have fallen victim to this. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I am president of Friends of Sabeel, Australia – the Australian church’s attempt at Palestinian Liberation Theology. I am supposed to be a recognisable face in the Palestinian struggle for justice and freedom, and yet I find the concerns of the Palestinian people have taken a back seat for me as my energies have been absorbed by other concerns that seem even more pressing!
The truth is that there is no more pressing need in our world than that of justice for the Palestinian people, for in truth, all these global tragedies we grieve are connected. As my friend, Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal (former Bishop of Jerusalem, himself a Palestinian) said “the road to world peace goes through Jerusalem”.
I believe this is true. I don’t mean that if we solve the Palestinian issue that all the other pieces of the puzzle will suddenly, magically fall into place, but I do believe that unless we put an end to the abuse and discrimination and disenfranchisement experienced by the Palestinian people, these other issues we struggle with will never be solved!
This year has been another hard year for the Palestinian people and, as I say, it has been a difficult year for all of us whose hearts yearn for Palestine. The problem has been further exacerbated too lately by initiatives taken within the Islamic world to divide the ummah over their attitude to Israel.
The Saudis have made a number of statements in recent months that seem to endorse the Israeli government and would thus encourage Muslims everywhere to accept the Palestinian Occupation as normal!
I don’t know whether the long term effect of this will be more love for the Israeli government or more hatred for the house of Saud. I suspect the latter. Either way though, I am tempted to say “welcome to the club”. The Christian community has been similarly afflicted for many years by prominent voices urging the faithful around the world to turn a blind eye to the abuse of the Palestinian people!
The other things I say is “thank God or Al Quds Day!”, and I mean that. In spite of the clamour of voices urging us to forget Palestine – voices coming through the media, through our political leaders, and (as I say) even from within the ranks of the faithful, on Al Quds Day we cannot forget Palestine!
The suffering of the Palestinian people is real and it is ongoing, and it cries out to Heaven for redress! God knows that the barriers to justice and freedom seem as intractable now as they ever have been, if not more intractable! Even so, we must do what we can and we must not give up! We must pray, and we must speak out, and we must take action wherever we can to uphold the dignity and humanity of the Palestinian people.
We may fear that our efforts will never amount to much. Even so, I am always encouraged in this regard by the comparison Jesus made between the Kingdom of Heaven and the yeast that’s sprinkled into dough to make bread.
Jesus told them still another parable: “The Kingdom of heaven is like this. A woman takes some yeast and mixes it with a bushel of flour until the whole batch of dough rises.” (Matthew 13:33)
The yeast seems insignificant when mixed in with the dough, and it is virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the lump. Even so, we know full well that when the time comes, these small flakes of yeast become the agents of extraordinary transformation! This is our hope too – that even though our collective effort seems small, that God will work through us and through all who remember Palestine today to bring about extraordinary and genuine transformation.
Thank God for Al Quds Day. Thank God for the ongoing strength and resilience of the people of Palestine. Thank God for the privilege of being able to participate in the process of transformation towards justice and peace.
Palestinian Anglican priest, Rev. Naim Ateek, once again displays the courage of the prophets of old – telling it like it is!
The US Episcopal church had an historic opportunity at their recent General Convention to take a stand with the suffering in Palestine by getting behind the worldwide Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). They voted ‘no’.
Of course the decision was framed as being ‘pro-dialogue’ and ‘pro-ecumenism’ rather than ‘anti-Palestine’ but Rev. Ateek doesn’t pull any punches. He labels it a simple failure to stand for justice!
The ‘no’ was hard to resist, of course, when the Episcopal Bishop of Jerusalem himself was warning delegates of potentially negative repercussions for the church in Israel should the Episcopalians take a stand with Palestine. It’s part of a sad history where the oppressed get shafted while the church hangs on to its thirty pieces of silver.
Interfaith Trumps Justice
Naim Ateek’s response to the Episcopal Bishops’ vote
Although I expected disappointing results from the General Convention of the Episcopal Church
USA, I was, nevertheless, heartbroken when I heard the news and discovered that our Bishops,
yet again have failed to take a stand for justice.
I was asked to attend the General Convention as I have done a number of times in the past. I apologized, frankly because I felt deeply that under our present church leadership justice does not stand a chance. The concerns of the Bishops that masqueraded under the guise of “interfaith relations” or their “ability to reach out to people on both sides of the conflict…allowing [them] to be peacemakers” or “positive investment and not divestment” are tantamount to what we un-affectionately call “The Interfaith Ecumenical Deal.” The agreement is to have polite conversations and wonderful dinners with the Jewish establishment organizations provided we remain silent about justice for the Palestinians. The “ecumenical deal” looks impressive from the outside but in actual fact it silences the prophetic and smothers the truth.
In the House of Bishops, interfaith concerns trumped justice—-again.
In debating the issues that relate to Palestine and Israel, the Bishops’ seemingly well intentioned words are clichés which the victims of injustice are sick and tired of hearing because they are simply hot air, or cries of “peace, peace, when there is no peace.” Their words are void of meaning and an insult to all those who have a sense of justice and have “eyes to see and ears to hear” the reality of the oppression of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government.
Of course, this is not the first time that people that hold authority in the church and have the power to make a difference and affect change use flimsy logic so that not to act during a critical situation. Obviously the Episcopal Bishops had their reasons. However, from the perspective of the victims of injustice their silence on our conflict is perceived as betrayal. The Bishops in essence took a stand to support the status quo. They refused to see or were unwilling to respond to the dire situation on the ground.
We as Palestinians are daily humiliated by the Israeli forces; our human rights are violated daily; our homes are demolished daily by bulldozers manufactured in the United States; our olive trees are uprooted on a daily basis; our land is confiscated and turned over into illegal settlements daily; our young people languish in Israeli jails with no legal charges or due process for months on end; our teenagers are taken from their beds in the middle of the night and imprisoned by the Israeli army on an average two by night; and the Israeli government continues its daily violations of international law while the nations of the world remain silent. Is this not a Kairos moment for the church to speak a prophetic word of justice?
There are two questions that every bishop needs to answer before God: Who, in his or her opinion, has benefitted from the bishops’ vote, the Palestinians or the Israeli government? And whom did the Episcopal Church USA protect through its vote, the oppressed or the oppressor?
When all is said and done, it is basically fear that prevents Bishops and governments, or for that matter anyone, from taking a stand against the rich and powerful and on behalf of the weak and marginalized. It takes strong leaders with the courage that Jesus Christ and the prophets modeled for us to champion the cause of the oppressed and that is precisely where the church must take its stand. Sadly that did not happen.
I believe this is a shameful breach of our baptismal vows. Our vows are clear: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” Instead of a resounding “yes”, our Bishops’ response was a resounding NO. This is without a doubt how it looks to our Palestinian people including the overwhelming majority of Palestinian Christians. May God have mercy on us! We need to renew and take seriously our baptismal vows.
The bishops’ vote is also a slap in the face of any bishop or any person who has a sense of justice and the courage to take a stand. It is a slap in the face of Archbishop Tutu who has said repeatedly that Israel’s injustice against the Palestinians is worse than apartheid.
In spite of the disheartening Bishops’ vote, I can still give thanks to God for the prophetic voice that was clearly heard from another sister church. The United Church of Christ General Synod was meeting about the same time as the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Thankfully, the UCC Synod by an overwhelming majority voted for boycott and divestment. And last year, the Presbyterian Church and the Quakers took a similar decision. The United Methodist Church has taken an important step in the same direction; and I believe that we will see other denominations following suit.
Indeed, God continues to speak and many faithful people hear God’s call and respond to it. We are certain that the prophetic responsibility will never die and there will always be people who, in faithfulness to God and in love of neighbor will strive “…to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.” People who have a sense of justice know that the movement of history is toward justice in the world. The words of Martin Luther King are pertinent in this regard, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” a lesson our Episcopal bishops need to learn.
The General Convention has also given us a new sign of hope. Indeed, the election of Bishop Michael Curry as the next Presiding Bishop is a sign of hope. We are hoping that his African American background gives him a sense for justice because of the injustices he has been forced to endure. We pray that through his leadership the sun of righteousness and justice will shine again on our Episcopal Church and the prophetic voice will again resound and our church will resurrect the prophetic and will once again, courageously, speak truth to power and the God of love, justice and peace will be glorified.
President of the Sabeel Board
Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre
The unbelievable has happened! The Prime Minister of Israel is on his way to the US to deliver a speech to Congress, and scores of Congressmen and Congresswomen are announcing that they have better things to do than attend the speech!
The vice-President led the boycott, followed by Earl Blumenauer of Oregan, and after that the flood-gates started to open! Admittedly, all the boycotters are Democrats, and their public statements suggest that it’s their loyalty to the President and opposition to the political manoeuvrings of the House Speaker that are motivating them to join the boycott. Even so, such a move would have been unthinkable a few years ago!
Who can forget Netanyahu’s address to Congress where he received 29 standing ovations – more than any US President has ever received. That was in 2011 – only four years ago! Have things really changed that much in four years? In truth, things have changed drastically in the last few years, and it’s not that Congress has wised up. It’s the American people who have wised up, and Congress can’t remain oblivious to the voice of the people forever!
In 2012 Norman Finkelstein published “Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel is Coming to an End”. In it he pointed to enormous shifts in public opinion amongst American Jews who were showing ever-increasing disinterest in the foreign state that claimed their allegiance. Surely the best example of this was the influence the Israeli Prime Minister had on the voting patterns of American Jews in 2012 when he voiced unequivocal support for Obama’s Republican rival. Netanyahu’s interventions apparently made no difference whatsoever!
And what’s true for American Jews is a reflection of the changing tide across the rest of the country. There are exceptions, of course. The Christian right seems to be clinging on as the last bastion of American Zionism. Conversely though, according to the survey referred to in the article below, only 16% of African Americans think their representative should attend the Israeli Prime Minister’s address!
Of course there’s a massive gap between boycotting a talk and seeing the end of the Palestinian Occupation. Even so, it’s a step in the right direction, and we all know that Israel can only ignore world opinion about its treatment of the Palestinian people so long as it has the world’s great super-power unequivocally behind it. But that unequivocal support is equivocating!
The 24 Democrats Who Have Refused to Attend Netanyahu’s Speech to Congress
Their constituents agree.
By Zaid Jilani
When House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) decided to invite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a Joint Session of Congress on Iran in early March, he probably thought it’d go a lot like it did in 2011. That year, Netanyahu received 29 standing ovations – more than President Obama got during his State of the Union that year.
But Obama turned the tables on Netanyahu, refusing to meet with him just two weeks before the Israeli elections. He also announced that his vice president, Joe Biden, would not attend the address.
Shortly after Obama’s objection, Democratic Members of Congress started to announce that they wouldn’t attend the speech, either. The first was Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who wrote in a January 29th Huffington Post column that he will “not participate in a calculated slight from the speaker and the House leadership to attack necessary diplomacy.”
Following Blumenauer’s dissent, a steady string of Democratic Caucus members, mostly in the House but in the Senate as well began to announce that they would not attend the speech. Buoyed by poll numbers showing that many of their constituents agree – a plurality of Americans believe Netanyahu’s speech to be “inappropriate” and only 16 percent of African Americans in particular want to see their Member of Congress attend – more and more members are announcing their refusals to attend nearly every day.
To see the list of 21 House Democrats and three Senate Democratic Caucus members who are so far refusing to attend the speech, see Alternet
The American people, it seems, no longer give unquestioning support to the state of Israel, even though the US government still does
This shift in U.S. public has been laid bare in recent surveys taken in the US. Amongst the most remarkable of the results is the finding that 39 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. should impose sanctions on Israel if they continue to build settlements on Palestinian land!
The following review from ‘The American Conservative’ downplays the significance of the overall results, suggesting that Americans have always preferred their government not to take sides. What the reviewer finds more startling is the fact that Republicans are now far more keen to support to Israel than Democrats.
What I find even more remarkable is a statistic not mentioned in this review – namely, that Evangelical Christians are the only group in the U.S. who still think that Israel’s Jewish character is more important than its democracy (see here)! Even American Jews valued democracy ahead of ethnicity!
U.S. Public Opinion and Israel/Palestine
Shibley Telhami reviews the contents of a recent survey of American views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He finds that most Americans still don’t want the U.S. to take sides:
Consistent with prior years most Americans (64 percent) want the United States to lean toward neither side in the conflict, while 31 percent want it to lean toward Israel. But there is a huge difference between Democrats and Independents, on the one hand, and Republicans on the other. Among Democrats, 77 percent want the United States to lean toward neither side, 17 percent toward Israel, and 6 percent toward the Palestinians; among Republicans, those who want the U.S. to lean toward Israel outnumber those who want it to lean toward neither side, 51 percent-46 percent.
The partisan gap on this question is not all that surprising, but the size of the gap is nonetheless remarkable. Three quarters of Democrats say they don’t want the U.S. to take sides in the conflict, while just over half of Republicans want the U.S. to favor Israel. One would scarcely know that from the way their representatives vote and how their party leaders talk about the U.S. role in the conflict. Despite the fact that nearly two-thirds of Americans have consistently wanted the U.S. to be neutral or even-handed in the conflict for as long as the question has been asked, the U.S. has been overwhelmingly supportive of one side in practice.
Telhami points to another result about Palestinian statehood at the U.N.:
What do Americans recommend if the Palestinians take the issue of statehood to the United Nations? A plurality, 45 percent, advocate abstaining; 27 percent support voting against the resolution; and 25 percent support voting for it. Party differences are large with more Republicans supporting opposing the resolution, but still less than half (46 percent).
In other words, almost half of Americans don’t want the U.S. to take a position, and there are almost as many supporters of such a resolution as there are opponents, but it is virtually guaranteed that the U.S. will vote no. On both of these questions, a large majority doesn’t support backing Israel to the hilt, and yet that is what the U.S. will continue to do. This isn’t news. Polls have been finding the same things for decades. Even so, it is useful to be reminded every so often that U.S. policy on Israel and Palestine is wildly at odds with what most Americans claim to want. When Congress and the administration endorse conventionally “pro-Israel” positions, they are doing the opposite of what most Americans prefer.
Sara Roy is a well-credentialed advocate of the Palestinian cause. Not only is she an academic of high standing but she is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. This makes it difficult for her opponents to dismiss her as an anti-Semite.
What follows is Roy’s response to a statement that appeared in the New York Times, authored by Eli Wiesel, in which the Israeli apologist accuses Hamas of using children as human shields.
A Response to Elie Wiesel
I read your statement about Palestinians, which appeared in The New York Times on August 4th. I cannot help feeling that your attack against Hamas and stunning accusations of child sacrifice are really an attack, carefully veiled but unmistakable, against all Palestinians, their children included. As a child of Holocaust survivors—both my parents survived Auschwitz—I am appalled by your anti-Palestinian position, one I know you have long held. I have always wanted to ask you, why? What crime have Palestinians committed in your eyes? Exposing Israel as an occupier and themselves as its nearly defenseless victims? Resisting a near half century of oppression imposed by Jews and through such resistance forcing us as a people to confront our lost innocence (to which you so tenaciously cling)?
Unlike you, Mr. Wiesel, I have spent a great deal of time in Gaza among Palestinians. In that time, I have seen many terrible things and I must confess I try not to remember them because of the agony they continue to inflict. I have seen Israeli soldiers shoot into crowds of young children who were doing nothing more than taunting them, some with stones, some with just words. I have witnessed too many horrors, more than I want to describe. But I must tell you that the worst things I have seen, those memories that continue to haunt me, insisting never to be forgotten, are not acts of violence but acts of dehumanization.
There is a story I want to tell you, Mr. Wiesel, for I have carried it inside of me for many years and have only written about it once a very long time ago. I was in a refugee camp in Gaza when an Israeli army unit on foot patrol came upon a small baby perched in the sand sitting just outside the door to its home. Some soldiers approached the baby and surrounded it. Standing close together, the soldiers began shunting the child between them with their feet, mimicking a ball in a game of soccer. The baby began screaming hysterically and its mother rushed out shrieking, trying desperately to extricate her child from the soldiers’ legs and feet. After a few more seconds of “play,” the soldiers stopped and walked away, leaving the terrified child to its distraught mother.
Now, I know what you must be thinking: this was the act of a few misguided men. But I do not agree because I have seen so many acts of dehumanization since, among which I must now include yours. Mr. Wiesel, how can you defend the slaughter of over 500 innocent children by arguing that Hamas uses them as human shields? Let us say for the sake of argument that Hamas does use children in this way; does this then justify or vindicate their murder in your eyes? How can any ethical human being make such a grotesque argument? In doing so, Mr. Wiesel, I see no difference between you and the Israeli soldiers who used the baby as a soccer ball. Your manner may differ from theirs—perhaps you could never bring yourself to treat a Palestinian child as an inanimate object—but the effect of your words is the same: to dehumanize and objectify Palestinians to the point where the death of Arab children, some murdered inside their own homes, no longer affects you. All that truly concerns you is that Jews not be blamed for the children’s savage destruction.
Despite your eloquence, it is clear that you believe only Jews are capable of loving and protecting their children and possess a humanity that Palestinians do not. If this is so, Mr. Wiesel, how would you explain the very public satisfaction among many Israelis over the carnage in Gaza—some assembled as if at a party, within easy sight of the bombing, watching the destruction of innocents, entertained by the devastation? How are these Israelis different from those people who stood outside the walls of the Jewish ghettos in Poland watching the ghettos burn or listening indifferently to the gunshots and screams of other innocents within—among them members of my own family and perhaps yours—while they were being hunted and destroyed?
You see us as you want us to be and not as many of us actually are. We are not all insensate to the suffering we inflict, acceding to cruelty with ease and calm. And because of you, Mr. Wiesel, because of your words—which deny Palestinians their humanity and deprive them of their victimhood—too many can embrace our lack of mercy as if it were something noble, which it is not. Rather, it is something monstrous.
Sara Roy is a senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University.