Who is our neighbor? US churches’ role regarding Israel and Palestine

Peter Makari writes about the role U.S. churches play in Israel/Palestine and the difficulty of balancing interfaith relationships with advocacy.

Amid extensive coverage of the war in Ukraine and receding reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic, news from Israel/Palestine has once again been fraught with tragic scenes of attacks on Israelis in several cities as well as the Israeli government’s countermeasures to maximize alertness and prevent further incident.

Inevitably, these reports have highlighted the convergence of Ramadan, Passover, Holy Week and Easter as Muslims, Jews and Christians commemorate high holidays over the same few weeks, imbuing the region – and events there – with higher meaning. Israel and Palestine, together referred to as the Holy Land, inspire passion and sentiments of affinity among people of all three faiths around the world. The places and connections are indeed unique. The scriptural texts and traditions of the Abrahamic faiths arouse deep feelings of familiarity and layers of interpretation emerge.

But what of the people who live there, who go to school and work there, who call Jerusalem and Bethlehem and neighboring towns home? What do we know of their routine experience? For residents of Israel/Palestine, the violence of occupation continues daily, even if less visible to the world. Can we think of Palestinian voices as belonging to our neighbors, even if they are thousands of miles away? Making space for those voices, increasingly available to us through various news outlets and social media, is essential in having faithful conversations on Israel and Palestine — an enduring global issue of our time.

Centuries of rich religious history and life in Israel/Palestine mean that their decadeslong conflict is often couched in religious terms. That framing sometimes portrays the two predominant religious communities – Jews and Muslims – in an eternal and unresolvable struggle. That approach not only sets aside those periods of history in which conviviality has been more prevalent in the region but also marginalizes or dismisses entirely the Christian presence and witness in Israel/Palestine. Even when the narrative considers Christians, it often expects them to play a mediating role. Such a role assumes disinterested impartiality, when in fact Palestinian Christian communities have experienced occupation and dispossession along with the broader population of Israel/Palestine.

U.S. churches, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), have actively advocated for a just peace in Israel/Palestine. Presbyterians have a two-century history of mission engagement in the region, including, specifically, Israel and Palestine. That mission engagement has meant we have direct access to perspectives that are not often available to us through traditional news outlets. Such engagement is not unique to the Presbyterian Church, as U.S. ecumenical partners enjoy relationships in Israel/Palestine and advocate for peace and justice as well.

The recent history of U.S. church policy debates and of public witness on Israel/Palestine has been contentious at times, both within the churches and beyond. In this work, an inherent tension surfaces. On the one hand, we are called to honor commitments to nurture interfaith relationships — particularly commitments with American Jewish friends and partners with whom mainline Christians have been allied locally and nationally through dialogue and domestic social justice causes for decades. On the other hand, we bring to bear the church’s moral voice in calling for justice in Israel/Palestine by responding to the often urgent cries of our Palestinian Christian partners. 

In the last two decades, a few major topics have put these two interests – interfaith relationship commitments versus support for Christian partners – at odds. For instance, endorsing economic measures such as boycotts, divestments and sanctions, calling to limit U.S. military aid to Israel, focusing on a rights-based approach rather than a two-state solution, and raising concerns over discrimination and the systemic violations of human rights, including whether to name Israeli policies as apartheid, are all responses by U.S. churches that have drawn criticism mainly from supporters of Israel. At the same time, they have been welcomed and appreciated by Palestinian Christians among others.

For many U.S. churches, these approaches are neither new nor specific to the case of Israel/Palestine. In July 2005, civil society in Israel/Palestine, including some Palestinian Christian organizations, called for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) measures to compel Israel to comply with international law and principles of human rights. At its 2004 General Assembly, the PC(USA) had already issued a statement calling for “phased selective divestment” from multinational corporations that were operating in Israel as a way to press for the end of the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. A year later, in its General Synod’s “Resolution Concerning Use of Economic Leverage in Promoting Peace in the Middle East,” the United Church of Christ called for the use of economic leverage to promote peace. Both actions preceded the call of Palestinian civil society, and both were consistent with previous examples of churches’ use of economic measures to promote justice. Such measures included support for farmworkers through boycotts, shareholder activism through the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility to promote socially responsible practices by corporations, divestment from fossil fuel companies to promote climate justice and – most notably, internationally – divestment from companies that operated in apartheid-era South Africa. Today, governments and corporations are using robust BDS measures as leverage to hold the Russian government accountable for its invasion of Ukraine and violations of international law. Economic measures have worked in other cases, and Palestinians – including Palestinian Christian partners – have called for this nonviolent action by the international community.

Churches’ use of economic leverage has not been limited to corporations, either. In promoting compliance with international law and advocating against U.S. military complicity in wars and violations of people’s rights, churches and religious organizations have for a long time supported reducing the U.S. defense budget and ending U.S. involvement in wars around the world. As one example, 54 religious organizations cosigned a 2021 letter to U.S. representatives protesting U.S. involvement in the war and blockade in Yemen – one the world’s largest humanitarian crises today – where the United States has provided arms and military aid to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition. 

Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid, currently in the fourth year of a 10-year agreement that sends Israel $3.8 billion of military aid annually. This agreement followed the disbursement of $31 billion over the previous decade. In an October 2012 letter, 15 U.S. churches and religious organizations, including the PC(USA), called Congress to make U.S. military aid to Israel conditional, urging “an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act and the U.S. Arms Export Control Act which respectively prohibit assistance to any country which engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations.” It is deeply troubling when Palestinians show pieces of munitions that have destroyed homes, communities and lives and are marked “made in USA.” Currently, churches support H.R. 2590, a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would prohibit the use of U.S. taxpayer funds in the mistreatment of Palestinian children in military detention, in the seizure or destruction of property in Palestine, and in illegal Israeli annexation of Palestinian lands. The bill upholds international law.

Some U.S. churches and church agencies are also reexamining support for the two-state solution, recognizing that the conditions on the ground, enabled by consecutive U.S. administrations, have changed so much over the years that such a solution may no longer be practicable. Israeli settlement construction and expansion is the primary hindrance to a viable Palestinian state, with now more than 700,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The continuing annexation of land and demolition of Palestinian homes, with the United States offering no effective opposition to these steps, render a future Palestinian state less and less possible. Israeli settler violence toward Palestinians is a regular and frequent occurrence, with no accountability even when Israeli soldiers are nearby. To consider a shift from a prescriptive approach to a rights-based approach, 15 churches and religious agencies affirmed the principles of peace, justice and equality in a 2017 document titled “Toward Peace, Justice, and Equality in Israel and Palestine,” which stated, “Regardless of the underlying political governance structures, equal rights and opportunities must be assured for all people in the region — not someday based on an idea of future negotiations, but as a fundamental human right today.” This approach seeks to address the current needs and rights of people who continue to be victimized by policies, including those living in Israel/Palestine, as well as refugees and their descendants who still have not had their rights respected. A rights-based approach echoes the commitments of churches to promote equal civil rights in the United States, a movement that Palestinians have taken as a model to assert their own rights.

Most recently, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem (January 2021), Human Rights Watch (April 2021), and Amnesty International (February 2022) have issued significant reports labeling Israeli policies and practices toward Palestinians as apartheid. Michael Lynk, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Israel/Palestine, used the label “apartheid” in his March 2022 report as well. These reports are significant due to the credibility and thoroughness of the organizations. But Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians, have been invoking the apartheid framework for at least two decades, focusing on the international legal definition of the term. And ironically, the word Israel uses to describe the barrier or wall it began to construct in 2002 is hafrada, which means “separation” and approximates the term “apartheid” (in Afrikaans, “separation” or “apartness”). The International Court of Justice found the construction of the barrier on occupied Palestinian land to be illegal in 2004.

Churches have been consistent in listening to Palestinian partners who live with the impacts of Israeli policy daily. In doing so, churches sometimes draw criticism from longtime friends and allies who support Israel. Commitments to supporting interreligious relations and opposing anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry and discrimination based on faith identity (including theologies such as Christian Zionism) remain rock-solid. Some churches clearly differentiate between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israeli policies in asserting their witness on Israel/Palestine, recognizing that multiple voices and views invariably emerge within any community, including Jewish communities (including those in the United States and in Israel). For instance, the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the PC(USA) released the statement “Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) remains committed to peace for Israelis and Palestinians” in 2014 explaining, “Our church has categorically condemned anti-Semitism in all its forms, including the refusal to acknowledge the legal existence of the State of Israel. At the same time, we believe that condemnation of injustices perpetrated in the name of the State of Israel, including the violation of human rights, does not constitute anti-Semitism.”

As churches continue to speak on matters with moral and theological conviction – domestically and globally, including Israel/Palestine – members should consider differences in power and access. Members should be attentive to how the media presents issues, recognizing how dominant narratives, discriminatory stereotypes and persistent ideas influence our analysis. Finally, members must draw on the unique access that church relationships, through missional engagement, provide to different voices and perspectives. Those relationships can help remind our churches that our neighbors are not always immediately obvious, but they are our neighbors nonetheless.