Hundreds of participants are gathering in Bethlehem this week for the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, which will address the ongoing and detrimental role of Christian Zionism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This conference, which has been labelled ‘anti-Semitic’ and an ‘Evangelical Intifada’ by the Israeli right and American Christian Zionists, is the second of its kind since 2010, and seeks to ‘Challenge [global] evangelicals to take responsibility to help resolve the conflicts in Israel-Palestine by engaging with the teaching of Jesus on the Kingdom of God’.
As President of the Bethlehem Bible College, Dr. Jack Sara explained, ‘A lot of the Christian world does not know of the existence of Palestinian Christians who live in Palestine and Israel and who are suffering because of the conflict.’ Not only is there a lack of awareness of the Palestinian Christians themselves, but the community also faces the uphill battle of trying to combat a Christian Zionist ideology which, according to Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, ‘attempts to make us [Palestinian Christians] invisible, to turn us into the negated antithesis of God’s ‘chosen people’.
The Christian Zionist perspective also has widespread acceptance among American evangelicals – who are amongst Israel’s staunchest supporters - with roughly 82% of the American evangelical community supporting the view that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews (nearly twice the percentage of American Jews who supported the same statement).
There is an obvious incentive for Israel to protect the Christian Zionist perspective; not only does the state benefit from its ties to the American leadership, but it also wants to protect its multibillion tourism industry – a large portion of which is supported by Christian pilgrims. However, the perspectives of the indigenous Arab Christian community, who are directly affected by Israeli policy, are largely ignored by both the State of Israel and Christian Zionist community.
Paradoxically, however, the Israeli and American right often use Arab Christian persecution in the Middle East as ‘proof’ of the region’s sectarian undercurrents, often claiming that the State of Israel is a shelter for Arab Christians. In this way the conversation is misdirected away from Israeli encroachments in the West Bank, like the ‘security wall’, in all its grave impact on the local economy and freedom of movement in Palestinian Christian villages. However, Palestinian Christians have continued to voice their opposition to what they see as an oppressive occupation, supported by a discriminatory interpretation of the Bible on the part of the Christian Zionists.
Christian Zionism and the Palestinian Christians
Many in the Palestinian Christian leadership first became aware of the Christian Zionist perspective in the late 1960s in the bible colleges of Europe and the United States. They were often confronted with animosity when they described the dire situation of their Palestinian community to their American and European peers. The 1967 War and subsequent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip emboldened Christian Zionists, who viewed the war as proof that God stood with Israel and was fulfilling biblical prophecies to speed up the return of Jesus.
This prophetic belief is based on the perspective of dispensationalism, which views history as a series of distinct periods, with the second coming of Christ occurring only when the Jews have returned to the Holy Land and converted to Christianity. After the 1967 War, and partly due to the popularity of conservative evangelical preachers like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, the Christian Zionist perspective grew in popularity amongst American evangelicals. The Palestinian evangelical community, disheartened by this perspective, responded by re-examining the fundamentals of their views on the New Testament. As Rev. Ateek writes, Palestinian evangelical leaders wanted to know exactly how western Christians were able to ‘justify the conquest of our land’ based upon the same Biblical sources that they were reading.
In 1990 the Palestinian Christian leadership organised the First International Symposium on Palestinian Liberation Theology in which they expressed their desire to create a theology that counters that of the Christian Zionists – one that contains a ‘redemptive message for us and for all people’, says Rev. Ateek.
Outreach and activism
After three decades of activism on the part of Palestine’s Christian community through the preaching of non-violence at home and outreach towards the global Christian community abroad, the struggle with Christian Zionism and demographic decline continues. In recent years, there have been a growing number of documentaries, news stories and conferences focusing on the plight of the Palestinian Christians. However, they have also faced considerable opposition from the State of Israel.
In 2010, the popular American news programme 60 Minutes travelled to the West Bank and Israel to film a documentary about the Palestinian Christians – focusing mainly on the issue of demographic decline in the community. The documentary was unique in that it gave voice to the Palestinian clergy and laity on a scale previously unseen in the American media landscape. However, days before the piece was set to air, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, contacted the head of the CBS network urging him shut the piece down. CBS declined Ambassador Oren’s request and decided instead to show both the documentary, and an inflammatory interview that 60 Minutes’ anchor Bob Simon had with Ambassador Oren in which Oren called the documentary an ‘outrageous hatchet job’.
The 2013 documentary The Stones Cry Out, which also focuses on the Palestinian Christian community, has been similarly vilified by the Israeli right as a ‘misrepresentation of the plight of Palestinian Christians’. Incidentally, there has been no condemnation of either documentary from the Palestinian Christian community itself and the ongoing outreach through conferences like Christ at the Checkpoint shows that this is a community not easily deterred by propaganda.
Hope for the future?
The relative success of the Liberation Theology movement is reflected in the growing unease and defensiveness of the Israeli right. The Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs reported that the younger generation of American evangelicals are becoming increasingly sympathetic to what it describes as ‘anti-Israeli narratives’. Whilst many on the right have suggested that this is because the current generation are not as aware of the Holocaust narrative as their predecessors, the organisers of Christ at the Checkpoint, suggest that it is simply because American evangelicals are, for the first time, actually hearing the Palestinian Christian narrative.
The Bethlehem Bible College, who are hosting the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, was recently visited by the American Special Advisor to the US Secretary of State for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, who discussed the importance of such events for the promotion of peace. To which a JPost blogger responded, ‘Give us a break…Christ at the Checkpoint is pure anti-Israel, anti-Zionist…dangerous and invidious’. To me this reflects the ongoing pressures that the Israeli right are feeling in the wake of a growing BDS movement and declining power of AIPAC. They are beginning to lose the public relations battle and they know it.
There is nothing remotely anti-Semitic about a group of Christians getting together to speak about their lives and their faith. In fact, according to its organiser, Christ at the Checkpoint will not ‘be adopting a victimization mentality’ but will rather focus on the fact that the Palestinian Christians are ‘a living, hopeful culture that is looking forward despite all of the challenges’ it faces. In other words, they simply want to be heard.
A final, and particularly striking comment was made by Rev. Ateek’s in his 2010 address to the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, ‘Jesus was a Palestinian who was born under occupation. Jesus lived under occupation. Everything he taught, everything he said was done under occupation, exactly the way we live today.’