SHAIK: An Open Wound: The Israel-Palestine conflict as a driver of interfaith discord November 16, 2009

Religious discord copy

by Michael Shaik, Public Advocate for Australians for Palestine


The purpose of this paper is to examine the challenge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to those wishing to promote interfaith understanding between Jews, Christians and Muslims. After providing a brief sketch of the current situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the paper will describe the roles of Israel’s religious settler movement in the ‘redemption of the land’, the ‘Christian right’ in supporting Israel’s colonisation of Palestinian lands and of radical Islamic Jihadist organisations in exploiting the conflict to radicalise other Muslims. The paper will conclude with an examination of how initiatives seeking to promote interfaith understanding and Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation can founder because of a reluctance on the part of those involved to ‘take sides’.

The thesis of this paper is that interfaith initiatives that unequivocally oppose the structural violence of colonisation and dispossession that lie at the root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have the potential to transform the Holy Land from a theatre of ethnic and religious conflict into a land in which Jews, Christians and Muslims co-exist in a spirit of fruitful cooperation.  Conversely, those initiatives that are not rooted in a commitment to justice can actually serve to perpetuate the structures of oppression that lie at the root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

William Butler Yeats
The Second Coming


This paper has its origins at a forum I attended last year at Monash University’s Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation.  The subject of the forum was “Jews, Muslims and Other People Like Us” and its keynote speaker was Dr. Waleed Aly, a lecturer at Monash’s Global Terrorism Research Centre and member of the Islamic Council of Victoria’s Executive Committee.  As Australia’s most famous Muslim intellectual, Dr. Aly makes frequent appearances in the Australian media, was commended in the 2005 Walkley Awards for Excellence in Journalism in the category of Commentary, Analysis, Opinion and Critique and was selected to participate in this year’s Australia 2020 Summit to help shape a long term strategy for Australia’s future.

The central theses of Dr Aly’s lecture were that the things that unite the religions of Judaism and Islam were greater than the things that divide them, that the religion of Islam was essentially a tolerant religion and that the hostility of some Muslims towards Judaism and other faiths was a consequence of arrogance and ignorance, rather than being rooted in Islamic doctrine.  The message was warmly received by the audience and, I imagine, regarded by most as an example of how interfaith dialogue can promote tolerance by breaking down the barriers of prejudice and ignorance that have divided Jews and Muslims in Australia, but I could not help feeling that Dr Aly had ignored the elephant in the room.

“You’ve talked for more than an hour on relations between Jews and Muslims, but not once have you said the words ‘Israel’ or ‘Palestine’.  Is this because you think that they are irrelevant to your topic or because you are trying not to offend anyone?” I asked during the question time that followed his presentation.

Dr. Aly replied that the reason for the omission was twofold.  Firstly, he didn’t know a great deal about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Secondly, the subject of his book was People Like Us: how arrogance is dividing Islam and the West and he didn’t believe that the conflict was a major source of division between Islam and the West.

It’s a comfortable narrative.  As arguably the most controversial conflict in the world today, any discussion of the Israel-Palestine conflict in an interfaith forum is almost certain to provoke a clash of passionately-held opinions.  Rather than raise such a divisive issue, one might argue, is it not both more tactful and expedient to promote interfaith understanding by comparing the common doctrines of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and their shared Abrahamic heritage?

In this paper I propose to demonstrate that in failing to seriously engage with the causes, dynamics and ideologies of hatred that are driving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, those seeking to promote interfaith understanding are actually abetting the work of extremists among all three Abrahamic faiths for whom the conflict has become a cause célèbre.   In so doing I intend to provide a brief sketch of the current situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories before describing the role of Israel’s religious settler movement in the ‘redemption of the land’.

Having described the internal dynamics of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, I then intend to examine the role of the ‘Christian Right’ in exacerbating the conflict and of radical Islamic Jihadist organisations in exploiting it to radicalise other Muslims.  Although I am not of the opinion that there exists a short to medium term solution to the conflict, I intend to conclude this paper with a discussion of how those who are sincerely seeking to promote peace and understanding among all faiths can work towards its peaceful resolution.

The Redemption of the Land

‘The four great powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-old tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder impact than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit this ancient land,’ wrote the British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour with regard to Palestine in 1918.

Thirty years later the state of Israel was born amid a frenzy of ethnic violence that Palestinians refer to as a-Nakba:  the great catastrophe in which Zionist militias methodically purged the cities of Haifa, Acre, Jaffa, Tiberias and West Jerusalem and more than 500 Palestinian towns and villages of their indigenous populations.

This year world leaders and elder statesmen including George Bush, Angela Merkel, Nicholas Sarkozy, Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev, Rupert Murdoch, Henry Kissinger and the presidents of Ukraine, Albania, Latvia, Poland, Rwanda, Georgia, Croatia, Slovenia and Burkina Faso gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Israel’s sixtieth birthday.  No one who listened to their speeches would have guessed that Jerusalem is a city divided by a wall that Israel is building in defiance of the United Nations and that Palestinian residents living east of the wall have to wade through a sewerage pipe to get to their schools and jobs and to visit sick relatives.   No one would guess that, while Palestinian homes throughout East Jerusalem were being demolished, new neighbourhoods for Jews were being built alongside their ruins.   Nor would anyone have imagined that Israel is building a ‘Museum of Tolerance’, the purpose of which is to promote understanding between Judaism and other world religions on the site of the country’s oldest Muslim cemetery.

Israel’s present needs and future hopes continue to be paramount, while the “desires and prejudices” of more than ten million Palestinians living as second-class Israeli citizens, as non-citizens under Israeli occupation or as refugees forbidden from returning to the homes from which they were expelled remain out of sight and off the agenda.

In conventional terms, the Zionist conquest of Palestine took place in two phases:  the first in Israel’s 1948 “War of Independence” when Zionist militias established the state of Israel on 78% of the British Mandatory Palestine and the second in 1967 when Israel completed the conquest by overrunning the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.  For Israel, however, the “redemption of the land” is not merely a process whereby one regime seizes control over a given territory from another but is inextricably bound up with the process of colonising Palestinian lands with Jewish settlements.  As Matityahu Drobles explained in the World Zionist Organisation’s Master Plan for the Development of Settlement in Judea and Samaria in 1980:

In the light of the current negotiations for the future of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], it will become necessary for us to conduct a race against time….  It is therefore significant to stress today, by means of actions, that autonomy does not and will not apply to the territories but only to the Arab population thereof.  This should mainly find expression by establishing facts on the ground.  Therefore, the state-owned lands and uncultivated barren lands in Judea and Samaria ought to be seized right away… so to reduce to a minimum the danger of an additional Arab state being established in these territories….  There mustn’t even be a shadow of a doubt about our intention to keep the territories of Judea and Samaria for good.

In order to understand the nature of Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories, it is important to understand that they are not merely innocent Jewish communities built on lands that have been confiscated from their Palestinian owners.  Settlements are a weapon, the primary purpose of which, as Drobles noted, is to foreclose the possibility of a viable and independent Palestinian state and the secondary purpose of which is to encourage what the Israelis refer to as the “voluntary transfer” of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories.
As the accompanying map illustrates, the settlements have been deliberately built to surround Palestinian communities, hem them in (especially in the Jerusalem area where they have been built to prevent the expansion of Palestinian neighbourhoods), and break up the territorial continuity of the West Bank.  In this respect one of the more ingenious features of the settlements are the “bypass roads”, which Palestinians are barred from using.  In his article,  “Settlements: a User’s Guide”, the Israeli-American journalist Gabriel Ash described the effect of these roads:

“Between August 1994 and September 1996, 4,386 dunam of private land (there are about 4.5 dunams per acre) were confiscated for the purpose of constructing seventeen “bypass” roads.  Roads are long and wide and their trajectory can be shifted here and there to achieve maximum impact in terms of houses that must be demolished, orchards that need to be uprooted, and growth that can be stifled.  Used properly, a road is a weapon of mass destruction.  For example, road 447, which shortens the trip to the Settlement of Ariel by a full five minutes, ‘necessitated’ uprooting one thousand olive trees and confiscating 75 dunams from residents of the two Palestinian villages which Ariel targets.  In addition, every roads that connects two Jewish settlements doubles as a road that separates two Palestinian towns.

As well as land and roads, the settlements also require water, which Israel provides by taking water from neighbouring Palestinians communities.  According to the World Health Organisation, when one takes into account domestic use and the consumption of hospitals, schools, businesses and other public institutions, a healthy community requires 100 litres of water per person per day.  Per capita water consumption in Israeli cities is 235 litres a day and 214 litres in local councils, while Palestinians in the West Bank are forced to survive on an average of 68 litres per person.   Moreover, because Palestinians are charged three times more than Jews for the water they use, they are, in effect, being forced to subsidise Israeli consumption.”

To quote Ash again;

“In this manner, the land becomes a palimpsest, in which every act of civil engineering is also its opposite, an act of war:  roads increase the distance between people, building houses lead to overcrowding, laying down water pipes creates water shortages, etc.  All aspects of human existence are turned into weaponry.  Even the sewerage the settlement produces is a weapon against downhill Palestinian towns.   Every feature of the landscape appears doubly, with a plus sign in the Jewish ecology and a minus sign in the Palestinian one.”

The Religious Settler Movement

Israel’s shock troops in the redemption of the land are the members of its fundamentalist settler movement.

Although the origins of the movement can be traced to the teachings of the Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who taught in 1920 that the future Jewish state in Palestine would be a divine entity that would prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, its beginnings as a political force in Israeli politics can be traced to the September 1967 when Kook’s latter-day disciples crossed into the newly occupied Palestinian territories to establish the Jewish settlement of Kfar Etzion.  In 1974, after organising a series of huge demonstrations against US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s ‘shuttle diplomacy’ to promote an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, these disciples united to form the Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), an activist organisation dedicated to the settlement of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

In their comprehensive study of the rise of Israel’s fundamentalist settler movement, Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar describe the ideology of the Gush Emunim in the following terms:

The basic ideas of the Gush Emunim – which were founded on the holy trinity of the Jewish people, the Land of Israel, and the Torah, and the essence of which was the commandment, breakable only on pain of death, of settlement in all the territories of the Land of Israel – were drawn, as noted, from the philosophies of the elder and the younger [Rabbi Zvi Yehuda] Kook.  If the establishment of the state was a great and important step in the redemptive process, which began with the modern return to Zion, the conquest of the territories beyond the Green Line and the unification of Jerusalem in 1967 were an additional, earth-shaking change in the messianic process.

In dealing with the Palestinians, whose ancestors had inhabited and tended the land for generations, Gush Emunim turned to the Book of Joshua for inspiration:

‘Jewish morality’ prohibited expulsion except in times of war, so the best course of action would be to bring about large-scale emigration through the deliberate creation of economic distress in the West Bank and Gaza.  At every Gush settlement rank-and-file members would express similar views, Elyakim Haetzni, of Kiryat Arba, said that it was ‘not necessary to throw bombs into the casbah or expel the Arabs.  There is nothing wrong, however, with making their life difficult in the hope that they will emigrate.’

In 2007 B’Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and The Association of Civil Rights in Israel made the following observations in a joint report on how this program is being carried out in the West Bank town of Hebron:

Over the years, settlers in the city have routinely abused the city’s Palestinian residents, sometimes using extreme violence.  Throughout the second intifada, settlers have committed physical assaults, including beatings, at times with clubs, stone throwing, and hurling of refuse, sand, water, chlorine, and empty bottles.  Settlers have destroyed shops and doors, committed thefts, and chopped down fruit trees.  Settlers have also been involved in gunfire, attempts to run people over, poisoning of a water well, breaking into homes, spilling of hot liquid on the face of a Palestinian, and the killing of a young Palestinian girl.

Soldiers are generally positioned on every street corner in and near the settlement points, but in most cases they do nothing to protect Palestinians from the settlers’ attacks.  The police also fail to properly enforce the law, and rarely bring the assailants to justice.  By failing to respond appropriately to settler violence in Hebron, the authorities in effect sanction the settlers’ violent acts.  These acts, in addition to being severe, have also contributed to the “quiet transfer” of thousands of Palestinians from the City Center.

According to the report at least 1,014 Palestinian housing units in Hebron have been abandoned and 1,829 commercial establishments forced to close as part of this transfer.

Israel’s Allies for Armageddon

The settlers’ allies in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine are the congregations of politically active Christian Zionists who believe that the “ingathering” of Jews into the “Land of Israel” (all of Israel/Palestine) is a precondition for the second coming of Christ.  In her book Allies for Armageddon, Victoria Clark notes that the origins of Christian Zionism precede those of modern “Jewish” Zionism and can be traced to the seventeenth century.  Indeed, the critical decision of Lloyd George and his foreign minister Balfour to patronise the Zionist movement stemmed from their religious predisposition towards the “return” of the Jews to Palestine.   Harry Truman’s decision to ignore the advice of the State Department and his redoubtable Secretary of State, General George Marshall (who threatened to resign in protest), in backing the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine can also be traced to his Christian Zionist inclinations.

The emergence of the Christian Zionists as an organised political force in US politics, however, did not begin until the late 1970s when Menachem Begin, alarmed by signs that President Carter might be about to support the formation of a Palestinian state, began to court America’s ‘Christian right’.  The assiduous nature of this courtship and its immediate success is recorded by Clarke:

Israel offered hundreds of American pastors free ‘familiarisation tours’ to Israel, during which they were flattered by the attentions of leading politicians and high-ranking figures in defence and intelligence, and fêted at banquets, Lindsey, Falwell, Robertson, Hagee and Missler all owe their cosy relations with the highest echelons of the Likud Party – and now Kadima too – to this thirty-year-old charm offensive.

Prime Minister Begin rated Jerry Falwell especially highly, once calling him ‘the man who represents twenty million Americans’.  On an all expenses-paid visit to Israel in 1978, Falwell was flown by helicopter over the Golan Heights and photographed on bended knee, among saplings in a forest named in his honour.  A year later… he was back in Israel.  Surrounded by West Bank settlers, he pledged his moral support for the building of more settlements and said God had only been kind to America because ‘America has been kind to the Jew’.  In 1980 all these services earned him the first Vladimir Jabotinsky medal ever awarded to a Gentile.

Today 31 percent of Americans either ‘strongly believe’ or ‘believe’ that Israel must have all of the ‘promised land’ in order to facilitate the second coming.   Pilgrimages by Christian Zionists form an important pillar of Israel’s tourism industry – an industry that Israel is endeavouring to boost with a planned bible theme park that aims to attract a projected market of a million evangelicals a year.
Yet support for Israel’s tourism industry is the least of the services that Christian Zionists perform for Israel.  As the influential televangelist Pat Roberton noted in 1990: ‘With the apathy that exists today, a small, well-organised minority can influence the selection of candidates to an astonishing degree.’

To fully describe the influence this well-organised minority brings to bear on American politics would be beyond the scope of this paper, for its activism is not limited to Israel but includes abortion, homosexuality and the teaching of creationism in schools.  Moreover, its links with America’s pro-Israeli ‘Jewish lobby’ are so tight that it is difficult to be sure where the one ends and the other begins.

Its track record of success, however, is undeniable.  To cite only one example: on March 29 2002 Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield, in which the Israeli military invaded almost all of the areas ceded to the Palestinian Authority during the Oslo Peace Process.  The operation was met with armed Palestinian resistance in Nablus and Jenin, which in turn provoked punitive house demolitions in the Nablus Casbah and the razing of the Jenin refugee camp.   On April 4, realising that Defensive Shield would undermine American efforts to secure Muslim support for the War on Terror, President Bush demanded that Israel ‘halt the incursions and begin withdrawal.’  On April 6, when it was clear that Ariel Sharon was ignoring him, he stated that ‘withdrawal means without delay.’  The following day Condoleezza Rice explained to reporters that ‘“without delay” means without delay.  It means now.’

On April 10, while Secretary of State Colin Powell was in Israel endeavouring to restrain Sharon, the well-organised minority went into action:

Tom DeLay [the House Majority Leader and self-described Christian Zionist]… and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott visited the White House on April 10 and personally warned Bush to back off.  On the following day, according to Time magazine, “a group of Evangelical leaders led by the Reverend Jerry Falwell and former presidential candidate Gary Bauer sent Bush a letter demanding that the Administration ‘end pressure’ on Sharon to withdraw from the West Bank.  After Falwell adjured his followers to do the same, the White House was flooded with calls and emails.  The next day, sources say, senior presidential aides phoned Falwell to reassure him that Bush stood behind Sharon.”

The first external sign that Bush was caving came that same day (April 11) – only one week after he insisted Sharon withdraw his forces – when Ari Fleischer said that the president believed that Sharon was “a man of peace.”  Bush publicly repeated this statement on April 18 on Powell’s return from his abortive mission, and the president also told reporters that Sharon had responded satisfactorily to his call for a full and immediate withdrawal.  Sharon had done no such thing, but Bush was no longer willing to make an issue of it.  Israel announced the formal end of Defensive Shield on April 21, but IDF forces remained in many Palestinian areas, and significant elements of the Israeli control regime are still in force today.

Al-Qaeda and the Palestinians

How large does the issue of Palestine loom on al-Qaeda’s agenda?

If sympathy is measured in terms of actual practical assistance, then the attitude of Bin Laden and his mentor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, would seem to be one of indifference.  In 1995 al-Zawahiri replied to those who urged him to cease killing his fellow Muslims and instead help the Palestinians in their struggle against Israel by declaring that ‘Jerusalem will not be liberated unless the battle for Egypt and Algeria is won and unless Egypt is liberated.’   In 2005 he ranked al-Qaeda’s goals, in order of importance, as follows:

The First Stage: Expel the Americans from Iraq.
The Second Stage: Establish an Islamic authority or emirate, then develop it and support it until it achieves the level of a caliphate – over as much territory as you can to spread its power in Iraq, i.e., in Sunni areas, in order to fill the void stemming from the departure of the Americans.
The Third Stage: Extend the jihad wave to the secular countries neighbouring Iraq.
The Fourth Stage: It may coincide with what comes before; the clash with Israel, because Israel was established only to challenge any new Islamic unity.

Clearly, al-Zawahiri does not regard the ‘clash with Israel’ as a high priority in comparison to the establishment of a new caliphate.  Nor does he seem particularly moved by the Palestinians’ circumstances.  Israel is the enemy, not because of its treatment of the Palestinians, but because it is a challenge to ‘Islamic unity’.

The issue, however, is not Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri’s concern or lack thereof for the Palestinians but to their capacity to exploit the issue of Palestine to radicalise Muslims.  In his study of radical Islamist movements Journey of the Jihadist, Fawaz Gerges makes the following observation regarding the issue of Palestine:

The truth is that Arabs. – not just Islamists – thought that American politicians had stabbed the Palestinians in the back, sacrificing them to placate the powerful Jewish community believed to dominate American political life.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has shaped the perception of Arabs and Muslims toward America far more than anything else.  On this score there exists no differences between Islamists and secularists, leftists and conservatives; all blame America for tipping the balance in favour of the Jewish state.

Not surprisingly, every Islamist and jihadist I have ever interviewed has made a point of condemning America’s policies towards Israel.  In his “Letter to America” published in the British Observer on November 24, 2002, after being posted on Al Qaeda’s Web site on October 14 2002, bin Laden tried to explain to Americans why he had launched his attacks on them.  Palestine topped his list of grievances.  “The creation and continuation of Israel is one of the greatest crimes, and you are the leaders of its criminals…  It brings us both laughter and tears to see that you have not yet tired of repeating your fabricated lies that the Jews have a historical right to Palestine, as it was promised to them in the Torah.”  Bin Laden’s opinion is widely shared by those who denounce his violent methods.

Though the extent to which such feelings give rise to actual support for militant Islamist movements is impossible to measure, Bin Laden clearly believes that denouncing America for its patronage of Israel does al-Qaeda no harm.  Following Israel’s assassination of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, he recorded a message that was broadcast on Arab television networks vowing to take revenge on America (not Israel).


This paper opened with a verse from Yeats’ The Second Coming, in which he denounced the best as lacking all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.  So far, I have confined my examination of Jewish, Christian and Islamic attitudes towards the Israel-Palestine conflict to ‘the worst’ of all three faiths and the ‘passionate intensity’ with which they are either prosecuting their war against the Palestinians or exploiting their suffering to promote their own unholy agendas.

What then, should be said of ‘the best’ – those Jews, Christians and Muslims who understand that their common Maker is a God of justice and peace and whose faith obliges them to stand with the downtrodden and denounce iniquity in all its forms, especially when it shamelessly wraps itself in the mantle of religion?

‘We are aware that the Israeli Government is very sensitive over suggestions that it treats Palestinians the way the South African Government has treated black South Africans,’ said Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1989, when comparisons of South Africa and Israel were still taboo.  ‘But our faith compels us to state what we perceive to be the truth and to speak up for justice everywhere, whether in South Africa, the rest of Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe or China….  Denouncing injustice is for us a religious duty and not a political act.’
In recent years similar denunciations of Israel’s colonisation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories have been made by numerous human rights advocates, the most prominent being the former US president Jimmy Carter.   Among Church leaders, however, few indeed have demonstrated either the courage or honesty to follow Archbishop Tutu’s example.

This year the National Council of Churches in Australia (NCCA) presented a “Christian perspective” on the conflict, declaring that it:

1.  Recognises the special interest of Christians in the Holy Land as the homeland of Jesus Christ and the birthplace of the Church, the special interest of Jews in the Holy Land as the Biblical “promised land”, and the special interest of Muslims in the Holy Land as one of the sacred places visited by the prophet Muhammad.
2.  Affirms the right of the state of Israel to exist, and to exist within secure internationally-recognised borders, without the threat of terrorist attacks from Palestinians or from any others, and without threats to its existence from any other state.
3.  Affirms the right of the people of Palestine to be freed from more than 40 years of military occupation by Israel, to live within secure internationally-recognised borders without harassment or violence perpetrated by any state or by any others, and to determine democratically their own future.
4.  Encourages the Australian Government to:
•    Do all it can to support the current peace negotiations between Palestine and Israel, in the interests of ending the occupation and bringing a just and lasting peace to the peoples of Israel and Palestine;
•    Increase its allocation of aid money to assist community development in Palestinian communities which have been impoverished by years of economic and social disadvantage.
5.  Encourages churches in Australia to pray for a just and lasting peace for the peoples of the Holy Land, and to support initiatives for peace between Palestine and Israel including visits by Australian Christians to the Christians of the Holy Land.
6.  Supports the principle that Jerusalem should be an ‘open city’ for all faiths and all peoples.
7.  Supports a joint visit to Israel and Palestine in 2009 by leaders from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths in Australia.

“Ye are the salt of the earth,” said Jesus Christ, “but if the salt have lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men.”

Each side, the NCCA claims, has the right to exist “within secure internationally-recognised borders” without specifying where these borders might be.  Besides praying for peace and supporting a peace process that Israel admits that it is using to expand its settlements,  what meaningful action does the NCCA propose that Australian churches undertake to promote peace and justice other than encouraging “visits by Australian Christians to the Christians of the Holy Land”.  What purpose is a 2009 joint visit by Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders meant to serve apart from more prayers for peace and the issuing of another statement that is carefully crafted to offend no one?  Upon what grounds can the NCCA uphold Israel’s right to exist “without the threat of terrorist attacks from Palestinians” unless it is prepared to work with the Palestinians on a realistic non-violent alternative means of ending their dispossession?  While Christian Zionists are proudly working with Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to train Christian university students to advocate for Israel on their campuses,  what confidence is any Palestinian to have in the peacemakers of the Church?

It would be comforting to imagine that Australia’s Church leaders are somehow exceptional in their refusal to take a meaningful stand against Palestinian dispossession, yet in this respect they seem to be broadly representative of the leaders of the mainstream churches around the world.  As the renowned Jewish philosopher, theologian and expert on Middle Eastern affairs Marc Ellis lamented when reflecting on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s reaction to his briefing on the suffering of the Palestinians:

… I spent an hour in Lambeth Palace with the Archbishop. He’s read some of my work, and very sympathetic to at least what I have to say, and I find actually people in private quite sympathetic, and knowledgeable…. And then I say, OK, what are you going to do about it? The answer? Nothing. And the Archbishop is there too.  I like him personally….

And you know, this is a second humiliation. It’s not only that Palestinians have lost, it’s not only that Palestinians have to live with helicopter gunships hovering over their cities, towns, villages and refugee camps, but their voice is not heard, and the people who know what’s happening to them, they don’t speak. This is another humiliation, it’s complicity. It’s the ultimate complicity of silencing the story, the truth, when you know it.

The day after presenting this paper at Melbourne University’s Trinity College, I flew to Brisbane to brief Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, the Primate of the Anglican Church in Australia, on the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.  The previous month Australia’s Heads of Churches had issued a very mild statement calling upon the Australian government to become more active in the cause of peace in the Holy Land.   The statement had invoked the ire of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ),  whom the archbishop had met with the previous week.  Like the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Aspinall had no disagreement with anything that I showed him in the presentation and, having toured Israel and the Occupied Territories early in the year, did not object to my use of the term ‘apartheid’ to describe the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian territories.  When I asked him whether he was willing to speak out and help raise awareness of the reality of Israeli apartheid in the Occupied Territories, however, he was adamant that his priority was to cooperate with ECAJ in organising a 2009 interfaith tour of the Holy Land.

His position is a perfect example of how interfaith initiatives that are not grounded in a commitment to justice can serve to perpetuate the very structures of oppression that are the primary drivers of interfaith discord.  As the veteran civil rights campaigner and theologian Walter Wink noted in his denunciation of church leaders who seek to take an even-handed position between the oppressor and the oppressed:

Reconciliation is necessary, and it must be engaged in at all stages of the struggle.  The human quality of the opponent must be continually affirmed.  Some kind of trust that can serve as the basis of the new society to come must be established even in the midst of conflict.  But when church leaders preach reconciliation without having unequivocally committed themselves to struggle on the side of the oppressed for justice, they are caught straddling a pseudo neutrality that is based on nothing but thin air.  Neutrality in a situation of oppression always supports the status quo.  Reduction of conflict by means of a phoney “peace” is not a Christian goal.  Justice is the goal, and that may require an acceleration of conflict as a necessary stage in forcing those in power to bring about genuine change.

Likewise, blanket denunciations of violence by the churches place the violence of the oppressed on the same level as the violence of the system that has driven the oppressed to such desperation.

Getting in the Way

Thankfully, Desmond Tutu and Marc Ellis are not the only sincere witnesses to their faith who are refusing to take an “even-handed” position between Israel and the Palestinians.  It would serve no purpose to list the organisations and individuals of all faiths who have taken principled stands against Israel’s regime of apartheid in the Occupied Territories but I will conclude this essay with a brief account of the Christian Peacemaker Teams as the most exemplary of such organisations, whose motto, “Getting in the Way”, expresses their clear faith-based determination to stand with the oppressed.
The initiative for the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) arose out of a sermon by the Mennonite theologian Ronald Sider in 1984, in which he challenged Christians to move beyond the tradition of isolationist pacifism and devote the same discipline and self-sacrifice to non-violent peacemaking that armies devote to war.  In Sider’s words:

Unless comfortable North American and European Mennonites and Brethren in Christ are prepared to risk injury and death in nonviolent opposition to the injustice our societies foster and assist in Central America, the Philippines, and South Africa, we dare never whisper another word about pacifism to our sisters and brothers in those desperate lands. Unless we are ready to die developing new nonviolent attempts to reduce international conflict, we should confess that we never really meant the cross was an alternative to the sword.

Eleven years later the CPT’s experience in Palestine gave them their motto:

The year was 1995. The place was Hebron in the Palestinian West Bank. A major massacre of Palestinians had occurred there, at a site important to Jews and Muslims, a site where Abraham and Sarah are entombed. In response to the mayor’s invitation and the advice of local people, a CPT project began in mid year. All of us in CPT were finding our way, testing methods to act and to prevent violence. We knew, for example, Israeli settlers threatened Palestinian school children and we began to look for ways to be with them in a presence of protection.
On November 4, CPTer, Wendy Lehman on one of her first field assignments and a new delegation participant, Dianne Roe went out to accompany children at the Cordoba Elementary School. As Dianne stood talking to some teenage girls at the school, several settlers pushed her to the ground and kicked her. The settler youth also attacked the students, dragging them by their hair. Twenty minutes later a settler armed with an Uzi threatened Wendy, Dianne and other CPTers. On the same afternoon 80 settlers blocked the road where students walked to and from their school. November 4 was a tumultuous day.  That same evening an Israeli militant shot and killed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
A week after all these events, Dianne was back in Corning, NY reporting to her home church when a women [sic] in her congregation asked, “Why didn’t you just get out of the way so you wouldn’t be hurt?” The option had never occurred to Dianne since in violence reduction you don’t just get out of the way whenever there is a threat to your personal safety.

Today more than 450,000 settlers dominate approximately forty percent of the West Bank and East Jerusalem through a matrix of Jew-only settlements, bypass roads, ‘closed military areas’ and ‘nature reserves’ from which Palestinians are banned.   By thus realising Matityahu Drobes’ vision of establishing the ‘facts on the ground’ necessary to foreclose the possibility of a Palestinian state, Israel has ensured that the anti-apartheid struggle in Palestine, like that in South Africa, will become the defining struggle between justice and racism of its time.
As the cycle of oppression and retaliatory violence inevitably accelerates in the years ahead, interfaith initiatives have the potential to play an indispensable role in preparing the way for the just and peaceful solution that must be realised if the Holy Land to be transformed from a theatre of ethnic and religious conflict into a genuine cross-roads of civilisations, in which Jews, Christians and Muslims can co-exist in a spirit of fruitful cooperation.  Such a potential, however, cannot be realised by those who prefer to ‘get out of the way’ but only by sincere peacemakers who are willing to take a clear stand with the oppressed in their struggle for justice.

Select Bibliography

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Zertal, I. & A. Eldar (2007). Lords of the Land: The War Over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007. New York: Nation Books.

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