Colleague Philip Farah is a Palestinian Christian born and raised in East Jerusalem. He is a founding member of the Washington Interfaith Alliance for Middle East Peace and a co-founder of the Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace (PCAP). We present this under the rubric of Voices for Justice because of the personal history Farah recounts here. We present it as another piece of the work around preparing for the Episcopal Church’s General Convention set for July in Austin TX. We share his presentation at the 3 March gathering in Washington DC: Why Palestinians Matter.
The title of this session is ADVOCACY FOR PALESTINIAN RIGHTS IN ALL CHURCH CONGREGATIONS, but I was also asked to tie it to my own experience as a Palestinian. I will also spend a little time on some historical background that I think provides an angle for why it’s so important for us, in the American faith community, to be involved.
I was born in Jerusalem 4 years after my parents’ experience of the Nakbah—the Catastrophe– of 1948. Part of their ordeal was spent sheltering from the bombing in the crypt of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, right next to the Holy Sepulchre. They, like over a third of the Palestinian population, lost everything. But they eventually got back on their feet and rented a small apartment right at the border of the now-divided Jerusalem. I was raised less than 4 blocks away from the house in which my Mom grew up, but it was now beyond the border in what became West Jerusalem, the most ethnically cleansed city in Palestine. Mom was never able to set foot in her family home again– except for once. After Israel occupied the rest of Palestine in 1967, she knocked on the door of one of 4 Jewish families who became the new inhabitants of her home. This family happened to be fairly friendly and invited her in, and she saw that they were still using some of the same furniture and kitchen ironware.
The UN, which had, up until then, been complicit in the crimes perpetrated against the Palestinians, had the decency in December 1948 to pass Resolution 194, urging Israel to allow the Palestinian refugees to return to their neighborhoods and villages, and even the US State Department argued for the right of return. But Israel did everything to prevent such a return, continuing the process of ethnically cleansing Palestinians from the new State of Israel, and demolishing about 500 Palestinian villages. One of Israel’s great successes was, through its already powerful lobby in Washington, to muzzle the State Department’s advocacy for the right of return.
My Mom is now 98, living in Toronto, part of one of the largest Diasporas of the twentieth century. She frequently dreams—literally– about her old family home and tells me numerous stories about her life there until the age of 28.
1967 became my Nakbah, and, 10 years later I found myself in the notorious Israeli Makobiyeh prison, about 7 minute-walk from my Mom’s old home. I was under administrative detention for two months. This means that you’re detained without knowing what charges are brought against you, and not knowing when your prison term might end. Most of my prison mates were poor Mizrahi Jews, and two were members of ha-Panterim ha-Shahorim, the Israeli Black Panthers. These were Israeli Jews who were fighting discrimination and racism towards darker-skinned Jews who were bought in from the Arab countries.
My arrest was probably due to my activities with a small number of Palestinians, mostly intellectuals, who were dialoguing and building relations with Israeli progressives opposed to the occupation.
It so happened that, days before my arrest, I had finished reading a book by the great Israeli leftist attorney, Felicia Langer. The book went into some detail about her Palestinian clients, and the torture techniques that they encountered in at the hand of their Israeli jailors. Upon finishing the book, I passed it to my Mom to read it. You can imagine her state of mind while I was incarcerated.
In prison, I developed very strong friendships with a number of Jewish inmates. Their parents were basically Arab Jews, mostly from North Africa. While they grew in households where Arabic was spoken, and the food and music were Arabic, Israeli society treated them as inferiors who had to shed their shameful commonalities with the Arabs in order to become New Israelis. Despite the fact that they were effectively second-class citizens, they were—after all- Israelis who enjoyed far greater privileges than the Palestinian Arabs. Any of you familiar with Frantz Fanon, the black Frenchman from Martinique whose experience as a psychiatrist in colonial Algeria turned him into one of the greatest progressive thinkers of the Twentieth Century? If you are, you’ll understand why many of these darker-skinned Israelis became even more hostile to the Palestinians than the average Israeli. In fact, Israeli prison authorities would sometimes place a Palestinian prisoner in a cell with Jewish inmates with the expectation that the Jews would harass the Palestinian. In my case, a number of factors helped me become close to them on a human level. I really felt that I could easily live with Jews, just as my father’s generation did before Zionism started becoming stronger in pre-Israel Palestine. Despite my imprisonment, and the ill treatment at the hand of my jailers and interrogators, my friendship with the Jewish inmates felt like a major victory for me.
My prison experience validated many of the ideas that I was developing about Israel, partly from my readings of progressive Jewish critiques of Zionist ideology. Zionism thrived on selling itself to the European colonial powers. It adopted European racism towards darker-skinned people from the colonies. Like the worst type of settler colonialism, it required the ethnic cleaning of large segments of the native population. But displacing the natives meant others had to fill the ranks of the working classes, and the darker-skinned Jewish immigrants from mostly Arab countries fit the bill. Zionism also meant cooperating with anti-Semites who wanted Jews out of Europe, and even coaxing western countries to shut their doors in the face of Jews fleeing the horrors of fascism in Europe so they’d have no alternative but to go to Palestine [the Patria!].
The colonial nature of Zionism fit extremely well with the rising power of the U.S. While many of the early Zionist leaders and foot soldiers viewed themselves as socialists, Ben Gurion veered sharply to the western camp, especially towards the rising superpower in North America. A little-understood aspect of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is how the special relationship between Israel and the U.S. developed. But it says so much about where we are today, and why it’s so important for us to fight for peace with justice in Israel-Palestine. Part of the story starts with Jewish European partisans who did amazingly heroic things to save Jews and smuggle them away from the Nazis and other fascists in Europe. In doing so they developed, with the help of progressives and anti-fascist allies, an amazing clandestine network almost all around the world. Ben Gurion decided that this network would be immensely useful for the U.S. in its already rising rivalry with the Eastern Bloc, in return for military, financial, and diplomatic support from the rising superpower.
In both the western and eastern blocs, there were leaders and social forces that wanted the Russian-Western co-operation during the Second World War to continue, and others who wanted the exact opposite. In the U.S. the militarists used fear mongering to defeat progressives like Henry Wallace, who almost won the democratic nomination against Harry Truman.
Israel’s already amazing clandestine network played a vital role of supporting U.S. Cold War hawks in various strategic places around the world, including Central America, South Africa, and Zaire. In the Middle East, Israel played a major role in helping the CIA prop the intensely unpopular and brutally repressive regime of the Shah. The icing on the cake was Israel’s defeat of the Egyptian regime of Nasser in 1967. For its secular anti-colonialism was viewed as a threat to Saudi Arabia, which the U.S. military-industrial complex valued as a protector of one of its greatest strategic interests– oil. U.S. and other western powers encouraged Saudi Arabia to use its extremely reactionary version of Islam, along with petrodollars, to counter the secularist non-aligned movement all over the Islamic world. Egypt’s Nasser, along with Kwame Nkruma of Ghana, Sukarno of Indonesia, and Tito of Yugoslavia were leaders of this non-aligned movement which the U.S. viewed as a threat to its neo-colonial interests in the Third World.
This brings me to the churches. Western churches have always had a large presence in Palestine. While many in the western religious establishment looked the other way as Israel engaged in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, some others in the western church missions did speak out. The western churches have an extensive presence not only in the holy places in Israel and Palestine, but also in the mission-supported educational institutions where students are victimized by the Israeli occupation forces, and the hospitals which receive the dead and injured on a daily basis.
The witness of American Christians operating on the ground in Palestine has played a crucial role in the success of resolutions to boycott products made in the illegal Israeli settlements and to divest from companies that profit from the occupation. But we should also remember the role of Israel in supporting the most hawkish U.S. policies in the Middle East. Israel will do anything to deflect attention from the plight of the Palestinians, and now harps on Iran being the greatest threat to America. American and Israeli militarist hawks are escalating their direct involvement in hostilities in Syria and increasingly threatening to engage in direct confrontations in Syria with Iran and Russia, gravely endangering world peace.
US faith communities have always played a leading role in fighting militarism at home and abroad, and we must rise to the occasion by condemning and countering this madness.
Our witness is a painful thorn in Israel’s side, because it is the strongest antidote to the predominantly pro-Israeli western media. This is why, today, we see a concerted attack on the churches in Palestine. That is why Israel planned to place a debilitating tax on Christian properties in the Holy Land, reversing practices dating back to the Ottomans. International pressure forced the Israelis to freeze this plan, but I’m certain there’ll be renewed assaults.
Our task is to continue the struggle here. We’ve had great successes, as evidenced by the church denominations and individual churches that have divested from companies that profit from the occupation, and passed resolutions to boycott products made in the Israelis settlements.
The other fronts where we’re making a difference are:
- The campaign to lobby Congress to pass legislation condemning Israel’s treatment of Palestinian children.
- The fight against state and federal legislations criminalizing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.
- The campaign to sell fair-trade Palestinian olive oil and other products. This is not just charity; it engages church goers and they start learning about Israel’s attacks on Palestinian farmers and their lands.
Another promising campaign, being considered by some faith-based groups, is to raise funds for supplying Gaza schools with water desalination units. This too, educates churchgoers about Israeli crimes in Gaza.
Of course, education is extremely important, given the biases of our mainstream media. An amazingly successful example is the Voices from the Holy Land film series in the Washington DC Metro area.
You’re the best judge of what works in your church or your denominational organizations. And remember, most things start with one individual!