What Christian Peace Building Looks Like in Israel and Palestine | Sojourners

What Christian Peace Building Looks Like in Israel and Palestine

Rev. Mae Elise Cannon. Graphic by Tiarra Lucas. Original photo courtesy Cannon. 

This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a new weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. Subscribe here.

In the last several days, Rev. Mae Elise Cannon, executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, has met with dozens of faith leaders to pray.

“We had a prayer meeting [Monday] morning with dozens and dozens of people from all different traditions, from bishops to people sitting in the pews,” Cannon told Sojourners. “We’ll have another prayer gathering on Wednesday morning. We’re grieving, we’re lamenting, and we’re also working really hard.”

Over the weekend, Hamas, a Palestinian militant group, sent rockets and armed fighters into Israel, killing hundreds, wounding thousands, and taking scores of hostages. In response, Israel declared itself at war with Hamas, and Israel Defense Forces launched retaliatory attacks.

As of Oct. 10, nearly 800 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis had been killed, with thousands more injured.

Israel is also enforcing a total siege on the Gaza Strip, cutting off food, water, fuel, and electricity for over 2 million residents, including roughly 1 million children. The retaliatory attacks destroyed the homes of more than 180,000 Gazans, according to the United Nations.

CMEP, a coalition of more than 30 U.S. church communions and organizations from Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and evangelical traditions, isn’t just praying. The group advocates for 12 policy positions that call for equality and justice and the recognition of the humanity of all people in Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories, and the Middle East.

“We’re trying to do a lot of education amid our grief,” Cannon said. “Advocating for de-escalation and peaceful responses, as opposed to more violence.”

Cannon spoke with Sojourners’ associate news editor Mitchell Atencio about her conversations with both Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, U.S. Christian support for Israel’s government, and the need for constructive dialogue alongside action.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: How are you? How do you manage your work in a time like this?

Rev. Mae Elise Cannon: I feel like it’s not even fair to ask — that’s not meant to be critical of you. But given what’s happening to people we know and love and so many (others)… I deeply appreciate the question, but what our hearts are experiencing is nothing compared to the reality that people are experiencing now.

What have you heard from your contacts on the ground in Israel-Palestine?

One of the first things we did was check in with our staff. We have staff in the occupied Palestinian territory, we have staff in Jerusalem, we have friends and colleagues and partners in Israel proper, all over the West Bank, and in Gaza.

I just reached out to a friend of mine who is an Orthodox rabbi whose son is serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. His son has not even finished his training and he was called up to be one of the soldiers that was sent to the southern communities in Israel to try to respond to the incursion of the Hamas militants.

He was saying thank God that his son was safe, but his son ended up responding to a situation where Israelis were being taken as hostages, and he carried out a grandmother, while under fire. My rabbi friend has very conflicted feelings about his responsibility as a citizen of the state and his love for the nation of Israel, and yet, his love also for Palestinian people. As he told me the story of being grateful for the safety of his son and the horrors of these Israeli people being taken hostage, he said how grieved he was. He’s been working on peace building, human rights, and trying to bring reconciliation between some of the most extreme parties. And he said how grieved he has been that political actors have not listened.

For those of us who’ve been working in this space, part of our message has been that if the core issues of the occupation and the core issues of the conflict are not addressed, many will feel so hopeless that violence will be the only answer. And that in no way justifies what’s happened, but we have to understand what’s happened in light of the core issues of the conflict.

At the same time, I was so relieved last night to hear from a Muslim human-rights worker — who was born in Gaza and who’s raising his children in Gaza — that they are safe. Their great fear right now is that Israel has completely cut off Gaza from water, electricity, and gas, which, is absolutely abhorrent. You have 2 million people in Gaza; the vast majority of them have nothing to do with what Hamas has done, and yet they are going to be suffering so greatly under bombs, war, and lack of water. Their families and children are going to suffer. It is beyond tragic.

What does peace building look like right now? What work should be supported?

For those who are Palestinian solidarity activists, part of what peace building work looks like is [recognizing] this: Grieving alongside Jewish families who have lost loved ones and abhorring the violence of Hamas in no way means compromising on issues of justice for Palestinians. Peace building can be completely condemning taking civilians as hostages and still working for an end to occupation.

On the world stage, we’re hearing about the U.S. sending the U.S.S Ford — the aircraft carrier — to the eastern Mediterranean. We’re hearing [President Joe] Biden’s statements about the U.S. and Israel. There is conversation about increased militarization of Israel, and [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s government in Israel has said Gaza should be prepared for consequences unlike those which have ever been seen before.

Israel’s historic policy when it goes to war is to always have a disproportionate response. When Israel bombed Gaza during the last major war in 2014, there were more than 2,000 people killed in Gaza, nearly 1,500 civilians, and more than 500 of those civilians were children.

When we hear Israel talking about a response unlike anything we’ve ever seen, that means civilian deaths in Gaza. Peace building means calling for de-escalation of militarization.

The world is saying “Israel has the right to defend itself.” We, as peacemakers and peace builders, would say that violence should be the last response. Can we please try to pursue diplomatic means? U.S. Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken tweeted today calling for a ceasefire, and then the tweet was deleted. I saw that Hamas might be open to a negotiated peace treaty. Everything should be done for diplomatic means to resolve this conflict, to return these hostages to safety, and not further war and violence and death and destruction.

Practically speaking, what can Christians in the U.S. do to promote peace? Should they write or call their representatives in Congress or encourage their denomination to put out statements ?

Absolutely. There’s a lot happening on Capitol Hill with the transition of the Speaker of the House, but so many of our representatives and senators have already put out statements. The vast majority of them are not nuanced, they are not looking at core causes, and they are just condemning the actions of the last couple of days. Which, in my opinion, is an okay place to start, but we shouldn’t end there. It’s deeply concerning when those statements are incredibly one-sided and are not acknowledging any of the historic context or even just the current realities that exist.

Prayer is a very powerful weapon, and so we’re seeking to mobilize people in that regard. Forgive me for using militarized language, but I think prayer could be very powerful.

We are calling on people to contact their elected officials. [Elected] people in Washington, D. C., would act and vote differently if they felt like their constituents would [only] keep them in office if they had more holistic perspectives.

There will be a rise of antisemitic attacks in response to this. Already in New York City there were clashes between “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian” groups. I think modeling constructive dialogue — not for the sake of dialogue, as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists have reminded us, there is a time for action, advocacy and peaceful nonviolent action is critical — but I’m sure that there will be opportunities for prayer vigils and nonviolent marches.

What can Christians do to avoid antisemitism — and even the appearance of antisemitism — while they make statements that may be critical of the Israeli government or of the settlement itself?

It’s important to differentiate between the State of Israel and the people. I think that’s a very important distinction. Acknowledging that antisemitism exists does not in any way negate advocating for human rights for Palestinians. Whenever there’s a zero-sum game or a false binary, that is not constructive towards peace. We need to deconstruct those false binaries. It’s not an either/or.

People say: “To honor God, we need to pray for Israel.” I’m not asking people to not pray for Israel — people should pray for Israel. I ask them to pray for Palestinians, too.

How do you see the last year of democracy-related protests in Israel in response to the right-wing government, as factoring into the response that we will see?

We have heard that many in Israel are experiencing this [attack from Hamas] as an existential threat, and all else comes secondary. The reservists who were opposing the judicial reform their perspective immediately [shifted to]: “We’re willing to fight for the safety and security of Israel.” They were willing to put aside those differences.

The human rights community in Israel, many of whom participated in the protests against the judicial reform, were saying all along that the protests for the protection of democracy in Israel lacked integrity because it was advocating for the democratic rights of some, while ignoring the democratic rights of Palestinians. And that was a very small minority.

[Human rights groups] like HaMoked or B’Tselem or Breaking the Silence — an incredible organization that is former soldiers that are telling the stories of their experiences as soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces — these groups are courageous, prophetic voices within Israeli society. They are not only marginalized, in moments like this, they’re viewed as traitors. Those communities can absolutely use international support.

We partner with Parents Circle Family Forum, a group of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family members, often children or siblings, as a result of the wars. And Combatants for Peace and the Parents Circle Family Forum several years ago started a joint memorial, which Churches for the Middle East Peace has co-sponsored every year [to] honor the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians.

Christianity Today’s editor in chief Russell Moore wrote a piece titled “American Christians Should Stand with Israel Under Attack.” He wrote: “As Christians, we should pay special attention to violence directed toward Israel—just as we would pay special attention to a violent attack on a member of our extended family.”

From a theological perspective, as a Christian leader, how does that strike you?

I have great respect for Russell Moore in many ways. I think he’s done some great work on different issues of justice, particularly in his response to the Southern Baptist Convention. I read his op-ed shortly after it came out, and it absolutely broke my heart. I would invite him to have a conversation, because I think that he is completely wrong.

Not that we shouldn’t stand with the people of Israel, but he juxtaposes that zero-sum game as Israel against the world. He talks about standing with “our extended family,” when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. We have brothers and sisters in Christ living in Bethlehem [in Palestine] who will suffer greatly as a result of this conflict, and they are completely ignored in his whole scenario.

There is so much that he is missing that I almost don’t understand how he could write what he wrote. It grieved me when I read it, because it was so removed from the reality I know. I’ve had the privilege of living in Jerusalem, traveling throughout Israel, and I have spent significant time in Gaza, and I just think he is gravely mistaken.

Is there a role for the witness of the U. S. church to call Israel’s action apartheid or to refer to this siege in Gaza as genocidal? What is the power of language in a time like this?

For those who have a theological framework of believing that the Jews are God’s chosen people, it is absolutely — in terms of the very future of the state of Israel — it is absolutely in Israel’s best interest to address the human rights concerns and to address the oppression of the Palestinian people.

If people are not willing to look at the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian people for the sake of Palestinians, maybe they should do it for the sake of Israel.

I believe that Israel absolutely has legitimate security needs. If people care about the legitimate security needs of Israel, the legitimate needs of the Palestinian people also need to be addressed. And that does not in any way justify the Hamas attacks; I abhor them, and I condemn them. But to understand what a comprehensive peace would look like, the context of the conflict must be understood. A comprehensive and just peace, through diplomatic means, has to be pursued.

You were asking what role Christians can play: Christians can play a prophetic role. Christians, historically, have been very supportive of the state of Israel; perhaps we are in a unique place where Israel might listen to us because of our historical allegiances.

Part of the question for me is considering the context of Christianity in the U.S. and the role that the U.S. government plays in supporting the state of Israel.

I think the vast majority of American churches think that they are supporting poor Jewish children, when they’re actually sending money to settlements that are confiscating land from Palestinian farmers.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

My mantra in the last year or two has been: “Despair is the luxury of the privileged.” That is more true now than ever before. In these moments, we cannot despair. One of our obligations — for those of us who are not in the middle of this — is to hold on to hope and encouragement and solidarity in prayer and in advocacy.

For people wondering what they can do, supporting groups that are doing peace building or building bridges is really important in this moment — perhaps now more than ever.

Reuters reporting contributed to this article.