Why Black and Palestinian Christians Need Each Other | Sojourners

Why Black and Palestinian Christians Need Each Other

Picture of Azmera Hammouri-Davis. Graphic by Candace Sanders/Sojourners.

This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a 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.

Honestly, I never thought much about Israel before college. Then, during my sophomore year, a prominent New Testament studies scholar had been invited to speak on campus; after it came to light that they were openly critical of the state of Israel, they were summarily disinvited. A few other students and I were still able to meet with the scholar, and we were shocked by the language they were using to describe the conditions in Israel for the Palestinians: “Second-class citizens,” “genocide,” and “apartheid” were the terms that struck me most.

“It can’t be as bad as what Black people have faced in the United States or what they faced in South Africa,” I remember saying to the scholar. “Go and see,” they admonished. And so, one year later, that’s exactly what I did.

In 2012, three other students and I had been invited to attend a conference at Bethlehem Bible College called Christ at the Checkpoint. The mission of this conference, which will be convening for the seventh time in May 2024, was to invite evangelicals to think about Israel and Palestine in ways that prioritized “peace, justice, and reconciliation,” while also explicitly giving voice to Palestinian Christians. And while I’m grateful that I was introduced to authors, theologians, and activists like Munther Isaac, Jonathan Kuttab, and Salim Munayer, nothing was quite as transformational as experiencing a checkpoint for myself.

I’d been stopped at police checkpoints in the United States multiple times — either alone or with friends or my dad. During those stops, humiliation, pain, or death always seemed to be a likely outcome. So when I was preparing to pass through one of the checkpoints at Israel’s apartheid wall, I imagined the Israel Defense Forces soldiers would hassle me the same as the Chicago police. But there was no hassling. I handed them my blue U.S. passport and waltzed through the checkpoint. “I feel like the scholar exaggerated a bit,” I thought to myself. But as soon as that thought crossed my mind, I turned around to see a long line of Palestinians, each of them being hassled by an IDF soldier. When I looked into the eyes of those Palestinians, I saw that they, too, felt humiliation, pain, or death was a likely outcome.

Since my trip to Israel/Palestine, I’ve come to the conclusion that Palestinians’ and Black Americans’ liberation are bound up together. So when an organizing friend sent me a petition on Change.org titled, “Black U.S. Christians in Solidarity with Palestine,” not only did I sign and donate to boost the petition, but I also sought out one of the organizers of the petition for an interview.

Azmera Hammouri-Davis is an organizer with Black Christians for Palestine. Beyond her involvement with organizing for Black-Palestinian liberation, Hammouri-Davis is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, slam poet/musician, and hip-hop fan. I sat down with Hammouri-Davis to talk about Black and Palestinian solidarity, the Change.org petition, and how U.S. militarism and Israel’s war on Palestinians is connected.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Josiah R. Daniels, Sojourners: Who are you and what is it that you do?

Azmera Hammouri-Davis: I am the daughter of a mother who is Palestinian American and my father is a Black German — two artists. I’m a child of God. I’m a dope emcee/ in the place to be/ with two degrees/ from Harvard and USC. But most importantly, I'm a capoeirista. So I love to rhyme. I love to create. I love to imagine new worlds and collaborate with artists, musicians, organizers, and people who love humans across lines of difference.

My work focuses on creating containers of radical possibility and joy rooted in the Black prophetic tradition — rooted in truth-telling, rooted in the love that the Palestinian Jew named Jesus gave and professed and transformed my life through.

Tell me a bit about Black Christians for Palestine.

Black Christians for Palestine emerged in 2020. At the time, Friends of Sabeel North America — an organization that is in close relationship with the Palestinian liberation theology center in Jerusalem — hosted a talk called “Tied in a Single Garment of Destiny” with Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, Erica Williams, Khury Petersen-Smith, Nyle Fort, and Sarah Nahar. And that was a call that was reflecting on their experiences as Black Christians who had been to Palestine.

I happened to be on that call, asked a few questions, got connected to FOSNA through a friend, and then connected with people who were looking for a spiritual and political home to create space for us to process what our faith has to say about this particular injustice.

Apartheid is so normalized here in the West. It is rarely ever talked about in meaningful, effective, helpful ways, especially for younger people when it comes to reckoning with what the church has to say about issues of injustice. So Black Christians for Palestine was [born] out of that need.

We are currently housed under the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, and we work closely with them to educate, advocate, and activate communities to be in alignment with the truth-telling tradition that comes out of the Black church.

[I’ve been] thinking about a lot of James H. Cone’s work. I’ve been sitting with The Cross and the Lynching Tree, and sitting with Ida B. Wells continuing to document the lynchings that were taking place amid death threats. How did she reckon her faith? How did she maintain her faith in spite of such terror?

And what role do faith and doubt play in this work? Knowing that doubt keeps our faith from being too sure of itself [helps] us not fall into the traps of fundamentalism, which we see happening in the white evangelical Christian Zionist movement. [But] faith keeps us from falling into despair because that would be the easiest quickest trap to fall into.

Why do you think it’s important for Black people to understand that we have a connection with Palestinians?

In 2014, Ferguson, Mo., burst into flames, righteously, because there was another moment of police brutality. We saw virtual signs of solidarity where Palestinians in Gaza were helping protesters in Ferguson respond to [police] tear gas canisters. Who knows [better] how to respond to those same materials that the police were using in Ferguson than Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, who get tear-gassed as if it’s an everyday normalcy?

If you care about Black life here in the States, and policing, and equity around that treatment, then the morally consistent thing to do is to say, “Hey, how do we stop this [from happening] anywhere.”

Now some might say, “There’s genocide happening in Sudan right now [and] in Tigray. It's been happening. Why do we care about this [situation in] particular?” We absolutely care about genocide wherever it’s happening. As Americans, our taxes — [almost] $4 billion of those taxes every year, $25 of the average tax-payers dollars in the U.S. — goes towards funding [weapons for Israel]. That [should matter to Black Americans], because that means that we are implicated and we have blood on our hands, too.

If our Western media — conservative and liberal to be honest — had it their way, we would know nothing about it and we would have selective empathy. We care about the killing of civilians anywhere and everywhere. We condemn [the Hamas attack] on Oct. 7. That is terrifying. And also, we must ask, what is this selective empathy that says, “Let’s center this suffering, and completely overlook what’s happening in the name of retaliation, despite the fact that [some family members of] survivors [from the Oct. 7 attack] have [called for a] cease-fire.”

As a Black person born in America, when I learned weapons that were used to kill innocent people overseas were funded by my tax dollars, I began to care. When I learned U.S. police were trained by Israeli occupation forces, I began to care.

For a lot of Black Christians, you grow up hearing about places like Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem, and a few of us get the chance to go and actually visit these places. For those of us who do, we go and then we experience cognitive dissonance. Here’s a space that's supposed to be sacred and holy, but I’m witnessing some of the most heinous crimes against humanity, and it begs us to ask ourselves what would Jesus do if he were here today?

Tell me about your petition, “Black U.S. Christians in Solidarity with Palestine.

So this petition was written by myself and a group of others in community with Palestinian Christians. As someone who takes seriously the call to love thy neighbor, [I want] to speak truth to power. For [the group of us who created this petition], we said we cannot join that choir of silence. And so that’s where this declaration came from. It was drawing a clear line in the sand and saying, “We stand undoubtedly, indubitably, and firmly in solidarity with our Palestinian Christian siblings.” [We’re] calling for a cease-fire, calling for the return of the 200 hostages held by Hamas, calling for the lift of the siege on Gaza, calling for the return of political prisoners held by the State of Israel in the West Bank.

(Editor’s note: This interview was conducted on Nov. 6. At the time of publication, Hamas and Israel are currently working under a temporary cease-fire and each side has released some hostages.)

Our hope is to [get signatures from] people like Sen. Raphael Warnock … who has spoken directly with Rev. Mitri Rahab, who has been recorded at one point prior to entering into the political arena [acknowledging] the grave injustice.

I was just with a group, Dream Defenders and the Palestine Feminist Collective and the U. S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights in D. C., [participating in] an action to call Rev. Warnock into prayer for the moral clarity and consistency to stand firmly in the truth of the Black prophetic tradition and to call for a cease-fire, which we believe is really breadcrumbs at this point.

This statement was written when it was recorded that over 7,000 Palestinians, including over 3,000 children, were massacred by the [state of Israel]. It’s us affirming that we condemn the killing of all civilians; our hearts are with all whose lives and livelihood have been lost [since Oct. 7] and more so over the past 75 years and counting.

(Israel has killed more than 14,000 Palestinians in Gaza since Oct. 7, according to Al Jazeera. Hamas has killed 1,200 Israelis, according to Israel’s government.)

We believe in a God of mercy, justice, and grace, and that in no world is genocide ever acceptable or justifiable. We stand in deep solidarity with our American Jewish siblings, [many of whom] have been showing up in really beautiful ways saying, “Not in our name.

We don't turn away from the suffering and we hold multiple truths; being against an ideology is never being against the people, and people are not their governments. We recognize and affirm that the critique of a state is not a critique of a people anywhere. We reject the notion that in critiquing the state of Israel [we affirm] antisemitism. In fact, conflating a people’s identity with the state is actually quite dangerous. I would suggest folks check out Breaking the Silence … I would suggest folks watch a video by Dena Takruri. She’s a Palestinian American [Muslim] journalist [from] the Bay Area who does really beautiful work on why Palestinian Christians are leaving the Holy Land but also goes into the nuances of Christian Zionism. [She] talks to self-proclaimed Christian Zionists, talks to Palestinian Christian theologians.

Why is theology important?

I think theology is essential because it often gets at the core beliefs that people have that then drive decisions they make that affect people in the real world.

When it comes to the systemic apartheid, for example, the apartheid wall in Bethlehem, that was put up under the guise of saying that “We need to keep Palestinians and Jewish folk from interacting, we need to protect, we need to create a security border so that these Palestinian militants won’t come and attack people on the other side.”

Theologically speaking, [it’s important to think about what] being a good neighbor means [when there are] walls of division. What does it mean to be a good neighbor, to be salt of the earth?

What was it like to work for the Ramallah Friends School — a private school founded by Quakers in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Palestine?

It was really special to teach there in Ramallah and to be reminded that youth are the truth. Their voices matter. They’re full of joy, full of humor. They’re funny as hell. Like they’ll keep you on your toes. They’ll keep you accountable.

You say you want to do one thing and that they’re going to remind you, like you said, “you're going to do that!” That’s across the board. It doesn’t matter where I’m teaching. If it was Oakland or if it was L.A. or Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, where I was teaching young people in the comunidades, or in Ramallah. It’s like the young people have a lot more wisdom.

I think that’s one thing that it taught me. They have a lot more wisdom than I think we give them credit for. I’ve been thinking about my students a lot, especially in the past few weeks, because this is a war on children.

I love working with young people; they remind me that we can’t take ourselves too seriously and it’s okay to cry. I think if more of our leaders just took some time to cry and feel maybe they’d be slower to retaliate. Maybe we wouldn’t have so many bombs.

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