Will Support for Palestinians Grow Among U.S. Christians? | Sojourners

Will Support for Palestinians Grow Among U.S. Christians?

People protest in solidarity with Palestinians on May 16, 2021 in Seattle. Shutterstock/ Inna Zakharchenko

The looming threat of eviction for six Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah — and the Israeli police interruption of a Ramadan celebration at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jeruaslem — triggered a reignition of large-scale violence in the Middle East earlier this month, the first major violent struggle between Israeli and Palestinian forces since the 2014 Gaza war.

According to estimates from medical officials in Gaza, Israeli airstrikes killed 248 Palestinians; other medics estimated Hamas rockets killed 13 Israelis before both sides agreed to a cease-fire on May 21.

Israeli occupation and Palestinian resistance are decades old, but people in the United States are increasingly sympathetic with Palestine. While a February 2021 Gallup poll found that most Americans still want the U.S. government to pressure Palestine to resolve the violence, a record-high 34 percent of Americans — and the majority of Democrats — said the U.S. should emphasize Israel’s responsibility. Several Democrats in Congress have recently shifted their stances on Israel, putting pressure on President Joe Biden to strongly denounce Israel’s tactics. In the media, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver began a recent episode with a segment addressing U.S. officials for supporting “war crimes” by funding Israel’s military budget.

“One side has suffered over ten times the casualties,” Oliver said in his opening, “something which speaks to both the severe power imbalance at play here and how that often gets obscured by how we choose to talk about it.”

As U.S. public opinion broadly begins to shift, some faith leaders and scholars see an opportunity for U.S. Christians to increase their support for Palestinian human rights and condemn Israeli occupation.

Some evangelicals support Israeli settlements and displacement of Palestinians because they believe the return of Jewish people to Israel is a necessary part of God’s plan for Christ’s return — a belief known as Christian Zionism. Former President Donald Trump’s support for Israel, including his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, grew out of an explicit desire to please his evangelical base.

Sa’ed Atshan, an associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Swarthmore College focused on modern Palestinian society and Christian minorities in the Middle East, told Sojourners that Christian Zionism has led conservative evangelicals to abandon Palestinian Christians. He called it “a real betrayal of fundamental Christian values” like solidarity with the marginalized and resisting oppressive empires.

“[U.S. Christians] all have an obligation to support and to uplift that community, in the face of so many hardships, particularly as a result of the very brutal Israeli military occupation of occupied Palestinian territories,” he said.

Other Christians have long opposed U.S. funding for the Israeli military.

“For nearly 150 years Quakers have maintained close ties and relationships with the people living in what are now Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories,” Diane Randall, general secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobbying organization, said in a recent statement calling for the Biden administration and Congress to “publicly censure Israel for its violent expulsions of Palestinians and its illegal expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.”

In the past two decades, mainline Protestant denominations, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church, have made statements against Israeli occupation; more conservative denominations, like the Southern Baptist Convention, have historically stood with Israel. In 2015, the United Church of Christ joined the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) in voting to divest from companies that have “been found to profit from the occupation of the Palestinian territories by the state of Israel.” And Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church, released a statement on May 13 saying that “the expansion of Israeli settlements at the expense of Palestinian families must end.”

Atshan also pointed to Friends of Sabeel, a Palestinian Christian advocacy organization with a North American chapter, and Bethlehem Bible College’s “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference, which builds solidarity between evangelicals and Palestinian Christians, as longtime efforts led by Palestinian Christians to build support among U.S. Christians.

Roger Baumann, assistant professor of sociology at Hope College and a scholar on race, religion, and transnational solidarities, noted that U.S. Christians have always had a range of views on Israeli occupation, but he sees potential for greater U.S. Christian solidarity with Palestinians. 

“What may be happening among American Christians, though, is that the vocabulary of racial justice is increasingly finding its way into conversations about Israel and Palestine on a larger scale,” he told Sojourners in an email. “The conversation is increasingly turning from theologies of Bible prophecy and ‘the End Times,’ which have traditionally dominated American evangelical and conservative Protestant outlooks on Israel, to theologies of liberation, racial justice, and solidarity with the oppressed.”

As Joyce Ajlouny, the Palestinian American general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, and Rev. Mae Elise Cannon of Churches for Middle East Peace recently wrote for Sojourners, the current attention toward the violence is an opportunity for a sea change for U.S. Christians — shifting from closeted support or simple statements to encouraging public solidarity with Palestine.

“Christians and people of all faith traditions need to take on a more prominent role in calling for a just and lasting peace that is built on realizing equality for Palestinians and ending human rights abuses. This is the path to a more secure and peaceful future for Israelis as well,” Ajlouny and Cannon wrote.

Both Atshan and Baumann credited the protests against police violence in 2020 and ensuing discussions of militarization, violence, and justice with expanding U.S. sympathy with Palestinians. Atshan highlighted that Black movement leaders and thinkers — from James Baldwin and Angela Davis to demonstrations for Black lives that began in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, and the current work of journalists like Marc Lamont Hill — have included Palestinian rights as part of their activism. Baumann echoed this, and pointed to the 2015 “Black For Palestine” solidarity statement, which has been signed by nearly 50 organizations and over a thousand individuals.

“As Black American activists are being increasingly heard and amplified, so is this message about linking national contexts and the importance of recognizing the global scope of anti-racism activism beyond national boundaries,” Baumann said. “While expressed in new terms ... this global vision draws on long standing traditions of Black political internationalism and nationalism. In 1967, [Martin Luther King Jr.] described “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism” as a multi-faceted problem for racial justice, and recent articulations of global solidarities are in this tradition.”

“[2020] was a critical and pivotal moment where the BLM platform has been so clear and unequivocal in its articulation of the intersecting struggles that bind Black and Palestinian populations, including the global military industrial complex, the global prison industrial complex, including American police forces from all across the US being trained in Israel … These parallels are absolutely undeniable,” Atshan said. “We recognize that there are critical distinctions in our context, our histories, our struggles, but then there are also these overwhelming points of intersection.”

Atshan, who is from Palestine and still has family in the country, said that despite the “really heartbreaking … absolutely devastating” violence, the shifting conversation in the U.S. was a reason for hope.

“I think our movement has really reached a critical threshold and turning point in which we're witnessing a real shift in the discourse on Palestine in the U.S., and people opening their hearts and minds to Palestinians’ humanity,” he said. “I really do believe that we are at a watershed moment, and I do believe that our movement will only continue to grow and gain momentum from here onwards.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated on June 4 at 5:20 p.m. to correct the opening sentence. The six families in Sheikh Jarrah have not yet been evicted.  

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