In the past week, we have seen the breathless analysis of President Trump’s controversial decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognize Jerusalem as the “eternal and undivided” capital of Israel. This announcement resulted in the amplification of anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments all over the world, followed by another round of Israeli bombing in Gaza.
It has already been noted how this announcement is harmful to America’s standing in the Arab world — and indeed for the United States’ own interests worldwide. The policy, announced without consultation with America’s allies, has already cost the United States support from many Muslim-majority countries. In Egypt, long seen as the center of Sunni scholarship in the world, the head of Al-Azhar University, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, has cancelled his meeting with Vice President Mike Pence. The Arab League has spoken out against President Trump’s decision. The United Nations Security Council convened a session to condemn the declaration. Great Britain, France, China, Turkey, and other countries have all spoken with great concern and alarm about the consequences of this ill-advised decision.
In spite of all the commentary that has been done, there are still some arguments that are worth stating. Here are twelve important points that we would do well to ponder, with an eye towards the intersection of religion and politics in this sacred and volatile region.
1) Religion is part of the story.
The land of Palestine/Israel is small in size, yet looms large in significance. It is about the size of the state of Massachusetts, yet key to the religious imagination of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. For Jews, it is the promised land, the ancestral home dreamt of by Jews across centuries of exile. For Christians, it is the land of the birth of Jesus and the earliest Christian communities. It is not just Jerusalem, but also Palestinian towns like Bethlehem and Nazareth that are synonymous with the life of Jesus. For Muslims, Jerusalem contains the oldest Muslim architectural structure in the world, the Dome of the Rock, which was the original prayer site for Muslims and the site from which Muhammad ascended to heaven to meet God face to face. Jerusalem is sacred to Jews, sacred to Muslims, sacred to Christians.
2) Religion is nowhere close to being the whole story.
The current struggle between Palestinians and Israelis is fundamentally a political dispute over territory. It is a contested land grab that begins in the age of nationalism at the tail end of the 19th century, gets amplified during the period of European colonialism, and explodes over a contested United Nations partition of Palestine at the conclusion of World War II. This is a dispute that is written on Earth not in heaven. It is a controversy whose lines and disputations are the proper subjects of international human rights experts and historians — not theologians.
There is no question that the land of Palestine/Israel and its holy sites have a sacred significance to members of the three religious traditions there. But to treat it as primarily a religious conflict instead of a political/colonial/national one runs the risk of theologizing a political conflict. Nationalism (all nationalism, whether it’s American, Arab, Israeli, Russian, etc.), is a product of modernity, and was not a concept in the pre-modern era in which all of our scriptures were written. To read the Qur’an, the Bible, and the Gita through the lens of nationalism is not only anachronistic, it is dangerous and enables fundamentalism.
That’s why the Palestinian Israeli conflict should never be read exclusively, or even primarily, as a Muslim-Jewish conflict. Doing so erases the historic context of this modern conflict. The disputations over the lands of Palestine/Israel are not a question about the Bible, the Qur’an, or religion. They are a matter of nationalism and human rights, colonialism, occupation, legality, and illegality. Furthermore, to depict this conflict as a primarily a religious conflict runs the risk of depicting it as timeless, eternal, irredeemably deadlocked and unsolvable.
The Bible, like all scriptures, is a human document reflecting a portion of humanity’s conception of God. Scripture is not a real estate deed.
3) We have not always lived like this.
Part of the claims of today’s nationalist movements, in particular the Zionist movement, come from the mythology that the current inhabitants of this region have always been in conflict. To quote a particularly poor piece of writing, they have been fighting “from time immemorial.” The truth of the matter is that this is a modern conflict. In the mid-19th century, some 96% of the population of Palestine was made up of Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians, with a small percentage (4%) of Palestinian Jews. These groups lived side by side, mostly in peace. Palestine certainly did not witness the centuries of anti-Semitism and pogroms that Christian Europe did. This conflict has an earthly, historical beginning, and it deserves to have a just earthly, historical resolution.
4) President Trump’s announcement has a colonial context.
In 1917, the British Lord Balfour wrote a famed declaration to Lord Rothschild, the leader of the British Jewish community, declaring that the Queen looks with favor upon the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. The Balfour declaration was rolled into the British Mandate, and eventually formed the basis of the declaration of the state of Israel. (Of course the same Balfour declaration also included a commitment to make sure that Palestinian rights would not be harmed, a promise that has surely not been kept.)
One hundred years later, President Trump declares Jerusalem Israel’s capital. This colonial game, against and above the wishes of the Palestinian indigenous natives, has a long legacy. The writers of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 could not even bring themselves to name Palestinians, who made up around 90 percent of the population of the land. They are simply referred to as “non-Jews.” This was consistent with the colonial arrogance of the age, erasing and eradicating the lives of indigenous people. President Trump’s arrogant declaration likewise overlooks, erases, and eradicates the attachment of Christian Palestinians and Muslim Palestinians to their land, as well as the desires of Jews who strive to see a just and peaceful sharing of the land among all of the participants.
5) The missing piece: occupation
While so much of the media coverage has been about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, there is a key missing piece: the occupation. East Jerusalem is under occupation and has been since 1967. International law and the international community recognize this occupation as illegal. The United Nations Security Council passed two resolutions calling for an immediate end to this illegal annexation. UN Security Council Resolution 242, unanimously passed in 1967, calls for the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” More than 50 years have passed and this resolution has yet to be implemented. Jerusalem, “the city of peace,” is anything but, and remains occupied.
It is utterly absurd to call for Jerusalem to be the “eternal and undivided” capital of the state of Israel when East Jerusalem has been illegally occupied for 50 years, and is also claimed by Palestinians as the capital of their future state. If you read a piece about President Trump’s announcement — or about Palestine/Israel — in which the reality of the occupation is not addressed from the point of view of those who receive the brunt of this occupation the picture is incomplete.
It is as if one were discussing the Trail of Tears without incorporating indigenous Native American points of view, probing slavery and subsequent anti-Black racism without incorporating the experience of enslaved Africans and African-Americans, or examining the #MeToo phenomenon without incorporating women’s narratives. These are of course analogies, but they remind us that the real picture is messy and complicated, and we stand to lose if we fail to account for narratives of people who are experiencing these conflicts as victims of a 50-year occupation.
6) The so-called “peace process” is a sham.
The so-called “peace process” is a sham and a pretense for the Israeli state to continue its illegal expansion into Palestinian territories. Since 1993, the argument has been that the peace process is needed to bring the two sides to the table to discuss the important issues such as the fate of Jerusalem, return of Palestinian refugees, occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, Jewish settlements, the need for Israeli security, water, and more — forgetting for a moment that there are no equal sides here.
On one side, one of the largest military forces in the world (Israel) is supported unilaterally by the United States (the U.S. has vetoed 43 United Nations Security Council resolutions against Israel), and on the other side, a vastly impoverished state (Palestine) with no military of its own. When the so-called “peace process” started, there were 200,000 Jewish settlers living illegally in occupied West Bank settlements. Today, there are 600,000 Jewish settlers. The peace process simply allows for the swallowing up of the West Bank, which was supposed to be the heart of the future Palestinian state to exist side-by-side with Israel.
As a friend of mine recently reminded me in a bitter statement, it is as if you and I are arguing over how to keep dividing a pizza, and you keep eating the pizza as we are discussing.
7) The two-state solution is dead.
In theory, it sounds good for many people to say that the goal is a two-state solution, a Palestinian state and an Israeli state. In reality, the two-state solution died a long time ago with the proliferation of Jewish-only settlements illegally built on the West Bank. These settlements, connected together by systems of highways that only Israelis have access to, are deemed illegal under international law. Their presence through what was supposed to be the eventual Palestinian state in the West Bank makes the creation of a contiguous state impossible. The map below indicates the impact of the Jewish-only settlements, the systems of highways that connect them, and the security areas around them that the Israeli state claims. These “facts on the ground” have effectively killed the possibility of a two-state solution.
8) Christian Zionism
President Trump’s policy towards Jerusalem is not about Christianity, nor even about so-called “Judeo-Christian” tradition. It’s about a certain strand of white American evangelical Christianity with a premillennialist, dispensationalist theology. There are people in the evangelical community called “Christian Zionists,” who believe that the nation of Israel has to exist for a thousand years before Jesus can return. This will usher in the Armageddon and the ultimate battle of good vs. evil. Secular Israelis have largely welcomed the spiritual — and political — support of American Christian Zionists, even though written into the tenets of Christian Zionism are some profoundly anti-Jewish sentiments. The return of Jesus will necessitate the conversion of one third of the Jews in Israel, and even the death of two thirds of the Jewish community. The Christian Zionist narrative does not end well for Jews.
President Trump’s former advisor Stephen Bannon has identified himself as a Christian Zionist. Indeed, it is an odd day when we see increasing alliances between Zionists and neo-Nazis, united in their hatred for people of color in general and Muslims in particular.
When President Trump appeared in a Florida panhandle rally to support Alabama judge Roy Moore, accused of child molestation, he was supported by a Christian Zionist, Florida state senator Doug Broxson, who enthusiastically noted:
“Now, I don’t know about you, but when I heard about Jerusalem — where the King of Kings [applause] where our soon coming King is coming back to Jerusalem, it is because President Trump declared Jerusalem to be capital of Israel.”
Unilateral support for Israel also is one of the few bipartisan realities in American politics: Democratic senator Chuck Schumer also claims to have advised President Trump to declare Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Not surprisingly, Christian denominations in the land of Jesus tend to reject Christian Zionism: “Christian Zionism is a modern theological and political movement that embraces the most extreme ideological positions of Zionism, thereby becoming detrimental to a just peace within Palestine and Israel.”
9) Worldwide Christianity
President Trump, accused by several women of sexual assault, whose mocking of marginalized and vulnerable communities would seem to be the very antithesis of the faith of Jesus, Amos, and Muhammad, does not speak for the world’s Christian population. In fact, the leaders of the majority of the world’s Christian denominations outside of America have spoken out against the Jerusalem declaration.
Pope Francis released a statement that he “cannot remain silent about my deep concern” for Jerusalem, and pleaded to preserve the “status quo” of the city. Here’s the full statement from the Holy Father:
My thoughts now turn to Jerusalem. In this regard, I cannot remain silent about my deep concern for the situation that has developed in recent days and, at the same time, I wish to make a heartfelt appeal to ensure that everyone is committed to respecting the status quo of the city, in accordance with the relevant Resolutions of the United Nations.
Jerusalem is a unique city, sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, where the Holy Places for the respective religions are venerated, and it has a special vocation to peace.
I pray to the Lord that such identity be preserved and strengthened for the benefit of the Holy Land, the Middle East and the entire world, and that wisdom and prudence prevail, to avoid adding new elements of tension in a world already shaken and scarred by many cruel conflicts.
In Egypt, the head of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, has refused to meet with Vice President Mike Pence during his visit, stating:
“Considering the decision taken by the U.S. administration concerning the city of Jerusalem at this inappropriate time with no consideration to the feelings of millions of Arabs, the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church declines to meet with Mr. Mike Pence.”
In Palestine itself, the heads of some of the oldest Christian denominations in the world, in the land of the birth of Jesus himself, have released a unanimous statement. This joint declaration was signed by the head of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Patriarchate, the Apostolic Administrator, Latin Patriarchate, Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate, Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarchate, Greek-Melkite-Catholic Patriarchate, Maronite Patriarchal Exarchate, Episcopal Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, Syrian Catholic Patriarchal Exarchate, Armenian Catholic Patriarchal Exarchat, and others. Here is an excerpt of their joint opposition to President Trump’s announcement:
The Christian Patriarchs and Heads of Local Churches in Jerusalem plead with Trump AGAINST moving the American embassy to Jerusalem.
PATRIARCHS AND HEADS OF LOCAL CHURCHES IN JERUSALEM
Dear Mr. President,
We are fully aware and appreciative of how you are dedicating special attention to the status of Jerusalem in these days. We are following with attentiveness and we see that it is our duty to address this letter to Your Excellency.
Today, Mr. President, we are confident that you too will take our viewpoint into consideration on the very important status of Jerusalem.
Our land is called to be a land of peace. Jerusalem, the city of God, is a city of peace for us and for the world. Unfortunately, though, our holy land with Jerusalem the Holy City, is today a land of conflict.
Mr. President, we have been following, with concern, the reports about the possibility of changing how the United States understands and deals with the status of Jerusalem. We are certain that such steps will yield increased hatred, conflict, violence and suffering in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, moving us farther from the goal of unity and deeper toward destructive division. We ask from you Mr. President to help us all walk towards more love and a definitive peace, which cannot be reached without Jerusalem being for all. Our solemn advice and plea is for the United States to continue recognizing the present international status of Jerusalem. Any sudden changes would cause irreparable harm. We are confident that, with strong support from our friends, Israelis and Palestinians can work towards negotiating a sustainable and just peace, benefiting all who long for the Holy City of Jerusalem to fulfill its destiny.
Hinan Ashrawi, an eloquent Palestinian Christian spokesperson, has also dismissed the notion of Christianity being used to deny Palestinians their human rights and rights to the land.
President Trump clearly does not speak for Christianity. It is also clear that the majority of global Christian leadership speaks against his decision.
10) Keep your eyes on who gets to speak.
There is also the issue of vastly unequal access to corporate media. The Israeli state has a Ministry of Foreign Affairs devoted to presenting the Israeli narrative in polished, multi-lingual, soundbites. There is no Palestinian counterpart. Time and time again, American news sources rely on Israeli guests to discuss the issue, without providing the same opportunity for Palestinian voices to be heard. Imagine how disruptive it would be for the argument that President Trump is counting on “Christian support” if the Palestinian point of view was being articulated by the Arab Christian Palestinian priests who are in charge of the Church of Nativity. It is indeed a rare occasion to see Palestinian spokespersons receiving full and equal time on American media to present their points of view.
The same thing is also true for the Jewish points of view that are presented. Rather than simply parading Israeli officials and mouthpieces who repeat the official Israeli narratives, we would do well to also shine a light on those Jewish voices who disagree with American and Israeli government policies alike. Jewish Voices for Peace is a particularly noble example here in speaking out against the occupation. Inside Israel, one can look to human rights organizations like B’Tselem (Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories).
11) How President Trump benefits from this.
Why does this controversial and unwise announcement work so well for Donald J. Trump?
- It humiliates and erases Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims. It has been argued that President Trump’s ideology is white supremacy, and the subjugation of African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, and refugees in the United States and globally is part of the same strategy.
- It solidifies America’s militaristic interests and presence in the region through its closest partner, Israel. Remember, America is today what it has been for decades: a militaristic empire, and as an empire it is in the business of war-mongering. So while it is sometimes purported that Israel controls U.S. politics (AIPAC, the Israel lobby), and there is no denying the influence of the right-wing Israeli lobbying groups, the United States is just as invested in using Israel to expand its militaristic policies in the Middle East and beyond.
- In pleasing the right-wing policies of equally corrupt, equally in-trouble Netanyahu, the triangle of Trump/Netanyahu/Mohammad bin Salman gets to continue pushing us towards another disastrous war, this time against Iran.
- In a Machiavellian sense, it allows President Trump to score points with both his Christian evangelical base who see the world (and specifically the Middle East) through the prism of what might expedite the Armageddon and Second Coming, as well as Republican donors such as the Jewish casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
- Perhaps most importantly, this distracts all of us from talking about Russian influence over American elections, nepotism, corruption, a disastrous Tax Bill that rewards multi-millionaires at the expense of the middle class, and… impeachment.
12) Where do we go from here?
If the two-state solution is dead, as I think it has been for many years, where do we go from here? There are really only two foreseeable options, in my view. They are both versions of the one-state solution, but with radically different underpinnings. The first model, the continuation of the status quo, is permanent occupation, permanent oppression, and permanent humiliation. It is the continued creation of a de facto apartheid situation in the West Bank and a second tier class of citizenship in Israel for Palestinian citizens (“Arab Israelis”).
The Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu has again and again compared the Israeli policy towards Palestinians in the West Bank to the treatment of Black South Africans under apartheid. House by house, neighborhood by neighborhood, Palestinians are evicted from their homes and replaced with Jewish settlers. This policy results in a Jewish state, but one that is squarely undemocratic.
The second option is also a one-state solution, but one that is democratic and just, guaranteeing for all of her citizens regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, and gender the exact same set of rights and responsibilities. In this state, Jews, Muslims, and Christians would all have the same rights in a secular democracy. In other words, Israel would function the same way that other democracies around the world — including the United States — are expected to function.
There is also the question of how we are to get there. If it is accepted that the current situation of occupation and humiliation that Palestinians find themselves is in unjust and morally unacceptable, the question is whether they are allowed to use force in defending themselves. The United Nations gives people the right to self-determination and to liberate themselves from foreign domination even by force, and has specifically recognized the rights of African peoples and Palestinians to do so:
“Reaffirms the legitimacy of the peoples’ struggle for liberation from colonial and foreign domination and alien subjugation by all available means, including armed struggle;”
“Strongly condemns all Governments which do not recognize the right to self-determination and independence of peoples under colonial and foreign domination and alien subjugation, notably the peoples of Africa and the Palestinian people;”
If we argue that the use of force is problematic and unacceptable, then there are two necessary consequences. First, we have to object with the same moral force to state-sponsored violence, in this case the use of force by the Israeli state. Over the last few decades the number of fatalities caused by the Israeli military dwarfs those caused by Palestinians. If we recognize that every human life is sacred, including Palestinian lives and Israeli lives, we cannot be silent about violence deployed by one side.
Secondly, if the international community denies Palestinians the right to use force to defend themselves, then we have to unequivocally support non-violent arguments. Today, the non-violent method that the Palestinian civil society has asked for in bringing an end to the occupation is the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS.) It is directly analogous to the boycott against South Africa in the 1980s to pressure the state to end its policy of apartheid. The BDS movement is a powerful (and highly contested) force to put international pressure on Israel to bring an end to its unjust occupation. As John F. Kennedy said in a different context:
“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
The moral burden is on those who object to the BDS movement today to show how exactly they propose to bring an end to the decades-long process of humiliation imposed on Palestinians. Those under occupation need no permission to fight to affirm their dignity, and they don’t need to be told by others how to resist. The question for the world community is whether our stance vis-à-vis occupation will be to stand by and do nothing, to support a non-violent movement, or to actively enable the occupation.
Here is what I am left with after considering these twelve points. Religious diversity all over the world is not an ideological assertion, it is a fact. The question is what do we do with the reality that we have a multiplicity of human beings from a variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds living together in small spaces. Do we — and do our religious traditions — strive for liberation, equality, respect, and kindness?
Like Jerusalem itself, this involves all of us: Jews, Christians, Muslims, and indeed all of God’s children. May it be that our answers to this once again make Jerusalem into a city of peace, for all of us.