Beyond the Nakba: 7 Ways Christians Can Affirm a Positive Future for Palestinians

How to understand the “catastrophe” of 1948 and its impact on today’s Israel.
Beyond the Nakba: 7 Ways Christians Can Affirm a Positive Future for Palestinians
Image: Spencer Platt / Getty Images

On April 18, the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Iyar, Israelis celebrated the 70th anniversary of their country’s founding. On May 14, Palestinians commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), the year they lost their homeland to a foreign invader. Jews look on the events of 1948 as the correction of an ancient injustice; Palestinians feel that Jewish justice was gained at their expense. If 1948 meant the end of Jewish dispersion, it also signaled the start of Palestinian exile.

The clash between these two views captures the basic dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: two national groups, two national narratives, and seemingly no way to reconcile them. For 70 years, the rest of the world has been forced to confront this dilemma and choose a side.

Christians, in particular, want to know who deserves their sympathy and support. For too long, the Christian conversation about Israel has been confined to the realm of theology: Are the Jews still God’s chosen people? Are the promises about the land still relevant? Is modern Israel connected to Bible prophecies? Yet as theologians argue over the details, the conflict persists. Meanwhile, advocates for pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian organizations seem to compete over who can come up with the most insipid spiritual slogan (Bless Israel! Be pro-peace! Pursue justice!), forcing those who crave a more thoughtful response to seek answers on their own.

Lately, evangelicals have become especially interested in the other side. “We’ve heard a lot about the Jews,” they say, “but what about the Palestinians? Who are they? What do they want? How can we help them?” A recent LifeWay Research survey of American evangelicals found about 60% of respondents felt the urge to care more for the Palestinian people.

But there are good responses to the Palestinian plight, and there are bad ones. The right Christian approach will be compassionate, wise, judicious, and holistic. The wrong approach will be hasty, harsh, emotional, and naïve.

Here are some of the hallmarks of what a proper Christian response to the Nakba might look like:

1) Recognize that it happened—and why.

The Nakba is not a myth; it really happened. Something took place in 1948 that uprooted hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs from their villages and sent them into exile. Many descendants of the original 750,000 Palestinian refugees are still stuck in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria today. Their stories are positively heartbreaking.

All stories have historical context, and the Nakba is no different. The Palestinian refugee crisis directly followed Arab aggression against the Jews. One day after Israel declared independence in one-half of historic Palestine, five Arab armies invaded from all directions to destroy the Jewish statelet before it could take root. This fateful decision altered the course of the 20th century and destroyed the lives of almost one million Palestinians—exiles who were often rejected by the very Arab countries that started the war, kept in camps and limited in assimilating into local society.

Christians should understand why the Nakba happened, but know that it still remains a source of tremendous pain for Palestinians. It is their most important collective memory and must be acknowledged as such, regardless of how it started.

2) Recognize the humanity of all Palestinians.

The right Christian response to any conflict begins with compassion. Conflicts aren’t between robots. They are between people, and all people, regardless of their background or political opinion, are made in the image of God.

Right-thinking Christians should love Palestinians, sympathize with their plight, and take time to hear their story.

3) Recognize the Palestinians as a real people who deserve security and self-determination.

Palestinians lack a national pedigree like that of the Jews. While the nation of Israel has been a recognizable entity since at least 1200 B.C., Palestinians have only been recognizable in a national sense since the first half of the 20th century. Some critics try to use this fact to disqualify Palestinians from any claim to national rights.

They are wrong. Palestinians are a people, and hardly the first people to emerge in the context of conflict. Regardless of how they developed their national consciousness and when, they have one now. Palestinians who live in the West Bank, Syria, Germany, and Michigan all share a deep sense of kinship and historical memory. It is not our place to deny that.

As a people, Palestinians have the right to security and self-determination like any other people. Denying them this right is to deny their collective suffering. Recognizing it is to give them the dignity they deserve. Whether a separate Palestinian state or a discreet Palestinian entity within a larger political structure (if not something even more creative), an independent Palestinian polity needs to take on an affirmative life of its own. That is the only satisfactory path out of the conflict.

4) Push back against demonization of the Jews.

Anyone who spends time in the Palestinian territories knows just how badly some Palestinians talk about the Jewish people. Yes, the slander goes both ways, but Christians who work with Palestinians must speak the truth in love and oppose ugly rhetoric.

A common Palestinian narrative portrays the Jews as foreign invaders who were planted there as part of an elaborate Western plot to push Jews out of Europe and use them to colonize the Middle East. Some Palestinians go even further and claim that the Jews of today aren’t actually the Jews of ancient times, and it is the Palestinian people who carry the real bloodline of the land. Palestinians, and not “invented” Jews, are its rightful owners.

Part of the problem has to do with the reactionary nature of Palestinian identity, which was constructed as a reaction to the Zionist enterprise. Its narratives, images, heroes, and villains are all defined in opposition to the identity of someone else. To be Palestinian is to resist the Zionist, and opposition to the invader is the national mission. Any Palestinian who suffers at the hands of the invader, or who causes the invader to suffer, is a national hero. Any Palestinian who accepts the invader is a traitor.

But Palestinian identity cannot just be about rejecting the Zionist. That will only perpetuate a vicious cycle that feeds more violence and suffering. Can Palestinian identity survive peace? Does it even allow for peace? What does that look like? These are the questions Christians need to be asking.

5) Reject support for violence.

A recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that half of all Palestinians support the return to armed aggression against Israel. Almost the same number condoned indiscriminate attacks against Israeli civilians. This is a reality that any Christian working in the West Bank or Gaza needs to recognize as deeply problematic.

Indiscriminate violence is not just immoral, it’s self-defeating. Not once has violence produced anything good for the Palestinian people. From 1929 until the Oslo Accords in 1993, many Palestinian leaders used violence in hopes of scaring the Jews out of the land. It didn’t work; the Jews just dug in deeper. Only in 1993, when Palestinians finally recognized Israel and limited their territorial claims to the West Bank and Gaza did they, for the first time ever, achieve any measure of self-government.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last. In 2000, when peace talks collapsed at Camp David, Palestinian leaders dispatched dozens of suicide bombers inside the State of Israel, killing hundreds of civilians. This was the Second Intifada, a vicious wave of terrorism that prompted the current calamity in Gaza, the separation barrier dividing the West Bank from Israel, and the fragmentation of the Palestinian national movement on every level. Whether it was directed against Israel, Jordan, or Lebanon, violence has always made Palestinian lives worse, not better.

6) Support those seeking peace.

Statistics indicate that roughly one-third of Palestinians support the safety and security of Israel and want to make peace with the Jewish people. Many also support pluralism, religious freedom, and other liberal values.

Unfortunately, these Palestinians are usually shouted down by their more radical counterparts. Even worse, we in the West often choose to appease these radicals rather than stand beside the moderates. Now is the time to identify those Palestinians who share our values and find ways to support them.

If there is any positive future for the West and the Middle East, it will come through like-minded people on both sides building real friendships that are oriented toward change.

7) Encourage a positive vision for the future.

Many Westerners come to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with good intentions and bad information. To put it in biblical terms, regardless of which side they choose, they have lots of zeal but no knowledge. Some Christians who want to help Palestinians end up appropriating the outrage and bitterness of the very people they are trying to help. This wholesale affirmation of a predominant Palestinian narrative doesn’t do anyone any good. Real leadership means discerning truth, affirming the good, and rejecting the bad.

In particular, Christians should be pushing their Palestinian friends to work toward a positive vision for the future. What does Palestinian society look like after the conflict ends? Who is advancing a concept of Palestinian identity that isn’t based on a negation of Jewish life in the land? How can peaceful Jewish and Palestinian societies cooperate to benefit both sides? If a one-state solution is unable to be countenanced because it would deny the Jewish state, what would be the next best thing?

It may be that the best response to the Nakba is to help Palestinians to move beyond it. The spirit of Palestine cannot be a spirit of spite. Self-responsibility will be the watchword for any future in which the Palestinian people are flourishing.

Contrary to popular belief, we don’t have to choose a side. The best Christian voices will affirm the identity and rights of both Jews and Palestinians in the land, and reject those on both sides who deny the humanity of the other. We can support Palestinian security and self-determination without endorsing the violence and demonization that many Palestinian leaders promote. We can do our best to affirm a future beyond the Nakba.

Thankfully, we have Palestinian friends who share our approach. Our task now lies in identifying these friends and doing whatever we can to support them as they seek to lead their society from within.

Robert Nicholson is executive director of The Philos Project.

Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.

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