For the past two weeks, the world has had its eyes on the violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Each day, new headlines emerge of Hamas launching rockets from Gaza and Israel bombing the strip in return. More than 200 Palestinians and a dozen Israelis have died in the attacks. But before the aggression escalated into direct action, tensions had been simmering for weeks.
Thirteen Palestinian families from a neighborhood in a disputed area of East Jersualem were facing potential eviction. Many Israeli families have already moved into this neighborhood. Israeli settlements on land Palestinians believe to be theirs has consistently been a wider source of grievance between the two communities.
Then, two weeks ago, police raided the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem during Ramadan. The third-holiest site in Islam is also located on the same land as the Temple Mount, a location sacred to Jews.
After 11 days of fighting, a cease-fire has been announced, which will likely halt the rockets and shelling for now. But it’s unlikely to heal the long-term rifts between the communities. What’s more: hundreds of people now grieve loved ones, including more than 50 children, who were killed in the past two weeks.
Salim Munayer is the executive director and founder of Musalaha Ministry of Reconciliation, which has been bringing Israelis and Palestinians together since 1990. Munayer is a Palestinian-Israeli who received his PhD from the Oxford Center of Mission Studies in the UK and has published several books on reconciliation, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Christians in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. He is also the peace and reconciliation network coordinator for Middle East and North Africa for the World Evangelical Alliance.
Munayer joined global media manager Morgan Lee and executive editor Ted Olsen on Quick to Listen to discuss the roots of the violence, the role and responsibility of American Christians in this crisis, and what the ongoing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis can teach us about the racial division in the church.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #265
As a Palestinian-Israeli, can you tell us about your identity as a Christian?
Salim Munayer: It sounds like somebody with those identities would be a schizophrenic, and I find speaking to many Americans—especially Christian groups—that there is a gap in knowledge and understanding of the people of the land and the history. Usually, they have a certain historical narrative that needs to be adjusted.
First of all, Palestine was the name of the land until 1948, and Palestinian people are mixed people who come from Jewish, Arab, Egyptian, Phoenician, Roman, Greek—anyone that passed through this bridge between Asia, Africa, and Europe. So we are a good salad of people and ethnicities, and our identity is very much influenced by the different civilizations that have been in the land.
The Palestinian Christians in the land are mostly coming from three distinct groups: the Jewish community that embraced Jesus, the Arabs that lived in the land that embraced Christianity too, and also more what we see is the Phoenician Greek community. So we trace our history and spiritual identity to the early church.
In 1948, we had Jews and Arabs, the Muslims and Christians living in the land. But as a result of the desperate situation of the Jewish people in Europe—the suffering of the Jewish people in Europe—they were looking for a safe haven, they were looking to affirm their identity, and it also was part of the nationalism ideology that was developing at that time in the world, especially in Europe. It was the beginning of a process where the Jewish community began to redefine itself as a people, as a nation, and to have its own state.
They wanted to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine, but the land was not empty. There were other people living in the land—the Palestinian people. There were small Jewish communities, a large Christian community, and the majority are Muslim. And some of the Muslims were descendants of Jewish people and other groups that embraced Islam in the land.
So that’s where the conflict started, between the indigenous people of the land and a group of people coming from outside who were aided by European powers. For imperial and colonial purposes, the Middle East had become very important, starting with the First World War because of the Suez Canal, because of oil, and competition between the empires.
Other than that, certain theological beliefs—dispensational theology—began to develop around the mid 19th century that basically said that for Jesus to come back, basically that says that the Jewish people in Europe are the descendants that left the land and need to come back to re-establish the Davidic kingdom, to rebuild the temple, and that will inaugurate the Gog and Magog battle and the rapture and so on. That theology was very much, in certain circles, popular in Britain among policymakers.
But it was mixed with antisemitic attitudes toward Jews. The Jews at that time were the ultimate “other” representing the East, including representing Arab and Muslims. So the question was, how are we going to get rid of the Jews from Europe? And with the suffering of Jews in Eastern Europe, the Western European nations, and even the United States, did not want to have Jewish refugees, which at that time was around 3 million.
So Palestine looked good for political, economic, military, and theological reasons. But in that process, the Palestinian Zionist movement realized that to establish an exclusively Jewish state, they would have to move the Palestinian people. And that’s what started the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
So my home city, Lod, which you probably hear about in the news recently, has been conquered by Israeli forces. Lod is an important city for the Christians in the Middle East because it is a city where the St. George church and grave are. (St. George is the patron saint of England. He’s the one that you see on the horse killing a dragon.) It's one of the oldest cities in the world and very important to the Christian history and heritage in the land.
When the army ordered my father to get out of his house, he and 200 Christians found refuge in the church, and they became refugees in their hometown, and they were not allowed to go back to their homes. There was a massacre in the city, and most of the people became refugees. So my family became refugees in their hometown.
So here my family, one of the most well-to-do families in the area, found itself in a new reality where they have to learn Hebrew and to learn a new culture. So I was born into that reality, which we Palestinian call “Al-Nakba” or “The Catastrophe.”
So I grew up in a mixed community of Jews, Palestinian, Christians. and Muslims. I became multicultural and multilinguistic. I had many Jewish friends. I went to a Christian school, an Arab school, and then I went to a Jewish high school. And during my time in a Jewish high school, I asked a lot of questions. And in that process, I began a journey to find Jesus and who he is.
In his teaching, in his inauguration of the kingdom of God, is an answer to the political situation, to the pain that was happening in my land. And that's the reason I went to study at Fuller [Theological Seminary], and then coming back to the land to teach both Israeli and Palestinians.
A lot of people think all Israelis are Jewish, but that's not accurate. About 25% of the citizens of Israel are not Jewish, without the Palestinian territory and Gaza strip—those residents have Palestinian citizenship.
So this is how I am Israeli, I am Christian, and Palestinian. And there is a tension, there are challenges, but also you can turn them into richness. Because my identity is not a source of threat, but a source of richness into your personal and group identity.
Can you share more about how Jesus changed that sense of identity, and how, in the years since, Jesus has continued to shape that sense of identity?
Salim Munayer: I grew up in the church that was a liturgical church, and liturgy is beautiful and liturgy meant a lot. I was an altar boy, but I had questions, you know? I'm living in a city where there was an open, unresolved tragedy, scar, and atrocity that had been committed against the people. But the people whose parents or army committed those atrocities had become my friends.
And you also realize that because you are a Palestinian Christian, you are a third-class citizen. We were not having the same opportunities and possibilities. The land, especially a lot of the land around Tel Aviv airport, used to belong to your family. And you see your parents economically struggling when they used to be the richest people.
You experience hatred and enmity from your neighbors, not only because you're Arab Palestinian, but also because you're Christian because some of the Jews living in the city, they're coming from Europe, and they had very negative experiences with European Christianity. And they projected their fears, anger, frustration, and pain onto you because you suddenly become representative of the two groups that they don't like, and they feel threatened by.
So you ask a lot of questions about your identity, about the future. Many young people like me said, “Hey, we don't have a future here. We just need to pack and go to Australia.” But then, you realize, or my father told me, “Maybe you’ll physically go to Australia, but you will take your conflict with you of your heart.”
I ended up in a Bible study initiated by one of our relatives. He had the concern that we are growing without any New Testament teaching. So he began asking people around, “Who is willing to teach the New Testament?” He even put an ad in The Jerusalem Post. And out of the blue, a Jew who believed in Jesus answered that ad. And every Friday, a group of us from high school—Arab kids and Jewish kids—would sit together, drinking Coca-Cola, debating and studying the New Testament and other issues.
Here, the Jesus being presented to me wasn't the Jesus I had met at the liturgical church. Jesus dealt with the Roman occupation. Jesus dealt with the corrupt, political, and economic leadership. Jesus dealt with nationalistic and ethnic strife and hatred toward Jews, Samaritans, Romans, Greeks. And Jesus presented the kingdom of God.
And remember the prayer of our Lord, “Thy kingdom in heaven will be on earth.” The reality of the kingdom of God in heaven needs to be manifested in our life as we are forming a community across gender and ethnicity. A community where reconciliation, love, and equality between the people is the mark of that community.
And Jesus is our Lord, our king, our leader, and we are in the world as salt and as a light. We don't have to conquer. We don't have to dominate. We are called to serve. We are called to love, to bring people together, to break this enmity.
The enmity that I had in my heart toward many groups of people in the land has been transformed from this anger toward my neighbor into seeking to see how my neighbor and I can together manifest the goodness of God here in the land.
What makes this violence that's happening right now different from previous episodes?
Salim Munayer: There are several factors. For the last 10 years or so, the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has not been addressed because the Israeli leaders were very content with the status quo, the incompetent the Palestinian leadership, the not caring of the Europeans, and also the one-sidedness of American foreign policy and churches concerning Israel.
So the people on the ground, every day they see the expansion of the settlement, every day they see checkpoints, every day they see limitations imposed upon them, especially in East Jerusalem. In recent years, what’s happening increasingly is a Palestinian neighborhood like Silwan, which we call the city of David, will have a change in designation to an archeological area. And there are groups of settlers that are using all kinds of means to move the Palestinians from their neighborhood. Christians are being moved out of their homes, and Muslims, into different neighborhoods. And that stirs up, again, the traumatic experience of Al-Nakba when 750,000 people found themselves as refugees.
And then you add in ongoing police brutality, discrimination, racist statements, more right-wing of the Israeli government, and not seeing any possibility or the prospect of moving ahead. And the coronavirus also led to a lot of unemployment and a lot of economic hardship.
Can explain who has control over Jerusalem and more about some of the tensions over geographic demarcations?
Salim Munayer: In 1967, Israel took over Jerusalem and after they took over the old city, they changed the border line of the city of Jerusalem so it now includes many Arab-Palestinian neighborhoods. The border of the city of Jerusalem now expands almost to the city of Bethlehem in the South and the North, to Ramallah. And so a majority of the people that live in Jerusalem right now are Palestinian. And the Jews that live in East Jerusalem are living in a neighborhood settlement that Israel built for Jews after ’67. In other words, West Jerusalem was supposed to be the Jewish side, and Eastern Jerusalem was supposed to be the Palestinian side. But, slowly, slowly, and sometimes faster, by the government policy of not allowing Palestinians to build homes and confiscating land, and building Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
The key thing is that during the peace negotiation, the idea was that East Jerusalem would be the capital of Palestine, and West Jerusalem would be the capital of Israel. But the right-wing government that we have here wanted to prevent that. They didn't want the two-state solution. So in order to prevent East Jerusalem from being the capital of Palestine, they Judaizing Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
And the area of the old city of David, the Mount of Olives, now called Silwan or The Golden Basin, during the negotiation the idea was The Golden Basin belongs to God. Everybody can come and pray. Everybody can come and go, and it will not be under the exclusive sovereignty of any one party in the conflict. And the right-wing government wants to change that. And in order to change that, one of the most important areas is the Temple Mount, which the Palestinian Muslims fear the Jewish groups will blow up the Dome of the Rock to rebuild the temple on that site.
And it’s not an unfounded fear, as several Jewish groups have attempted to blow it up before. But there was also a Christian guy from Australia who came to torch the Islamic shrine because he believed that those two mosques made the mountain unclean to rebuild the temple and also inaugurate the second coming of Jesus. So Christian Zionists are very much involved in supporting the taking over East Jerusalem and the old city. And some Christian groups have contributed money to rebuild all the artifacts that are needed in the temple.
Wherever they are on understanding the conflict, what do you want American Christians to know about their role and responsibility in this conflict? How you challenge them to promote peace?
Salim Munayer: Well, Christians were involved in the conflict from the beginning. So that is a very, very, important factor that we need to know. If you read some of the British Christian writing about the area, it's a typical settler, colonial language: the people that live there are primitive; Muslims are not clean; they don't cultivate the land, they defile the land; we need to finish what the Crusades did not.
Other groups of Christians, because of the mistreatment of the Jews by European Christianity, the guilt because of the Holocaust, and wanting to have a good relationship with Jews—especially Protestant churches and for the sake of the dialogue between Jews and Christian—they make the mistake of saying, “if you have a state, we will stand with you and that will resolve it.”
But those two groups both have the wrong attitude toward the Jewish people. It's racist because it’s saying, “You Jews, your destiny is not with us. Your destiny is in the Middle East, in that land.” It's very racist language.
Jews have the right to choose where they want to live, Jews have a right to express their faith the way they want to. But for those groups, you cannot fulfill your Jewishness, your destiny as Jewish, if you're not living in the state of Israel. And that is problematic. That is a racist ideology.
Many, especially Western, Christians have an imperial, colonial ideology about chosenness, about the sovereignty of God, about the people, and the nation’s destiny. So our destiny is to help the Jews to come back to the land and to establish the state. And so we have in our theology, a kind of racial civilization superiority, and religious superiority toward other people. And that is really a problem when in Philippians 2, we are called to serve and not to feel superior to other people.
For many American Christians, praying for peace in the region is our default response. But can you help think through how and what we should be praying for? And in addition to prayer, which is the primary thing, if American Christians played such a role in the creation of some of these issues, what role can we play in some of the solutions?
Salim Munayer: I, like you, believe in prayer. There is a power in prayer; no doubt about that. But if you look into the scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, you see especially in the Hebrew scriptures, there is this very strong word to “pursue peace.” Peace requires active work. “Blessed are the peacemakers” You make it.
So if we are representing the Prince of Peace, if we are his ambassadors, and like 2 Corinthians 5 says, “I gave you the ministry of reconciliation. You are my ambassadors.” Well, ambassadors don’t stay at home. Ambassadors go to other countries, they go to the enemy, they are active, they are proactive. How can be an ambassador for Honduras when you are in DC? You cannot do that.
There is the sense and the feeling for a lot of people of powerlessness: “It's too complicated. It's going to take me a few years to understand.” Or people say, “In order to be involved in peacemaking, I'll have to pay a price and I'm not willing to pay that price.” And you are complacent about the situation because it doesn't affect you—or you think it doesn't affect you, but as a matter of fact, it does affect you.
Or you have hatred and enmity toward other people: “Why should I be engaged in peace with people I don't like? I don't like those Palestinian and the Hamas people are evil. Why should I be involved with them? There are dangerous people.”
There is a fundamental reason we are comfortable. We have position and privilege, and we don't want to get out from our comfortable couch to change the world or be involved in peacemaking. And we’re not understanding that because of our lack of involvement, our children and grandchildren will pay a high price for that.
But specifically, what does working for peace mean? Does it mean demonstrating? Does it mean politically protesting an embassy? Does it literally mean going to the Middle East as a medical worker? Like what is it that American Christians should really feel called to do? What does working for peace looks like in 2021?
Salim Munayer: People ask me, how you define reconciliation? And first, we need to have a relationship with people from the other side. It’s restoring relationships and expressing love, empathy, and compassion to people who are suffering.
The second level is that we have to address injustice. We have to address systematic injustice. We have to give people equality. In Christ, there is no male or female, Jew or Greek—that is foundational. So we need to sit in our communities, wherever we are, and work for equality for all people in almost every aspect of law.
Part of reconciliation and restoring relationships will include the important role of forgiveness. Forgiveness is an essential aspect of it. And let me summarize that in a few words: love of God, love of neighbor, and love of enemy. When our theology is causing pain to our neighbors and enemy, it's not good theology. If our theology is seeking the welfare of our neighbors, our enemy, that is good theology.
That is what Jeremiah told the children of Israel when they went to Babylon, to the capital of the empire of the enemy to destroy the temple, he said, “Pray and work for the peace of the city where you're living. Plant trees, get married, have children, build houses, bless other people, bless your enemy.” And we need to engage with our enemy in order to understand how we can bless them.
This might sound like too much pushback, but what if I don’t have a conviction of the Holy Spirit that there's someone on the Israeli side or the Palestinian side that I need to forgive, or necessarily someone that I need to go and ask forgiveness from. So have I deafened myself to the spirit in some way? Or is that call the forgiveness more of a call for me to be more active in helping the folks on the Israeli side and the Palestinian side forgive each other? I’m still wrestling here with hearing the specific call for me, as an American Christian who sees that situation over there and it feels distant. I agree with the call for reconciliation but struggle with connecting that to my own call 10,000 miles away.
Salim Munayer: This question shows me the disconnect between the American Christian and the reality here [in Israel]. In the United States of America, your tax money is funding the majority of weapons and bombs in the area. We are your lab experiment for the next generation of weapons.
You are putting a lot of money in the Middle East, almost $4 billion to Israel, Egypt, and other countries in the Middle East. And most of that money is not for peacebuilding. So you are involved on that level.
The United States of America declared itself, for several decades, as the peace broker between the people here in the land, but in reality, they were not. If you are a peace broker and you chose to be a peace broker, you cannot just say, “The Middle East is too problematic for me. I'm packing up and leaving you. And you guys work it out because you guys are primitive, you hate each other. We don't understand your mentality.” As if in America, you are living in peace with each other, and you don't have tension in the state. That's a little bit—more than a little bit—racist, and running from responsibility and the huge investment of the United States of America in this area.
For the churches, I say you have to be a source of blessing both for the Jews and the Palestinians. Be a blessing by being peacemakers. If the situation deteriorates in the Middle East, then we would have a large war, and you're going to find yourself again, sending your young men and women into the battle. We as a church are not engaging enough in reconciliation and peacemaking. The core of our gospel is the peace of God between me and God, and me and my fellow human being.
We did a survey. How many Christian organizations in the Middle East are involved in peace? How many of them do you think? The political system is paralyzed. If there is going to be reconciliation, it has to be a grassroots movement. But the groups that are involved in peace, are less than 15 throughout all the Middle East.
In our theology, we tell people about Jesus, we join the club of Jesus lovers, we don't care about the world around us, and we wait for the rapture or whatever it is. We become chosen clubs of people, and we're not involved in justice, we're not involved in compassion, and we are not involved in peacemaking.
And if you ask yourself the question, how much money our community is putting toward army and weapons compared to how much we are involved in peace, you will understand we have a problem.
Can you share a specific story or example of how you have helped those in your community work toward peace or find peace with someone they previously considered an enemy?
Salim Munayer: Last year, we had four groups of Israeli Palestinians—one was community leaders, one was teachers, one was women, and one was public leaders. And those people went through our curriculum process, which takes a year and a half. And it is a really painful process, it’s a very painful process.
After they went through the process of learning about each other’s history and narrative, learning about forgiveness, they decided to do an environmental project. We have too many plastic bottles. So we went to the Dead Sea and we collected plastic bottles. Then we talked about our country, our geography, about our history. And if we claim that we love this land, we need to love the land, but more than anything, we need to love those that also love the land.
One group went to an area of South Tel Aviv, where there is a lot of drugs and sex trafficking, and Palestinian women and Israeli Jewish women went to help and to work there. We also have women that are part of the organization Women Waging Peace. It's around 40,000 members. And they said, “We want to put pressure on our political leaders for peace.” And they asked us to train them in leadership, how to meet, how to talk, and how to address the issues between those communities.
Another group that we worked with is teachers and principals. And as a result of the training them, they began to visit each other schools. They're talking to the school children about other people, teaching them about his or her history, about the culture, and to have a better understanding. There are some groups that doing business together.
A lot of people have decided to take joint initiative—doctors and nurses, schoolteachers. Many say, “The situation makes us more determined to work for peace for our people.” And that what gives hope.
Do you have an example of a specific person who you saw their heart change? Or two different people who had a broken relationship who were able to repair their relationship that you could share?
Salim Munayer: I had a student in Bethlehem, and he knew about my involvement in reconciliation, and I could see that he was disturbed, that he didn't like me. So one day I took him aside and said, “Is there any problem with the materials? Or is there any problem with the information? Can I help?”
And he said, “I have a problem with you. You bring Israelis and Palestinians together.” And he told me a story, that when he was a teenager, he saw in front of his eyes his father had been shot in one of the marches in the neighborhood of Bethlehem. And the Israeli military did not allow any medical care for him. And he saw, in front of his eyes, his father dying. And seeing that the traumatic events, all his thinking, all his mind was, “How am I going to get even with the other side. I want revenge.”
So it took me a while to talk to him. Then I convinced him to come to one of our desert trips where he met Israelis. And he had dreamed to come to the sea. (The Palestinians in the West Bank are allowed only a few times a year to go to the sea; they don't have access to any true seashore.) And he wanted to learn to swim. And during that time, you could see like onion, peeling layer upon layer upon layer.
And I went to one of our Jewish leaders, and said, “Listen, this young man really needs to have a touch of healing. Why don't you take him and teach him how to swim in the Red Sea?” And it was a beautiful picture of my Jewish colleague holding him floating in the sea. And I could see my student struggling and slowly releasing and feeling comfortable. And then he came to me and he said, “Salim, I want to share with you that one of the things that I wanted to do was revenge. I wanted to take a bomb and put it in major Jerusalem street.”
So we're a group of Jewish and Palestinians, and we went to the street, and he stood there and we prayed with him. And he prayed and confessed all the thoughts and feelings and how he has been released from that.
And then, several Jewish people went to his mother’s home and asked forgiveness for what happened to her, raising small children, losing her husband. And he could see the tears, the change. And that's so powerful when you see God working in changing the lives of people, those individuals.
Have there been times where you have felt cynical and frustrated in the work that you do?
Salim Munayer: I will not say cynical, but I will say feeling let down by people that you think are with you in the long journey and pilgrimage of reconciliation, but when the price is too high, when there is pressure from the other community, they abandon you. And I think it's not the issue of cynicism, but it is t more the sense of betrayal. Because it's a hard path to walk.
But that’s where you have constantly to be in the realm of forgiveness, in the realm of not judging other people’s actions because of the way it hurts you. Because there are many factors and you don't know all the factors of why people made the decision.
Over the past five or six years, we've had a lot of division in the American church around race, often between African American and white Christians. What do you see as the relationship between reconciliation at the personal level and our obligation to challenge the larger systems that we're all involved with?
Salim Munayer: The definition that many give to reconciliation, we call it stage one. It is the stage of “hallelujah,” “kumbaya.” That's not reconciliation. Reconciliation goes deeper than the dominant privileged group wanting to have a relationship with the weak group, but they don't want to change the position of privilege. Reconciliation is a struggle where not only do you develop a relationship with the other, you also deal with the injustice system that exists in our culture.
Part of it is the issue of identity. Out of what I observe in America, Christianity has been many times associated with white people or the white culture. So the issue of an identity that is built on race or color of skin in the American church and American culture is the problem. And part of reconciliation is you have to go through identity transformation. In that process of reconciliation, the distinct aspect of your identity is kept, but you also embrace aspects from the other people’s identity, and you create a third.
It's basically what Paul said in Ephesians, “You that were Gentiles, you were one time far away. Now you are brought in, and together with the Jews, in Jesus.” At the time the Jews had built up a position of privilege because of God giving them the land because they were the chosen people. But now, you're chosen as is not about exclusiveness. Your chosen-ness is about welcoming other people into the blessing and the goodness that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who came and be with us. And in that process, you build a new identity.
The US has a major issue, not only of systematic injustice system but also the issue of identity. The church in America needs to revisit the idea that Christianity is the religion of white people. But Christianity stated in the Middle East, it started with a Jewish person and a Palestinian. It started here.
Jesus is not the blonde, blue-eyed Jesus. Christianity is not American Christianity. Christianity is people that follow Jesus from all tribes, all languages, where their identity is celebrated, but also welcoming other people. And if you're not going to deal with that, you will continue to have struggles and problems.
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