By Albin Hillert*
How do we approach a conflict that has been causing pain for decades, where hatred and terror surface far too often, and where the international community seems inept at addressing the core issues at hand? Where are the signs of hope, and how do we find ways to move forward?
Anticipating the award ceremony of the 2015 Olof Palme Prize on 29 January, the World Council of Churches (WCC) secured interview time with laureates Rev. Dr Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, and Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, well-known for his contributions in the Haaretz Daily Newspaper, portraying the lives, the people and the victims in occupied Palestinian territories and Israel.
The significance of a shared space
Mitri Raheb begins by sharing his thoughts on the significance of receiving the Olof Palme Prize. “This is not the first prestigious prize I have received”, he says, “but this prize is special because it carries the name of Olof Palme, somebody who as early as in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s said that apartheid should not be tolerated in South Africa, who said that we have to support liberation movements in the global south, and who said we should not isolate Cuba”.
Levy comments, “This prize also comes with a very special timing, when things in Israel are really getting worse in terms of freedom of speech, and even in terms of me personally and my security situation. The award is a strong encouragement, a message from the world to continue the work, to stick to my beliefs, and not to turn silent.”
Levy adds, “In fact, the idea that this is a prize shared between me and Mitri Raheb is also very significant. In a sense, this is a space where an Israeli and a Palestinian can meet and share something. Such opportunities are becoming more and more rare by the day.”
A strong message of peace - the challenges of two sides of oppression
Levy highlights the importance of not forgetting that the conflict in Israel and Palestine is not only a conflict between different peoples. “When I speak about escalation of the conflict in Israel I speak more now about the domestic atmosphere in Israel, and what happens to Israel from within”, Levy says. “With those unbelievable cracks in Israel’s democracy, in many ways what we see are the first signs of fascism, not less than this. And that is of course very, very worrying.”
He continues, “This development will of course also have an effect on the relationship with Palestinians. Because the conflict is fuelled by hatred toward the Palestinians, as hatred is reinforced, more violence and more killings will happen”.
Speaking from the perspective of the Christmas Church in Bethlehem, Raheb reflects, “We have often focused in this context on a strong message for peace. But I believe also that part of the problem we have in the Middle East is that we have a lot of peace talkers. The Israeli and the Palestinians have been talking peace for 20 years while Israel has been building more and more settlements and occupying more land”.
“I think Jesus knew exactly how to choose his words when he said ‘blessed are the peace-makers’, not ‘the peace talkers’, Raheb adds.
How do we find hope in this prolonged conflict?
“Our struggle is a long one”, says Raheb, “although there are many signs of hope”.
“To help handle the situation, in Bethlehem we have focused on creating spaces where the young people of Palestine can acquire skills, where their gifts can be discovered and nurtured, and where we can train them in critical thinking. Raheb says. “So what we have done in our church is to encourage Palestinian youth to become active in society, especially in civil society.”
“We encourage them to live for Palestine; not to die for Palestine”, he asserts, and then adds, “this is particularly important in the Palestinian context, because often what we see is youth that have no trouble believing that there will be life after death, but has great difficulties believing that there can be a life before death.”
“There is one step that Israel has never crossed”, Levy observes, “and that is the step to recognize that Palestinians are equal human beings“. “What I am constantly trying to do is to re-humanize the Palestinians, vis-à-vis the entire landscape of Israeli media and public opinion in Israel, which are making every effort to dehumanize them”. He then concludes, “here is the core issue. As long as Israelis will not perceive of Palestinians as equal human beings, or even as human beings to begin with, there will be no change”.
Faith communities: catalyst for change or obstacle for peace?
Raheb shares his perspective on the situation of faith communities in the region. “I believe that if people understand faith the right way, then faith communities will have a role to play in building bridges between peoples in our land. But we also have to see that religious parties can be a major obstacle - if you think of ISIS, or of the Jewish groups that desecrate churches in Israel, or if you think of Christian Zionists that continue to support the state of Israel, without consideration for the Palestinians”.
Levy reflects, “I can see that the religious establishment in Israel is playing an enormous destructive role. In any kind of attempt to come to justice, to peace, to understanding, with very few exceptions the religious establishment in Israel is not only unproductive, but a major, major obstacle in the way toward justice and peace.
“It is not about religion as an idea, but the way religion is implemented both by most of the religious Jews and most of the Palestinians.”
Raheb adds, “In our case, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be understood as a political conflict. But because politicians failed to solve it for so long, some people have resorted to religion, thinking that religion might solve it.”
“And the same way politicians were using the religion to stay in power before, religious groups are now using religion to get to power”, Raheb concludes.
Discerning the way ahead
Gideon Levy suggests that the first step in resolving the conflict must be a political one. “It must start there”, he says, and continues, “I wish, you see it is very romantic to think about how societies go on an alternative path and then force it onto the politicians, but I do not believe it will happen like this in our situation. It is in many ways like it was in South Africa. There was first a political solution, and then came the committees of reconciliation and truce, but these can come only after the first change. You cannot go the opposite way.”
“It will not come from within Israel”, Levy states. “Only international intervention will trigger the first change. And then we can rebuild our relations with the Palestinians, religiously, politically, socially, and economically.”
Mitri Raheb, in turn, remains hopeful that faith communities can still make a change for the people in the Holy Land. “Sometimes faith communities are slow, but they definitely have a potential, especially if they speak in one language, in one voice”, Raheb says,
He continues, “There are many things that faith communities can do for people in the region. They can invest in education, invest in culture, invest in women’s programmes, and play an active role in their civil society and put pressure on their government to end the occupation”.
“And perhaps most importantly, they can revisit the various theological concepts that were created long ago but which are now harming us in Palestine today”.
“When people in Europe speak about the Promised Land, basically saying that God gave this land to Israel, and by Israel they mean the state of Israel of today. Or when theologians keep confusing the Israel of the Bible with the Israel of today, as if there were no 3000 years in between.”
”As a Christian theologian, I have to say that is it not acceptable to violate human rights in the name of divine rights, or to play God against the humans. The scriptures and the Human Rights charter are there for one and the same reason: to defend the meek, protect the rights of the weak, and to put limits to those in power, No religion is entitled to give the Israelis more rights than Palestinians, Muslims more privileges than Christians, or men higher wages than women.”
“I believe this is an important role that churches around the world can have, in revisiting our theological foundation, and by building a common voice, with commitment to equality, justice and peace”, Raheb concludes.
WCC gravely concerned over violent confrontation in Israel and Palestine (WCC press release of 18 November 2015)
Lutheran bishop advocates for “resistance of prayer” amid Palestinian-Israeli violence (WCC press release of 12 November 2015)
WCC calls for prayers so that “wall will fall” between Israelis and Palestinians (WCC press release of 18 September 2015)
A presence to accompany vulnerable communities (WCC press release of 31 March 2015)
*Albin Hillert is a communications consultant, writer and photographer based in Umeå, Sweden.