Tuesday, November 25, 2008

7th International Sabeel Conference discusses nonviolent action and hosts Rashid Khalidi

Rashid Khalidi speaks with the Rev. Naim Ateek, director of Sabeel and the Rev. Richard Toll, Friends of Sabeel North America

The fourth day of the 7th International Sabeel Conference opened with a lecture concerning the impact of the Nakba on Christian Palestinians’ faith. The speaker, Rev. Naim Ateek, director of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, described the need for a new form of Christian theology after 1948 in order to satisfy religious answers to the tragedy which struck them. Palestinian Christians were in a state of spiritual schizophrenia unsure if the establishment of the state of Israel was a fulfillment of the scriptures, “Does this mean that Jews are really God’s chosen people and he is active in bringing the Jews back to the Holy Land?” Many left their faith as a result of the church’s failure to speak out against the exclusive concept of the Jewish chosen people and their right to Palestinian land. The silence was broken in the 1980s with the establishment of Al-liqa’ by Jiryes Khoury and Sabeel by Rev. Naim Ateek. Rev. Naim Ateek established a theology of hope for the oppressed by drawing parallels between Christ’s experience under occupation and the current situation in Israel-Palestine. As an advocate of nonviolence, Ateek asks Christian Palestinians to look to Christ as a role model of nonviolent resistance. Palestinian liberation theology challenges Christians to respond to occupation with love rather than hate for the enemy.

This theme of nonviolent resistance continued with a series of workshops in which 300 international participants were given the opportunity to listen and discuss with speakers from various Jewish and Palestinian NGOs working toward peaceful coexistence. One speaker, Mohammad Zeidan, Arab Association for Human Rights, discussed the social and political situation of Palestinians holding Israeli citizenship. He described their status as second class citizens and the direct and indirect forms of discrimination that they are subject to on a daily basis living inside of Israel. Zeidan is part of the civil rights movement inside of Israel, a nonviolent movement focused on gaining equal rights by civil and legal means.

Following the workshops, Rashid Khalidi, senior lecturer at Columbia University, spoke about the evolution of Palestinian collective identity and the centrality of the Nakba to its development. As Palestinians become increasingly fragmented politically, socially, and spatially, the work of memory has succeeded in creating a collective identity. Khalidi describes memory as “the rock on which Palestinians stand.” The steadfastness of Palestinian memory is integral to resisting the view in the United States and Israel that the dominant Israeli narrative has exclusive authority. Khalidi lambasts the extent to which the Israeli narrative is entrenched in American culture and asserts that the only practical solution to changing American opinion is nonviolence. He offers the example of the first and second Intifadas’ impact on international opinion of Israel. The first Intifada was effective due to its use of nonviolent methods while the second was a failure due to the salience of Palestinian violence. In addition, the holocaust is part of American consciousness and acts of violence perpetrated by Palestinians will reinforce the American view of Israelis as victims. Also, acts of terror reinforce a connection between the United States and Israel based on a shared “War on Terror”. Khalidi ended by underscoring the need for Palestinian political consensus and a suitable forum in which to discuss the issues.

The last event of the night included Palestinian music, poetry, and a testimony from a former Jewish soldier. Guest speaker, Josef Ben-Eliezer recounted his experience as a soldier participating in the events of the Nakba drawing parallels between the Holocaust and the Nakba. Beginning his account with an emotional description of his suffering under the Nazis in occupied Poland, Ben-Eliezer described how this experience profoundly shaped his outlook as a young man in Palestine. 1948 was a “matter of fighting for our survival.” Ben-Eliezer believed that if he did not fight that the Jewish people would be exterminated. After the establishment of the state of Israel, he began to doubt the necessity of continued hostilities. The expulsion of Palestinian residents from Lydda and the confiscation of their belongings reminded Ben-Eliezer of his childhood in Poland, “We are here in Palestine doing the same things that were done to us.” After the war, Israelis did not accept his version of events labeling his story “Arab propaganda”. Eventually, Ben-Eliezer left Israel with the conviction that living in the state of Israel constituted an injustice.

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