Saturday, February 27, 2010

Comment on the KAIROS Document

Palestinian Christians, Israeli Allies, and Nonviolent Resistance
by Ryan Rodrick Beiler 02-23-2010

National Catholic Reporter has an important article about the Kairos Palestine Document endorsed last month by the leaders of 13 Christian communities in the Palestinian territories. The article raises several key realities that subvert common misconceptions about the Middle East conflict:

1) Palestinian Christians exist, and have much to teach the global church — especially the U.S. church.

2) There is an active movement within Palestinian society that advocates nonviolence.

3) These movements have support from Israeli and American Jewish activists who also oppose policies of the Israeli government which they see as counterproductive to the cause of lasting peace and security for Israel.

The Kairos Document declares that:

[T]he Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is a sin against God and humanity because it deprives the Palestinians of their basic human rights, bestowed by God. It distorts the image of God in the Israeli who has become an occupier just as it distorts this image in the Palestinian living under occupation. We declare that any theology, seemingly based on the Bible or on faith or on history, that legitimizes the occupation, is far from Christian teachings, because it calls for violence and holy war in the name of God Almighty, subordinating God to temporary human interests, and distorting the divine image in the human beings living under both political and theological injustice.

It is important to listen to such voices, even if we do not agree with every nuance of the 16-page document, such as the assertion that “Yes, there is Palestinian resistance to the occupation. However, if there were no occupation, there would be no resistance, no fear and no insecurity.”

Injustice does indeed fuel violence. But even without the occupation, I have little doubt that extremists from both sides would likely continue to commit sporadic acts of violence against the other, however diminished in frequency or popular support — just as splinter groups have struck as recently as last year in spite of the overall peace in Northern Ireland, followed by massive protests by both sides against the violence.

While I had hoped for a more direct and prophetic denouncement of terrorist violence, the document does so indirectly by strongly and repeatedly advocating the opposite:

[W]e bear the strength of love rather than that of revenge, a culture of life rather than a culture of death. …

Christ our Lord has left us an example we must imitate. We must resist evil but he taught us that we cannot resist evil with evil. …

We can resist through civil disobedience. We do not resist with death but rather through respect of life. …

Resistance is a right and a duty for the Christian. But it is resistance with love as its logic. …

Our message to the Muslims is a message of love and of living together and a call to reject fanaticism and extremism. …

Perhaps most controversial is the document’s endorsement of boycotts and divestment campaigns “of everything produced by the occupation.” NCR quotes Msgr. Dennis Mikulanis of Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East, a pro-Israel, ecumenical organization based in New York city, as saying, “I understand that it comes from a place of deep Palestinian suffering. But we will not advance peace by placing all the blame on Israel’s shoulders, or by promoting the false idea that boycotting Israel will solve this conflict.”

Because of the complexity of boycotts and divestment as a means of nonviolent protest against the Israeli occupation, Sojourners has not supported them, but been careful to present several sides (there are more than two!) of the issue in our coverage, as evidenced by these commentaries by Don Wagner, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, and Haim Dov Beliak which ran simultaneously in our magazine a few years back.

But the Kairos Document is clear in its distinction between being anti-occupation — not anti-Israel or anti-Jewish — and intentionally reaches out to Jewish allies in the cause of peace:

Jewish and Israeli voices, advocating peace and justice, are raised in support of this with the approval of the international community. …

Our message to the Jews tells them: Even though we have fought one another in the recent past and still struggle today, we are able to love and live together.

These affirmations are not abstract, but based on existing relationships. As NCR notes:

Among the religious leaders who spoke at the Bethlehem launch of the Kairos document were American Rabbi Brian Walt, a member of Rabbis for Human Rights and co-founder of the Jewish Fast for Gaza, and Dr. Mark Braverman, executive director of the Holy Land Peace Project. Both praised the Palestinian statement for its call to action. Braverman likened it to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

“The bold claim in the document that action for justice for the Palestinian people will also bring liberation for the Jewish people struck me as particularly important,” Walt said.

But while it’s important to raise awareness of Palestinian nonviolence movements as an alternative to broadly held stereotypes, it’s also important to demonstrate that such movements have the potential for success. In the West Bank village of Bilin, largely nonviolent protests and legal battles have finally resulted in a decision by the Israeli Supreme Court that led to a re-routing of the Israeli separation barrier that cut through their land in order to enlarge an Israeli settlement. The barrier’s current route belies its justification as a security measure, as much of it is constructed well within Palestinian land and not on the internationally recognized border with Israel. According to the Los Angeles Times:

After the barrier is shifted, expected to be completed this year, about 170 acres of vineyards, olive and almond trees and other agricultural land will be accessible again to Palestinian owners. But villagers say the barrier and nearby Jewish settlements still occupy about 400 acres of land they once held.

“Even getting back one inch is an accomplishment,” said Iyad Burnat, a resident of Bilin and a member of the Bilin Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements. “But the wall is still being built on our land, and even the new route will cut down more of our trees. We are going to continue our fight against the wall until we move it all the way back to the 1967 line” that marked Israel’s border before it occupied the West Bank during the 1967 Middle East War.

The LA Times also cites the director of the Settlement Watch project of the Israeli advocacy group Peace Now, Hagit Ofran, as saying “Bilin’s victory would serve as an encouragement to other nonviolent Palestinian protesters.” They need all the encouragement they can get, as their protests have often been met with pre-emptive arrests and at times lethally violent responses by Israeli security forces. As an editorial in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz states:

The fact that there are still civilians prepared to invest time and energy in nonviolent protest and popular action carried out by two peoples should be lauded, not suppressed.

It’s encouraging to see some of this coverage popping up in the mainstream media — one hopes it will encourage nonviolent movements and their supporters, as well as begin to subvert widely held assumptions about either side’s desire for peace.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler is the Web Editor for Sojourners and a photographer whose work can be seen at