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June 24, 2020

From George Floyd to Iyad al-Hallaq: Can the American Church Also Engage with the Palestinian?

By Wissam Al-Saliby

Amid the protests to the killing of George Floyd, many Evangelical pastors and leaders are speaking up and supporting racial justice, reconciliation, and public institution reform in the United States through Sunday sermons, peaceful protests, and social media.

I would like to challenge these pastors and leaders to weave the injustices in the Holy Land into their narrative for the following reasons.

Reason 1: There’s police and military brutality in the Holy Land.

On May 30th, Iyad al-Hallaq, a 32-year-old Palestinian, was walking in the streets of Jerusalem to a center that caters to autistic persons. Despite the man’s caregiver shouting at the police officers that he had a disability, despite al-Hallaq not posing any threat, despite his shouting at the two Israeli officers that he was with the caregiver, the officers shot and killed him.

On social media as well as in traditional media, the killing of al-Hallaq was inevitably compared to the killing of Floyd. The underlying racism, overpowering police and military, randomness of violence, patterns of killing unarmed persons, and the impunity are too familiar to Palestinians in the Holy Land.

As soon as the video of George Floyd’s killing circulated, Twitter was filled with images of Palestinians in similar positions, lying flat on the ground, pinned to it under the knees of Israeli soldiers.

The reports  on U.S. police severely injuring demonstrators with rubber-coated metal bullets sounded familiar. At least 21 Gazan protesters lost an eye from the Israeli forces’ fire in the last two years, and one teenager lost both. Earlier this year, Israeli policeman shot an eight-year-old between the eyes with a rubber bullet in an unprovoked attack. Late in 2019, a Palestinian freelance photographer was shot by Israeli soldiers while covering a demonstration.

This is not to say that the injustice is comparable in size. Israel’s maintains entrenched discriminatory systems that treat eight million Palestinians unequally. Palestinians face severe restrictions on their housing and property rights. Hundreds of Palestinian civilians are killed unjustly every year by Israelis. Many more are detained in “administrative detention,” often for many years without any charges or commission of crimes.

Munther Isaac, Academic Dean of Bethlehem Bible College, wrote, “Symbolically, we relate to [George Floyd’s] experience because we also ‘cannot breathe.’ The wall, the [Israeli] colonies and checkpoints suffocate us. They took the land, water and air from us, and with covetousness they still want even more.”

Reason 2: Love Israel? Call out her injustice!

Amos’s prophetic words “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” have been brandished repeatedly in support of racial justice. But these words came at a time when the Northern Kingdom was rich and prosperous. And yet, people oppressed the innocent, took bribes and deprived the poor of justice in the courts (Amos 5).

A large percentage of Evangelicals, in the U.S. and worldwide, support the State of Israel. Sadly, the majority of this support is not nuanced and, unlike Amos, does not in any way attempt to hold Israel to account for its injustices against Palestinians.

In May 2016, just as the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was beginning to discuss issues of race and reconciliation in America, denomination leaders pushed for a resolution condemning the Palestinian civil society call of 2005 to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel (BDS) in pursuit of Palestinian demands of equality and justice. SBC leaders ignored the pleas of Arab Baptist leaders from Israel as well as Palestinian civil society and political leaders who see in the boycott of Israel a nonviolent path for justice.

Earlier this month, many church leaders and pastors spoke up in indignation when, on June 1st, President Donald Trump took a photo in front of the St. John Church in Washington D.C. holding the Bible. This mistreatment of the Word of God reminds me of another instance in May 2018 when pastor John Hagee delivered closing remarks and pastor Robert Jeffress prayed at the U.S. Embassy, moving to and opening in Jerusalem. Just as Trump disregarded St. John Church’s clergy for his photo op, these two American Evangelical leaders ignored Palestinian Christians. And as security forces cleared the way violently for Trump to reach St. John Church, I was reminded of how violently the Israeli army oppressed demonstrators in Gaza on the same day of the U.S. Embassy opening – killing 59 Palestinians and injuring two thousand.

In Jerusalem, Jeffress and Hagee did not pray for these Palestinians in Gaza. Do you?

Reason 3: The sin of racism does not distinguish between “others.” Neither should we.

More than a year ago, I posted the above photo on my Facebook timeline of a Palestinian boy beaten, blindfolded and carried away by a dozen Israeli soldiers. Through this telling image, my intention was to expose the injustice that Palestinians face.

“Law and order,” commented one of my American Facebook friends. This provocative comment by a white man, a churchgoer and fellow Christian, made my blood boil. I deleted it immediately.

I only fully understood this comment when I read Jim Wallis’ book America’s Original Sin in which he writes that “many white Americans tend to see unfortunate incidents based on individual circumstances, while most black Americans see systems in which their black lives matter less than white lives” (p. 14).

Under the notion of “law and order,” if a Palestinian boy – who lives within an institutional and legal system that discriminates against him by depriving him and his peers of their freedom, their property, their education and, in some cases, of their lives – decides to throw a stone at a military or police force enforcing the system, then the law indeed criminalizes the act of stone throwing. The notion of “law and order” is individualistic and matches a theology that considers sin as individual. This notion is dismissive of legal systems and institutions that enshrine injustice – in the U.S., the Holy Land, and elsewhere – just as it dismisses a theology that sees social and institutional injustices as a manifestation of sin.

During the current change and reconciliation momentum unfolding in the United States, is it acceptable, or even possible, that large numbers of American white churchgoers, like my Facebook friend, change their attitudes towards African Americans but keep the same attitudes towards Palestinians? And what victory for the Gospel could that be?

The sin of racism does not distinguish between “others;” therefore, advocacy for racial justice and reconciliation should cast the net as wide as possible – Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, Native Americans, Latin Americans, and other “others.”

Today, I challenge Evangelical pastors and leaders in the United States to listen to Palestinians just as they are listening now to their African American brothers and sisters. You could start reading Munther Isaac’s recent book, The Other Side of the Wall: A Palestinian Christian Narrative of Lament and Hope, or you could attend Bethlehem Bible College’s Christ at the Checkpoint conference, or even organize such an event at your church.

I challenge my brothers in Christ to understand and address the sin of racism as it relates to all “others,” and to defy sinful attitudes and unjust laws and institutions in the United States as well as in the Holy Land.

1 Comment

  1. Huguette says:

    From George Floyd to Iyad al-Hallaq: Can the American Church Also Engage with the Palestinian?

    BEST QUESTION EVER !!! Please Lord! Have mercy…

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