To Palestine and Israel: Open a Space for the Presence of the Socio-Political and Religious Other

By Jesse Wheeler



For those following the conflict and global developments related to the conflict in Palestine/Israel, the month of November could aptly be described as a rollercoaster. Last month witnessed, for example, the election of the first Palestinian-American woman to the United States congress, Rashida Tlaib, along with a number of outspoken advocates for Palestinian rights, including Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Given the US’s instrumental role in the conflict’s perpetuation, the multiplication of voices sympathetic to Palestinians in Congress is an interesting development, even as newcomer progressives face a Democratic Party establishment that remains solidly pro-Israel. In addition, online bed & breakfast giant, Airbnb, made the decision to discontinue rental listings within Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, another small success for the growing, nonviolent Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

More tragically, however, a “botched Special Forces operation” within Gaza triggered an additional round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas that many feared would escalate into yet another full-blown war. Hamas fired 400 rockets into Israeli territory, with the only death being that of a Palestinian worker from the West Bank temporarily residing in Israel, while Israel bombed 100 sites, both civilian and militant, killing seven. Recognizing the precarious situation in Gaza since 2014, Hamas reached out to Israel, via Egypt, for the cessation of hostilities and a reinstatement of the cease-fire, to which the Netanyahu government ultimately agreed. This agreement, however, triggered the resignation of Israel’s hawkish Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and threatened the collapse of Netanyahu’s government, a move seen by many as anticipating Lieberman’s own candidacy for premiership. The ceasefire was also roundly condemned by other hawkish members of the cabinet who advocated a full-blown assault on Gaza, yet ultimately chose not to resign for fear that government collapse would be seen as a Hamas victory. In response, Netanyahu has been positioning himself as a responsible centrist – an important, albeit ironic development as elections draw nearer.


Perhaps the most interesting development is the recognition that Hamas deliberately pursued a ceasefire with Israel and that Netanyahu agreed to it, at the possible – or at least perceived – risk of his ruling coalition. We must remember that each traditionally represents the war camp within their respective societies. Each rose to prominence in the 1990s in opposition to the Peace Accords, and each has played an important role in Oslo’s eventual demise. In many respects, it could be said that Hamas and Netanyahu have fed off each other in an adversarial, yet ultimately symbiotic tension – each deriving their political legitimacy in violent opposition to the other.

Yet as leaders play their political games, dancing within the halls of power or strategizing within the bunkers and back alleys of the Resistance, it remains always the innocent who suffer. As politicians beat the drums of war, drumming up popular support through aggressive stances and dehumanizing rhetoric, they fail to take into consideration, or either don’t care about, those who suffer needlessly. What does it mean, therefore, when the war hawk extends his arm in peace? Do we celebrate such overtures wherever we find them? Or, must we view such pursuits as merely the desire to perpetuate an exploitative, even demonic status quo? Should it be interpreted as battle fatigue? Or little more than political theatre? Is it right to be so cynical, weary of each’s intentions?

Therefore, to borrow a concept from social psychology, what factors allow for the restoration of intergroup trust where none presently exists?[1]

[1] Thanks to IMES Consultant, Dr. Thia Sagherian.

Theological and Missiological Reflections

Despite modern sensibilities, all religion is innately political – Islamic, Jewish, Christian, or otherwise. To recognize the reign, or sovereign authority of God is to automatically decenter those human or systemic pretenders, groups or movements that would elevate themselves to the place of God, taking upon themselves the authority of life and death over others and redefining right verses wrong in relation to their own will (to power). But, when religious leaders and groups ally themselves or identify so closely to such leaders and institutions, as well as territory, the situation can become extremely dangerous.[2] For this is the heart of idolatry.

Especially when competing religio-political identities seek to occupy the same geographical or ideological space, the situation can quickly devolve. This is true in America, as many don’t know what to make of or downright fear the congressional newcomers, their politically unorthodox views and at times triumphalist attitudes – two of the most high-profile being Muslim women – and it is true to the extreme in the case of Palestine/Israel, wherein multiple religio-political nationalisms find themselves locked within a vicious, intractable cycle of recrimination and violence.

This leads us to ask what it means to share public space, peacefully and with justice. Secularist nationalisms and the privatization of religion as a solution to this question has a troubled history in the MENA, more often than not imposed from above by autocratic leaders. Theological liberalism/modernism has likewise lost much of its influence, a consequence of rejecting of the authority of traditional religious sources. What, then, does it look like for two groups to occupy the same socio-geographical space, peacefully, from a position of holistic fidelity to one’s convictions and socio-religious identity?

At this point, all I can do is commend the words of Christ Jesus: “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets,” to practice empathy, and open within ourselves space for the presence of the socio-political and religious other. Then, there is a chance we might one day be able to occupy the same geographical space, peacefully and with justice.

[2] Ida Glaser, The Bible and Other Faiths: What Does the Lord Require of Us? (Carlisle: Global Christian Library – Langham, 2005) Kindle Locations 1353-1387.