This summer, headlines about Palestine dominated news from gatherings of Christian churches. North America’s United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and United Church of Canada voted to boycott products from Israeli settlements.
Meanwhile the Church of England’s General Synod [council] affirmed its support for the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, which campaigns against settlement goods (“United Methodists call for boycott of products made by Israeli companies operating in occupied Palestinian territories,” Palestinian BDS National Committee, 3 May 2012).
At the center of these efforts lay a document with the full title “A moment of truth: A word of faith, hope, and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering.” Known as the Kairos Palestine Document, this December 2009 appeal from Palestinian Christians asks the world’s churches to use “boycott and disinvestment as tools of non-violence for justice, peace and security for all,” and the international community to begin “a system of economic sanctions and boycott to be applied against Israel.”
Over three years the document and Kairos Palestine, the organization behind it, have infused church-based activism for Palestine with focus and clarity.
Answering the BDS call
Michigan-based Anne Remley of the Religious Society of Friends, a Quaker group, said in an email that: “We Ann Arbor Friends (Quakers) have been buoyed to know that Palestinians, including Christians and those who prepared the Kairos call, are asking for people all over the world to join in the urgent campaign for BDS.”
She is also a member of the meeting’s Palestine Israel Action Group, which successfully advocated the Quaker Friends Fiduciary Corporation’s divestments from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Veolia Environment — companies which profit from Israel’s occupation. “We know other Christian denominations are working hard, too, to answer this call, and we have felt partnership with them and with Palestinian Christians and all Palestinians, as we’ve kept working at the project year by year,” Remley said.
Rifat Odeh Kassis, a 54-year-old Lutheran and general director of Defence for Children International – Palestine Section, coordinates Kairos Palestine and oversaw the drafting of its founding statement. “We were a group of around 15 members who worked together for about a year and a half to produce the document,” he said via email. “The reason it took so long was mostly due to the wide variety of the authors’ backgrounds. They represent a wide range of denominations and contexts; they include ordained clergy and laypeople, young people and older people, men and women, activists, academics, and so on.”
But drafters emerged from this lengthy process with a document holding wide appeal for Palestinian Christian society. “Kairos Palestine has a strong support base; more than 3,000 Palestinian Christian figures have signed and adopted it, as have many Christian organizations,” Kassis added.
This shows broad support for the goals and strategy of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in general, Kassis said. “Most Christians in Palestine and their organizations support the BDS call … The heads of churches are more hesitant in expressing public support due to the kind of relations they have with Israel. Israel blackmails them against participating in such activism.”
Organizing under repression
In one prominent example, Israel sought in September 2010 to revoke the Jerusalem residency of Bishop Suheil Dawani of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and expel him to the West Bank. Israel’s Ministry of the Interior claimed that Bishop Dawani, a Nablus native, had “acted with the Palestinian Authority in transferring lands owned by Jewish people to the Palestinians and also helped to register lands of Jewish people in the name of the Church.” Bishop Dawani and his supporters protested that he had undertaken no land deals whatsoever (“Bishop of Jerusalem to take court action over visa refusal,” Anglican Communion, 4 March 2011).
The case ended in his favor a year later, after intervention by both Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (the head of the global Anglican Communion), and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar. While Bishop Dawani never spoke of the reasons for his attempted expulsion, it followed a series of moves critical of Israel by the Church of England, including its 2006 vote to divest from Caterpillar.
For Kassis, who has been arrested by Israel several times, the main purpose of his organization is to strengthen Palestinian Christians’ capacity to organize under repression. “Kairos Palestine’s first goal is addressed to its own people: we seek to send a message of steadfastness and nonviolent resistance to the Christians in Palestine,” he said. “We need to be patient and strong — not passive. Kairos’s second goal is addressed to Christians around the world: to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians in order to end the oppression committed against them.”
Within Palestine, BDS initiatives are only part of Kairos Palestine’s efforts. It also “works on the theological front,” Kassis said, “highlighting the Palestinian understanding of Christianity and countering the theology that harms our rights and our struggle,” and runs multiple advocacy projects. These include BDS, as well as “Come and See” pilgrimages and campaigns for religious freedom and residency rights in Jerusalem.
The organization’s ongoing initiatives are no less participatory than its founding process. “Kairos Palestine works with multiple different communities, but most notably with youth, women and clergy,” Kassis explained. “Kairos is now at the core of work undertaken by most Christian-related organizations in Palestine, and it has become part of the curriculum in some schools. More broadly, its messages and activities have been personally taken up by many activists and organizations participating in the struggle for a just peace in Palestine. Its ‘ownership’ is shared and alive in this way.”
Globally, Kairos Palestine cultivates a network of activists and supporters. “So far, we have around 16 Kairos groups representing a wide range of organizations and churches in many different places,” Kassis said. “Many conferences and consultations have also been held on Kairos Palestine; many groups have come to visit and dialogue with us; and many churches have passed resolutions to enhance their cooperation with Kairos and made decisions to implement some of the document’s recommendations, like boycotting and divestment.”
“Despite this progress, we still hope for more from the churches worldwide,” Kassis added. “We want them to be courageous and side with the oppressed by taking practical steps to end this oppression.”
He means taking sides: “Our occupation is not balanced,” Kassis said. “We are not equal sides: Israel is the strongest party, they occupy us, and they oppress us. Any talk about maintaining ‘balance’ in such a profoundly unbalanced situation is a call to maintain the state of oppression as it is and justifies keeping silent. Jesus provides a completely opposing example: he took sides with the oppressed and challenged the empire. Jesus actually chased out the ones who were selling their products in the temple — he didn’t just deliver a sermon!”
Response to Israel lobby’s attacks
Efforts sparked by Kairos Palestine have drawn the attention of Israel’s supporters, as mobilizations against church initiatives by the United States’ American Jewish Committee and Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs demonstrate. These responses involved online petitions, coordinated personal appeals to pastors and other local leaders, the deployment of staff to church conventions, and public claims of anti-Semitism against church figures and organizations.
Months before the Presbyterians’ General Assembly, the church’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network (which supports boycott and divestment proposals) responded to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ allegations of “anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, and at times anti-Semitic content” within the group. The network said aggressive tactics by these “paid ‘pro-Israel’ lobbyists” showed they were “desperately fight[ing] to take back control of a debate they can no longer win through their bullying behavior” and “name-calling and attacks in an attempt to change the subject” (“The IPMN Condemns Smear Campaign,” Israel/Palestine Mission Network, 7 Februrary).
Nigel McCulloch, the Bishop of Manchester and a prominent Israel supporter in the Church of England, suggested that “over-lobbying by some members of the Jewish community” backfired in the church’s General Synod: “we know how the Synod works and it’s not a good way to get things done” (“Jewish lobbying with Church of England ‘backfires,’” The Times of Israel, 10 July 2012 ).
Kairos Palestine’s success has also earned respect from other BDS leaders. “For us, in the Palestinian BDS movement, the Palestinian Christian voice is so important in promoting our struggle in the sense that it shatters all Zionist stereotypes about the occupation being in defense of Judeo-Christian ideals against Islamic ‘barbarism,’” says Haidar Eid, a member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and professor at Gaza City’s Al-Aqsa University.
“Kairos Palestine addresses all Christians in the world, asking them to stand against injustice embodied in Israel’s multi-formed oppression of Palestinians, Christians and Muslims,” he said.
Kassis also stresses unity between Christian and Muslim Palestinians, a topic he has researched extensively. “In 2008, two colleagues and I conducted a study,” he said. “We found that the main reason for Christian emigration was the lack of political stability (around 35 percent) and the very least significant reason was religious persecution and discrimination (less than 0.8 percent). Muslim-Christian relations were strong and solid for the last 1,500 years” (“Palestinian Christians: Facts, Figures and Trends,” Diyar, 2008 [PDF]).
Like the wider BDS movement, Kairos Palestine demands rights, not political outcomes. “Kairos doesn’t talk about any specific political solution, but it does talks about the necessary conditions in order to achieve a just peace for all,” Kassis said. “A ‘just peace’ in our situation means ending the occupation, granting the Palestinians the right to self-determination, granting Palestinian refugees the right of return, acknowledging the consequences of the Nakba [the systematic ethnic cleansing project leading up to Israel’s foundation] on the Palestinians inside Israel, and ending discrimination against them.”
“For me personally, I think that a one-state solution is more human, more civilized, and answers more fully to the needs of the Palestinians,” he added. “Any other solution might divide the Palestinians among too many places and obstruct their unity as one nation.”
In Ann Arbor, Michigan, Remley, who calls church organizing a “main strand of BDS action in the US,” expects activism inspired by Kairos Palestine to grow. “I see this work as extremely helpful in giving us information to take back to our congregations where study groups are increasingly taking place, as among Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Unitarians especially,” she said.
For Kassis, as well, its future looks bright. “Within the global church, Kairos is being put on the agenda of almost all church bodies,” he said. “It is a call they can’t ignore; they have to deal with it. Many churches thanked us for being so united in our message and our language and they see Kairos as the best tool for them to rally behind the Palestinian cause. Of course, other right-wing churches see the document as something radical they refuse to support. Our challenge, then, is to educate them more.”
Joe Catron is a US activist based in Gaza, Palestine. He works with the Centre for Political and Development Studies (CPDS) and other Palestinian groups and international solidarity networks, particularly in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions and prisoners’ movements. He blogs at joecatron.wordpress.com and tweets at @jncatron.