Podcast Ep 65: Sabra and Shatila 40 years on

On episode 65, we speak with Donald Wagner, a long-time Chicago-based activist for Palestinian rights, a Presbyterian clergyperson and the author of a new memoir, Glory to God in the Lowest: Journeys to an Unholy Land.

Forty years ago this month, during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, Israel’s then defense minister Ariel Sharon sent Lebanese militia forces, the Phalangists, into the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut on false claims of so-called terrorism.

Thousands were slaughtered in a three-day massacre and no one was ever tried for war crimes.

Ariel Sharon had to resign as a government minister after an Israeli inquiry concluded that he bore “indirect responsibility” for the massacre.

Yet that was certainly not the end of his political career. Sharon would become Israel’s prime minister in 2001.

In his memoir, Wagner details his experience in the camps the day after the massacre ended, in mid-September 1982, and how that led to his commitment to fighting for Palestinian rights for the rest of his life.

“When I went in on Monday morning, after the massacre ended, a bigger wave of survivors and relatives were coming in,” Wagner tells us.

“And it was so gut-wrenching; while we walked by the Israeli-controlled apartment building – they were still there, of course – you could see how they could monitor everything from that vantage point with their telescopic lenses.”

As he moved closer to the camps, he says, “we were handed a handkerchief soaked in cheap cologne because the stench of death was overpowering. You would get sick if you didn’t have that. And immediately we walked over and were just taken aback because pieces of bodies were being pulled out.”

Wagner adds that he had a brief conversation with an imam in the camp that day, who said he had seen “hundreds lined up on Friday night against a couple of buildings and machine-gunned to death. And then trucks came and trucked them out, and we will never find the bodies. I asked him to estimate what he thought was the number of deaths, and he said, ‘we’ll never know.’”

The imam told Wagner to “just go home and tell the truth. Just go home and tell what you’ve seen.”

“That has stuck with me my whole life,” he says.

“I’ll never forget it. That’s the least I can do with the suffering and to carry that responsibility to tell what I’ve seen,” Wagner adds.

Wagner points out that Israel has faced no consequences for numerous other crimes. He cites the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and the activist Rachel Corrie as examples.

“And as that massacre was covered up, we see the continuation that Israel’s got carte blanche, this murder of Shireen, Rachel Corrie, it just goes on and on. So until these are rectified and there’s accountability, it’s going to continue.”

Articles we discussed

Video production by Tamara Nassar

Theme music by Sharif Zakout

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Full transcript

Lightly edited for clarity.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Welcome back to The Electronic Intifada Podcast. I’m Nora Barrows-Friedman. 40 years ago this month, during Israel’s invasion into Lebanon, Israel’s defense minister Ariel Sharon sent Lebanese militia forces, the Phalangists, into the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, on false claims of so-called terrorism. Thousands were slaughtered in a three-day massacre and no one was ever tried for war crimes. Ariel Sharon would become, of course, Israel’s Prime Minister in 2001.

As the late great reporter Robert Fisk wrote 10 years ago in The Independent, quote, “the stench of injustice still pervades the camps where 1,700 Palestinians were butchered. No one was tried and sentenced for a slaughter which even an Israeli writer at the time compared to the killing of Yugoslavs by Nazi sympathizers in the Second World War. Sabra and Shatila are a memorial to criminals who evaded responsibility, who got away with it.” Fisk was one of the first reporters on the scene at the massacre in 1982. So was our next guest.

We’re glad to be joined today by Reverend Donald Wagner, a longtime Chicago-based activist for Palestinian rights and an ordained Presbyterian clergyperson. He’s also the author of a phenomenal new memoir, Glory to God in the Lowest: Journeys to an Unholy Land, out now by Olive Branch Press. Don witnessed the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, which he writes about at length in his book, and he’s also written about what he saw for The Electronic Intifada. Don, thank you so much for being with us on The Electronic Intifada Podcast.

Donald Wagner: Oh, thanks for having me, Nora.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: There’s so much to talk about with you about your memoir and your legacy of activism. But I want to start by having you lay out for us what you saw 40 years ago this September in 1982 at Sabra and Shatila, and why it remains so important to illuminate the horrors of this genocide. Can you take us back and recount a little bit of what you saw?

Donald Wagner: Yeah, yeah, it’s certainly a painful memory to recall. And I must say that, as an American, privileged, American, you know, I visited and I could leave well, the Palestinians, and the Lebanese, because many Shiite were killed in that massacre, had to remain and deal with the injustice till today. And it’s been covered up. As we know, I didn’t get into the camps till Monday morning, unlike Robert Fisk, who got in on Sunday as some others, so some of the survivors and the relatives had already come back, and when I went in on Monday morning, after the massacre ended, the – a bigger wave of survivors and relatives were coming in. And it was so gut-wrenching, you had to – while we walked by the Israeli-controlled apartment building, they were still there, of course, and you could see how they could monitor everything from that vantage point with their telescopic lenses.

And immediately as we got close to the camp, I was with two other relief and development friends. We were handed a handkerchief soaked in cheap cologne because the stench of death was overpowering. You would get sick if you didn’t have that. And immediately we walked over and we’re just taken aback because pieces of bodies were being pulled out. And mothers would see a torso or a decomposed head of their child and just scream out “Allah, Allah. Why, why, why?” And, I mean, I just feel it as I redescribe. And after a couple of those experiences, I had a chance to interview a survivor who tried to get back in. He was a shopkeeper, and he was purchasing goods in Beirut and, of course, the Israelis wouldn’t let anyone in. He tried to get in Thursday even. And entrances were all blocked and sealed off. And he described how he was at an apartment building. And he witnessed from a distance, a little bit of what was going on as these militias came in, but also how Israel put up flares so the slaughter could go into the night, Friday and Saturday.

So just that – it was just agonizing. And then I sat down to kind of recover in front of a mass grave. And I was sitting next to a French journalist. And we began to weep as we saw it, it just really got to you. And then she asked me the dreaded question, “where are you from?” I didn’t want to answer. But I had this to say, I’m from the United States. She said, and I said, “we bear culpability,” because by then I knew that the US had signed off on Israel coming in and relinquished its positioning, because they could have prevented all this if they had honored the commitment they made to the PLO. And she said, “you’re not alone. We signed it as French. The Italians did, too.” And we’d let this happen. So we conversed about our culpability.

And then I saw an imam walking by, and I excused myself and ran to catch up with him, and I asked him if he’d be willing to answer a few questions, his English was perfect. And I asked about, well, what he had witnessed and he said, he saw hundreds lined up on Friday night, against a couple of buildings and machine-gunned to death. And then trucks came and trucked them out, and we will never find the bodies. I asked him to estimate what he thought were the number of deaths and he said, “we’ll never know.” He said I would estimate between 2,000 and 3,000. That’s as close as we can get. And with the mass graves, he said, that’s some testimony to it.

Then he asked me, “Where are you from, my friend?” And I said, “the United States, and I know the blood’s on our hands.” He affirmed “yes, the blood’s on your hands. But I thank God, you’re here.” He said, “just go home and tell the truth. Just go home and tell what you’ve seen.” And that has stuck with me my whole life. I’ll never forget it. That’s the least I can do with the suffering and to carry that responsibility to tell what I’ve seen. And as that massacre was covered up, we see the continuation – that Israel’s got carte blanche, this murder of Shireen, Rachel Corrie, it just goes on and on. So until these are rectified, and there’s accountability, it’s going to continue.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: What brought you to Beirut at that time? You know, you went during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, what were you doing there? And how did it, you know, how did that change the trajectory of your life as an activist and as a clergyman?

Donald Wagner: Yeah. Well, I had taken a group of relief and development people from the US, various organizations, mostly Christian, so that they could see and then hopefully, develop proposals to come back to the refugee camps and so on. And so, we also, were deeply concerned that we begin the impact of evangelical Christians on this issue and connect them with Middle East Christians and Muslims and Israelis, so we were headed back with two proposals. Three, actually, there were two relief and development proposals, one to work with the Red Crescent, the other with the Middle East Council of Churches in the refugee camps. Then we had a proposal for Gabi Habib, who just died, the head of the Middle East Council of Churches, to develop a relationship between Western evangelicals and Middle East Christians and Muslims.

So we were carrying those, and we left, they left Portland, I left Chicago on Thursday night, but we heard the news that Bachir Gemayel had been blown up and assassinated, and things were in turmoil. So we conversed and said “no, let’s go anyway. It’ll be okay.” So, we landed in Cyprus. I connected with them and we jumped in a cab and it headed to a boat because the airport had been destroyed. And within 10 minutes, the first broadcast came over the BBC of the massacre. So the driver said “you’re not going anywhere.” So we got to the hotel, then we were able to go in the next night. That’s why we were delayed a little bit getting there.

So we went with those proposals to try to be of some help. And when we arrived at the Middle East Council office, Gabi was briefing the doctors and nurses quickly who had been in the camps then he was redeploying them because the Israelis were coming up the streets, and they didn’t want them caught. So he said, “Don, get over to the camps. You’ve got to go and witness for yourself.” So that’s what took us there.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: In your memoir, you write about your history of civil rights activism and how it brought you to work for Palestinian liberation. Our own Ali Abunimah wrote a blurb on the back of the book, saying, quote, “Don Wagner has the courage to listen to Palestinians and speak the truth about Palestine at the times and in the places where silence would have been much easier.” Can you talk about how the silence and the silencing works, especially inside American Christian communities, and you know, in terms of Christian Zionism, and how you’ve worked for decades to challenge and undermine that silencing?

Donald Wagner: Yeah. Well, I grew up as a Christian Zionist. In fact, I’m the product of two types. One is the fundamentalist evangelical, the end time type, and I kind of pulled out of that in my teenage years. But then in seminary, I caught the post-Holocaust version, which is important, but yet there’s a dimension of that which really silences voices on the issue of justice in Palestine. And I was very much a part of that. My first church out of seminary was a Black church, and we were twinned with a synagogue, which was great, we worked on anti-Semitism. But we were guided to leave the issue of Palestine to the, really the Zionist leadership and the rabbis, which we heeded. Eventually, I began to see the light when I helped organize a course on Israel-Palestine. Still, I was very much of a liberal progressive Christian Zionist. And when we organized the course it was during the Arab boycott of oil. And people were in gas lines and really irritated with the Arabs.

So I said, “well, this is a good opportunity for learning, we hope.” So in the committee, it was my first committee because I just moved to Evanston, Illinois. And one of the committee members suggested “well, instead of the usual pro-Israel narrative and positions, let’s look at the Palestinians.” And he made me a little nervous because I was still very much in the Zionist camp. So I said, “well, let’s make this balanced.” At that point, I believed the myth of balance, then I later learned there’s no balance in this struggle, it’s totally imbalanced. But the – that’s where I was. So even though I just arrived there two weeks before, I was assigned to bring in the Israeli speakers. So I got the Israeli consulate of Chicago person to come in. And he gave a passionate defense of Israel. This was just after the ‘73 War. So I was very pleased, you know, this tiny little country surrounded by hostile Arabs, and we in the Christian church in the US need to support Israel, because it’s our, it’s our – the only democracy in the region, and they are our sisters and brothers. So okay. Then my friend brought in Professor Ibrahim Abu-Lughod. And Dr. Abu-Lughod gave really the first narrative of the Nakba that I had ever heard.

I was a passionate reader of the New York Times and all the other mainstream issues, but somehow I missed that. And I was a little surprised that I didn’t know that much about it. And Abu-Lughod really jarred my narrative completely. I wasn’t really ready to accept it. And I walked into the office the next morning, and the first phone call I had was two Holocaust survivors from nearby Skokie, who said, “we understand you have just dignified the position of a PLO terrorist in your church. If this course is not canceled by Wednesday, expect your church to be picketed, and we’ll keep this up.” And then they hung up. So I was a little surprised because I came from the Black church where we had everything, dialogue with the Panthers and of course we had dialogue with the synagogue going on and why, we should be able to talk about anything in the church. So the course went on, thankfully. Our staff supported it.

And it actually grew, because word got around about how controversial this is. So the attendance jumped from about 20 to 25, to a packed room of 75 to 100. So it really kind of did us a favor. But it taught me, hey, you know, you’re stepping into controversial territories, so you’re darn well better study this. That forced me then to do a lot of reading, a lot of meetings with Professor Abu-Lughod and others, and then to take my first trip to Beirut, and then down to Palestine. And then I saw, I saw the reality. And that totally changed my narrative and approach. What – I’ll add, within about a year and a half of that trip, I decided to leave the church and find a way to work full time on the Palestinian issue.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Tell us about that first trip to Palestine after visiting Beirut and seeing what you saw there. And, you know, like there’s, there’s here in the US, you know, people don’t associate Palestinian Christians with the Palestinian experience as a whole. Of course, there’s a lot of misinformation and ignorance about the Palestinian Christian community. As a Christian clergyperson, what was that like, learning from people who have been there the entire time?

Donald Wagner: Yeah, realizing how little I knew, how much I needed to listen, that’s what I tried to do. And, I mean, these Christian friends were very close with the Palestinians. They were volunteering and working in the refugee camps, including Burj al-Barajneh and Sabra-Shatila, south of Beirut, and they had actual ministries and people volunteering and working in these camps. Gabi Habib himself organized the first Christian conference, as far as we know, with the PLO in Beirut, on theological, Christian theological and Muslim theological perspectives on justice for Palestine, 1969 I think it was. And I think he and the Middle East Council Churches did more to educate Europeans and Americans and Canadians on Palestine than anybody. So it came from them, as we listened, and were, you know, just astounded at what was happening in our name.

So they took me into the camps. A Coptic priest was taking me around, and he was very close to the Popular Front leadership. And he, well, the first thing he did was he took me in a cab up to a burial ground where the massacre at Tal al-Zaatar took place, with the Phalangists and the Syrians. And we walked over the ground and he said, we kept an eye on the highway because we said we’re – he said, “we’re not here. This is a closed military zone. Keep an eye on the perimeter. If we see any vehicles, we have to move quickly and get out of here.” So that was a little unsettling. And then he said, reminded me, you’re walking over the graves of maybe 10,000 people who were bulldozed and then buried, and that had taken place less than a year before. And then we went to Burj al-Barajneh, where many of them fled. And then we heard more of the stories that I remember, I admired how they took me to a little home. And I, their story was told and translated for me. And I saw a beautiful little embroidery and I just kind of admired it. And, of course, they pulled it down, said, “it’s yours.” I said, “How can I take this, please take it back?” I was just admiring the beauty of this. And so they finally did take it back. But it was embarrassing.

But that’s the dimension of hospitality. I had never seen or experienced hospitality like that. And that touches you on a very deep level, the poorest of the poor are ready to give you anything, to feed you and care for you if you just care and listen. So that’s what I did. I just listened, and my life was really transformed by that first trip. And, in fact, I even mentioned to Gabi and a priest there, you know, I think I’d like to prepare myself a little bit and move back and just leave the church and come here and work with you on the Palestine question. And the priest said, “you know, that’s very kind of you. But you’re going to – practically, it’s going to take you two to three years to get your Arabic together. And we need you to be conversant in Arabic. But you know, we need people who understand this to go back and tell what you’ve seen. And just work in the churches and working on your Congress. That’s what we need.” So that’s, in fact, what I did.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: How did you – and how do you still talk to, you know, activists, church community members, about – and politicians about what’s happening in Palestine? How do you connect the struggle for human rights here to what’s happening there, and what happened in Lebanon 40 years ago?

Donald Wagner: Well, I’m still learning how to do that. And it’s a constant struggle. Usually, it’s the stories, not my stories, so much as the Palestinian stories. So that there’s a visceral kind of connection, you know, like child detention. My wife is Palestinian, and she has land that has been stolen. And the deed to a large piece of property. The signature of her father was forged by a settlement company in 2010, and her father died in 1977. Yet, they’ll probably get away with it. And she’s one of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. But we’re gonna fight it just on principle, probably, it’s impossible to win in the Israeli courts, but we’re gonna fight it. So that story has a little bit of relevance to a few Americans.

But I think we have to be persistent. We had an interesting experience here in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, where we were able to help educate a woman who was running against one of the more pro-Israel conservative Democrats in the House. We lost the first round, but she opened up on Palestine. We met with her, we continued to send articles, she was totally open, she would read and say, “got it, read it, right away.” And she won. She won the second time around. And we tried to get more the Arab and Muslim community involved, and they eventually did. So she won that election. This time, the Democrats pitted her against a moderate pro-Israel Democrat, AIPAC pumped in millions of dollars, and she lost. So we got another challenge. So it’s a lesson in sumoud, steadfastness, we just can’t give up. And we just got to get more people on board. And it’s an injustice in itself, how she lost, because she’s good, on all the issues across the board from transportation, gender and environment.

So we really lost a valuable person, but we gotta get back up. And I’m hearing people around the country doing that. And, you know, the difference now is that a few of us are not alone. We’ve got JVP, AMP, the Muslims are really doing a phenomenal job getting organized. The churches are passing resolutions. Now we have more openness in the churches than I saw when back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. So there’s an openness. But we got a lot of Christian Zionism in the churches, the liberal mainline type that we really have to overcome and help educate. So it’s trying to really find the narrative, the theological, but also the stories that can impact and, and bring people – and never give up.

You know, there’s a great story that Jesus teaches us, a parable. There’s a very poor woman who had been dealt an injustice, and she comes to a justice who the Bible says he respected neither God nor people. And she never gave up. She kept hammering on his door, it says, day after day. And finally, this judge says, “get this woman away from me. She’s wearing me down, give her justice.” So that’s sumoud, that’s steadfastness, never giving up. So that woman is a model for us.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: I love that. There’s, you know, when you’re public about your opinions, your political opinions and, you know, based on fact and history and human rights, there, you know, there’s always you know, the AIPACs, but also the legions of Zionists, both Jewish and Christian, who will smear you as an anti-Jewish bigot, as an anti-Semite. What advice do you have for other activists and members of clergy who are attacked with this kind of, you know, false claim of anti-Semitism in order to shut you up and silence you and not criticize Israel?

Donald Wagner: Yeah, well, I guess the first advice is to accept it, and you’re gonna get nailed, smeared, etc. It goes with the territory. And I always just try to remember Palestinians and Israelis who are going through the same thing, they got a harder road to haul than I certainly do. So it’s humbling when you keep it in that perspective. And it’s also important to stay conscious, just to try to remain peaceful, but firm with the backbone and not to back down. For me, I had to learn the hard way. I try to spend about an hour every morning in meditation and prayer, just to remember those things and to be conscious of the need to be centered. But not to back down, don’t be afraid. I mean, fear is the biggest weapon they have. Be not afraid. And that’s a journey.

And also to know you’re not in this alone, not only are you connected with that community in Palestine, and Israel, who’s working harder than you are. But you’ve got friends here, you’re part of a bigger community. So to stay in touch with them, counsel, and get that support, but know you’re not alone. And if this cause is in your blood, keep at it. And then finally, now we work intersectionally – even we’re less alone with Black Lives Matter, with the Muslim community, a growing number of native Indigenous people. So all these things fit together, and you gotta keep reminding yourself, hey, I’m not alone. I’m not scared of this. And my calling is to tell the truth.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: What do you hope people get from your book and take to heart, and how could it help inform activism? What do you hope it can do?

Donald Wagner: Yeah. Well, when you put out, you know, your memoir and a story like this, I tried to frame it so a lot of stories might connect with people, and to see how foolish and ignorant I was. And it’s important to keep learning. So for maybe lessons for people just to stay open, and to help some people who are locked into a certain Zionist narrative, who are afraid to touch this issue. Listen, this is a central issue. And I think about Palestine as being – and I think, the poet Mahmoud Darwish talks about Palestine as metaphor. Palestine is a metaphor, like a prism – prism that you can hold up to other issues, and it kind of exposes them for the injustice. And for a seminal issue, and for Christians, Muslims and Jews, it’s what I call the unholy land, and why that land is called unholy now with the injustice being done.

So I hope people can be open to having their narratives changed, you know, kind of like mine was changed. I’m also hopeful that people will see the need for intersectional work. This is anti-racism work. It’s also – I didn’t develop this much, but it’s environmental work. Israel has become one of the biggest environmental disasters, particularly when you go through the West Bank and see what they’re doing. Gaza – oh, my God, what they’re doing to Gaza. So I’m just hoping people can get that intersectional need to build friendship with other causes and be there for them, as well as you hope they’ll be there for you. Then I’m trying to offer some fresh insights on Christian Zionism.

And not many people are talking about the mainline liberal type as a form of Christian Zionism, but I say it equally is. And I’ve offered some new approaches to Christian Zionism. So there, you know, I hope that is helpful. But mainly just for people to see this issue as something that’s central, that our own country is culpable in perpetuating not only settler-colonialism, injustice, but outright genocide. And we have a lot to – we have a long way to go. But I hope people will be inspired by some of the models of Palestinians and Israelis that I point to, who are paying a price but are not giving up.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Finally, Don Wagner, bringing it back to 1982 for a moment, what are some of the images, you know, what are some of the stories of the people you met right after the massacre at Sabra and Shatila that still stick with you 40 years later? And what do you do with those memories? How do they propel your work right now?

Donald Wagner: Right. Thank you. Well, you know I was doing an interview with the Palestine Museum up in Massachusetts. And my interviewer happens to be my publisher who’s just a phenomenal person, Michel Moushabeck. He asked me to read that passage that’s in the introduction. And as much as I’ve read that, thought about it, as I read it, I choked up. So there’s a deep visceral thing that hits me, when I remember the death and the suffering, the screams of the mothers and daughters. And, then what the imam told me, just all we ask, just go home and tell what you saw, you know, and to keep telling, but refine how efficient you are in working, and making that narrative fit your audience.

So it’s a constant struggle. So the people who were suffering and dying, the poor shopkeeper who went in, he lost everybody but a son who escaped, his wife, four children, his whole livelihood was gone. Yet he took time with me. So I remember him. And then I just remember the kind of privilege I had to go in. An even larger responsibility I have to be faithful to those people who paid the price. And if I could make some small contribution, for justice for them, that has to be a driving force. For me, it’s a very spiritual, and very political and deeply personal calling. So that’s how I view it, and I’ll never let it go. As long as I live, I’ll remember these people, these memories and that call. Just go and tell, and try to get better at it.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Thank you so much. Once again, the book is called Glory to God in the Lowest: Journeys to an Unholy Land, out now by Olive Branch Press. We’ll have all the links on the podcast blog post that accompanies this episode. Don Wagner, it’s been a pleasure, congratulations on the book and thank you so much for being with us on The Electronic Intifada Podcast.

Donald Wagner: Thank you, Nora. And for all EI does, I’m a daily reader and need it. Thank you.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Thank you so much, be well.


Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).