It’s the right moment for churches to pay attention to Israel’s occupation

Woman walks in front of wall reading "merry Christmas from Bethlehem Ghetto"

The Kairos Palestine Document calls on churches to pay attention to Israel’s occupation.

Najeh Hashlamoun APA images

In his book Kairos for Palestine, Rifat Odeh Kassis deals with a topic that is as fresh as the destruction of a Palestinian home by Israeli-driven, US-built bulldozers, and as ancient as the use of the term kairos, derived from an ancient Greek word which refers to a specific moment in time.

Why does this wanton destruction of private Palestinian homes continue unabated? The answer is simple: Israel controls the narrative that justifies its conduct by reporting the demolition of a Palestinian home as a “necessary step” for the “security” and well-being of Israel. The Israeli narrative keeps the Western world locked into a permanent state of ignorance, following the pattern of previous Western colonial invaders and occupiers.

The Israeli narrative, carefully honed by Israel well before Israel’s 1947-48 war of conquest, has skillfully made the case that Israel is a state whose inhabitants deserve their own state as victims of oppression and genocide. They chose the ancient biblical lands of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) on the grounds that the land was “given to them” by Yahweh (the Hebrew word for God).

That narrative — mixing ancient biblical beliefs with modern political strategy — has so totally dominated the perspective of the Western world outside the Middle East, that it has emerged as the only view of reality known to the West. It is in this narrative that Israel is the “victim” and the Palestinian people are an enemy that seeks to drive Israelis “into the sea.”

It has been Israel’s goal since it gained UN recognition as a state in 1949 to control this narrative and prevent any contrary narrative from obtaining a hearing. The occupation of the Palestinian people is sold to the West as a necessity. Palestinians in this narrative are perceived as a threat to the well being and security of all Israelis.

The large majority of Americans have accepted this narrative as the only available reality. They permit their government to function as a financial backer of Israel, and to politically support Israel in world forums. American politicians function within a bipartisan political operation which accepts and promotes the “Israel is a permanent victim” narrative. This narrative obscures the political reality that Israel serves as an important part of the American empire, which seeks to control the people of the Middle East through military power and political deceit.

The invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and the current role the US plays in Libya and in the agitation for war against Iran, are the most recent examples of this power and deceit.

The Palestinian narrative traces its history through Arab history, from which Palestinians emerged as an important part of the Ottoman Empire. Following Arab support for the Western allies in their war in 1917-18 against Germany and Turkey, Palestinians were assured they would retain their homeland in their corner of the Ottoman Empire. The Palestinian narrative in the modern era emphasizes the Nakba (catastrophe), the ethnic cleansing that led to Israel’s establishment. That narrative has been denied a part in American discussions of the Middle East.

Israeli propaganda saturates American society

It is the Israeli narrative that enables Israel to be an important American ally in the Middle East. That narrative saturates American society through the media, the economy, political structures, nongovernmental institutions involved in education and religious groups.

The Zionists were amongst the last of the western colonial invaders to arrive in the Middle East to conquer a land and exploit its population. This invasion was built on military power and deceit, the twin sins that continue to shape the US/Israel alliance in the Middle East.

Kairos for Palestine traces the history of what led to the Palestine Kairos Document that emerged from the situation created by that alliance. It tells the story of the Christian churches’ effort to communicate the suffering imposed by Israel on Palestinians and it does so from a Christian perspective.

The document originated within the Christian churches working inside Israel, the occupied West Bank and Gaza. It is a community-created document written out of the experience of the Palestinians. It calls upon Christians everywhere to wake up to the conditions under which all of the people of Palestine — Christian, Muslim and non-religious — and respond appropriately to gross injustice created by the US/Israel alliance of empire-building through oppression.

The political strategy of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) is a separate project from the Kairos Document. The two run parallel, however, as different ways in which Palestinians address the outside world.

BDS is a strategy of nonviolence that advocates economic pressure on Israel to halt its oppressive military occupation. It calls attention to the manner in which outside corporations endorse that occupation and profit from it.

BDS originated as a political movement in July 2005 as a “call from Palestinian civil society.” It was signed and sent out from a large number of civil society groups within the West Bank and Gaza. It is important to note that, unlike the Kairos Document, BDS is a strategy which the civil society of Palestinians has developed.

Kairos Palestine, which is the primary focus of Kassis’ book, originated in Bethlehem as a statement from Palestinian Christian leaders. The document was released in December 2009. It is a theological document of faith, not a proposal of strategy. Circumstances since the original document was written in 2009 have grown even worse as Kassis explains (9):

Jerusalem is being forcibly de-Arabized and systematically Judaized with unprecedented speed and aggression: Life for Palestinians there becomes less and less bearable as house demolitions, evictions, arbitrary arrests and interrogations, residency revocations, and the imprisonment and house arrests of children all increase. The siege on the Gaza Strip remains and intensifies unabated.

The Israeli government is forgoing its longstanding public relations campaign — its ongoing propaganda as the only ‘democracy’ in the Middle East — and reverting instead to openly racist laws like the one that seeks to criminalize individuals and organizations that call for boycott.

BDS, with its secular origins, is not promoted by the Kairos Document, but BDS has been adopted by some Christian groups as a practical strategy which Palestinians propose the West adopt as a means toward putting economic pressure on Israel to give up its oppressive control of the Palestinian people.

Resistance of Americans to BDS illustrates how effectively the Israeli (“we are the victims under outside threat”) narrative works to prevent Americans from hearing the call of either the Kairos Document, or the economic strategy of BDS.

Confronting apartheid

The modern use of a Kairos statement by an oppressed population dates back to the first edition of a statement from South African Christians in 1985, a document intended, Kassis reports, “to provide an alternative discourse to the dominant theological thinking” of the day. This South African document confronted the apartheid structures maintained by the minority white population of that society.

Subsequent Kairos documents have emerged in Kenya, Zimbabwe, India and Latin America, each in ways appropriate to the historical moment addressed, all insisting that the Christian faith calls for the oppressors to acknowledge the sinfulness of their oppressive conduct. The various Kairos documents all pursued the same goal, a prophetic call to those in power to acknowledge that the New Testament commands them to halt their oppressive conduct and identify with the oppressed.

Kassis writes (83) that these Kairos documents all emerged from similar contexts: oppression, injustice and the denial of equality and human rights.

They are also “united by their timing, by the kind of moment at which they came into being. They aren’t written at any time; rather they are created when there are no options than true participation in a process of collective change.” To use a theological term, kairos “speaks to the qualitative, not sequential, form of time; for example, the New Testament defines it as “the appointed time in the purpose of God.”

Kassis adds that this moment is one in which God acts. It is a moment, as well, in political terms, that implies “a crucial time, an appointed time, in which the message of the text is delivered” (83).

Adopting a more modern form of expression, Kassis concludes that “the message of the Kairos is both the SOS signal of a sinking ship and a call for hope in the face of despair.”

The Palestine Kairos Document, Kassis explains, arose from a dialogue within Palestinian Christian communities, in short, not from outsiders, but from those who suffer under occupation, which is to say, oppression and captivity.

The Kairos Document emerged from a Palestinian dialogue among a group of 15 interdenominational Palestinian Christian leaders.

After two years of work, prayer, many meetings and discussions, along with debates and draft, the leaders produced a final draft of the document, which they called “A Moment of Truth: A Word of Faith, Hope and Love from the Heart of Palestinian Suffering.”

The final document was released to the public at an event in Bethlehem on 11 December 2009. Kassis was deeply involved in preparing the final document. With its release, Kassis was selected to serve as the General Coordinator of the Kairos Palestine Group.

He began his career as an activist and religious leader in 1988 when he served as director of the YMCA rehabilitation programs in the West Bank, the first of many assignments he has handled since.

In 2005 he became the international manager of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel.

From September 2007 until March 2009, Kassis was the WCC’s general secretary’s special advisor on the Middle East. His current task is to write about and explain the significance of the Palestine Kairos Document.

Demand to pay attention

The kairos moment places a demand not only on Christians, but on people of other religions or no religions, to pay attention to the message that Israeli occupation is “oppression” in the same way South African apartheid and Latin American economic oppression of the poor were oppressive.

The challenge to readers of this book is for its readers to bridge the gap between the Christian theological language of a “right and opportune moment” and the universal cry for justice for those who suffer and are oppressed.

However the reader understands the term kairos, the impossible-to-refute “facts on the ground” in Israel and Palestine, are clear; this is the “right moment” for the world to recognize and acknowledge that Israel’s occupation of Palestine is unjust, immoral, illegal and destructive. Read this book, learn from it, and use it for small group discussions, and as an instrument with which to fight the wall of ignorance that endorses Palestinian suffering. It is a book that demands that attention must be paid to the conduct of the governments in Israel and in the United States, the two military powers who have the power to maintain or end this suffering.

James M. Wall is a contributing editor of The Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, Illinois. From 1972 through 1999, he was editor and publisher. He writes a personal blog,, which he began in April 2008.