From Sunday, June 4 to Tuesday, June 6, the organization The Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), held an advocacy event entitled “50 Years Too Long” seeking to draw Congressional attention to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. CMEP is a coalition of twenty-seven national Church denominations and organizations, including Catholics, Ecumenicals and Evangelicals. I came especially interested in hearing Lisa Sharon Harper of Sojourners magazine speak as part of a panel entitled “Domestic Activism: Intersectionality with U.S. Based Movements.” Ms. Harper is the Chief of Church Engagement Officer at Sojourners magazine. Originally called “The Post-American,” if that serves as any indication of its positions, it publishes articles for Christians involved in the social justice movement.
The panel was highly advertised, and it did not surprise me that it was saved for the latter end of the conference or that CMEP’s Executive Director, Dr. Mae Elise Cannon, praised it as one of the highlights of the event. It also did not surprise me that Harper’s speech was one of the most liberal or that it was the most anti-American. What did surprise me was the extent to which it veered off-topic. I found that nearly every speech at the event made a good case, but I am still trying to understand that of Harper. She seems to see Israel’s occupation of the West Bank as a continuation of the colonial narrative, and thus, connected with racism.
Harper began with an anecdote about visiting the Apartheid Wall in South Africa and compared it to the Western Wall. First she explained that the origins of racial constructs are found in Plato’s class system. “We are structurally set up to oppress one another,” she stated. In the case of Israel, “We’re talking about colonization,” she said.
Throughout her speech, she included examples from Columbus’ treatment of America’s indigenous peoples to her own protests in Ferguson, which were founded on her belief that the U.S. government was “exercising its control over supremacy or ‘whiteness’ in this case.” She offered the familiar narratives of white supremacy and of the United States as an international suppressor. “The Palestinians are the Blacks of the Middle East,” she said.
She sees the Christian belief about sinfulness as not only leading to savagery and as viewing others as less human, but as also leading to the deprivation of others fulfilling God’s command to have dominion found in Genesis 1:26-27—which, for Israel, applies to denying the Palestinians naturalization and the right to vote. She said that she sees racial motivations behind the actions of those who take away others’ water, imprison children and tell others where to live.
My question to Harper was, “Do you believe the Israeli ‘occupation’ of Gaza and the West Bank is primarily an issue of racial supremacy?” When she heard the question read, she held the microphone to her face and froze for about ten seconds, replying with a chuckle, “That’s a great question.” Ultimately, she said, the conflict did have to do with racial supremacy. She does not think we can live in the current world or “look at Israel in that mind and not think racial issues had an impact.”
After the panel I came up to ask her what specifically she believed was racist or due to racial issues: the Zionists, the Belfour Declaration, or perhaps the Six Day War? She said she did not know the details about the Belfour Declaration but that the Palestinian people should have been asked before Israel was founded as a state. Then I asked her about the argument that Israel must continue to hold the West Bank and Gaza for its defense since the Six Day War. She admitted that she was “not very familiar with the details” of the Six Day War and continued about colonialism.
To her, it seemed, according to historical patterns and political theory, colonialism is always the answer, and it always points to racial issues. Other historical events like the Balfour Declaration and the Six Day War become irrelevant. Just war and the details of conflicts do not matter. We talked for about ten minutes, and I attempted several times to get a direct answer to my question about racial supremacy, but we ran out of time.
I want to give credit where it is due. Harper was nothing but kind, and I know she genuinely wanted to answer my question. I also found the overall winsomeness of CMEP’s event a testimony of the Church’s heart to work to reverse the results of sin in this world and of these peoples’ hope in what they see as a call. Harper will soon be leaving Sojourners and starting her own organization, but she represents the stance of many on the Religious Left.
No matter which approach you take to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is helpful to know the reasons behind some of the people who share some of your beliefs—in this case, for those in the conservative Christian community to understand the views of our liberal friends. It was definitely a learning experience for me. In order to form our views, however, we must always consult history; the beginnings of states and the specifics of conflict are never irrelevant to current issues of foreign policy.Google+