Lisa Sharon Harper

June 12, 2017

Sojo Staffer: “Palestinians are the Blacks of the Middle East”

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.

7 Responses to Sojo Staffer: “Palestinians are the Blacks of the Middle East”

  1. Jeff Walton says:

    “[Harper] said she did not know the details about the Belfour Declaration but that Palestine should have been asked before Israel was founded as a state.”

    This would have been problematic at the time, as Palestine itself did not yet exist as a political entity and was part of what was then known as the Transjordan. Harper seems to be projecting today’s political map onto the past, which doesn’t work: many of the actors were different in those previous conflicts.

  2. Jonathan Foo says:

    Well done Claire! In participating the discussion on the Israeli Palestinian conflict, people need to get the basics right. Disappointed to see Harper as one of the key persons in Sojourners being so ignorant in making such a bold claim.

  3. Mr. Crosby says:

    Race (in the modern sense of the word) does not really apply to the Ancient world. Many historians believe that racism as we know it in today’s world really began with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The term “race” as it’s used in scripture does not equate to the term that refers to skin color today. In scripture, it is a reference to Judaism as religion, not a skin color. Just a caveat in comparing “racism” in two very different worlds and cultures.

    Canaan was actually very “diverse” when it came to skin colors and religious beliefs and Jews are not really a “race” if the term is used in the modern context. Their skin color would have been no different than many other Canaanites, and they would have appeared “Middle-Eastern” by today’s standards.

  4. Earl H Foote says:

    As a matter of fact, the Arabs WERE asked if they would agree to form two Palestinian states, one Arab and the other Jewish. They said no. I don’t believe that the Arabs living in the West Bank were asked, prior to 1967, if they wanted to be part of Jordan. I also reiterate Jeff Walton’s point that “Palestine” as a term is misleading, because prior to 1948, a Palestinian was someone who lived in the specific area (which never was an independent state), and it often referred to Jews. However, as is clear from Ms.Harper’s speech, facts and history don’t matter.

  5. Richard Bell says:

    Yes, “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.”
    I am in the conservative Christian community and I want to understand the views of my conservative friends. What Bible-based reasons might a Christian have for accepting the occupation of the West Bank by the state of Israel?

    • Earl H. Foote says:

      Re occupation of the West Bank, this area was originally conquered by Jordan in 1948 (thus, it changed its name from “Transjordan,” meaning across the Jordan River). I’m not sure how relevant the Bible is except that the towns in what is now the West Bank were inhabited by Jews in Biblical times. Israeli leaders begged King Hussein not to attack Israel, but he did anyway. So, the Arabs lost the war. The Israelis realized that they were very vulnerable behind the pre-1967 borders (which didn’t prevent the 1967 war, by the way). Israel has consistently offered to withdraw from the West Bank in exchange for a peace treaty. It withdrew from Sinai to make peace with Egypt. It withdrew from Gaza (which I supported at the time, but the decision was a big mistake). Israel’s justification for continuing to occupy the West Bank is that it wishes to survive. By the way, all of this talk about occupation implies that the area was once an independent state. Why didn’t anyone protest its “occupation” by Jordan from 1948 to 1967?

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