Much has been written on the impact of the Jewish Nation-State law, passed by the Knesset only a few weeks ago. By defining the state of Israel as the “national home” of the Jewish people, the law declares that the right of self-determination within the State of Israel is exclusive to Jews only. Most popular criticism of the law has correctly stated that it compromises peace, democracy and equal rights for all Israeli citizens, and it has demoralized the non-Jewish segment of Israeli society. In particular, it has diminished legitimacy of the Palestinian people. The aim of this article, however, is to address how this law affects Christians in The Land alongside those of us working in reconciliation.
The new law undermines the rights of Palestinians as Israeli citizens, and weakens the narrative of Palestinian Christians. We also claim this as the sacred land of our forefathers and the prophets, where our Messiah was crucified and resurrected. For Palestinian Christians, The Land itself is an “icon” which bears witness to the love and presence of God. Our deep connection to the holy sites testifies to the power and sanctity of the events that occurred there, which have been treasured for generations by faithful Christians. We see ourselves as a “living testimony” who represent the continuity of God’s providence in this place from biblical history to the present day. This testimony need not negate the Jewish or Muslim narrative in the land, but the Nation-State law sets the Jewish narrative in direct opposition to that of the Christians who have historically lived in The Land.
The Palestinian Christian community is challenged by this new law as we strive to maintain our historical identity as witnesses of the faith who are in, of and from the land. Defining the character of Israel as an exclusively Jewish state weakens the democratic ethos which is supposed to be a key element of Israeli society. This change will increase the sense of separation and disenfranchisement felt by the “other” in The Land, be he Christian, Muslim, Druze, or another. To say that The Land only belongs to the Jews disregards all others who regard this land as their home.
Furthermore, the law has altered the dynamic of relationships between Christians and Jews. It has increased segregation by allowing exclusively Jewish towns and settlements to be established. The way our identities will be framed and negotiated will shift because of how religion has been identified by the legislation as a point of contention in the land. Existing religious narratives regarding The Land have been set in competition by the Jewish claim of an exclusive right to its sanctity and history. If this land is exclusively meant for the Jewish people, my sense of belonging and religious heritage as a Palestinian Christian has been trampled upon.
So, how will the believers in this land address the situation? Will they have the courage to speak up and stand firm against divisiveness, racism, and discrimination? Freedom of religion and religious identity—which are supposed to be guaranteed for all Israeli citizens—are at stake. It is the duty of Christ followers to speak prophetically against such policies.
Given this new situation, the challenging work of reconciliation must be reconsidered. The conflict has moved beyond the obvious divide between Palestinians and Jews, and it has extended to include other segments of society. A new dimension needs to be embraced in order to counter the greater fragmentation that the Nation-State law is bringing into Israeli and Palestinian society. Other segments of society throughout The Land bear together the burden of such discriminatory and exclusionist legislation. We must embrace reconciliation with one another to counter the greater threat to democracy, identity, and unity posed by the new law. Within the Jewish community there are many who do not identify with the harsh rhetoric of the law. They are also burdened with increasing fragmentation and loss of identity. This burden is a symptom of a nation-state that attempts to establish identity within a single and exclusive religious framework, one that is explicitly rabbinic, with boundaries rigidly defined by the Halacha (Jewish law). The result is that Jewish identity in Israel is increasingly characterized by the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox communities, for whom ethnic and religious pluralism in The Land is intolerable.
History teaches that when we do not have peace, a dominant group uses tactics to make the others compete with each other to gain social and economic power. Those in power employ a “divide and rule” strategy in which minority groups are disempowered; not only by the dictates of the powerful, but by competing with one another. Another strategy used is the “carrot and stick” type whereby promises are made by the powerful to coerce minorities into submission and cooperation. The question for those of us in The Land who do not belong to the dominant camp is whether we will be able to unite and walk together. Will we embrace the search for a common identity where each group’s history and tradition will be honored and equality is achieved? This is an unlikely goal when the tribal and religious divide between us is so deep that it can lead to a kind of civil war.
The more one dominant group distances itself from others who are “not like” them, the greater the fragmentation in society. A relationship of “false expectations” develops when one or more persons or groups appease the dominant group in order to get the “crumbs” of favor and socio-economic status. This causes different reactions as they face a worsening situation and try to regain some of their voice or power. The instinctive reaction of the marginalized is to employ violence, which leads to chaos and social disruption. When violence is embraced as a form of resistance, the oppressed play into the hands of the powerful who are then able to justify their actions for the sake of “self-defense.” When violence fails or is rejected, the disempowered will embrace a form of the second reaction, which is passive resistance. When interacting with the dominant group, they may “drag their feet” or delay processes even if they appear cooperative. The third reaction is to submit and accept the situation, which often leads to hopelessness and bitterness. Finally, the marginalized may embrace appeasement. Assuming they wish to stay in The Land, those who are discriminated against are determined to climb up the socio-economic ladder, so they try to appease those above them for the sake of obtaining benefits. Others chose to leave the country altogether.
Yet, there is another option that rejects the above reactions. The Christian community of the Land can work together as part of the Kingdom of God under His Christ’s headship. In the midst of discrimination from the larger society, we can develop an alternative community where love, equality, justice, compassion and mercy are the guiding principles: a community where people are welcomed regardless of ethnic and social identity. Rejecting the way of the ladder where groups compete with one another for social power, this community would work to maintain balance and equality even in diversity as we worship and live together.
Moreover, we have a prophetic vision to turn outwards towards those in our society who are willing to live in cooperation and reconciliation with one another. A civic identity must be developed that is not built on exclusive ethnic and religious loyalty, so the nature of this vision is the creation of a corporate group of people from unique ethnic and religious backgrounds who honor each other with respect. All of us from our own unique backgrounds can uphold distinctiveness without imposing our identities on others; we will then work together against any form of oppression and exclusiveness. This friendship will empower us to rise above the tribal loyalty, distrust, hatred, and enmity that are exasperated between groups in conflict. To counter the dominant group’s desire for power and privileges we must unite to work together for equality for all.
By Salim J. Munayer, Ph.D.