WASHINGTON: Last week a delegation of leaders from the South African Council of Churches and African American Church leaders traveled throughout Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories for fact-finding and bridge-building. Their experiences and observations are contained in this statement released by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA.
Group Pilgrimage Statement on Israel and Palestine
Leaders of Historically African American and South African Churches, February 21 – March 1, 2019
I. Who we are and why we came:
- We came to Israel and Palestine, as disciples of the Risen Christ who said “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV)
- We came on a religious pilgrimage as a joint delegation of leaders from historic black denominations of the National Council of Churches (NCC) in the United States of America, and heads of South African church denominations of the South African Council of Churches (SACC)
- We came as representatives of African American communities; as descendants of those who survived slavery, Jim Crow and who work now to dismantle the new Jim Crow of mass incarceration and militarization of police in our communities; and we came as representatives of the South African people who lived through the indignity of over 300 years of dehumanizing dispossession, colonialism, segregation and apartheid.
- We came to visit Israel and the Palestinian Territories in the hope of meeting Israeli and Palestinian citizens. We came seeking to better understand the realities on the ground, particularly related to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (East Jerusalem, West Bank, and the Gaza Strip)
- We came as people with a shared history of racial segregation, victims of injustice, people who have been dehumanized and marginalized. We came as people who stand against racism, against anti-Semitism, against Islamophobia.
- We came as people standing on the side of justice and equality for all.
II. What we have seen and heard:
- We visited Yad Vashem the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, and we remembered and learned even more about the extent of the horrific industrialization and technological design that Hitler led in an effort to exterminate the Jewish people.
- We heard the Jewish perspective that proposes a continuum from the biblical lands of Israel taken from the Canaanites, and the present-day political State of Israel.
- We shared a Bible study with a Jewish Rabbi and came to more deeply appreciate the hundreds of years of rabbinical scholarship that provide fresh insights for us into the scriptures and their bearing on the current issues in the Israeli religious communities.
- We visited Palestinian communities and homes where people are not allowed to have freedom of movement or self-determination.
- We visited a refugee camp of displaced persons who still hold the keys to their homes that were confiscated over 70 years ago. We met and heard stories of men, women and children who have themselves or family members been victims of state-sanctioned violence in the form of detention, interrogation, teargassed, beatings, forced confessions and death.
- We met with families who are fighting to keep their homes from being taken for Jewish settlements and developments.
- We heard the stories of how Palestinians within the occupied territory of the Gaza Strip must contend with a perpetual blockade, the excessive use of force by Israel to subjugate the people in collective punishment of whole population and the debilitating confinement that renders Gaza as one big densely populated prison.
- We heard of the acute shortage of fuel and electricity, seriously affecting daily life and the provision of especially health services in Gaza; and the heavily polluted and undrinkable water, aggravating child mortality rates.
- We heard of the impact of fateful cuts by the Trump Administration, on humanitarian aid to the Palestinian Authority, and to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that supports Palestinian refugees.
- We saw the patterns that seem to have been borrowed and perfected from other previous oppressive regimes:
- The ever-present physical walls that wall in Palestinians in a political wall reminiscent of the Berlin Wall.
- Roads built through occupied Palestinian villages, on which Palestinians are not permitted to drive; and homes and families divided by walls and barriers.
- The heavy militarization of the West Bank, reminiscent of the military occupation of Namibia by apartheid South Africa.
- The laws of segregation that allow one thing for the Jewish people and another for the Palestinians; we saw evidence of forced removals; homes abandoned, olive trees uprooted or confiscated and taken over, shops and businesses bolted with doors welded to close out any commercial activities.
- We are overawed by the resolve in the hopeless of hope, of the ordinary Palestinians who live a grinding and dehumanizing existence.
- We heard and appreciated how the leaders of the Palestinian Authority had made a conscious decision to forgo armed solutions to the conflict and pray that this will be responded to in kind.
- We felt the thick density of Israeli fear that begets hatred and the support for draconian security measures; and the Palestinian fear that gives rise to a paradoxical combination of despair and hopeful resolve in a grinding and dehumanizing existence.
- We realize that there is little or no space for the Palestinian story to be heard by the ordinary Israelis; and for the Israeli story to be heard by ordinary Palestinians.
- We met with church leaders and heard the cry of the Christian churches for our ecumenical presence with them – “Do not forget us!” “Pray with and for us!”
- We saw and heard both Jewish and Palestinian champions of a just peace that makes for positive loving and a secure future for both peoples.
- We saw international observers who are the assurance that peace for the people of Palestine and Israel is a global concern.
What this says to us:
- As Christian pastors and leaders of denominations and the ecumenical movement we are humbled by the recognition that the shrinking community of indigenous Christian church communities of Palestine and Israel are the continuous presence of the church whose mission evangelized the rest of us in the world, and without whom we wouldn’t have the salvation we have in Jesus Christ who was born at Bethlehem and was crucified and resurrected at Jerusalem.
- Jerusalem is at the heart of these matters made even more critical by the prospect of it becoming Israel’s official capital; and rather than a city of the blessing of all peoples.
- Yet, even so, we depart this place of our pilgrimage and of deep religious significance, with heavy hearts, and with a forlorn sense that unless something is done by the people of faith for the peace of Jerusalem, the conflict will be the painful heritage of many future generations.
III. Therefore, as we depart, here we stand:
- In the face of these observations:
- We are dismayed at the conditions in which Palestinian communities live, and our hearts cry out to God over the prospect that this political standoff of which both Palestinians and Israelis have become prisoners may last long into the future.
- We are shocked at what appears to be an unstoppable gobbling up of Palestinian lands to almost render the proposed two-state solution unworkable.
- We support a two-state solution in which a safe and secure State of Israel will reside next to a safe, secure, viable, and contiguous State of Palestine.
- We are cut up by the misery in which poor families in Palestine have to survive; especially those holed up in refugee camps, with only the original key and their ownership papers to clutch on to. We call for the return of refugees and exiles.
- We are saddened by the increasing hardening of the hearts of the Israeli powers that be, to the prospect of a just peace with security and dignity for all.
- We are disheartened by the patent divisions among the Palestinian political leaders that make it almost impossible for them to come to a common position and vision of the way to justice, peace and security for all.
- We hope for elections soon in the Palestinian Territories and that these will be peaceful and without disputes, in order to enhance the unity of the Palestinian people and their positions on a peaceful and prosperous future for all.
- We commit to doing all we can as faith leaders to promote a fair understanding of the painful reality of the situation in this place.
- We commit to reach out to the Jewish and Moslem communities we can reach, to discuss these challenges and seek the path of healing that is our calling in the Lord.
- We pray for a dispensation that will transform the fear that breeds a wall disposition into the openness that multiplies opportunities for justice for all.
- We call for a greater presence of international observers as a ministry of presence.
- We appeal for tour groups to the Holy Land to make a conscious point of touring both Israel and Palestine.
- We appeal for partnerships of congregations around the world with the congregations of Palestine and Israel, to promote linkages and intensify the ministry of presence.
- We pray that the impending Israeli elections will result in a government devoted to pursuing peace negotiations and a two-state solution that will provide for a viable, contiguous Palestinian State and a secure Israel.
- We pray for the soonest arrival of the day when Jerusalem will be the capital of both a Palestinian and an Israeli State at peace with one another, for a blessing for all Abrahamic faiths.
- We commit to continuing on this journey together, to work alongside the oppressed Palestinian people, to advocating in our own countries among our governments for actions and policies that will help lead to a resolution of the conflict.
- We pray for an end of weapons sales and proliferation to all sides in the conflict and, indeed, to the entire region.
- We recognize the Kairos nature of this moment – where something has to be done to resolve the conflict, failing which, all will stand judged! The different narratives notwithstanding, the justice, equality and human rights issues cry out for attention.
- In Conclusion: Based on our own histories and struggles as South Africans and African Americans, we are keenly aware of the need to preserve the option of utilizing economic pressure as a means of bringing recalcitrant dominant forces to the negotiating table. As disciples of the One who died that we all may have life, “and have it abundantly”; we seek to stand in the gap between justice and injustice. We seek to stand in response to the One whose character is to hear the cry of the oppressed. However, we recognize that many of us have been uninformed, and others of us been quite aware of the grim situation in this land, and we have been silent and turned a blind eye. We admit that silence in the face of injustice is complicity. Indeed, there were many Christians that were silent and closed their ears against the sound of the deadly apartheid jackboot in the lives of South African blacks. There were whole communities of Christians who not only condoned the untold dehumanization of people through slavery, but who thrived on that evil, and their slavery-sourced head-start has become the silent normal of today’s social and economic landscape of the world. Communities and neighborhoods in Europe were silent and complicit to the horror of the Holocaust. We shall not and cannot be silent, for as the Lord says through Isaiah:
He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm brought him victory, and his righteousness upheld him. Isaiah 59:16 (NRSV)
We raise our collective hand to be the extension of that arm, through which God’s salvation and righteousness shall be realized even in this troubled land, and “proclaim the year of the Lord's favor!”