Why we've forgotten Palestine's Christians

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Ron Dermer, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, recently gave an interview where he said that America’s evangelical Christians were now more reliable allies than Jewish Americans; he described American Jews as being “disproportionately among our (Israel’s) critics”. And he is not wrong. During Israel’s most recent attack on Gaza, prominent Jewish Americans such as Bernie Sanders have been vocal in their criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Sanders has gone as far as to accuse Israel of ‘racist nationalism’ and made the point that, while Israel has the right to defend itself, so do Palestinians. Furthermore, Israel’s leading human rights organisation, B’Tselem, has described Israel as an apartheid regime (as has Human Rights Watch). In contrast, devout Christians such as former vice president Mike Pence have, for the most part, been supportive of the actions of the Israeli government.

Interestingly, Christians in the US, along with conservatives and neoconservatives more generally are  very supportive of Israel. Some Christian fundamentalists still hold anti-Semitic beliefs, and Donald Trump and his supporters indulge in conspiracy theories about prominent Jews such as George Soros and, supposed Jewish influence in the media (similarly Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who has repeatedly used anti-Semitic propaganda, is very pro-Israel). Therefore, it is difficult to believe that their support stems from concern for Israeli citizens, or for the Jewish people as a whole. So why do they support Israel?

Part of the explanation is probably their hostility to Islam; although some of these right-wingers may harbour anti-Semitic beliefs, they see Islamism as a greater threat. And given that most Palestinians are Muslims, it is easy for them to portray the Israeli-Arab conflict as Islam vs the West. This othering of the Arab world (and other non-western cultures) has deep intellectual foundations in Europe and America, something noted by Edward Said in Orientalism. In his book Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order the American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington argued that (as the world becomes more interconnected), future wars will be fought not between nations, but between different cultures. He argued that the West (made up of North America, Western Europe and Australasia) would fight against other civilisations. This way of thinking affects the way in which many politicians and writers in the West understand the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The conservative commentator Douglas Murray has described Israel’s most recent assault on Gaza as a proportionate response against ‘Jihadists’ and has claimed that there is ‘no equivalence’ between terrorist organisations like Hamas, and a state like Israel that is trying to protect its citizens. In the past Murray has gone further, arguing that behind the Palestinian flag is the ‘black flag’ of Jihad. He wrote ‘...the extremists of Hamas are the ideological bedfellows of the extremists of ISIS who are rampaging through Syria and Iraq, crucifying and beheading as they go’. The aim seems to be to conflate Palestinians with Islamist fundamentalists in the hope that it might make public opinion in Western countries such as France and the UK (which have had their own problems with terrorism) more sympathetic to Israel and less sympathetic to the Palestinians (although it has not been very successful, as a recent YouGov poll showed that the vast majority of people in France and the UK have a negative view of Israel, at –36% and –41% respectively).

This ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative suits Islamists as well. It allows them to make the claim that Muslims are being specifically targeted and persecuted by Western-backed countries such as Israel. This is an argument that is frequently made by the Iranian regime; Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said that liberating Palestine was an ‘Islamic duty’ and attacked Israel as a ‘puppet’ state of the West.

The idea of ‘Ummah’ (community) is a central tenet of the Islamic faith. This is why many Muslim voters are expected to turn away from the Labour Party in the upcoming by-election in Batley and Spen, as they believe that Keir Starmer has not been quick enough to condemn Israel. As one resident of the West Yorkshire town put it ‘...being a Muslim it’s very important to understand that we believe in the whole Muslim ummah...if my finger hurts, everybody feels the pain. In a similar fashion, anywhere in the world Muslims are in pain, we feel that it’s our moral obligation to support them wherever it’s possible’. Last month, Israeli forces attacked the Al-Aqsa Mosque during the holy month of Ramadan, and in past conflicts, hundreds of Mosques in the Gaza strip have been destroyed. Therefore, it is easy to see why some Muslims see the conflict as an attack on Islam, even if the issue is cynically exploited by extremists.

But there is something particularly ironic about conservatives, and in particular evangelical Christians such as Pence, supporting the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians, given that some Palestinians are themselves Christians. True, Christians now make up only about two per cent of the Palestinians in the occupied territories, but they are still a presence in cities such as Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

The truth is, Palestinian Christians have suffered just as much at the hands of the Israeli government as Muslims. The leader of the Latin church in Gaza, Father Emmanuel Musallam said ‘...we are suffering together under this occupation and with war and this blockade...we all need to go to Jerusalem, we all need to go to the holy places. But also, simply, we all need to see our country’. One of the reasons that Christians now make up such a tiny percentage of the Palestinian population is that they, like many of their Muslim compatriots, were forced to leave their homes in the 1948 Nakba catastrophe before the foundation of the state of Israel (in the 1940’s Christians probably made up between seven and nine per cent of the population of Palestinians). Many were relatively wealthy and had connections, which meant they were able to leave Palestine in greater numbers than Muslims. In a survey, a majority of Christians said that they fled because of 'Israeli aggression and occupation’.

The plight of Palestinian Christians is rather inconvenient, as it does not fit the narrative that both Islamists and neo-conservatives want to push. But portraying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as ‘Islam vs the West’ fails to take the complexity and nuance of both Palestine and Israel into account, and prevents us from having a proper understanding of the situation. Understanding the conflict in such simplistic terms does not bring us one step closer to reaching a settlement that is beneficial to both Palestinians and Israelis.