Beyond ‘Balance’: Taking sides with Palestinian and Israeli peacemakers

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 3, 2007: Lynne Hybels speaks at Sojourners' Pentecost 2007: Taking the Vision to the Street conference.
Lynne Hybels (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

An interview with Lynne Hybels by Ryan Rodrick Beiler

According to a National Association of Evangelicals poll, 40% of US evangelical leaders have changed their thinking about Israel over the past 15 years. The most common change: “a greater awareness of the struggles faced by the Palestinian people.” While most evangelicals remain committed supporters of Israel, this new awareness of Palestinian suffering—especially that of Palestinian Christians—has opened the eyes, hearts, and minds of many to a new approach based on Christ-centered principles of peacemaking.

Lynne Hybels has been one of the most outspoken leaders of this movement. Her witness provides key insights for anyone considering deeper engagement with these issues. Though this interview was conducted before the most recent escalation of violence in the Holy Land, her insights are more relevant than ever in the continuing context of decades of military occupation.

You say that you are both “pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian.” How is that possible?

When I say I’m pro-Israel, I mean that I support the existence of the State of Israel as a home for the Jewish people. The fact that I may disagree with some policies of the government of Israel doesn’t mean that I’m anti-Israel or anti-Jew, anymore than my disagreement with certain policies of the US government means that I’m anti-US or anti-American.

When I say I’m pro-Palestinian, I mean that I believe Palestinians have an equally valid right to live in the land and should have the same civil rights that are afforded to Israeli Jewish citizens, whether that’s in one state, two states, or however many states. I believe Palestinians—whether in the West Bank or Gaza—should be free from military occupation or blockade.

You’ve spoken of the need for a “new conversation” that takes both Israeli and Palestinian perspectives seriously. What are some examples of that kind of conversation?

At Willow Creek Learning Community we presented a “modern history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” in which we very intentionally explained both Israeli and Palestinian perspectives. Then we interviewed an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man, each of whom lost children in the conflict but now work together calling for peace and reconciliation.

One man came to the event “ready to fight, fully expecting to hear a left-wing, one-sided, anti-Israel presentation.” He left saying, “That was the most helpful presentation of the history of the conflict I’ve ever heard, and how could I not be moved by two people who I would expect to be enemies—but they’re working together for peace?” That day on his Facebook page he posted a paragraph in praise of the event.

Palestinians hold a Catholic mass as a nonviolent protest against the Israeli Separation Wall in the West Bank town of Beit Jala, February 10, 2012.
Palestinians hold a prayer service as a nonviolent protest against Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank town of Beit Jala, February 10, 2012. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Last year, American, Israeli and Palestinian women met for two days in Washington, DC. We were Christians, Muslims, and Jews, religious and secular, united by our commitment to human rights.

A young Palestinian woman described what it was like to send her teenage son through a checkpoint, knowing that he would feel frustrated and humiliated; she feared that the humiliation, repeated over and over again, would turn him into an angry young man, maybe even a violent young man. She tried to keep him away from checkpoints, but she couldn’t keep him locked in one little neighborhood. So she feared for his future.

An older Israeli woman described what it was like knowing that her teenage grandson was a soldier, standing at a checkpoint with a gun in his hand, terrified of using the power of that weapon, and yet terrified not to. She didn’t want him to become the oppressor, but he was. She feared what that would do to him, inside.

I have concluded that one of the most valuable things I can do is to create more and more connections between Palestinian, Israeli, and American women—which will be my focus in the future. Women have great potential for establishing healing relationships and advocating for human rights in a profoundly personal and captivating way.

Many people don’t know who to believe when each community presents such conflicting histories and narratives. What is your approach?

I have been accused of trading the true Jewish narrative for a false Palestinian narrative. I have to say, I just don’t understand that accusation. How could two groups of people on opposite sides of a violent conflict not have different experiences of what happened, and different memories? It’s easy to understand why the Jews would want a homeland in that little strip of land where they have biblical and historical ties. And it’s easy to understand why the Palestinians feel they have an equally valid claim on the land based on centuries of residence there. But either narrative can be mythologized and distorted and used to demonize the other.

During one of my visits to Bethlehem I attended a meeting of Palestinian women, both Christian and Muslim. One speaker was an Israeli Messianic Jew from Nazareth. The other was a Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem. Each of these women described the typical narrative that is commonly held by her people—and then she critiqued it.

The Jewish women said, “You won’t like what I’m going to say, but this is what most Jews believe. They believe that Jewish violence in the war of 1948 was purely defensive; Jews were simply defending themselves against Arab aggressors. But before you get mad at me, I need to tell you that I realize that is not true. The tragic truth is that in 1948 many Arabs were aggressively forced from their land or brutally killed by Jewish fighters.” She said, “Admitting this makes me pretty unpopular with some Israelis, but we must be open to self-criticism.”

Anti-war counter-demonstrators carry signs and banners while protesting a "Stand with Israel" rally in Boston, MA, August 7, 2014. The rally came in the midst of an Israeli military offensive that had killed at least 1,948 Palestinians, including at least 1,402 civilians, of whom 456 are children. At the same time, three civilians in Israel and 64 soldiers were killed by Palestinian militants.
Anti-war counter-demonstrators organized by the activist group Jewish Voice for Peace carry signs and banners while protesting Israel’s offensive on Gaza at a “Stand with Israel” rally in Boston, MA, August 7, 2014. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

The Palestinian woman described some of the hardships of the occupation, but then she said, “We Palestinians tend to think that all our problems are caused by the occupation. But that’s not true.” She said, “We must accept culpability for allowing a victim mentality to dominate our actions and for making many poor choices along the way that have hurt us collectively.”

It was such a privilege to be able to sit in on that meeting. How admirable, how wise, how courageous, for these women to be willing to listen to the narrative of the other and also to critique their own.

You’ve also shown the courage to endure a lot of criticism on these issues. How do you respond to critics?

I’ve received helpful criticism and unhelpful criticism. Some critics have challenged me to learn more, and for that I’m grateful. We must speak from humility: I’m not an expert, but here’s what I’m learning. In this conversation, nuance matters. Precise language matters. I’ve studied and agonized over every word I’ve spoken or written on this subject.

On the other hand, some critics repeatedly misquote me and accuse me of beliefs and positions that I do not hold. I’ve been called a threat to the State of Israel and an anti-Semite. I’ve been described as part of a massive effort in the heart of the evangelical church to lure its members—especially its youth—away from the pro-Israel position to uncritical support for Palestinians. As a result, I have become more forthright in my speaking and writing about my true positions and beliefs. But I don’t try to engage personally with every disagreeable critic.

How do you respond to those who insist that the Bible promises the land only to the Jews?
I believe biblical theology leaves room for Jews and Palestinians to live together as neighbors and equals in the land. But the very fact that I use the word “occupation” has led some people to judge me as an enemy of the State of Israel; they have told me the only “occupation” is the one perpetrated by the Arabs who are occupying the land of Judea and Samaria that belongs to the Jews.

In the spring of 2010 I spoke at a conference hosted by Bethlehem Bible College called Christ at the Checkpoint. I had spent considerable time in the region and was brokenhearted by the suffering that resulted from the ongoing and often violent conflict. I came with the desire to encourage and lift up the Christians in the land. To stand in solidarity with them.

A Messianic Jewish theologian from Israel told me he believed I had totally violated scripture by talking about the plight of the Palestinians. He reminded me that God had given the land to the Jews, and if the Palestinians were suffering it was because God’s will regarding the land was being violated. If I thought the treatment they were receiving was unjust it was because I didn’t understand God’s purposes in the world.

In 2012 I spoke at the second Christ at the Checkpoint conference. Again that same Messianic theologian approached me afterwards. I assumed we would again have an awkward conversation.  But instead, he said, “Thank you for that talk. That was a great talk. In fact, I think you should give that talk to some of our Jewish congregations.”

Palestinian Mahmoud Alaa Elddin talks to a Jewish Israeli activist as they confront Israeli soldiers during a weekly demonstration against the separation barrier in the West Bank village of Al Ma'sara, April 5, 2013.
An Israeli Jewish peace activist joins Palestinians as they confront Israeli soldiers during a weekly nonviolent protest against the Israeli separation barrier in the West Bank village of Al Ma’sara, April 5, 2013. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

What happened during the two years separating those conversations? A very wise friend—a Palestinian Christian—challenged me to spend as much time with Israelis as I had been spending with Palestinians.

So I began doing that. I met with secular mainstream Jews. I met with people in the Israeli peace movement. I ate Shabbat meals with Orthodox families. I talked with Israeli families who’d lost children to the violence of suicide bombers. I listened to the perspective of Messianic Jews. I walked through the halls of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. In my second talk in Bethlehem, I described those experiences.

What also happened during those two years was that the Jewish theologian spent time with Palestinians in the West Bank, and he actually saw the reality of their daily lives. He said to me, “I still support the State of Israel and believe the Jews have a unique role to play in God’s redemptive plan. But the kind of injustice I’ve seen in the West Bank, and that you have described in your talk, is unconscionable. It can’t continue.”

During the summer of 2014, some 2,200 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli military in Gaza, most of them civilians, while Palestinian militants killed 67 soldiers and five civilians. Surges of violence before and since have followed similar patterns. How should Christians respond to such violence?

I believe that any violence against civilians, whether carried out militarily or through guerrilla tactics, is illegal under international law, damages prospects for peace, and should be stopped immediately.

I have never condoned violence, and of course I don’t now. But grieving the death of innocent Palestinian civilians does not equal support for Hamas. Likewise, grieving the deaths of Israelis does not equal support for all Israeli policies.

Sadly, many political leaders, rather than calming spirits, are fueling hatred and bigotry.

We see now more than ever that there is a crucial need for political change in the Holy Land. However, I believe that our deepest work for peace is not dependent on what happens in the high levels of human power—not because what happens there is not important but because what happens on the grassroots level of relationships is even more important. And we, as individual Christians, or small communities of faith, are positioned perfectly to make a difference.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” How can Christians respond to concerns about “taking sides” without remaining neutral?

The world needs peacemakers. American Christians need to be transformed, and nothing requires deeper transformation than peacemaking. For me, the last few years have been about being broken over and over again, broken every time I have to face, again, how poorly I live out Jesus’ call to peacemaking, how quick I am to pick sides and go for easy answers; basically, how unlike Jesus I am.

I went to the Holy Land in search of the peacemakers, in search of those who are committed to nonviolence, forgiveness, and reconciliation. And I found them, in both Palestine and Israel, and from what I can tell, they’re still there. And I am still committed to partnering with them.

While I believe Jesus is the Prince of Peace whose power will ultimately unleash the deepest level of peace, I have met Muslims and Jews who may or may not give any conscious consideration to Jesus but who seem to be living out Jesus’ ethic of peacemaking. In fact, they often challenge me to take Jesus’ way of living more seriously.

A Palestinian woman holds a sign reading "Israeli-Palestinian Solidarity for Justice & Equality" as Israeli, and international solidarity activists stage a weekly demonstration in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem to protest the takeover of Palestinian homes by Jewish Israeli settlers, December 10, 2010.
A Palestinian woman holds a sign reading “Israeli-Palestinian Solidarity for Justice & Equality” as Israeli, and international solidarity activists stage a weekly demonstration in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem to protest the takeover of Palestinian homes by Jewish Israeli settlers, December 10, 2010. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

For their part, followers of Jesus in the Holy Land have to struggle with a very difficult blend of theology and politics and history. There is currently an unprecedented level of hate rising to the surface among both Palestinians and Israelis. When hostility increases in the general Israeli and Palestinian populations, that hostility tends to be reflected between Jewish and Arab followers of Jesus, as well. But on one of my visits to Jerusalem I met a group of young women—Israeli Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians—who said, “These voices of hostility within our respective communities do not represent us.”

That’s where I see Jesus working today. We don’t hear about these voices on the network news, but they’re there. I believe American Christians owe it to these grassroots peacemakers to stand in solidarity with them and join our voices with theirs.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler is a freelance photojournalist who lived Jerusalem and Bethlehem from 2010-2014. He now lives in Oslo, Norway.

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