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Dennis C. Sasso
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‘A Call for Repentance’ to whom?

A Palestinian Christian letter demonizing Israel distorts Scripture and Christian values of love and piety
Two women work together at a volunteer center in Rahat, Israel run by Jewish and Arab volunteers. (Facebook, used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)
Two women work together at a volunteer center in Rahat, Israel run by Jewish and Arab volunteers. (Facebook, used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)

The recent letter, “A Call for Repentance: An Open Letter from Palestinian Christians to Western Church Leaders and Theologians,” is historically, theologically, and morally flawed. The document begins by referencing the “atrocious Israeli bombardment of innocent civilians in Gaza on October 19, 2023,” without mentioning the Hamas terrorist attacks of October 7 that resulted in the deaths of 1,400 Israeli civilians, the wounding of thousands of others, and the abduction of over 240 hostages still in the grips of Hamas.

The letter blames Israel for the bombing of the Al-Ahli Hospital, though it has been proven that the blast was caused by a misfired Islamic Jihad missile. It tries to explain, if not justify, Hamas’s horrific attacks in terms of “Israel’s systemic oppression of the Palestinians over the last 75 years….” It goes on to “hold western church leaders and theologians who rally behind Israel’s wars accountable for their theological and political complicity in … crimes against the Palestinians.” While it decries Zionist land ideology, it goes on to assert with pious certitude that “our Palestinian people is anchored in our just cause … in this land:” and calls for “triumph over the evil of hate and of death that still persists in our [my emphasis] land.”

The letter is riddled with historical inaccuracies, moral equivocation, and assertions of absolute evil [Israel] over absolute innocence [Palestinians]. Despite appeals to Scripture and protestations of love and piety, the document is riddled with a vindictive, hateful, fundamentalist land displacement theology.

None of this should surprise us. The letter is signed by a consortium of “Palestinian Christian and grassroots movements” that includes the Sabeel Ecumenical Center for Liberation Theology and Kairos Palestine, among several other religious and cultural entities. Kairos Palestine, through its 2009 statement, “A Moment of Truth,” has been instrumental in poisoning and inflaming the theological discourse against Israel among mainline Protestant denominations.  Some of these denominations have issued resolutions and proclamations that one-sidedly blame, condemn, and seek to delegitimate the State of Israel.

Kairos Palestine’s “A Moment of Truth,” is a partisan political manifesto masquerading as piety. Ironically, it quotes Moses, Isaiah, and Jesus, but seeks to undermine the history of the Jewish people’s right to the land, which has now devolved to the Palestinians as rightful inheritors and sole indigenous inhabitants. Aside from such historical nonsense, the document has contributed to the conflation of American racial politics with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ignoring the fact that over half of Israel’s population consist of Jews from Arab countries, from which they were forced to leave when the State of Israel was established in 1948. They are of the same ethnic stock as Israeli Arabs and many Palestinians.

The charge of “apartheid” is leveled as a loaded term borrowed from the South African experience, with which Israeli society shares no similarity. There are Muslim and Christian Arab citizens of Israel who participate in the Israeli political establishment and serve in the judicial branch and diplomatic corps. Arab Druze and Bedouin citizens of Israel serve with distinction in the Israel Defense Forces and have paid with their lives in the protection of their homeland. There are popular Muslim and Christian Arab authors, entertainment celebrities, newscasters, and influencers in Israeli society.

Of course, Israel, like any other nation, is not a perfect country, and there have been missed opportunities and sufficient blame to go around on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides (and among Arab countries) for the failure to find lasting solutions to the conflict. Lamentably, Israel is often singled out for unfair judgment by many. Some are well-meaning Christians who are either not fully informed about the complexity of the historic and geo-political realities of the region, while others are all too well predisposed by a millennial anti-Judaic theology that translates into the negation of Jewish sovereignty and the demonization of Israel.

During anti-Israel demonstrations in our country and across the world, the refrain is heard: “From the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea, Palestine will be Free.” The eerie genocidal tone of this proclamation proposes the eradication of the one Jewish state in the Middle East, often described by the ill-informed and the ill-intentioned as a “settler, colonialist state.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the ardent civil and human rights advocate, noted in 1967, when such absurdities were already in vogue: “There is no greater fallacy than to regard Israel as a ‘colonial’ phenomenon. No state … expresses the concept of nationhood more intensely than Israel.  It is the only state which bears the same name, speaks the same language, upholds the same faith, and inhabits the same land as it did 3,000 years ago…. The State of Israel is a necessity of history. All it asks of the Arabs is acknowledgment of its right to exist…We have a right to demand, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’ We have no right to demand, ‘Love thy neighbor and kill thyself.’” (An Echo of Eternity, excerpts from Ch. 5, “Jews, Christians and Arabs.”)

The challenge for us in America and the free world is not to turn the current Israel-Hamas war into a battle among Jews, Muslims and Christians that feeds antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other hatreds. This is a battle between those who uphold the foundations of democracy and human rights against those whose fanatic ideology and brutal practice undermine the values which we all cherish. Such is “The Call to Repentance” to which we should heed.  Such are the stakes.

About the Author
Dennis Sasso is Senior Rabbi Emeritus at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, Indianapolis, Indiana. He is Affiliate Professor of Jewish Studies at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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