Published in Cornerstone Issue 30, Winter 2003, pp. 5-7

The Holy Land and the Scandalous Performance of the Churches

Michael Prior, C.M.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has increased the traditional concern of Christians for the

'Holy Land'. In addition to being one of the most explosive issues in international affairs, it

constitutes for the Churches one of the great moral problems of our age. It raises not only

issues of biblical interpretation, but of the authority of some biblical traditions. Relations

between religion and 'nationalism', as well as between the relevant religions also surface

Sabeel, an indigenous organisation of Holy Land Christians, with strong international links,

is in a favourable position to promote discussion of such issues. Its international conference

on Christian Zionism is most apposite.


The Indigenous Christian Community

Western Christians must respect, and accord priority to the position of the indigenous

Christians. They not only theorise about the issues, but live in the midst of increasingly

difficult circumstances. These are the virtually inevitable consequences of the determination

of Political Zionism—a movement thoroughly at home in the racist, colonial spirit of

nineteenth-century Europe—to establish a state for Jews {Judenstaat) in a land already

inhabited. We now know from the Zionist archives themselves that, from the beginning, the

Zionists realised that it would be necessary to expel the indigenous Arabs, that they

appointed 'population transfer5 committees—the first as early as 1937—and that they made

all necessary arrangements to put their plans into action at the first opportunity, 1948.

Political Zionism has been a disaster for the Christians of the Holy Land. In 1948, 50 000

were among the 750,000 Palestinians expelled from (what became) the State of Israel. Since

then, the remaining Christians have lived either as unequal citizens in Israel, or under Israeli

occupation of varying degrees of oppression. They struggle on, hoping that even out of the

dreadful circumstances of today there may, possibly, be a better future. Yet their plight has

not yet been seriously addressed by the Church in a manner that respects basic justice, not to

speak of the imperatives of Christian morality.


The World-wide Christian Community

Christians outside also interest themselves in the 'Holy Land'. They fall into a number of


1. The most vociferous are those in the fundamentalist Evangelical Zionist wing. Although

not nearly as numerous as mainstream Christians, they are much more ideologically

committed, politically focused and influential, and in the US have the ear of President

George W. Bush and his policy-makers. For them, what happened in 1948 and since is part



of God's intention that the Children of Israel be gathered 'to Jerusalem'. Indeed, it will speed

up the Second Coming of Christ. Rather than concentrate on Jesus' exhortations during his

First Coming—e.g., to feed the hungry, heal the lame, give sight to the blind, clothe the

naked, free the prisoners, etc.—such people are happier waiting for the Second Coming, with

its Armageddon massacre. Meanwhile, they support the government of Israel that specialises

in making the poor poorer, in making those with perfect sight blind, in making the walking

lame, etc.

That Palestine was already occupied by Arabs, who would have to be driven out to fulfil the

'ethnic-cleansing' intentions of Political Zionism, is of little moral concern for many such

people. Why? Because of how they interpret the prophetic and apocalyptic biblical texts.

Their interpretation is not only naive but is fundamentally immoral. A god such as theirs is

the Great Ethnic-Cleanser, a militaristic and xenophobic genocidist, who is not sufficiently

moral even to conform to the requirements of the Fourth Geneva Convention, or of any of the

Human Rights Protocols which attempt to set limits to barbarism. The grotesque views of

such people, embracing an essentially ethnic-cleansing enterprise as a fulfilment of biblical

prophecy, and clothing Political Zionism in the garment of piety, would not warrant serious

attention were it not for the influence they have on the domestic and foreign policies of the

USA. They are also, of course, easy targets for the liberal establishment in the Church, the

Universities and the media, whose own performance has been scarcely better.

2. The performance of the mainstream Churches has not been a model of ethical engagement.

It is one of the anomalies of recent history that, while Christians have supported oppressed

peoples virtually everywhere else, there has been relatively little protest against the historic

injustice perpetrated on the indigenous population of Palestine. Many Christians, of course,

are sympathetic to the ideal of a state for Jews as compensation for the litany of European

persecutions of Jews. That it is others who have to pay the price is all the better. Moreover,

even when faced with compelling evidence about the damage done to the Palestinians these

people remain rather detached, preferring prudence to criticism. They cannot bring

themselves to face the dark side of Political Zionism. In any case, taking a stand for

Palestinian rights will not advance one's reputation, or help one's promotion prospects in the

Church, the Universities and the media.

3. Many Christians, of course, approach the question from a Human Rights perspective. They

acknowledge the fundamental injustice done in 1948, and the atrocities since. Such people,

typically, are not in positions of power. The most the leaders of the Churches, by and large,

appear able to bring themselves to is to subscribe to the 'fallacy of balance'. Their

consciences, it appears, are virtually paralysed by guilt, mostly about what was done to Jews

in Europe in the past, for which they themselves are hardly responsible. They leave

unchallenged a Zionist reading of Jewish history and of recent events in Palestine.

I am not aware of any Church leader—dean, bishop, archbishop, cardinal, patriarch, minister,

presbyter, et al.—who has dared in a public forum to offer a moral critique of the ideology of

Political Zionism commensurate with that of, e.g., apartheid, an ideology of far less



deleterious consequences. Though we know that the damage done to the Palestinians was at

the heart of the Zionist enterprise from the beginning, the Church leadership reflects little

appetite to pursue the relevant issues of justice and respect for historical truth. The situation,

of course, is even worse in the Universities. And as for the media ???. But even if the

Universities and the media have consistently abandoned any pretence to moral propriety on

the issue, the Church, surely, should do better.

Particularly in the face of the dismal performance of the other guardians of public discourse,

the Churches should give a lead in moral debate. They should do better than fall into line

with ongoing political manoeuvres, which, in conforming to the demands of the powerful,

reflect little contact with recognisable moral principles. For religious bodies to accord

legitimacy to the expulsion of any indigenous population, and the expropriation of their

lands, as happened, and continues to happen in Palestine, is highly problematic, indeed


For a start, the leaderships of the Churches should insist that Israel 'come clean' on its

seminal injustice against the Palestinian Arabs, that it apologise for it, undo the damage it has

perpetrated as far as that is possible, honour its obligations with respect to the Palestinian

right of return, make appropriate compensation for the damage done, and, on the basis of

confession and restitution, move towards a less ethnocratic polity. Such exhortations would

flow effortlessly from principles of Christian morality, and would be in conformity with

elementary justice. And even more is required. Yet, all we get instead from the Church

leadership is the embrace of whatever proposal the asymmetric parties to the dispute contrive

—the 'Oslo Accords', the 'Road Map', however jaded, and however lacking in principles of

justice. It is as if the Christian Church were content to act on the novel moral principle that

the rights of the perpetrators of injustice and its victims were finely balanced.

Rev Dr Michael Prior, C.M., Senior Research Fellow in Holy Land Studies, St Mary's

College, Strawberry Hill (University of Surrey, UK), is the author of The Bible and

Colonialism: A Moral Critique (Sheffield 1997), Zionism and the State of Israel: A

Moral Inquiry (Routiedge 1999), and is editor of Holy Land Studies. A

Multidisciplinary Journal.