When It Comes to Palestine, Christians Must Be Anti-Imperialists

Socialists must always side with colonized people when their struggle for freedom. As Paulo Freire said, “never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence?”

IN May 2016, I traveled to Jerusalem and the West Bank with Eyewitness Palestine, an educational program that trains participants to become advocates for Palestinian justice. Co-sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, our two week itinerary in Palestine had been carefully coordinated to introduce Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and agnostic delegates to the startling realities of the detention and incarceration of children, youth, and political prisoners in the Israeli military court system. We toured al-Fara’a prison, a facility for torture to the northeast of Nablus, and stayed the night with the renowned Tamimi family in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh. We explored the geography of Jerusalem and Israel’s annexation wall with Grassroots Al-Quds, and heard from Israeli Druze and Jewish conscientious objectors, all of whom had served time in prison for their principled resistance to military conscription.

Before our “journey for justice with Palestinian and Israeli peace-builders” was underway, however, the Israeli state apparatus was determined to make its presence known to us. Five years ago this month, two of our co-delegates and AFSC staff members, Nawal Musleh and Katie Huerter, were detained at customs at Ben Gurion Airport for seven hours and denied entry. Only after AFSC, Jewish Voice for Peace, and Eyewitness Palestine organized pressure at the United Nations were Musleh and Huerter allowed to enter. The other delegates and I had no way of knowing what was happening in Tel Aviv,  Washington, or  New York City as we rode—sleep-deprived and  two members down—to the Holy Land Hotel for our first night in East Jerusalem. Our hotel was  a short walk from Sheikh Jarrah − the site of recent attempts by Israeli settlers to violently seize the homes of Palestinian residents.  

Though it was too late and too dark to see anything outside, Said, the Palestinian tour guide who accompanied our delegation, directed our attention toward the town of Modi’in-Maccabim-Re’ut, named for Modein and the Maccabees that lived there some twenty-two centuries ago. Our guide evocatively recast the narrative of the Maccabean revolt—which relied on guerilla warfare tactics —as an enduring source of inspiration for “revolt from below” in the face of foreign occupation. Though the symbol of the Maccabees and the Hasmonean dynasty they established in the second century BCE are regularly appropriated toward right-wing Zionist and ultra-nationalist ends, our guide’s radical exegesis is not without precedent. As Eliezer Don-Yehiya points out, the Communist Youth League of Palestine published a pamphlet in 1929 in which one Palestinian leader is “portrayed as the equivalent of Mattathias the Hasmonean, since both were spiritual leaders who encouraged the emergence of a national class-liberation movement.”

The grassroots resistance to military occupation that Said hoped to recover from the memory of the Maccabean revolt shares a great deal in common with what American socialist Hal Draper called “socialism from below.” Draper insisted on the importance of the “self-emancipation of activated masses in motion… mobilized ‘from below’ in a struggle to take charge of their own destiny.” Draper’s notion of socialism from below also forms the theoretical foundation of Sumaya Awad and brian bean’s new edited anthology, Palestine: A Socialist Introduction. As they help us see, what we are witnessing in Jerusalem, Nazareth, Ramallah, Jenin, and Gaza is a popular movement, where activated Palestinian masses in motion struggle not only to halt home confiscations in Sheikh Jarrah but also to overturn the entire Israeli settler occupation and its repressive apparatus of police brutality, military impunity, dispossession and systematic racial segregation.

As Awad and bean point out, socialists know that the nature of the so-called “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” is grounded primarily in material and political, rather than religious, struggles. In fact, to speak of a “conflict” at all within the context of occupation is disingenuous. The home demolitions that hang constantly over the heads of those that our delegation visited in Alsira and the forced expulsions of Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah are driven by nothing less than a project of ethnic cleansing that has continued largely unimpeded since the 1948 Nakba, resulting in the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. As Awad writes with Annie Levin in their chapter on “The Roots of the Nakba,” contrary to the caricature presented in the media and in Christian churches of “two warring sides,” the situation in Palestine should be understood as the struggle between a “an occupying foreign power and an indigenous population defending itself. There were two sides only insofar as there was an oppressor, a colonizing army; and an oppressed, a native population defending their homes, their families, and their land” (41).

Not only do socialists recognize that the core antagonism is between the Israeli oppressor and the Palestinian oppressed, rather than one arising from some immemorial religious hostility between Christians, Jews, and Muslims; the socialist knows where she must stand in relation to the struggle against ethnic cleansing and settler colonialism. The socialist does not fetishize a so-called “middle ground,” but understands that, as Terry Eagleton puts it, “the truth of situations may be one-sided.” After all, Eagleton asks, “what judicious balance is to be struck between Jews and anti-Semites?” No decent person would think to sanctimoniously equate “both sides” when Jews experience antisemitism. Likewise, the socialist must always side with colonized people when they defend themselves from violent settlers, police, and soldiers. She grasps with Paulo Freire that “never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence?”

Any language that suggests that the fight for liberation, justice, and the right of return in Palestine is reducible to an eternal, irresolvable religious conflict is ahistorical, implying that there is something about religious faith that prevents us from living in social harmony. As Awad and bean point out, the reality is that not so long ago “traditions of three different faiths existed side by side” (33). An abstract understanding of religious conflict can only normalize violence against Palestinians and minimize their resilient attempts to resist their oppressors. It encourages us to look upon the ongoing insurrection in Palestine with indifference—“there will never be peace in the Holy Land,” some say, therefore nothing productive can come from the uprising. Tawfiq Haddad, however, has shown that as of Monday night, protests and the threat of “international outcry” compelled the “Israeli Attorney General… to delay the Court’s ruling on the evictions” in Sheikh Jarrah. Clearly, a mass intifada is capable of moving “the struggle in a direction more favorable to the Palestinians” (Awad and bean 2020, 128).

It is imperative that Christian socialists support the Palestinian movement for liberation and justice. Christian socialists must be resolutely anti-imperialist, as anything short of anti-imperialism would imply that we intend to stake out some middle ground between oppressor and oppressed. To do so would be to deny not only the internationalist imperative of socialism-from-below, but also a Creator whose “preferential option for the poor” is as ancient as God’s decision to heed the cry of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. However, even the Exodus myth, so often at the center of liberationcommunist, and abolitionist theologies, has also served as the theological justification for settler colonialism in the United States, South Africa and Palestine-Israel. In a 1986 “Canaanite Reading” of Michael Walzer’s study of Exodus and Revolution, Palestinian literary critic Edward Said shows that while the Book of Exodus has been a source of inspiration for the Black freedom struggle and even the Russian Revolution, Walzer’s “Exodus politics” are not internationalist: there remains the “candidly stated need to defeat… [the] worshippers of the Golden Calf and, in the Promised Land the unfortunate native inhabitants who by definition are not members of the Chosen People” (87). The emancipatory content of Exodus has never meant emancipation for all. One people’s Promised Land is already another people’s home. Universal liberation and internationalist socialism cannot be satisfied with storytelling that entails liberation for some at the expense of colonized others.

Using texts, traditions and liturgies that are deeply indebted to Jewish texts, traditions and liturgies, Christian socialists must learn to tell the kinds of anti-imperialist stories that my tour guide told my delegation along that bus ride to East Jerusalem. This is especially urgent in the face of Christian Zionism, which is at once antisemitic and anti-Palestinian. As Lynn Gotlieb observes, for Christian Zionists “Jews are only useful insofar as they trigger the end of days”; meanwhile, “Palestinian suffering… has no meaning in Christian Zionist belief.” To resist Christian Zionism, we should learn from the exegetical creativity of Said and the Communist Youth League, whose narrative “from below” of an ancient Maccabean intifada disarms Zionist mythology.

We can all support the self-emancipation of the Palestinian people by encouraging the institutions we are a part of to boycott and divest from Israel, in solidarity with the 2005 BDS call from Palestinian civil society (Awad and bean 2020, 233). And yet this moment calls for Christian socialists in particular to go further; critically examining how even left-wing readings of Exodus and Revelation can and have become complicit in fantasies of the Holy Land that instrumentalize Jews in the service of U.S. empire or are inherently exclusionary toward the Canaanite or Palestinian Other. Perhaps Ernst Bloch can guide us here, whose Marxist reading of Exodus pierces through “every concretization of myth.”

A politically radical exegesis must be led by insurgent Palestinian voices, and by the facts on the ground in Palestine. What stories of liberation might we tell that do not end in indigenous people being driven from their homes and thousands of others singing songs of divine wrath and revenge against the oppressed? What stories might we reimagine that encourage deep solidarity with Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, Gaza, and around the diaspora? We need an intifada within Christian theology that is willing to replace reactionary Christian Zionism and the equivocations of “both sides” theology with an internationalist, anti-imperialist politics rooted in a material analysis of the struggle for liberation and justice in Palestine.


Casey Aldridge (he/him) is an ordained Presbyterian youth pastor in New Jersey, former Eyewitness Palestine delegate, and steering committee member of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which aims to “center Palestine in the call for universal human rights.”


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