Peace in the Holy Land can be realized only if we work together

(RNS) Our Christian principles and teachings compel us to insist on an equal measure of justice and dignity for all people, for Israelis and Palestinians alike, writes the general secretary of the World Council of Churches.

The Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, left, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, visits Jerusalem on March 31, 2017, to meet with local church leaders and members of WCC's programs working for peace and justice in Israel and Palestine. Photo courtesy of Ivars Kupcis/WCC

(RNS) An opinion piece by Gerald Steinberg, president of “NGO Monitor,” suggests my recent expression of concern over a new Israeli law betrays a general anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic stance.

That suggestion is far from the truth.

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Steinberg accuses the World Council of Churches, where I serve as general secretary, of “political warfare” because it has in the past opposed attempts to redefine anti-Semitism to encompass any criticism directed towards the government of Israel.

As the U.S.-based NGO Jewish Voice for Peace writes in its policy statement on fighting anti-Semitism: “Definitions of anti-Semitism that treat criticism of Israel or of Zionism as inherently anti-Semitic are inaccurate and harmful.”

Steinberg also criticizes the WCC for encouraging its members to read and respond to the Kairos Palestine document, written by a group of Christian Palestinians, which advocates nonviolent resistance to occupation. Since it contains language that also looks at root causes of violence and analyzes the conditions under which violence has been seen as legitimate in other contexts, Steinberg treats promotion of the document as an aggressive act — even though the document actually rejects violence.

As I told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in February, we in the WCC believe peace can be achieved only together with “the other.” We believe and see that the local churches can and do play a role in promoting peace and justice on both sides of the conflict.

One concrete manifestation of international Christian solidarity for peace with justice is the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, which the WCC established in 2002 in response to an appeal from local church leaders.

International volunteers, proposed by WCC member churches and partners, serve for a period of three months, offering a protective presence to vulnerable communities, and monitoring and reporting on human rights abuses. For example, they accompany Palestinian schoolchildren on their daily walk to school in Hebron, to protect them from settler violence and abuse.

Alumni of the program often return to their home countries with strong impressions and a deep commitment to sharing what they have seen, and to continuing to work for a just peace in Israel and Palestine.

The WCC encourages the sharing of eyewitness testimonies with faith leaders, decision-makers, media, and civil society in their own contexts — and that is probably why Steinberg calls the program “politicized.”

Yet it is our Christian principles and teachings that compel us to insist on an equal measure of justice and dignity for all people, for Israelis and Palestinians alike. We believe it is our responsibility to give Christian witness for justice and peace everywhere, and perhaps especially in the land of Christ’s birth and earthly ministry.

The WCC, together with the United Nations and the vast majority of the international community, considers Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories as illegal. And on this basis the WCC has encouraged boycotting goods from Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, divesting from companies that benefit from the occupation, and investing in Palestinian enterprises that stimulate the local economy.

We have not called for a general or cultural boycott of Israel because we believe that dialogue is better than isolation.

The “Entry to Israel Act (Denial of Visa to Non-Residents Who Knowingly Call for a Boycott on Israel)” which the Knesset passed in March apparently makes no distinction between boycotting Israel proper and boycotting products of the settlements. Nor does Steinberg, who describes my expression of concern over the law as a “WCC denunciation” of a measure against “activists who call for the boycott of the Jewish state.”

The fact that I have been able to enter Israel in late March could mean that the Israeli government’s actual policy and practice will not be as extreme as the letter of the law suggests.

However, the concern remains that this law opens the door to restrictions on freedom of expression and on religious liberty for those who want to visit Israel, but who oppose through nonviolent means the logic and practice of occupation, and would set a negative example to other countries. This concern is shared by a wide spectrum of partners, including many Jewish organizations.

The World Council of Churches values dialogue. Representatives from the WCC staff leadership met with NGO Monitor in October 2016, in Jerusalem.

(The Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit is the general secretary of the World Council of Churches. He is an ordained minister of the (Lutheran) Church of Norway)

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