Naim Ateek: a Palestinian Christian Leader in Toronto

Last night I had the pleasure of attending Naim Ateek’s address at Knox College at the University of Toronto. Naim Ateek is the founder of Sabeel, a Palestinian ecumenical and grassroots liberation theology organization that focusses on the life and teachings of Christ to promote unity among Palestinian Christians and lead them towards the path of justice and peace. Sabeel is also an interfaith organization because they work withMuslims and Jews, and especially strive for unity between Palestinian Muslims and Christians. Because of the conflict, however, they work only with Jews who agree to a solution to the conflict based in international law. According to Ateek, most Jews in Israel-Palestine are religious extremists in the area of theology of land.

Ateek’s talk began with a description of the Nakba, the expulsion of Palestinians from the territory that became Israel in 1948. I remember the first time I heard the word “Nakba”, it was at an Israeli Apartheid week event about five years ago. This was the first time, however, that I was hearing a Nakba story by someone who experienced it themselves. According to Ateek, several weeks before the declaration of the State of Israel the zionist militias occupied his village, forcing all to leave or be killed. They had to leave everything, they didn’t even have time to pack. The christians were separated from the Muslims, the Muslims were taken to the Jordanian border, and the Christians were dumped on the outskirts of Nazareth. He emphasized that this happened all over Palestine, and that nearly very Palestinian you speak to has a story like this.


While describing the history of Israel, Ateek emphasized what he sees as a shift in the meaning of Zionism, the fulcrum point of which was the 1967 war. Pre-67, he claims, Zionism was a mostly secular phenomenon. He did not speak about specific leaders or strains of zionism (i.e. Labour vs Revisionist), but rather claimed that the overall character of Zionism up until 1967 was a secular project, and that if you asked supporters of Israel between 48 and 67 “why ought Israel exist”, they would answer “the holocaust”. After ’67, however, he has witnessed a religious shift, where the answer to the same question becomes “the bible”. This, he says, makes the situation even more dire for Palestinians, and is especially troubling for Palestinian Christians because they share with Jews these same sacred texts which are used to justify the ongoing colonization of their land and the abuse towards Palestinians. The bible has been used, since 1967, to justify the Israeli settlement project – and many Israelis support it on the basis of what Ateek calls an “exclusivist theology of land” – a theology of land that claims that this land is only for Jewish people, and that therefore others can be displaced and it’s not a problem.

Naim Ateek’s move towards liberation theology was motivated by a need to respond to this post ’67 shift of zionism towards religion. He realized that Christians needed for a hermeneutic, a criteria of interpretation to understand the books of the bible which have been used by zionists to justify the Israeli settlement project and the ongoing human rights abuses against Palestinians.  The hermeneutic he came up with he calls the “Hermeneutic of Christ”: the key question to ask of any text is: How does this text reflect the love of God that I have know in Jesus Christ?” The way he employs the story of Jesus is, even for me as a lapsed Protestant, quite inspiring. He emphasizes that Jesus was born under (the Roman) occupation, that he lived his entire life under occupation, and he was killed by the occupation forces. A friend later pointed out that those who handed him over to the occupation forces are the equivalent of the modern day Palestinian Authority. It’s that last point – that he was killed by the occupation forces, that really hits home. The message is, I think, Jesus knows what it is to live under occupation is not a theoretical fact, but for Christians a very embodied, physical truth. Embodying the life of Christ means having the patience to love your enemy while living under occupation. And for Sabeel, this does not mean apologizing for the occupation or normalizing with injustice, but struggling for justice and opening a framework for peace and reconciliation that can come after, but not before justice. In the meantime, Sabeel supports all forms of non-violent resistance against the occupation (more on that later).

Something Ateek repeated throughout his talk was the sense that these interpretations of scriptural texts are not some dead thing, but real things, that really motivate people today. He says that “we are dealing with a tribal concept of God, a tribal theology of land, and a tribal concept of the people of God”. He asks – is this really the meaning of the old testament? According to a standard interpretation of the Torah, the first 5 books of the Old Testament, the answer to the question “What is the solution for the indigenous people of the land at the time of Moses” is answered either by “kill them all” or drive them out”. But Ateek finds other passages in the Old Testament that suggest other answers, more inclusive answers to the question. For example, in the book of Ezekial, chapter 47, verses 21-23 read:

“You are to distribute this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel.  You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the foreigners residing among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.  In whatever tribe a foreigner resides, there you are to give them their inheritance,” declares the Sovereign Lord

This passage describes the orders of the Lord to the people of Israel upon their return the land of Israel from Babylon – here they are not ordered to kill or drive out those living in what they consider their homeland, but are to live among them and give them “their inheritance”, i.e. respect their land rights, and consider them “native born Israelites”, i.e. grant them the same rights you grant yourselves. Ateek argues that his passage suggests within the Old Testament a movement from tribalist theology towards a more inclusive, more universalist theology.

The status of Jerusalem is another subject in the Old Testament on which Ateek finds evidence of a shift. The book of Nehemiah says to the non-Israelite inhabitants of Jerusalem that “you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it” (chapter 2 verse 20), but Psalm 87 has a different attitude: God stands at the entrance of the city had welcomes the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and the Philistines – all enemies of Israel, and says that they were born there, and to Jerusalem that “all my springs are in you”. This again suggests, according to Ateek, that there is a progression from exclusionary to universalist theology within the books of the Torah.

While he did not go into details on the book of Jonah, he did claim that Jonah was the first Palestinian liberation theologian, because Jonah critiqued 1) the exclusivist theology of god, 2)the exclusive theology of the people of god, and 3) the exclusivist theology of land. All this talk of “tribalism” vs “universalism” does make me uncomfortable – there is a bit too much of the theory of historical progress, and while he did not speak about the new testament, Ateek’s interpretation of the Old Testament does suggest a view that the Bible progresses from a more tribalist text towards a more universalist text, and then from that we add the claim that most Israelis (which means a large percentage of the Jews in the world) are stuck in the tribalist stage by endorsing an exclusivist theology of land. It’s all a bit too close to a kind of Gilad Atzmon theory of “Jewish identity politics” that ties people’s interpretation of religion to the conflict rather than focussing on colonization and Israel as a settler-state. But at the end of the day, Naim Ateek is a Christian, and he and his community need to understand their texts in a way that supports their freedom and liberation, and certainly not in a way that supports their oppression and them being driven out. So, I’m honestly confused as to how to think about this.

On the whole, I found Ateek’s liberation theology inspiring, especially when compared against the contemporary prevelant view among Christians that is shy of criticizing Israel due to holocaust guilt, a process which in Ateek’s words prevents the “emergence of the prophetic”. I will try to pick up a copy of his book “Justice and Only Justice“, because I’m genuinely interested in the way biblical stories can be used to motivate struggles for freedom and justice. In general, I remain unsure about the role of identity-politics in the conflict, and uncomfortable with taking any stand on this issue. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in continuing to learn more about it.

The talk ended with a call for Palestinians to engage in all forms of non-violent resistance against the Israeli occupation. He is a founding organizer of the Kairos document, and this is pushing his organization and organizations that support them towards the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement. He spoke in the question period about struggles to get Churches to divest form companies involved in the occupation – even one case of investments in companies making the concrete for the wall that surrounds the church that holds the investment! He also spoke about how his organization is still supporting the 2 state solution and a resolution based on international law, but he recognizes that the Israelis have turned this solution to garbage and that he will never support a 2 state solution in the way that Israel envisions it. He said openly that a 1 state solution is the ideal, and ended his talk with a very hopeful claim, all the more hopeful for knowing how many Israeli Jews he has himself worked with:

When a Jew converts from Zionism to Justice, they never talk about two states.



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