PIETY and sightseeing make for good business. Last year, a leading tour operator in Kerala organised trips for some 3,000 people to the holy land, 25 per cent more tourists than in the previous year. The biblical lands of Bethlehem and Jerusalem have been drawing many visitors from India these days, more so from the southern State where Christians constitute more than 20 per cent of the population. The swelling number is thanks partly to pilgrimages fostered by individuals and groups within the Church. The pilgrims’ progress gets a further push from politically expedient decisions such as the ones by the Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh governments to give financial assistance to Christians for a religious trip to Jerusalem.
But unlike for the tourist, for a person living in Bethlehem in the West Bank, be it Christian or Muslim, to make the eight-kilometre trip to Jerusalem is not easy. What it means to be a Palestinian is to get a permit to cross over and then get stopped and searched. Fr Jamal Khader, Dean of the Faculty of Arts in Bethlehem University, Jerusalem, cites the examples of several young people in his university who have not gone to Jerusalem despite their earnest desire to do so.
Everyday reality here is hard: the wall erected on Palestinian territory, separating people from one another (61.8 per cent of the planned 708 km is complete); the inhuman conditions in which people live under a permanent blockade; Israeli control of natural resources, including water and agricultural land; the daily humiliation of people at military checkpoints (522 of them) on their way to workplaces, schools or hospitals; administrative detention of Palestinians in prison without charge or trial for up to six months, which can be extended, for security reasons; the problem of refugees living in camps; and prisoners languishing in Israeli prisons. According to the Badil Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights, a community-based non-profit organisation in the West Bank, 67 per cent (7.1 million) of the Palestinian population (10.6 million) could be categorised as forcibly displaced persons as of 2008. Among them, 6.6 million were refugees and 427,000 were internally displaced persons (IDPs).
But many pilgrims from India are unaware of these facts, if not indifferent. They undertake the 5,000-km journey with a flawed understanding of history provided by the Christian interpretation of the promised land in the Bible. Some even equate metaphoric Israel with political Israel.
As the historian Ilan Pappe expounds in a review of Michael Prior’s Western Scholarship and the History of Palestine, “the reinvention of the Jewish people as an ancient nation of Israel was an important product of the European, and Christian-centric, scholarly effort. It played an important role in shaping the founding myth of Zionism: a people without a land returning to a land without a people”.
But for the natives of the land, who consider it to be an ongoing nakba (catastrophe) for the past 64 years, tourism that legitimises the occupation of their land is the last thing they want. Along with the civil society in Palestine, local churches actively promote a fair trip to the holy land and many other initiatives to end Israeli occupation in Palestine.
Recently, these groups got a boost from some Christian bodies in India when consultations that they held in Chennai and Delhi dealt with the question of Palestine. The Chennai consultation called on Christians to differentiate between biblical Palestine and the current socio-political realities of Palestine. It urged Churches to use alternative tourism partners in Palestine so as to facilitate visits to the Palestinian side of the country too.
The consultation was organised by the Board of Theological Education of the Senate of Serampore College, West Bengal, and the Church of South India in coordination with the Indian Solidarity Ecumenical Network-Palestine (ISEN-P) from July 12 to 14 and was attended by 40 men and women from different churches, theological colleges, secular educational institutions and civil society. The ISEN includes the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) and the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI).
The consultation drew attention to the Kairos document brought out by the Churches in Palestine in 2009, which called on the worldwide Church “not to offer a theological cover-up for the injustice we suffer, for the sin of the occupation imposed on us”. Kairos is an ancient Greek term that means a propitious moment for decision or action. Kairos Document Palestine (KDP) is modelled on the South African Kairos document brought out by the Church in 1985 at the height of apartheid in that country.
The KDP sought to mobilise and galvanise churches the world over to act. But the responses were mixed. Latin American churches saw parallels and similarities with the experience in their country. For instance, the separation wall between Jerusalem and Bethlehem is similar to the one being built between Mexico and the United States. “The Gaza embargo is similar to the one experienced by Cuba from the U.S. for half a century,” wrote Samuel Pagan, a theologian from Latin America. There has been opposition within the Church, too, on the issue of making hasty comparisons with South Africa under apartheid, though the KDP has consciously avoided the term.Popular resistance
Civil society groups in Palestine are happy with the fillip the KDP has given to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign they launched in 2005. The KDP clearly calls for the beginning of a system of economic sanctions and boycott to be applied against Israel.
“The Kairos document put it [the movement] on a higher level. Now the Palestinian Christians have finally, after 64 years, a public opinion, a written statement, on the issue in Palestine. And with it endorsing the BDS movement, the Christian community all around the world have to take a stand. Either you are for the rights of the Palestinians or you are against it. You cannot tell us you stand in solidarity with us but you are against the BDS movement,” says Amjad Alqasis, the legal advocacy coordinator of Badil, who was in India recently. Badil (meaning alternative) is the founder-member of the BDS network.
“The BDS movement was launched exactly a year after the decision of the International Court of Justice that the wall built by Israel on occupied Palestinian territory was illegal. It was very much oriented on the BDS movement in South Africa and launched with three main demands: ending Israeli occupation; the return of Palestinian refugees; and the self-determination of the Palestinian people,” said Alqasis. “We will only boycott Israel as far as it violates international law. The moment Israel stops violating international law, which goes hand in hand with stopping the full-out occupation, letting Palestinian refugees to return and granting self-determination to the Palestinians, the BDS movement will cease to exist.”
Since the civil society’s call for action, the BDS movement has got support from different countries. Academics boycotted Israeli universities, local authorities began to exclude companies from tendering for multi-billion contracts, film-makers pulled out of festivals, and churches across the world began examining investments they held in Israeli companies. The World Council of Churches (WCC) also encourages member-churches to avoid investments or other economic links to illegal activities on occupied territory and to boycott settlement products. In India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has supported the international campaign for BDS against Israel.
Participation in the BDS movement has also generated intense controversy. For instance, the prominent intellectual Noam Chomsky has said the BDS harms the whole movement and that it is a gift to the hardliners. “It is convenient, particularly for Westerners, to regard it as an anti-Israel movement,” he said in an interview. “There are obvious temptations to blaming someone else, but the fact of the matter is that Israel can commit crimes to the extent that they are given decisive support by the U.S. and, less directly, its allies. BDS actions are both principled and most effective when they are directed at [the] boycott of Western firms contributing to the occupation, working to end military aid to Israel, etc.”
But Alqasis says the hardliner does not need any excuse from Palestinians. “In Palestinian popular resistance history, we underwent different forms of resistance in different periods of time. There was the armed struggle of the 60s and 70s. There was the non-violent disobedience movement in the 80s. There was the negotiation in the 90s. Diplomacy in the 2000s. Every time the answer of Israel was military might and killing of Palestinian people. Israeli aggression is not connected to Palestinian resistance. It is connected to their vision of ethnic cleansing [of] the territory of all non-Jewish inhabitants. Palestinians have the right and even the obligation, I would say, to resist the occupation and the oppression by all means necessary.” And the BDS, he says, is the leading and most successful resistance strategy of the Palestinian people at the moment.
Fr Jamal Khader, a Catholic priest (of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem) and co-author of the KDP, makes it clear that the BDS is directed at Israeli policy and not against the Jewish people. “The BDS is not to delegitimise Israel, it is to delegitimise occupation,” he says. “The KDP condemns all forms of racism, whether religious or ethnic, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.”
Scholars like Pappe have said the BDS is one of the foremost avenues in promoting the Palestinian cause. Along with individuals like him, there are also non-Zionist Jewish organisations in Israel that Badil is collaborating with, Zochrot and ICAHD being the most prominent among them.
But with the Knesset passing a law last year to penalise Israeli individuals and organisations advocating the BDS, they have been having a hard time putting forth their point of view.
Maybe the boycott movement is shaking up the Israeli establishment. “Not for nothing has Israel adopted this law,” says Alqasis. “Normally, they don’t do that. Israel’s main interest is to keep up the charade that they are democratic. And this shows how successful this movement is.”Commonalities
The meetings in Chennai and Delhi also drew parallels to the Indian context and how religion was used to justify the politically exclusive claims of the Hindutva ideology. “Hindutva and Zionism are two ideologies that are strikingly similar in content and orientation. Both are ideological constructs that prompt and promote division and suspicion of the other. They have grown into forms of nationalism that are intolerant of pluralism and seek exclusivist identities for their followers,” said a statement released by the NCCI in connection with the Delhi consultation.
The participants also found commonalities in the experiences of Palestinians and the oppression of and discrimination against Dalits in India, particularly Christian Dalits, both by the Church and by the state. One of the primary concerns raised was the constitutional guarantees available to Dalits in general and Dalit Christians in particular but not accessible to them.
An important point of discussion was the struggles for sovereignty and selfhood of Adivasi and tribal communities in India and the struggles of people to protect and reclaim the lands that have been forcibly taken away from them for nuclear plants, development projects and the industrial expansion of multinational corporations, and the impact of all this on the environment. “Somehow, the rights of Adivasis to land have always been a problem in spite of the fact that it is the Adivasis who have cared most for the land. That has been denied to them. There is a lot of similarity between India and Palestine in how the land being taken away from [natives] is destroying the lives of people and their livelihood,” says Aruna Gnanadason, who was executive director for planning and integration in the general secretariat of the World Council of Churches in Geneva.
But will all this remain an academic exercise? “If this process encourages Christian groups to rethink the way in which they look at the Palestinian struggle, I think we have a success story. We just have to keep this discussion on in our churches and in the community,” she says. “I think change will come and public opinion will grow.”
Perhaps change is already in the offing. “Until 2007 we used to have the advertisement of EL AL, the official airlines of Israel, in CSI Life, the official magazine of the Church of South India. It was a conscious decision not to extend or renew the contract,” said Rev. Viji Varghese Eapen, director of the Department of Ecumenical Relations and Ecological Concerns of the CSI, who is also in charge of its communications department.
“Unfortunately, we seem to foster some kind of geo-piety, forgetting the fact that every rupee we contribute towards our so-called holy tours goes for the unholy war by Israel against the Palestinians,” he said.