Decolonizing Interfaith Dialogue - Liberation Theology and Palestine Solidarity

Here is a paper I wrote in 2006 when I was a graduate student at Notre Dame studying liberation theology and comparative theology.  I formed these perspectives while doing interfaith social justice organizing against the Iraq war in 2003-2004, followed by a Palestine solidarity divestment campaign in 2004-2005.

I found that when I took a principled stance against Israeli colonization of Palestine, I was ostracized by the very same progressive interfaith activist circles I had helped build.  This is because those circles accepted a fundamental tenant of Zionism: they equated Jewish destiny and heritage with a defense of the state and ruling class of Israel, suggesting that a critique of Israeli settler colonialism amounts to an attack on the Jewish religion itself.   In these circles, anyone who wanted to engage in interfaith dialogue was forced to accept Zionists as the only authentic representatives of Jewish culture and religion.

Under the pretext of atoning for historic anti-Semitism, liberal Christian Zionists used these interfaith dialogues to promote their own imperial theologies, rooted in ahistorical and naive readings of Biblical texts.  These Christians overlook the fact that the wars of the early Hebrew Bible were wars of revolutionary liberation against Pharaoh's empire and its Canaanite client kings; they were NOT colonial wars of conquest over the Canaanite peoples themselves.  Ancient Israel emerged among the Canaanite peoples who rebelled against their kings; it was a multicultural confederation of proletarian and peasant tribes, not a nation state.

This history has been whitewashed the past 500 years by ideologues of American manifest destiny, who twisted the Bible into an idol-producing factory to justify the colonization of indigenous lands here on Turtle Island / North America, portraying white settlers as the new Israel and indigenous people as the new Canaanites.  It is not a surprise that some Christians today uncritically extend their twisted logic to justify Israeli colonization of Palestine as well.

Any form of interfaith dialogue that is soft on colonialism necessarily marginalizes Muslim participants, as well as Palestinian Christians, anti-Zionist Jews, and anyone who wishes to take a principled stance against Israeli colonialism and racism.

I am publishing this piece now because the Palestine solidarity movement has been expanding rapidly, with thousands of people joining protests demanding boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israeli apartheid.  Recently, my friends and I have been involved in one such campaign, the effort to block Israeli owned Zim shipping company from using ports in the Puget Sound/ Salish Sea region.  Activists in Oakland recently prevented a Zim ship from being unloaded there, and activists in LA delayed another ship in their port.  Activists here delayed the Zim Chicago in the port of Tacoma for about two hours.

This could be a historic moment.  Not surprisingly, some Christian Zionist reactionaries are claiming that the recent earthquake in California is God punishing us for opposing Israel! Their idolatrous worship of an angry white man in the sky is laughable, but more subtle versions of Christian Zionism continue to permeate US civil religion, sometimes under the guise of dialogue and tolerance.

Among the hundreds of activists involved in these growing solidarity campaigns, some of us are motivated by faith, religion, or spirituality, whether we are Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, agnostic, Hindu, or practitioners of various indigenous traditions.  Our convictions compel us to oppose colonialism and racism in all forms, including in the form of Israeli apartheid; we are also committed to dialogue and solidarity among each other, challenging chauvinism in our various communities.

However, these alliances seem to be forming largely outside of the more formal dialogues occurring among self-proclaimed official representatives of our various faith communities.  I believe this is not a coincidence.

As my paper argues, the official channels of dialogue have stagnated because they are stuck within a patronizing and basically colonial approach to issues of historic injustice and trauma. Also, liberal Zionists are having trouble putting a friendly face on the Israeli state, since Israeli official society is currently rejecting diplomacy and dialogue, in favor of massacres, sieges, and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank.  As is happening to various degrees around the world, the middle is dropping out, and the right wing is rising.

In this context, people who believe in dialogue must find each other within a shared, uncompromising struggle against the right, against the state, against the empire, and against the capitalist system that backs it.  As Palestinian theologian Mitri Raheb and Jewish theologian Marc Ellis suggest, the future of dialogue and prophetic witness lies within the "dialogue of life".  This dialogue begins in solidarity and struggle, from popular neighborhood committees in Gaza to solidarity picket lines in Salish Sea ports.  It is this dialogue that I explore and advocate in my paper.  I hope you like it, and please feel free to submit responses and critiques.


PS - the paper was written from a Catholic perspective because at that point I was in training to be a Catholic liberation theologian.  However, the paper also explores a wider set of issues in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theology and politics. Some of the history of the Vatican's changing approaches to Zionism may interest non-Catholics from a political standpoint, since it is a good example of how well-meaning liberal efforts to reform an oppressive bureaucracy can go wrong unless they are clear on issues of anti-racism and decolonization.

To open the paper in Google docs, click here.