Posted by: azizabusarah | June 20, 2011

A Jewish adventure in a Palestinian refugee camp

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By: Aziz Abu Sarah


Six months ago, nineteen Jews broke the usual partisan norms when it comes to visiting the “Holy Land” by choosing to hear not only the Israeli Zionist narrative—with which most of them are already familiar—but also pushing themselves to learn and experience the Palestinian narrative on their synagogue’s trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories. They chose to shatter the classical stereotype of tourists who come to Israel to experience the luxurious hotels and touchstone religious sites but that prevent them from experiencing the “other” important local culture.

Tourism packages excel in keeping tourists in a bubble. The guests visit restaurants, hotels, and venues that are designed to give them the illusion of having a local experience, without having to step outside their comfort zone.  Tourism in Israel and Palestine is largely dependent on “religious” pilgrimage trips where tourists are rushed from one archeological site to another without fulfilling the spiritual aspect of the trip they had aspired to experience.

This kind of tourism doesn’t characterize all visitors to the Holy Land, however, because there is emerging lately an alternative kind of tourism. There are people who have interests that go beyond the usual religious sites. They understand religious pilgrimage to mean creating a connection with the land, the people and the culture. Such special people choose to come for an educational and practical experience.  This not to say they avoid typical sites, nor do they fail to indulge in relaxing and luxurious experiences, but they refuse to ignore the full potential of a Holy Land trip.

In December of 2010, I had the privilege of coordinating a tour for the nineteen Jews from Chicago led by their rabbi. Contrary to normal tours, ours was led equally by two tour guides for the entire trip, a Palestinian and an Israeli. The purpose was to provide the tourists with a context of the Israel/Palestine conflict and allow them to learn the different narratives that exist in the region. They visited many religious sites in Jerusalem, Hebron and Bethlehem. Everywhere they visited, locals welcomed them and spoke to them about a vast variety of issues. They learned about the life, challenges and aspirations of both the people of Palestine and of Israel.

Perhaps what was most impressive about the trip was the group’s shocking request to have home stays at a Palestinian refugee camp. For two nights, nineteen Jews stayed in four Palestinian homes in Deheisheh Refugee Camp.

To my knowledge this is unprecedented, a delegation of Jewish congregants sleeping in Palestinian refugees homes, eating from their food, playing games with their children and grandchildren—a few even smoking hookah all night long with the youth of the camp. They talked about music, life, culture, romance, and–against my advice–even politics. The host families were the average Palestinian families and not the elite Palestinians. Some family members did not speak English, yet they did not have a problem communicating. They proved that the language of humanity transcends any linguistic boundaries.


The rabbi told me that on the first night at the refugee camp, a seventeen-year-old young man at one hosting house took him around the camp and introduced him to his friends. He took him to his “hangout” places, and shared with him his life and dreams. Who would believe the story of a Jewish Rrabbi experiencing nightlife in Deheisheh Refugee Camp? This is a glimpse of hope that we should all hold on to.

On the day I picked up the group from their home stays, the scene was unbelievable. I never expected to see Palestinians in tears, weeping because Jews were leaving their homes. It is normally the other way around. The goodbye moment was emotional, even heartbreaking; everyone had tears in their eyes. The relationships created in two days seemed to be unbreakable and unshakable. The fact that these were Jews and Muslims in a place torn by nationality, religion and conflict did not stop them from overcoming stereotypes and becoming friends. They looked beyond religion and nationality and connected on the basic level of human relations.


Some Jewish extremists claim that if a Palestinian state is to be created, the Jews will not be able to visit their holy sites in the West Bank. They argue that Palestinians would not grant them the freedom to worship there. This argument is the basis for many settler justifications of the Occupation.

Nineteen Jews proved that this notion is not necessarily true. The Palestinian families in Deheisheh Refugee Camp did not mind hosting Jews, not just in hotels but rather in their homes. They stayed under the same roof, with no protection, no weapons or checkpoints. They were safe because they came as friends, not as enemies. They came with flowers and gifts, not with guns.

When back in their East Jerusalem hotel, the Jewish congregation held a prayer and worship service. Not only did the Palestinian hotel staff not object, but rather they did everything possible to make sure the Jews had all they needed for the service.

Jews have a significant history and heritage in the West Bank, and many Palestinian Muslims and Christians do not deny it since it is part of their own religious history. It is understandable why many Jews feel connected to some places in the West Bank, just like Palestinians have history and heritage within Israel to which they are drawn. Palestinians will always welcome Jews to the West Bank, not as settlers, but as friends and neighbors. This is the kind of new relationship needed between Jews, Muslims and Christians in the “Holy Land”, a place that will hopefully one day soon live up to its name.

Posted by: azizabusarah | April 5, 2011

Challenging the evangelical bias against Palestinian

Monday, April 4 2011|+972blog

By Aziz Abu Sarah

Last week published an article by Johnnie Moore, a Christian evangelical pastor and vice president of Liberty University (the largest evangelical university in the world, founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell). Moore was visiting Israel with a group of students on a trip that ended 24 hours before the bombing in Jerusalem. A Christian tourist was killed in the bombing, and Pastor Moore was moved to write about the terror attack and his views on Israel and the Palestinians. The article, entitled “No Excuse for Brutality,” was one-sided and inflammatory, asserting that Palestinians are entirely to blame for the conflict.

Normally, as a Palestinian I would brush off such an article as an example of the natural, emotional responses that arise from tragedies and traumas like last month’s bombing. However, Moore’s article is more than a reactionary piece; his comments also reflect the views of many Christian evangelicals in the United States. As a result, I feel it is important to respond to some of the points Moore raised.

Moore opened his article by claiming that the media is biased against Israel, and has justified the terror attack. The effort of some media outlets of putting the attack in context is not to be interpreted as a bias. The political stalemate, the continuation of the occupation, the confiscation of land and demolishing of Palestinian homes, and the “price tag” attacks by settlers executed all over the West Bank explains the rise of violent tendencies. These things should not be used as a justification but rather provide contextual analysis for the cycle of violence endemic to the conflict.

Moore writes that the Jerusalem bombing “should be an embarrassment to every supporter of the Palestinian cause. Instead… this act of war will be met with cheers in Hamas’ training camps even as Palestinian leaders give lip service to the international community and condemn the attacks in English, while praising them privately in Arabic.” This is problematic, first because many supporters of the Palestinian cause did view the bombing as shameful, and second because Moore assumes that the Palestinians are praising the attack in Arabic. As a writer for Al-Quds I can testify that Arab leaders condemned the attack in Arabic just as they did in English, and many Palestinians were outraged by the bombing.

In fact, those who criticize the Palestinian Authority for failing to prevent attacks like these should take a hard look at the situation in the West Bank. The PA controls around 14% of the West Bank, and cannot even issue a building permit for most Palestinians.  However, it is expected to police the West Bank in ways that even Israel, with its vastly superior training and weaponry, has been unable to do.

Perhaps the most ill-informed statement in Pastor Moore’s article is his statement that “I knew the message [of Israeli victimization] was understood when one of our students asked, ‘I see Palestinian neighborhoods all over Israel, what is the problem with Israelis having neighborhoods (settlements) within Palestinian areas?’ [The student’s] point was poignant as it highlighted Israel’s preparedness to live in peace with its neighbors and the refusal with which this has been met.”

The comparison between settlements and Arab villages in Israel shows a complete lack of knowledge of historical context. This is not surprising, as few American Christians are familiar with the Palestinian narrative. Palestinian villages in Israel were all founded long before the 1948 war, and since the formation of the Israeli state the Israel government has not allowed new Arab towns to be created within its borders.

On the other hand, in the Palestinians territories (which currently comprise only 22% of the area of the British mandate for Palestine), all Israeli settlements were built in the last 44 years.  Moreover, settlements in the West Bank are generally built on privately owned Palestinian land that has been confiscated, while Arab towns in Israel were not built on confiscated land. Another important fact is that Prime Minister Fayyad has indicated on more than one occasion that Jews are welcome to become Palestinian citizens in any future Palestinian state.

Ironically, Moore and his student also seem unaware that many of the “Arab neighborhoods” in Israel are populated by Palestinian Christians. This is a common oversight in American Christian rhetoric about Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When Americans do recognize the existence of Palestinian Christians, it is often only to use their situation to support anti-Muslim propaganda. For example, according to a poll conducted by Zogby International, 45.9% of Americans blame Muslims for the Christian immigration out of the Holy Land, while only 7.4% of Americans cite Israeli restrictions as contributing to Arab Christian immigration. However, when Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem were asked about the primary cause for Christian immigration out of the area, 78% cited Israeli restrictions as their reason for leaving.

Ultimately, Dr. Moore concludes that Israel has a right to exist without the threat of terrorism. There is nothing wrong with this idea: Moore is completely correct in saying that Israel has that right to exist free from fear. However, rights are symmetrical, and Palestinians also have the right to live free of fear and free from the yoke of occupation.

Palestinians often feel the West views Palestinian rights as less important than Israeli rights, and that our blood is valued less than Jewish blood. When American Christian leaders like Moore write articles condemning bombings in Israel but are silent about bombings in Gaza (the most recent of which resulted in the death of 3 children), it tells Palestinians that we are viewed as sub-human. However, we also bleed, just as we care for the blood of others. I myself felt disgusted at the Itamar attack and the bombing in Jerusalem.

I must say that I don’t understand Christians who value the life of one group over another. Even if American Christians consider Muslims as enemies, in the New Testament Jesus commanded his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them.  The word he used for “love” in Greek (agapao) means to entertain or to welcome in. This concept seems to be in direct opposition to the doctrine of Islamophobia spread by many Christian evangelical groups in the United States. Moreover, Isaiah says “”Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” The scripture does not apply only to Jews, to the “foreigner” and “alien.” Hundreds of millions of Americans profess to be Christians and believe in the divine inspiration of these verses, so where are these “believers” when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Moore’s article is a reminder that many American Christians view supporting Israel as a tenant of faith, without thinking critically about the theological and practical implications of this viewpoint. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” Like many Christian groups who visit Israel, Moore’s group did not bother to visit any Palestinian towns. My guess is that neither Moore nor any of his church members have ever even met a Palestinian. Perhaps then their demonization of Palestinians is unsurprising.

When I was ten, my brother was murdered by Israeli soldiers. As a result, I understand how easy it is to seek revenge and find justifications for violence. As Solomon said, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” However, I long to see more religious people practice these verses which speak of justice as a higher form of religion, and I long for the day when religion becomes more a tool for bringing people together than for dividing them. On that day the prophecy of Isaiah will be realized “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

Aziz Abu Sarah is a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem who spends his time between Jerusalem and Washington D.C. Aziz is a columnist with Alquds Newspaper and is the director of the Middle East Projects at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. Aziz runs alternative tours to Israel and the West-Bank through MEJDI a social enterprise he co-founded. His blog can be found at

Posted by: azizabusarah | March 10, 2011

To No-fly or not to No-fly Libya, Analysis by Aziz Abu Sarah

Posted by: azizabusarah | March 7, 2011

J-Street: A Palestinian’s perspective

Originally published at

Very few Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza or even in the US knew about J Street ‘s second annual conference that took place in Washington, DC last week. Most Arabs don’t know a thing about J Street. For a long time, Palestinians have only been aware of one Jewish Zionist lobby, known by the name AIPAC. J Street claims to be a new voice for the Jewish community, which is an important development and has found listening ears very quickly among thousands of Jews across the US.

However, Palestinians are not concerned with the existence of new Jewish voices in America calling for a two-state solution. Although many in the Palestinian Authority see J Street as a positive change, most Palestinians are concerned with the reality in the region. The past two years have been full of disappointments.  The failure to achieve a final settlement eighteen years after the Oslo Accords resulted in Palestinians questioning the possibility of peace and even the two-state solution. They might believe it is the best solution, but they are losing hope that it is achievable.

J Street’s birth coincided with the Lieberman-Netanyahu coalition in Israel and the stalemate in negotiations. The US’ inability to mediate successfully between the sides made J Street’s mission all the more vital and all the more necessary. Even though it has had some successes, such as getting some house members to abandon support for AIPAC and join them, the current reality does not allow them to boast victories.

At the conference, J Street stressed the same messages conveyed in its first conference: a strong emphasis of Zionist values and hardcore dedication to the two-state solution. J Street issued a warning of the consequences possible if the two-state solution fails to become a reality. However, they must realize that it has an expiration date and unfortunately is not too far off. J Street could end up like many old Zionist left organizations stuck to an ideal that has perished. They should speak more about ending the occupation, which is the biggest threat to a two-state solution – and remain open to other creative solutions, whether confederacy or a one-state.

Palestinians will not sit quietly waiting until Israel generously decides to give them a state, and PA President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad cannot sell promises to the Palestinian people forever either. When September comes around, Palestinian leaders will have to deliver on the state they promised or address some seriously frustrated constituents.

For me, Mona Eltahawy was the inspiration of the conference. She warned that if the occupation continues, the Arab revolutions will arise in Palestine as well. She also drew a comparison between the Hosni Mubarak speeches, which seemed to always come just 10 days too late and Israel, which is taking too long to allow Palestinians their freedom and dignity. Eltahaway went on to ask Israelis and American Jews the same question that I would pose: Do you want be 10 days too late?

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