An American Christian’s Perspective on Palestine :: Interview with Betsy Barlow ::

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Betsy Barlow, founder of Friends of Sabeel, North America (FOSNA). In Arabic, Sabeel means ‘The Way’ and also a ‘Spring of Water.’ Sabeel refers to what Christians in the first century were called “the people of The Way” — the way of peace. Sabeel, an ecumenical grassroots movement, strives to develop a spirituality based on justice, peace, nonviolence, liberation, and reconciliation.

Betsy was a teacher in Lebanon in the 1950’s, and received a Master of Arts in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan (UM) in 1961. She served as a program coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the UM from 1982-2000.

In addition to being the founder of Sabeel, Betsy served as the coordinator for FOSNA from 1996 to 2001. She remains very active on the steering committee.

SM: Can you describe the mission of Sabeel and how successful has it been in achieving its mission?

BB: Sabeel started as a discussion group among Palestinian Christian clergy and lay people. It was triggered by the 1989 publication of Reverend Naim Ateek’s book, "Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation.” Participants wanted to discuss how the Christian message could lead to justice in the Holy Land, and a better relationship between the occupying Israelis and the occupied Palestinians.

They also felt the need to bring about a better understanding among the Christian denominations and a unity of purpose after many long years of conflict among the Great Powers (Russia defended the Orthodox, France the Catholics, Sweden and Germany the Lutherans, and Britain the Anglicans). These disputes led the denominations to consider themselves competitors, rather than partners in the Christian legacy of the Holy Land.

Sabeel has recently concentrated on three local programs: clergy discussions and trips, laywomen’s discussion and trips, and youth programs. In the last six years there have been very serious limitations on travel for Palestinians, which has posed serious difficulties in continuing the programs. But they have been successful in reaching their goals, even though many Palestinians are not able to attend programs because of closures and curfews.

Sabeel organized its second international conference in 1996. Several hundred people from many countries attended, and the international organization "Friends of Sabeel” was born in North America (the US and Canada), in the UK (England, Scotland, Wales) and also in Ireland, in the Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Norway and Denmark), and also in Australia. The purpose of the "Friends" organizations is support Sabeel activities, promote better understanding of the realities on the ground and Sabeel’s nonviolent but determined response.

We feel that Sabeel has been very successful in Jerusalem, and in most other countries, but in the US there seems to be a warping of the brain which does not permit Americans to understand how difficult it is to live under occupation, or to admit that we would resist if it happened to us.

SM: The theme for this year’s annual Sabeel Conference in Jerusalem was “Challenging Christian Zionism.” Why did Sabeel pick this theme for their conference?

BB: We have in today’s world, particularly in the US, a group of Christians that seem to have forgotten the message of Christ — to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and in general to express compassion for the needy. Instead, this group is pledging allegiance to a 19th century political doctrine which was vehemently opposed for over l00 years by the Jewish leadership. In general, being a Christian Zionist translates to one who has abandoned the Christian faith and is no longer a Christian. The message of nonviolence, forgiveness, and reconciliation has been replaced by a fixation on power and force, as well as indifference to human suffering.

This doctrine appears to be strong in several sections of America, particularly among the Evangelicals, although by no means all Evangelicals subscribe to this travesty of Christianity. Sabeel felt that it was imperative for Christians to address this distortion of their faith. We believe that the best way of discussing our views with Christian Zionists is to focus on the person of Christ and what we know of Him from the Bible. What would He have us do in the present situation? Seek a resolution that respects all people? Or promote military force in the belief that world destruction may result, ushering in a time when 144,000 people are selected and the rest sent to a dismal end? (See the book of Revelations in the Bible) How could this be what our compassionate God wants for us?

SM: What are your personal thoughts about the political influence of Christian Zionists on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

BB: Christian Zionists, such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, are heavily involved in framing popular opinion on the conflict. Their knowledge of the Bible would hardly pass any primitive test, yet they cherry-pick from the Bible and from news to offer us a pastiche that suggests that God wants ethnic cleansing — in this case, of the Palestinian people. There have been others in the past who claimed that the Old Testament demanded the total destruction of a given people. If we apply our knowledge of archaeology, we know that what we read in the Old Testament is not history, and should not be read as history or as justifying a future ethnic cleansing.

It is difficult to get people to sit still for a discussion on these issues. Most people will not be able to engage in a sophisticated understanding of what the texts really meant, what archaeology tells us, and so forth. I believe that the best way to approach the topic is to discuss what we understand about Jesus, and what His example was for us. But for the people who are simply using religion to bolster their political position, any discussion may not bear fruit.

SM: If staunch pro-Israeli President Bush, a religious Christian who is said to believe that he is doing God’s will, were sitting with you right now, what would you like to say to him?

BB: I would tell President Bush that I think God asks of us justice and mercy. This means that in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, we should seek the justice of international law and UN resolutions, as well as our religious understanding of what is fair play. We might temper this with mercy — for the hungry and the homeless (many thousands have had their homes demolished by Israel). But Israel should not be making plans for land in the West Bank and Gaza — they need to get out, as requested by the UN back in 1967.

Being a Christian can not be combined with being a Zionist. Christianity requires a different approach than that practiced by Zionism.

SM: Recently, Congressman Henry Hyde, another staunch pro-Israeli advocate, surprised people when he wrote the President about his concerns that the new Wall would have a dastardly effect on Christian Holy Sites. He did this after a meeting with Christian activists. How does Sabeel feel the issue of the Wall needs to be dealt with?

BB: Sabeel feels that if we want the conflict resolved, which is in fact in the interest of Israelis and Palestinians (as well as Americans), the building of the wall must stop. Indeed, Sabeel feels that far from building more illegal settlements, Israel needs to leave all illegal settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. That actually is ALL settlements, since they ALL are contrary to international law. (See the Fourth Geneva Convention)

The wall is actually not designed to increase security but rather to seize more land for the Israeli state at the expense of the Palestinians. It actually undermines security for Israelis since it isolates so many Palestinians — children from their schools, farmers from their fields, breadwinners from their work, and the sick from medical care.

Sabeel cares for both peoples, but reconciliation needs to be based on a measure of justice. The wall, which is not on the border but cuts deep into Palestinian territory, will undermine efforts for reconciliation and a peace agreement.

SM: Given the Israeli-imposed traveling restrictions, was it hard for you and other American citizens to get to where you needed? Where specifically did Sabeel members visit when not at the Conference?

BB: It was not possible for us to get into Gaza at the time we planned. We had to postpone the visit to Bethlehem for a few days, but with patience and ingenuity different members of the Sabeel group were able to visit, in addition to Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nazareth, and Nablus, among other places. Those with international passports had less trouble. Residents of the West Bank and Gaza had a very hard time getting out of their own cities or villages.

SM: Can you describe a specific incident that really brought home the difficulties of getting from one place to another?

BB: Two incidents come to mind. Jean Zaru, who is a vice-president of Sabeel and the clerk of the Ramallah Friends (Quaker) group, could not receive permission to come to the conference in Jerusalem. Those who know her know that she has spoken eloquently for nonviolent solutions. Her case was presented several times, and each time she was refused entry. The Israelis will tell you this was for "security." But if you know the person, you know that she does not pose a danger to any other person. This was simply Israeli malice, to keep her from the international assembly of Sabeel people. She had been invited to speak to the group. Her talk had to be switched to Ramallah.

Another incident comes to mind which happened to another friend in Birzeit. She had an elderly and sick mother living less than five miles away in Ramallah. Because of curfews and closures, she was not able to visit her mother for many days. When it was announced that the curfew would be lifted and people could travel around for six hours the next day, she was ready in advance, and at the appointed time took off for her mother’s home. Two hours before the approach of the curfew, she started back. There is a path where cars cannot travel. Everyone has to get out of a car and walk for perhaps l/2 mile across this strip between Ramallah and Birzeit. As she was walking across this open space, soldiers started firing at her legs with live bullets. People around her were panicked and ran. She is in her 60’s, and could not run. She kept on walking with the bullets coming ever nearer, kicking up dust and gravel at her feet. Even with announced times of relaxation of the curfews, you can’t trust the out-of-control poorly-disciplined Israeli army, which often acts like a group of thugs who know they can get away with whatever they do. This is a woman who has gone out of her way to befriend Israelis and promote peace through music. But soldiers thought it would be amusing to make her run. The Israeli army, so much idolized in an earlier era, has become a force that is beyond humanity or discipline.

SM: Do you feel hopeful about prospects for peace in the Holy Land? Why or why not?

BB: On the "not hopeful" side, one could mention that we are perhaps at the edge of the chance to establish two states. Sharon, with the backing of Bush, has just about destroyed the chance to build two states that could live together, each in their own area. Sharon has insisted on taking more land from the West Bank, and in building the wall, which separates Palestinians from each other and from their schools, fields, friends, jobs, and medical care. The Israeli departure from Gaza will not necessarily leave Palestinians in better shape because Israel intends to keep control of the shore line (these people have historically supported themselves by fishing); the border with Egypt (which means Palestinians cannot export their produce to Egypt without Israeli interference); control of the skies (there will be no air traffic to Gaza — it will have to go through Israel and be subject to their permission). Israelis have already ruined the water in Gaza. And they intend to blow up the houses before they leave.

On the "hopeful" side, more Israelis and American Jews are joining with the international community in calling for an end to Israel’s occupation. Another hopeful sign is that almost all US Christian denominations have very strong statements condemning the occupation. Many Americans are waking up to the fact that American support of Israel’s occupation of Palestine is one of the major factors in turning the Arab World, the Muslim world, and indeed many other countries away from the US. This is a time when we can be heard!

SM: If you could summarize your recent trip in one statement, what would it be?

BB: Each time I go (and I have been traveling to the area since 1955), things are worse. Last April things were desperate. People were homeless. Some were hungry. More than 50% are unemployed and over 70% live below the poverty line. Incredible!

SM: Is there something I haven’t asked you that you would like to share?

BB: The possibility for peace between Israel and Palestine rests with Americans. This is still a democracy, and if we feel strongly, we can make our voices heard, and policy will change. Israelis and Palestinians need peace. We need to stop the policies that isolate us from our erstwhile friends and supporters. If we in the grassroots start talking, questioning, meeting with our Senators and Representatives, and e-mailing President Bush and Secretary Powell, we might open up a space for real peace, not the disgraceful caricature of peace promoted by Sharon and Bush.

I don’t see any possibility of Israel ruling over four million Palestinians who do not want to be ruled. It has to change sometime, but I am hoping that with more education, activity, and advocacy we will bring about a resolution before many more lives are lost.