A journey of justice, a journey of faith
An interview with Naim Ateek
by Brian Grieves

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Anglican priest Naim Ateek, a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship, is founder and director of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. Brian Grieves is director of the Episcopal Church’s national office of Peace and Justice Ministries. We asked Grieves to interview Ateek for The Witness because of his many years of involvement with peace and justice advocacy in the Middle East and because of the two priests’ longtime friendship. The interview occurred in New York.

Brian Grieves: Naim, it’s wonderful to chat with you this afternoon. Our friendship goes back to our time together at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) in Berkeley, Calif. I was a senior there when you were doing graduate work in 1971—72. Maybe a good place to start is to ask you to reflect on your journey as a priest and as a Palestinian since that time?

Naim Ateek: In 1966, I started my ministry as deacon in a small town near Nazareth. In 1967 I was ordained priest two weeks before Israel occupied the Gaza strip, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the Sinai. So I was hit by the impact of the 1967 war. The whole community was also shocked. It brought back memories of the 1948 war, with the continued dispossession and displacement of the Palestinians. Personally, I felt unable to cope with all the injustice. A few years later, I went back to CDSP. I needed to rethink my theology. God was blessing me through my parish ministry, but I also felt God was leading me to a ministry that would focus more and more on the justice issue. That was the beginning of a turning point in my journey of faith. Beginning to really see the deepening injustice of how Israel was gradually increasing control over the lives of the Palestinians and oppressing them eventually led me to continue in graduate work and then to write the book, Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (Orbis, 1989).

B.G.: So many Palestinians have left their homeland – the diaspora of Palestinians extends all over the world. But you never left. You went away to study, but you’ve returned and you’ve stayed. That must inform your journey and what you’ve seen over these years.

N.A.: I enjoyed the 10 years that I lived in the U.S. completing undergraduate and graduate work. I had many friends and had some work opportunities. But I always had that inner urge that I must serve my people. I was always caught between the comfort of being here in the States, away from the conflict over there, and the pull of knowing that I belonged back there. We all joke about it within the family because I helped my sister come here on a visit and then she ended up getting married to an American. Then she helped my brother and another sister, and so on. I have more family living in the U.S. now than I have back home. I was the only one who came and went back. It’s unbelievable. But it was very clear to me that that’s where I must be.

And now, reflecting on my ministry in Palestine and Israel, I am amazed at how God led me through a parish ministry of almost 30 years and then slowly guided me into a broader ministry of justice and peace.

B.G.: You mentioned Justice and Only Justice. It’s a landmark book that is a reference for people who want to understand the situation there. Let’s talk a little bit about the theology of the book and your evolving theology since then.

N.A.: Recently, we’ve been translating the book into Arabic, so I’ve been very much again involved in the book in a close way. The book was first published in 1989, but I have felt how relevant it is still for what’s happening today.

In writing the book, I felt I needed not only to articulate for myself, but also to share with others, the background to the conflict and the challenges that are facing us today. To begin with, the problem of identity is still a very crucial issue for many of our people, especially the Christian community. It’s a small community now, 2 percent of the total population in both Israel and Palestine. Although the community in its roots goes back to the early Christian centuries, we have lost many people to emigration, and for many other reasons. There is a deep crisis of identity. We have to deal with the different aspects of our identity – what it means when we say we’re Arab, Palestinian and Christian. Some of us are also Israeli citizens. We have been shaped by the different dimensions of our identity.

For me, all of these different aspects of my identity are also areas of responsibility. I have a responsibility to my Arab brothers and sisters, my Palestinian brothers and sisters, my Christian community and my Israeli connections. In one sense, all of these different areas provide me with an agenda of ministry, whether through the Christian ecumenical work of Sabeel, or through interfaith work, because both are part of my identity. Arab and Palestinian Muslims are part of my community.

In the book I was also asking how can I, as a Christian Palestinian Israeli citizen, do theology in my own context? I immediately ran into the whole difficulty of how one interprets the Bible. The Bible has been abused by people who have wanted to support exclusivist Zionist claims to the land. What was needed was a theology of liberation, a theology of the land, that can help my people maintain and strengthen their faith in God. To help them be empowered to work for justice and peace by following Jesus in his nonviolent path. To have the courage to stand up and say that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza must end, that there has to be a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel.

My concern about justice for the Palestinians comes from this basis of faith. I’m equally concerned about Israeli Jews who need to live in peace. But they cannot have security unless they give justice to the Palestinians.

B.G.: You speak of nonviolence. How do you address nonviolence in a region where the conflict is so violent?

N.A.: It is clear to me that we need an alternative to the violence, that we cannot allow the armed struggle to be the only way to resist the occupation. The violence is only increasing the number of people who are getting killed on both sides, but especially on the Palestinian side. Some of us have been talking and writing about nonviolence for many years. But there is now a new intention of trying to intensify a movement of nonviolence. This is the way Jesus lived and behaved, so we’ve been doing some reflection on the life of Jesus and nonviolence with our community. I’m thankful that there is enthusiasm about this.

Our concern is that Israel doesn’t want the emergence of a nonviolent movement. It’s easier for Israel to justify its violence when there is violent resistance on the Palestinian side. So Israel turns many demonstrations that begin nonviolently into violence by immediately throwing tear gas bombs or by somehow instigating or provoking incidents. But in spite of that violent reaction to the nonviolence of the people, I think we need to do everything we can so that a nonviolent movement will emerge. That’s really the opportunity. There are Muslims and Jews who are participating in that kind of a movement. It is very exciting.

B.G.: The violence against nonviolence certainly is not unusual in history – I think of the civil rights movement in this country, where they brought out the dogs and the tear gas and the hoses and so forth and people were killed. That movement was premised on the nonviolence and pacifism of Jesus. Are you finding a positive reception of that sort of nonviolence across the faith community – among Jews and Muslims as well as Christians?

N.A.: Yes. We’ve had several strategy meetings with different groups at Sabeel. When we are trying to think about examples, people are always mentioning the U.S. civil rights movement, South Africa and other places. So I am now trying to educate myself about what happened in the U.S. in the 1960s and about what happened in apartheid South Africa.

The feeling is that a paradigm shift must take place. What can be done so that this paradigm of violence can be broken? If we can somehow push or effect a shift, the movement can contribute to the ending of the Israeli domination of the Palestinians. The mentality has to change so that the word "domination" becomes passé. The new word must be "partnership."

I think a nonviolent movement can spearhead that kind of a paradigm shift. But I don’t believe we can do it alone. That’s why I’m looking also to our friends in the States. Especially as the civil rights movement and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa are still within living memory. The hate, the resentment and the love of revenge is becoming deeper.

B.G.: When you talk about the need to have the involvement of those of us in the U.S. as partners in this kind of a movement, that weighs very heavily on us, because we recognize the role of the U.S. government in perpetuating the violence that’s there. So we have to find a way to break through the voice that always says: Israel first and last. And, as this would be a grassroots movement, what are your hopes that the Palestinian Authority would help to promote a culture of nonviolence – or do you think it’s just going to have to be from the grassroots impacting not only the Israeli situation, but also your own authorities there?

N.A.: It might prove to be a great waste of time if one is going to concentrate on changing the approach of leaders, on both sides, Palestinian or Israeli. I would like to begin with the grassroots in both communities because I believe there are people in both Palestine and Israel who are ready for this movement. These are people who have been doing a little bit here and there. So they are already conscious. They have analyzed the problem and their objective is very clear, that the occupation must end. I would like us to begin to work together on that level. Hopefully, as we are doing this, some of the leaders will begin to see the value and the wisdom in that kind of approach and strategy. That’s my hope. But in order for it to be successful, the Palestinians cannot do it alone. They have to be joined by Jewish and international groups. In one sense, these groups provide protection against Israeli reaction. Because in our experience with the Israeli army and settlers, the life of a Palestinian is very cheap, whether it’s a man, a woman or a child.

B.G.: Let me shift a little bit and ask you to talk about Sabeel – how it was founded, its mission and how you see it moving forward in the context of the discussion that we’re having?

N.A.: Sabeel is really an answer to prayer and a response to a dream that started with me when I felt that the church must become much more involved in justice issues. I was still working in the parish, loving and enjoying it, but at the same time feeling the limitations of that ministry in terms of the real issues affecting our community. Justice and Only Justice was the vehicle by which I was reflecting on what needed to happen. After the book was published I gathered a few people in Jerusalem to discuss how we could turn its ideas into reality. This ad hoc committee helped me to expose this theology of liberation to other people. So, through the help of some friends, we were able to put together a conference in 1990, which we now refer to as "the first conference." We did not call this movement Sabeel in the beginning, but simply PLT, Palestinian Liberation Theology.

B.G.: This was all in a Christian context?

N.A.: Yes, that’s the way it started. I invited people from different denominations, like Fr. Elias Chacour, Jonathan Kuttab, Jean Zaru, Cedar Duaybis, Samia Khoury and others. So we had the Catholic, the Protestant and the Orthodox perspectives. We invited 10 theologians from different parts of the world, including Rosemary Ruether, to the conference. The conference was coordinated by Kathy Bergen, who was working at the Mennonite Central Committee in Jerusalem at the time. About 50 to 60 people attended from Israel/Palestine and overseas. Out of that conference came our first publication, Faith and the Intifada (Orbis 1991). Then I asked the ad hoc committee if it would like to continue with me on a journey as we try to discern what God wants us to do. The members agreed. So we continued with some workshops in which we discussed the implications of a Palestinian theology of liberation.

In 1994, we adopted the name "Sabeel," an Arabic word that means "the way" – it reminds us of Christ being the way, the truth and the life. Sabeel also means "a spring of water." We felt this was a wonderful name, as it reflects our journey of justice and faith.

Our second international conference in 1996 focused on the issue of Jerusalem. As a result of the conference, we formed "Friends of Sabeel" so that internationals could be part of the ministry. In 1998 we had our third international conference which focused on the concept of Jubilee in light of 50 years of Palestinian dispossession. This past spring we held our fourth international conference with the theme "Speaking Truth, Seeking Justice."

We’re now working on different levels and in a variety of areas. Sabeel’s ministry is ecumenical. The Christian community is very small in the country, so in order to have a much better witness for Christ, we must be more united. We de-emphasize denominationalism and emphasize ecumenism. On a grassroots level, we work with clergy, women and young people. We have a branch of Sabeel in Nazareth that is carrying out our ministry in the Galilee. We’re the only organization that’s doing this type of ecumenical work.

Sabeel is a ministry of justice. From the position of faith, we are working for justice for the Palestinians and peace for all. Hopefully, this will lead eventually to reconciliation and healing.

More recently, we’ve moved into the third area of Sabeel’s ministry, which is interfaith work. Unless there is also peace among religions, there cannot be peace among nations and peoples. So we have to work on the interreligious level.

B.G.: You’ve mentioned that the Christian population is 2 percent of the population of the country, both in the Occupied Territories and in Israel. The interfaith dimensions must be quite a challenge.

N.A.: The more interfaith work we do, the more we are breaking down some of the stereotypes that have hindered us. Some Muslims perceive the Christian community as standing on the side, while others know how much we are involved. As the percentage of Christians is so small, we are not so visible in the struggle. Not many Christians are getting killed, although many of their homes are being shelled. The Palestinian Christians and Muslims are one community. We must continue to work together for the achievement of justice. So interfaith work is a way, also, of entering into that kind of a relationship with some of the Muslim religious leaders, talking about some of the things that we can share.

B.G.: And the Jewish community?

N.A.: Our relationship with the Jewish community is basically with those secular Jews who are working for justice and peace. They like Sabeel’s ministry. We still look for religious Jewish partners.

B.G.: Would you say that, even though it’s only 2 percent of the population, that because of its ties to the West and the enormous support it receives from Western churches the Christian community functions as a bridge to the Arab world, the Islamic world?

N.A.: The Christian community has always served the wider community, especially through the many Christian institutions – schools, hospitals, clinics, orphanages, and so on. So the influence of the Christians has been much greater than their numbers. And it continues that way. The leadership of the Palestinian Authority knows our involvement very well. But in areas where there are no Christians, people don’t know very much about us.

B.G.: Can you say why, in spite of this influence, Christians are still leaving the country?

N.A.: There has been a general emigration of Palestinians which is felt all the more acutely by our small Christian community. It has been easier for Christians to emigrate, because of their connections with people in the West. The number one reason for leaving is the political instability. There are some people, too, who feel they would like to be in a community where there are more Christians. And although I love for people to stay, I will never force anyone, because I know how difficult it is. When I think about people’s concern with economics, good employment, making a decent living away from the humiliation and dehumanization of the occupation, I don’t blame them. I hope and pray that when peace is established and there is a Palestinian state, that many people would come back. I meet people in this country who say: When there is peace, we want to return. But I’m never sure about the new generation, when they get used to life in the States, whether all of them would want to go back. It’s probably easier for the older generation, because they still have the memories and connections with the old country.

B.G.: To many people in the U.S., the peace process of the 1990s seemed hopeful. Arafat was able to return from exile, for one thing. And yet, the year 2000 saw this whole thing just sort of get dashed on the rocks. You expressed a lot of concerns about the peace process while it was going on: What happened to that process? Was it flawed to begin with? Was it doomed to begin with? Is there any hope that it can be revived?

N.A.: Obviously, it’s easier to talk about the past than the future. Palestinians were divided about the peace process. Some people said: The process is flawed to such an extent that it’s wrong; the Palestinian leadership should have never accepted the Oslo peace process. A second segment, and I was one of those, said: It is flawed, but let’s give it a try; let’s see whether we can direct it. It might get us to a peace that is honorable and that is just. I was tired of saying no, no, no. I said, "Let’s say ‘yes.’ And let’s see whether Arafat and the Palestinian leadership are able to steer the process in the right direction."

I think it is clear today that the first group could see from the very beginning that the peace process was not going to take us to where we would like to go. Looking back now, one can say: The peace process has failed and is dead. The situation is now worse. Whereas Barak said he is willing to give back 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Sharon will not return more than 42 percent. Some Jewish analysts have said that it was right for the Palestinians to reject the 95 percent offer. Some political analysts are saying it was never 95 percent that was offered, but between 80 and 85 percent. Still, whatever the percentage retained by Israel, it would have given Israel a matrix of control that would keep its domination of the Palestinians.

Now, I don’t think Sharon is interested in peace. He’s going to bide his time. I think he’d rather live with a low-intensity war with the Palestinians. In fact, that’s advantageous for him. He’s a general. He wants to manage the conflict militarily rather than solve it. That’s what’s really happening here.

Sharon thinks he can suppress the Palestinian Intifada. Some hope that his blunders would force the Americans and the rest of the world to see him in his true light and try to stop him. Our hope is that a miracle will happen and the paradigm shift will take place. Otherwise, the situation will deteriorate over the next three or four years with more people killed, settlement expansion and the entrenchment of the matrix of control. That’s really the frightening part. We are looking for the time when the Israeli occupation of Palestine will end. Without this kind of justice there cannot be peace. l

This interview appears in Spanish here. The Witness began publishing each issue’s lead article in Spanish with the Jan/Feb 2001 issue. These issues are archived on the website. Go to the end of the lead article to find the link to the Spanish translation.