Q & A

Is Sabeel a political organization, or a religious one?

This question assumes that a movement’s goal is religious only if it is completely non-political. But in fact all religious faith communities are intertwined with the whole of society, in its legal, political, social, economic and ideological structures.

What is liberation theology?

Liberation theologies recognise that faith addresses the whole of personal and social life from a faith perspective. Thus a Palestinian liberation theology necessarily addresses the political and social systems that are obstructing justice and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians and seeks to change those toward social and political patterns that will express just relationships.

Does Sabeel recognise the legitimacy of the Israeli state?

Yes, Sabeel recognises the national aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.  Sabeel believes that the stories of both peoples, specifically the history of the founding of the state of Israel and the Nakba that accompanied it, must be re-examined, reclaimed and honoured by both sides in the fullness of truth.

The official history of Israel, particularly since the 1948 war, has often falsified Israel’s history to legitimise its occupation of the land and the displacement of the Palestinians. In recent decades there has been a remarkable development of revisionist history of Israel by Israeli Jews, such as Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 and Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. This revisionist history confirms what the Palestinians have always known from their own experience from 1948. The purpose of this critical history written by both Israeli Jews and Palestinians is not to demonise Israel, but to recognise the injustice that has been done to Palestinians in the creation and maintenance of the state of Israel in order to create more just relations between these two peoples.

Does Sabeel believe that international law is an appropriate guide when evaluating proposals for a just peace in the Land?

Yes, Sabeel believes that international law is an indispensable guide for the peace process.

International law as enunciated by United Nations Resolutions has overwhelmingly affirmed the rights of the Palestinians to return to their homes and lands from which they were driven in 1948-9 or to be compensated for them. Such resolutions have continually opposed Israel’s land confiscations and building of settlements on Palestinian land. To view these U.N. resolutions on Israel/Palestine, see United Nations Resolutions on Palestine and the Arab-Israel Conflict (Institute of Palestine Studies)

What is Sabeel’s stance on Palestinian terrorism?

Sabeel does not excuse any form of terrorism, Palestinian, Israeli, American or other. It promotes non-violence as the only way to peace and reconciliation. Although most Palestinians do not resort to violence, but cope non-violently with the oppressive situation in which they live day to day, Sabeel sees Palestinian terrorism as rooted in this oppressive situation of occupation. They believe the primary way to end it is to end the occupation. It believes that all people, Israelis and Palestinians, should live in peace and security, but that this is brought about by just relationships, not by repression of one people by another, which foments resistance. Idolatry is found in any effort by an individual or group to make themselves into God, or spokesmen of God, and hence immune to criticism. It is to be rejected wherever it occurs.

Does Sabeel believe that either Palestinians or Israelis have a vocation for suffering that requires they be stateless?

Sabeel seeks and practices interfaith community between Jews, Christians and Muslims and respect for all three religious traditions. It sees Jesus as liberator from unjust oppression who experienced oppression as a Jew living in Palestine under Roman occupation. It is Roman occupation, not ancient Jews, who are responsible for this oppression of first century Jews and the death of Jesus, a first century Palestinian Jew. Sabeel does not think anyone, Jews or Palestinians, have a particular vocation of suffering or should be stateless.

Has Sabeel Director Naim Ateek ever called for the end of Israel as a Jewish state?

This question is rooted in a presupposition which needs to be carefully examined; namely, that the state of Israel can only “exist” as a Jewish state, that is, as a state in which Jews are the overwhelming demographic majority and only Jews have full citizenship. Palestinian Israelis who are now 24% of the Israeli population are allowed only a second class citizenship lacking many rights and privileges enjoyed only by Jewish Israelis. It is in that context that any effort to create a truly democratic state in Israel, which gives all citizens equal rights, is construed by some as denying Israel’s “right to exist.” Rev. Ateek and Sabeel do not argue for a one-state solution. Recognising the sensitivity of Israeli Jews on this issue, they argue for a two-state solution, Israel and Palestine, both as sovereign states that would be able to negotiate as equals with one another, not a Palestine as a colony under military occupation by Israel. Rev. Ateek believes that both states should be fully democratic, giving equal citizenship to all citizens, Jews and Palestinians, including Jews who might elect to remain in a separate state of Palestine. He envisions the possibility of further development of these two states into a confederation with each other and perhaps with other neighbouring states, but sees the two-state solution as the starting point for this evolution.

Does Sabeel work with any Israeli individuals or groups that promote peace?

Yes, Sabeel works with several Israeli groups who, with great courage, have determined that a just and peaceful solution to the conflict is in the best interests of the State of Israel and also honours the core injunctions of Judaism, such as that in Micah 6:8 “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what doth the LORD require of thee? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”

Sabeel seeks to tell the story of the Palestinian experience in Israel and the occupied territories which has been silenced by those who regard any discussion of this experience as “anti-Israel.” It has increasingly attracted stellar Jewish speakers and participants in its conferences from Israel and from the Diaspora, such as Ilan Pappe, Jeff Halper, Anna Baltzer, Susan Nathan, Phyllis Bennis and Joel Kovel. In recent Sabeel conferences a third or more the speakers have been such critical American and Israeli Jews. These Jews, and Sabeel as a whole, reject the stereotype of such Jews as “fringe” and “anti-Israel.” Rather such Jews represent the best of the Jewish ethical tradition and are paving the way for a reconciliation that is pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian together. Sabeel conferences are typically ecumenical and interfaith, bringing together Jewish, Christian and Muslim speakers who share a common vision of peace with justice.

What is Sabeel’s relation to Palestinian Muslims?

Sabeel has close working relations with Muslims, both in Palestine and internationally. Muslims appear as speakers at Sabeel conferences and Sabeel consults with Muslim spokespersons in Palestine. Sabeel’s vision is for a reconciled community in Israel and Palestine of three religions, Jewish, Christian and Muslim and two national identities, Israeli and Palestinian.

To what extent does Sabeel represent Palestinian Christians in the West Bank who live under the Palestinian Authority?

Sabeel does not represent any political party operating within the West Bank, including the Palestinian Authority itself, which is presently controlled by Fatah. It seeks to speak ecumenically for Christians across denominations in both Israel and the occupied territories.

Are Palestinian Christians in the West Bank being persecuted by the Palestinian Authority?

While there are incidents of intolerance and persecution of Christians by Muslims in the occupied territories, this is not the policy of the Palestinian Authority. Sabeel is critical of any such intolerance or persecution, but sees the occupation of the lands of Palestinians by Israel as the primary persecution of both Muslim and Christian Palestinians that needs to be addressed. Any effort to blow such incidents of Christian-Muslim tension out of proportion is a deliberate effort to divide the Palestinian people and to divert attention from the primary issue of the Occupation.

Why is Sabeel calling for morally responsible divestment from Israel?

The campaign of disinvestment in Israel is modelled after the campaign of disinvestment in South Africa that helped end apartheid in 1990. Like that campaign it does not seek to address the problems of any and every nation in the world, which could only diffuse the issue and destroy its effectiveness, but focuses on one nation and one situation seen as particularly egregious. It does not call for general disinvestment in Israel, but rather for a selective disinvestment in those companies that are making money on the Occupation in the hope of putting some pressure on these companies to withdraw from their support of the Occupation and to raise consciousness about the Occupation in general.

Could you provide a summary of Sabeel’s theology?

The notes below describe the characteristics and key themes of Sabeel’s theology.

The Theology of Sabeel: What We Believe
Notes from a Talk by Naim Ateek, July 31, 2008, Milwaukie, Oregon

Ten Characteristics of Sabeel’s Theology

  1. It is a contextual theology. Sabeel’s theology arises from a particular context, namely, the Palestinian historical context and experience of oppression under the state of Israel.
  2. It is a liberation theology. We seek, like all liberation theologies, liberation from a particular situation of injustice.
  3. It is an ecumenical theology. We seek to bring together all Palestinian Christians, all the Christians of the land of Palestine who have been divided by so many schisms going back to the 4th century A.D., to work together as one Palestinian local church.
  4. It is an interfaith theology. We seek to bring together Jews, Christians and Muslims, the three peoples of the Abrahamic faiths, to work together for justice and peace in this one land.
  5. It is not identified with any one political party, but we are not apolitical. Rather we deal with politics and with all reality, from a faith perspective. We speak from a comprehensive reality of life.
  6. It is not just critical theology. Rather we offer solutions; we provide a vision of alternatives to the present unjust situation.
  7. It is Biblically-based. We seek to counteract the misuse of the Bible, but offer a deeply rooted vision of how the Bible points to justice, liberation and peace, from the context of a theology of the land.
  8. We critique Christian Zionism. Christian Zionism is a prime example of the misuse of the Bible to promote violence, racism and injustice. We show why this kind of theology is not authentic to the Bible.
  9. We also address the apathy of mainline Christians. Christian Zionism is not just a problem of evangelical conservatives. There is a subtle and more diffuse theology of main line Christians which justifies domination of the land and Palestinian people from the perspective of ideas of election, chosenness and the promised land, as well as recompense for the Holocaust. We critique the mistaken premises of this kind of mainline Christian thinking, especially in the West, that promotes Christian silence and apathy toward the Palestinian plight.
  10. It is a theology of non-violence. We reject all forms of violence and seek to follow Jesus in the Way of non-violence toward authentic justice and peace.

Eight Themes of Sabeel’s Theology

Sabeel’s theological vision explores eight key themes:

  1. We address the issue of God. What kind of a God do we believe in? A racist God who chooses one people against others, or a loving God of all peoples?
  2. We focus on Jesus Christ as the criterion of interpretation of the Biblical message. This means we emphasize not just Jesus’ divinity, but the fullness of his humanity in his historical context and reality, as a Palestinian Jew living under the occupation of the Roman empire. We are followers of Jesus Christ in his way of non-violent resistance to imperial occupation.
  3. It is a prophetic theology. We stand in the line of the great prophets of ancient Israel in their unmasking of injustice and call for justice.
  4. We stand particularly in the line of the theology of the book of Jonah, the first Palestinian liberation theologian, which we see as the climax of the theology of the Old Testament, and which dismantles the theology of exclusivism and racism of his day. The theology of the book of Jonah discloses a) an inclusive God, a God of all nations; b) an inclusive people of God, a people that includes those on both sides of nationalist conflicts, the Ninevites, as well as Israel; today the people of Iraq, as well as the West; in Palestine, Jews and Palestinians; and c) a theology of the land for all the peoples of the land.
  5. It is an anti-imperial theology. It critiques all theologies of empire, whether the Roman empire in the Biblical context, or American empire today. Sabeel stands in the tradition of the anti-imperial theologies of both Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament.
  6. We challenge Son of David christology, a messianic theology with its imperial designs, in favour of a Suffering Servant christology. We reject the false fusion of Suffering Servant Christology with Son of David Christology that occurred later in the Church’s history with its integration into the Constantinian Roman empire. We root ourselves in the Suffering Servant Christology of the early Church with its witness to the non-violent way of the cross.
  7. Ours is a theology of peace and reconciliation. This is not peace at any price, but a way to peace through justice which brings authentic reconciliation of estranged peoples into a new relation of just peace.
  8. We offer a vision of a political solution through the two-state solution, that can provide the basis of genuine equality for two sovereign states that can then negotiate a fuller peace with justice between Israel and Palestine, as well as with the many neighbouring peoples of the region.