World Council of churches debates Israel apartheid
December 8, 2022 / By Rev. Dr. Gary Doupe, UNYAC Task Force on Peace with Justice in Palestine-Israel
A political system that separates and discriminates among people based on their ethnic heritage is known as apartheid. The word, in the Dutch-derived language, Afrikaans, means “apartness.” That system came to worldwide attention as South Africa, early in the 20th century, hardened its laws of racial separation, denying indigenous Africans any political power. The party of Dutch settlers (known as Afrikaners) consolidated white power, playing on the fears of both English and Dutch concerning Africa’s black majority. As apartheid developed in South Africa, four racial categories were defined: Black, White, Asian, and Coloured. Race-based laws kept people socially isolated from one another.
I’m reminded of a sermon by John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement. In his address about visiting the sick, he included a wider observation about the effects of human separation: “One great reason why the rich in general have so little sympathy for the poor is because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is that … one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it—and then plead their voluntary ignorance as an excuse for their hardness of heart.” (Sermon 98. “On Visiting the Sick”)
Separation has led to tragic misperceptions not only in 18th century England, but also in South Africa, and across the world where settlers have assumed control over the lives of people already dwelling there. The assumption of European superiority, affirmed by a papal document in the 15th century known as the “Doctrine of Discovery,” explicitly justified what many European Christians took for granted: they were God’s gift to the earth. They had a “divine” right to establish “Christian rule” over indigenous people, bringing the gospel to those they deemed ignorant of it.
In 1478, Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella established a Church-led Inquisition, forcing non-Christians—particularly Jews—to either renounce their faith or suffer exile or death. The mentality that God was known only—or at least, best—by European Christians has motivated terrible acts of cruelty, extending from that era to the present day. The Holocaust experienced by Jews in the 1930s and 40s has deep roots in so-called “Christian” history.
Because self-identified Christians have wielded power does not mean their power was Christ-like. Those who trust in Jesus know that compassion for others was—and is—Christ’s heart. Yet those using his name have sought power over others in place of compassion. Jesus wept over Jerusalem, lamenting that the people of his day—like people in all times and places—knew so little of what makes for peace.
In the wake of World War II, The World Council of Churches (WCC) came into being, seeking the mind of Christ in faithful unity. Its purpose was to unite all who follow Christ in common faith and action. Its sacred work includes fostering awareness of all people as children of God. It affirms the human rights of all people, of all religions and cultures. Specifically, the WCC affirms the “rightful place of the state of Israel in the community of nations” and recognizes its legitimate security needs.
In its recent (Aug. 31—Sept. 8, 2022) Eleventh General Assembly, held in Karlsruhe, Germany under the theme: “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity,” the WCC heard reports by human rights organizations that described the policies and actions of Israel toward Palestinians as amounting to apartheid.
Ironically, the settlement of the former Palestine by European Jews since 1947-48 imitated the pattern of European colonialism. Indigenous (Arab) Palestinians were driven from their homes, and in some instances slaughtered as the Jewish state took land and military control. Palestinians who sought temporary refuge in nearby states were denied the right to return home, creating the world’s largest refugee population. Arab Christians and Muslims not displaced live under increasingly arbitrary, burdensome, and life-threatening colonial rule.
Alongside Israel’s rights, the WCC affirmed “the right of the Palestinians for self-determination and that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories since 1967, as well as settlement construction and expansion in the occupied territories, is illegal under international law and must be ended.” The WCC laments “another wave of forced displacement of Palestinian people from their homes … as in Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan, the South Hebron Hills, as well as in the rest of Area C.”
On the use of the impactful term, apartheid, the WCC did not find unanimous agreement. Many see strong parallels. The Rev. Frank Chikane, moderator of the WCC’s Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, notes from his experience as a South African that Palestinians are “dealing with the same demons we dealt with in South Africa, except that in their case, the demons have invited many other demons to make their struggle much more difficult.”
What are these “demons?” Confusion? Guilt? Displaced resentment? Hearing one narrative while refusing another’s? As Americans, we may be pained to admit our own wrongs in relation to indigenous people. Let’s face it: being fair, doing justice is really hard work. The first step is recognizing we can all be wrong and unjust, even as we seek a better life for the human family. Jesus followers offer open hearts, open minds, and a willingness to let others’ pain teach us more of love, of things that make for peace. Separation walls, “apartheid,” is not one of them.