Palestinian Constitution – Dr. Firas Milhelm, Dr. Manuel Hassassian

This session, held in Arabic with simultaneous translation into English, was part of the Friday conference sessions that were open to the local public. One of the aims of having a day of the conference conducted in Arabic was to encourage local participation and foster real discussion – in a way, to allow the international conference participants to see into the internal dialogues of Palestinian society as they discuss critical issues. As one of the speakers remarked, the agendas are different when Palestinians talk to “the West” versus when they are talking amongst themselves, and it was very interesting for the internationals present to be privy to these internal discussions.

Dr. Firas Milhelm spoke on the development of the Palestinian Basic Law, formulated by the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in conjunction with civil society, and which was, he says, one of the best constitutions in the Middle East, at least on paper. Unfortunately, it was shelved by PLO chairman Yasser Arafat because, Milhelm says, it restricted his powers; however, he later signed it when he needed popular support. Several problematic amendments to PBL (?) include one that grants tolerance to the three monotheistic faiths, but no protection for other faiths which, due to recent immigration, are now present in significant numbers in Israel/Palestine, and one which severely weakens the position of the President, which was passed when Arafat became unpopular but was still undislodgeable, and transferred most of the presidential powers to the Prime Minister, leaving the President in a role similar to the Queen of England’s in the government of the UK. Also, there is a question as to whether Palestinian law is a statement rather than the necessary enforcement of rights, as there is no recourse for suit when rights are not upheld.

Dr. Manuel Hasassian continued the discussion, speaking on the dilemma between Palestinian Basic Law and the drafted Palestinian Constitution regarding executive power, the naming of Islam as the official state religion (with a clause stating that the other monotheistic faiths are to be respected, and have some rights where religious courts are concerned), and checks and balances regarding the judiciary.

Politics in Palestine – Dr. Iyad Bargouti, Dr. Ahmad Majdalani, Dr. Bernard Sabella

This session, held in Arabic with simultaneous translation into English, was part of the Friday conference sessions that were open to the local public. One of the aims of having a day of the conference conducted in Arabic was to encourage local participation and foster real discussion – in a way, to allow the international conference participants to see into the internal dialogues of Palestinian society as they discuss critical issues. As one of the speakers remarked, the agendas are different when Palestinians talk to “the West” versus when they are talking amongst themselves, and it was very interesting for the internationals present to be privy to these internal discussions.

Dr Iyad Bargouti, a leading Palestinian political figure (?), began the session by talking about the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). He said that the PLO was originally secular, according to initial declaration in 1994, in spite of most leaders’ religious ties, but religiosity still existed to a large extent in Palestinian society. This religiosity, along with other factors, led to the emergence of Hamas in 1987 as a resistance movement, opposed to the secularism of the PLO, at the same time as the beginning of the first Intifada.

Dr. Ahmad Majdalani continued the exposition of the relationship between religious and political movements by discussing the history of religious and nationalist agendas. He remarked that Islamists at the time of the beginnings of the Muslim Brotherhood were not associated with the Palestinian nationalist agenda. Furthermore, in 1952, he continued, the main organized Islamist movement was struggling against Jordanian rule, and also against the nationalist movement in Gaza and the West Bank, so they actually ended up on-side with the Israeli Occupation forces in the suppression of the Palestinian nationalist movement. The Palestinian national charter in 1969 called for a secular state in historic Palestine, a joint Arab/Jewish state, but this didn’t happen because the Jews were anxious not to give up Israel’s “Jewish” identity, which seems still to be the majority attitude among Jewish Israelis toward a one-state solution today. However, without a solution for a singular, secular state in historic Palestine, there are now two states where increasing religious extremism affects both internal and external politics. With the increasing Islamicisation of Palestine (not just a Muslim state, which it mainly is by virtue of the Muslim majority, but an Islamist state, where Islamic law presides), it only encourages Israel to become a stronger Jewish state in response.

Dr. Bernard Sabella then brought the presence of Christians into the discussion, saying that Christians have been here for 2000 years, and don’t need anyone else’s endorsement or approval to live and participate in civic life here in Palestine. He expressed concerns over the possibility of a non-secular, Islamic state in Palestine. Regarding religious freedom for non-Muslims, he discussed a passage in Islamic law that says that actions by any religious group should not “infringe on public order”, saying that depending on how “infringing on public order” is defined and interpreted, the enforcement of this guideline could result in restriction and repression of non-Muslim religious expression. He acknowledged that in Hamas’ 2006 electoral platform, they said that Christians and Muslims would be equal under the law, but he still seems to have reservations about what that will look like in action. Religion isn’t the problem, he says, it’s the interpretation of the religion to the detriment of others.

New Identities, Old Boundaries: Multiplicity in the Middle East – Dr. Salim Tamari

Dr. Tamari’s explanation of the shifting of Palestinian identity was fascinating. He explained that there has been a history of plurality in the Middle East, and that based on the changing religio-political contexts of the region, and depending on who is asking the question, layers of affiliation rise and fall. Historically, local affinities (Bethlehemite, Hebronite, Jerusalemite) have been the primary identifier for people, with neighbourhood, clan, religious and family ties further differentiating or uniting people. In the 20th century, Palestinian identity has shifted from Ottoman, to Syrian, to Arab, and to Palestinian, as political scenes and boundaries shifted, and as the need for new ideas about identity emerged. For example, the emergence of a pan-Arab identity among Palestinian refugees after 1948, when they were seeking support from and refuge in neighbouring Arab states.

Dr. Tamari remarked that it was a “sign of the times” that 20,000 people would show up in support of the reinstitution of the Ottoman Caliphate (defunct since 1923), but demonstrations in support of contemporary political figures like Mahmoud Abbas draw almost no one. This is a huge change from 1967, when themes in Palestinian political culture were secular, nationalistic and class-based.

Around the time of the British Mandate, there was unity between the Christian and Muslim communities, in opposition to Zionism. However, more recently, with the apparent failure of the peace accords with Israel, the efficacy of Palestinian nationalism as a way toward resolution has been questioned, and inter-religious competition or struggle has emerged again.

Dr. Tamari also talked about comparisons between Israel/Palestine and the situation in South Africa, but noted that he felt that a more valid and productive comparison could be drawn with the former Yugoslavia (Croatia and Bosnia). After the bulk of the conflict was over, these two countries were able to move away from territorial conflict by thinking of themselves as part of a larger whole, the European Community, with all of the economic and political implications thereof. With this larger frame of reference, leaders began to think not of how they needed to compete with each other but how they could compete on a regional level, and this became sort of a “back door solution” to what was a very bloody and traumatizing conflict. Similarly, if Israel and Palestine were able to step back from territorial conflict and see themselves as a part of the Eastern Mediterranean region, and if other regional partners were able to make suggestions or apply pressure for things like water sharing, ecological covenants and fair trade practices for goods and services, this could lead to real progress.

Jewish Texts – Dr. Marc Ellis

This presentation was originally intended to be a panel discussion, but the invited representatives from the Shas and Ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel refused to sit at the same table as Jewish liberation theologian, Dr. Marc Ellis. Dr. Ellis remarked that this was their general attitude towards Arabs and indeed any “other”, as well, and shared the story of an Arab diplomat talking to an Israeli official after a meeting, who told him that “his very presence offended him”.

Dr. Ellis remarked that it was “terribly disturbing” that the book he wrote 20 years ago, “Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation”, was even more relevant today than when he wrote it. In the book he calls for three things: (1) a two-state solution for Palestinians and Israelis, (2) a confession by the Jewish people for what they have/had done to the Palestinians, and (3) reparations for what has happened. Then, and now, he wonders what has happened to the Jewish ethical tradition?

Dr. Ellis also talked about the swinging pendulum between the Rabbinic and the Prophetic in Judaism and in power on the ground in Israel or in exile. He talked about a community in exile, and a “new Diaspora” in the Diaspora, of people bringing fragments of traditions from their backgrounds and mixing with other fragments to create a new community in exile, united more by what they have in common with each other than with the “people back home”. He talked about Constantinian religion and Conscience religion, and the Constantinian Rabbinic establishment in Israel that has been a disaster for contemporary Judaism.

Why “God’s Reign and People’s Rule” – Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb

In this presentation, Rev. Dr. Raheb explained why the theme of “God’s Reign and People’s Rule” was chosen, and gave an overview of the topics which would be discussed during the coming days.

The overall theme of the series of international, intercultural, interdisciplinary, interfaith conferences taking place at the ICB biannually from 2005-2015 is “Land, People and Identity”. The particular idea of shaping communities in times of crisis (such as the current situation in Palestine, where there is not only the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to consider, but also intra-Palestinian struggles among Fatah, Hamas, and other political and religious entities) was important when this year’s topic was chosen in 2005, but increases in importance in the context of the drafting of a Palestinian Constitution. Rev. Dr. Raheb reminded us that this week would be not just about having a conference, but about starting a process and having real discussion about the issues which face Christians here in Palestine and abroad. He expressed his hope that from the discussions and debates at the conference, a shared body of knowledge would accumulate, from which the ability and resources to influence politics and society would emerge, and which could, in turn, result in real change.

Rev. Dr. Raheb pointed out that this year’s conference would have a more global context, discussing religion and state in Europe (especially the use/absence of God in the European Constitution), the USA (regarding the experience of African Americans vis-à-vis slavery, sacred texts and the US Constitution), India (the world’s largest democracy, with a large degree of religious plurality), as well as in Palestine (where issues of Church and State are sometimes matters of life and death, as both religious and national identities are in a state of crisis). To increase participation among the local community, Friday’s sessions would be centred on Palestinian issues, and the sessions would be held in Arabic, in order to allow local individuals to join and fully participate in the proceedings.

The meaning of the Arabic for “God’s Reign and People’s Rule” (Haqimiyyeh t’Allah wa Houb Minas) was discussed, highlighting the peculiarity of the first part of the phrase. Translated into English, it does mean “God’s Reign/Rule”, but it has the connotation of society being destined to be governed by God, and the additional connection to the founder of the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt, a group currently at the center of religious debate in the Middle East for its alleged connections to Hamas in Palestine and Hizbollah in Lebanon. What is at stake here, Rev. Dr. Raheb was keen to mention, was pluralism in the Middle East, and values of liberty and equality.

God's Reign & People's Rule: Starting Ceremony

The session began with a musical offering from soprano Valentina Moustafa, accompanied on piano by ICB music director Matt Middleton. Among the approximately 50 people in attendance were His Grace the Rev. Dr. Munib Younan, and Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb.

Opening remarks and prayer were made by the conference coordinator, Ms. Janet Lahr Lewis, and included the “Four Elements Medicine Wheel Prayer” by Ralph Metzner, which corresponded to the beautiful wall-hangings that graced the stage where the speakers and panelists were to sit.

The opening message from Rev. Dr. Raheb welcomed the conference delegates, who joined us from 12 countries, 4 continents, and several religious backgrounds. Unfortunately, the delegates from India were unable to come to Bethlehem because of visa difficulties, and were present with us only in spirit. Also, the delegates from Latin America were unable to attend because of financial constraints.

Rev. Dr. Raheb explained that the conference theme of “God’s Reign and People’s Rule” was chosen two years ago, as the most critical topic for the future of the Middle East. The ways that religious communities, political entities and civil society (or the absence thereof) interact and cooperate will shape how Palestine (in the context of the new constitution, and the continued struggle for power between Fatah and Hamas) and the Middle East at large will develop over the next stretch of time.

Bishop Younan then spoke on God’s will, and the danger of the fatalistic belief that “everything is from God”, which he said is “killing the Arab world”. This belief, he said, strips power from humans and ignores human free will – the capacity to do good or do evil. Another problem is the reversal of the traditional belief that God uses people to accomplish His will; lately, it seems that people are using God to accomplish their will, or as a justification for behaviour which is, in reality, self-serving or unfaithful. It is our vocation as a church to work against extremism and instead work for justice, and for humanity.

Regarding the issue of land, the Bishop said that “God is not a real estate agent”, making deals and giving certain parcels of land to certain people. As Christians, our numbers here in the Holy Land may be small, but mission is not measured in numbers, but in faith and steadfastness.