No doubt, Palestinian Israelis (admittedly controversial in terminology) struggle with defining or accepting their multifaceted identity. They seek to understand and define themselves and ask such questions as: Who am I? How should I understand my identity? Some define themselves based on geography saying they are from Nazareth, Haifa, or some other town. Some prefer to use their ethnicity as the main defining factor saying that they are Palestinian or Armenian or Aramean or a mixture of ethnicities. Others prefer to emphasize their religious identity asserting themselves as either Muslim or Christian, and may also emphasize their denominational identity as Orthodox, Catholic, Baptist, etc. Some might choose to define themselves in terms of their economic status, job or gender.
What should we do when identities are in conflict with each other? Palestinian identity struggles against Israeli identity as both compete to deny the other. On one hand, some Israelis try to Israelize Palestinian Israelis and root out any Palestinian traits. On the other hand, some Palestinians tend to remove any connection to the state of Israel ignoring the uniqueness of Palestinian Israelis. The struggle of identities escalates as a genocide of identities, as if Palestinian Israelis have to slaughter one identity on the altar of the other.
However, Palestinian Israelis cannot ignore the fact that they are both bilingual and bicultural. They speak two languages, Arabic and Hebrew, and belong to both Palestinian and Israeli cultures. Their world is distinct and, in fact, bridges the two cultures, two languages, two states and, as well, three religions. Perhaps, they should give up defining themselves in one way, according to one language or even one culture, when they belong to more than one culture. They are Palestinians and Israelis at the same time. These cultural conceptual grids are not a political program or a party affiliation, but rather, a bundle of values, customs, traditions, and cognitive as well as behavioral patterns. The multiplicity of cultures and loyalties is common in Israel; there are American Israelis, Russian Israelis, African Israelis, European Israelis, and many other Israelis. Why shouldn’t we add Palestinian Israelis?
There is no problem in having many loyalties for other groups, so why shouldn’t we allow multiple loyalties for Palestinian Israelis? Their identity includes both Israeli and Palestinian facets, yet they feel that their identity is rejected. It is clear that some aspects of their identity are rejected at certain times. On one hand, most Arabs in the world reject the Israeli aspect, considering it as a compromise or a form of betrayal. On the other hand, some Israelis refuse to accept the Palestinian aspect as they consider all Palestinians, especially Palestinian Israelis, as a demographic threat. If we highlight our Israeli side, some accuse us of showing uncritical support of everything that Israel does or says. However, others feel uncomfortable with our Palestinian identity, seeing it as a threat to everything that Israel represents. We are caught in the middle, between a rock and a hard place. Strangely, some push us to choose between supporting everything that Israel says or does, and opposing everything in Israel.
In short, the identity of Palestinian Israelis has many facets and we should not be forced to choose between our Israeli and Palestinian identities. Rather, we should seek ways to reconcile these identities. Furthermore, it is not appropriate to amputate our past, our connection to Al Nakba, or our Palestinian history. The pain of Palestinians all over the world is our pain; their oppression is our oppression. We dream with them that there will be a fully sovereign Palestinian state within the borders of 1967, and we support this quest in peaceful ways. We share their pain whenever they are oppressed or experience oppressive measures that prevent them from living a life full of justice and peace. At the same time, we cannot ignore our present and future that connect us to the state of Israel. The success of this state is our success and its peace is our peace. We want it to be a state for all of its citizens, a state that spreads justice and peace, living peacefully with all of its neighbors. We seek a state that includes many religions, cultures, and languages, all equal in their rights and responsibilities. We seek a state that embodies justice and peace for both Palestinians and Jews. We refuse to be ignored in shaping the future of Israel or in contributing to conflict resolution between Palestinians and Israeli Jews. We also refuse the imposition of a theological framework that ignores our distinctive identity or contribution. We are not living under occupation; we are citizens of the state of Israel. However, our citizenship is not an expression of our acceptance of everything that the state of Israel says or does. It is not a carte blanche that supports oppression and violence against anyone or the joining of military activity that suppresses our Palestinian or Israeli identities. Furthermore, our citizenship is not a repugnant choice, but a commitment to peace, justice, love, and security for all the inhabitants of our region. Israeli Jews are our brothers and sisters in our state. We consider them, not as a bunch of soldiers and settlers, but as Palestinians, a gift from God.
In light of the above, it seems that Palestinian Israeli theology needs a framework that accepts multiple identities. Following are some of the points that we need to consider.
First, as Israelis we need to define our relationship with Jews in general and Israeli Jews in particular. What is our role in the state of Israel? Shouldn’t we make a positive contribution in building a better future for our country? After all, we are Israelis but we are not Jews. We are Christians, Palestinians, and Israelis at the same time. We are citizens and must wisely and faithfully serve our country and society without using violence and oppression. We serve our society as the Bible teaches us and as our conscience guides us, seeking to advocate love, peace, and justice. Indeed, we stand for the security of Israel but against any oppressive measures, especially as it is embodied in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip today.
Second, we should not ignore our roots or our history. We are Palestinians and have a regional mission to serve all Palestinians and Israelis as peacemakers and advocates of justice. We are committed to support our people and our state, especially whenever they are oppressed or deprived of basic human rights. Our commitment to serve our society and state does not cancel our commitment to serve our Palestinian people and vice versa. We want to bless Jewish Israelis and all Palestinians. Blessing one does not entail cursing the other.
Third, we are Christians in the midst of a Jewish majority. Therefore, we need to rise up to our calling and be involved in Christian-Jewish interaction. We need to develop a contextual Palestinian Israeli reading of the Old Testament and interact with the Jewish culture in mutually beneficial ways.
Fourth, we live in the Holy Land and consequently we need to understand the spirituality of our geography. Therefore, we need to develop a theological discourse that addresses the needs of millions of Christian visitors who visit our country for religious purposes.
Fifth, we should not ignore the diverse voices within our Christian circle. It is crucial to be sensitive and prophetic to all the denominations in our context.
Sixth, we are the only political framework in the Middle East in which Muslims are a minority. There are no legal restrictions preventing people from choosing their own faith. Indeed, this is a distinct reality in the Middle East and creates a unique platform for Christian – Muslim interaction within a Jewish majority. There is no other country in the world that has these characteristics.
In summary, let us celebrate the multifaceted dimensions of our identity and let us create a theological discourse that provokes the Palestinian Israeli church to serve God and its society in ways that spread justice, peace, equality, and respect for diversity. I hope that this short essay will catalyze a discussion that will help us to move forward.