Bible Politics and Palestinian Zionists

Prior to their mass exodus following Israeli independence in 1948, there were an estimated 150,000 Christian Arabs in Palestine. Now there are approximately 50,000 Christians in the West Bank and another 1,000 in Gaza.

Prior to their mass exodus following Israeli independence in 1948, there were an estimated 150,000 Christian Arabs in Palestine. Now there are approximately 50,000 Christians in the West Bank, most of them Greek Orthodox, and another 1,000 in Gaza. There are also 125,000 in Israel, but they include not only Arabs but also Russian immigrants and Jewish converts. For the approximately 10,000 Protestant Palestinians split between Israel and the West Bank, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is integral to their religious worldview. Most of them, particularly the Lutherans and Anglicans, view the conflict through the liberation theology borrowed from Latin American Marxist movements. But for as many as 1,000 other Protestant Palestinians who are the proteges of American Baptist missionaries, the conflict is refracted through the lens of American millennialism. The result is a rapidly growing number of Palestinian Christian Zionists.

As a grassroots resistance movement steeped in the New Testament narrative, liberation theology made sense in the face of Israeli settlements, limited Palestinian opportunity and Arab nationalism. The person who first articulated this theology-based social movement in the Palestinian context, Rev. Naim Ateek, made headlines in the late 1980s, during the first intifada, when he suggested that the Hebrew Bible "in today's language, [is] Zionist and racist," and argued that the New Testament nullified the divine covenant with the Jews. On the eve of the second intifada, Ateek, whose ministry is based in both Jerusalem and Bethlehem, characterized the leaders of Israel's government as latter-day "King Herods" who "crucify" Palestinians. Four years later in a booklet published by his Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, Ateek argued that suicide bombers are "the product of [Israel's] own making ... [and] could be [seen as] a legitimate way of resistance."

For Palestinian Christian Zionists who embrace Israel's activities and financially support aliyah, Ateek's words are heretical. These Christians have found a new meaning in their role in the land, by forming proselytizing missions to convert the Jews. Most espouse an End Time theo-politics borrowed from Christian millennialism that shares much with the religious Zionism formulated by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. They not only believe that the return of the messiah hinges on Israeli territorial maximalism but also - like most American Evangelicals - believe that Jews have a special biblical role as the chosen people. According to Pastor Steven Khoury, it's the job of the Jews to return to the land and convert to Christianity, while it's the job of Christians to help bring that about.

The most influential figure for this group is Khoury's father, the Jerusalem-born pastor Naim Khoury, who in 1968 converted from Greek Orthodoxy to Baptist Evangelical Christianity. Since then, he claims to have drawn in more than 400 congregants, spread across five congregations in the West Bank. Khoury and his son were trained as pastors in Atlanta, Georgia, a hotbed of conservative Christian fundamentalism. They brought back with them what historian Richard Hofstadter famously called the "paranoid style in American politics" - characteristic of the anti-government frontier experience, as well as the deterministic ideas of an imminent apocalypse central to early Puritanism. It is at this intersection of Americanism and millennialism that Palestinians like Naim Khoury find comfort and meaning in the conflict. In the face of Palestinians' unanswered prayers for peace, the Christian Zionist story about the centrality of the Jews as the Chosen People appears undeniably true: The only escape for the Palestinians is the Rapture (that event when "Yeshua" summons them to heaven just prior to Armageddon). For Palestinian Christian Zionists like Khoury, "There is no peace [and there] will be no peace .... There will only be peace when Christ returns. It's very close."

Because their beliefs are antithetical to both Islam and Palestinian nationalism, Naim Khoury and his followers live under constant physical threat. The pastor's church has been bombed 14 times by what he calls "extreme Hamas fundamentalists," and he has been shot. Khoury defends his Zionism as not his ideas, but those of the Bible, which he reads literally. "There is no Palestinian theology," Khoury says, "There is one Bible." But Khoury told me that as an Arab, he is more often perceived by his American brethren as aligned with the forces of Satan in the post-9/11 conservative Evangelical geopolitical worldview than as a partner in faith.

Naim Khoury is not a lone leader. Shmuel Aweida, a pastor at a Messianic Jewish church in Haifa, is a self-proclaimed Palestinian Zionist who identifies as wholly Israeli and somewhat anti-Arab. He admits that he sometimes wishes he had been born Jewish, but to his chagrin, he is an "Arab who loves Israel ... [and] God's plan of salvation. He chooses Israel."

Both camps of Protestant Palestinians read the Bible through politics and politics through the Bible. While Ateek's nationalist project champions active resistance, the unproductive effort toward a Palestinian state has led some, like Khoury and Aweida, to fatalistic messianism. What makes the Palestinian Zionists unique in the annals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the way in which American millennialism, seemingly against all odds, has convinced a small group of Palestinians to identify with the other side.

Tristan Sturm is a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA and a fellow at the Hebrew University. He is co-editor of the book, "Mapping the End Times," to be published by Ashgate in January.