Munther Isaac’s New Book More About Conflict than Peace

Munther Isaac speaking at Christ at the Checkpoint Conference. (Photo: Dexter Van Zile)

Since 2012, Lutheran Pastor and professor of theology Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac has been one of the chief organizers of Christ at the Checkpoint (CATC) conferences that typically take place every even-numbered year in the West Bank. These so-called “peacemaking” conferences, which are sponsored by Bethlehem Bible College (BethBC), present Western Evangelicals with a one-sided view of conflict in the Holy Land. In the story told by CATC organizers and speakers, American Evangelicals need to dial back their support for Israel because of the way it mistreats the Palestinians in Israel and in areas under the control of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

At CATC conferences, the PA’s refusal to negotiate in good faith with Israel is not acknowledged. Palestinian Authority incitement is ignored, as is its corruption, praise for terrorism, and pay-to-slay program. Sometimes speakers will condemn Hamas and Islamic extremism in general, but criticism of the PA is off-limits, with good reason. It’s simply too risky for Palestinian Christians associated with BethBC and CATC to condemn the PA leaders who attend the conference. (They sit up front, to the left, just a few feet from the choir.)

Israel and its leaders are vilified, however. For example, Nicola Khamis, the mayor of Bethlehem, declared at the 2016 Christ at the Checkpoint Conference, “Ladies and Gentlemen, it makes no sense to fight the Islamic State of Abu Bakr Baghdadi while supporting the Jewish state of Netanyahu.” Defamatory comments like this hinder the cause of peace, but they go unchallenged at CATC conferences.

At CATC conferences, Christian speakers deploy the norms of biblical conduct and international law to assess and condemn Israeli behavior but not Palestinian, Arab, or Muslim behavior. Words of forgiveness and reconciliation are bandied about at CATC conferences, which open with a rendition of the Palestinian national anthem, the lyrics of which include two references to a “vendetta.”

The overall effect of CATC conferences is to promote the cause of Palestinian self-determination while obscuring the Palestinian refusal to acknowledge the Jewish claim to the same right. These conferences also promote the notion that the proper Christian response to violence in the Holy Land is to condemn Israel while downplaying the role Palestinian leaders play in prolonging the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the suffering it causes.

COVID-19 Impact

The COVID-19 crisis forced Bethlehem Bible College to postpone the 2020 CATC conference until next year, but that hasn’t stopped Isaac and the conference he organizes from promoting the narrative described above. Just recently, Isaac and his CATC colleagues organized a 90-minute webinar on Zoom. Predictably, this webinar assailed Israel while remaining silent about the failures of Palestinian leaders.

Then there is Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac’s The Other Side of the Wall: A Palestinian Christian Narrative of Lament and Hope. This book, published by InterVarsity Press, an Evangelical publishing house, in June 2020, recapitulates the narrative put forth at CATC conferences: American Evangelicals should not support Israel as much as they do (but should support Palestinians Christians instead), Israelis are not as nice to the Palestinians as they should be, and the Palestinians themselves are not in any way responsible for violence in the Holy Land.

Here are a few things you need to know about Isaac’s book:

Isaac’s book promotes a self-pitying “plight = right” narrative.

Isaac’s “plight = right” narrative is based on the following logic: Israel has more power than the suffering Palestinians and is therefore singularly in control and entirely responsible for the continued existence of the conflict. Of course, this one-sided, counterfactual, and illogical narrative is dressed up on the Christian language of peace and reconciliation.

Isaac exhorts Christians in the U.S. “to be good and true friends” of the Israelis by telling them where they have done wrong, but nowhere does Isaac act like a true and good friend of his fellow Palestinians and tell them what they need to do to promote the cause of peace in the Holy Land. He’ll admit to his American readers that yes, extremism is a problem in Palestinian society, but as far as specifically condemning Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority for fomenting Jew hatred and using it as a tool for governance? Not likely.

In Isaac’s sorrowful and self-pitying narrative, Palestinian suffering is the fault of pro-Israel Christians in the United States and the Jewish state. Nothing is ever the fault of the Palestinians themselves. The main thrust of Isaac’s book is to subject American, Israeli, Christian, and Jewish use of power to intense scrutiny and criticism while diverting attention from the misdeeds of the leaders of the Palestinian Authority.

The whole point of Isaac’s book is to describe and analyze the factors that contribute to Palestinian suffering on “the other side of the wall.” In his book, he condemns Israelis and American for their political decisions — and the beliefs they are based on — but nowhere does he address the failure of Palestinian elites to make the decisions they need to make to improve the lives of the people they govern. These bad decisions have a terrible impact on the lives of Palestinians “on the other side of the wall,” but Isaac ignores them.

For example, Isaac laments the decision of U.S. President Donald Trump, who came into power with the support of White Evangelicals, to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, but nowhere does he acknowledge the lack of elections in Palestinian society.

Mahmoud Abbas was elected to a four-year term in 2005, but has never since been subjected to electoral accountability, even though polling data indicates that more than 60 percent of the Palestinians want him to resign. Isaac is critical of Evangelical support for pro-Israel politicians in the United States but silent about the sins of a Palestinian politician who is universally understood to be corrupt, authoritarian, and feckless.

Rev. Dr. Isaac is completely free to condemn American and Israeli politicians and the people who vote for them, but what about Mahmoud Abbas? Has he done anything wrong? Has Abbas done anything to hinder the cause of peace? And can Palestinian Christians truly claim to be peacemakers when they remain silent about Abbas’s misdeeds?

Isaac downplays the issue of antisemitism in Palestinian society.

In his text, Isaac reports that Palestinians “can’t be” antisemitic “because we are semitic.”

He also declares that “anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism.”

He also claims that Western Christians are trying to atone for the Holocaust by forcing Christians in the Middle East to accept the theology of Christian Zionism, “a theology designed to solve a Western problem (anti-Semitism) with the purpose of dealing with the inner guilt.”

To buttress his case, Isaac quotes an Orthodox priest, Fr. Paul Tarazi, who works in the Holy Land and who accuses Western Christians of “repenting on our ground every deed which happened on theirs.” Isaac then writes that “it is ironic that the West, which has a long history of anti-Semitism, wants to educate Palestinians on this issue—even rebuke and correct us now, and teach us the right way.”

The notion that Isaac and his fellow Arabs cannot be “anti-Semitic” because they themselves are semites is absurd. Wilhelm Marr, who coined the phrase “anti-Semitism,” founded the League of Anti-Semites to harass and persecute Jews in Germany in the late 1800s. Jews have been be harassed and persecuted in the Holy Land by Arabs like Haj Amin Al-Husseini the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and in the Middle East in general by the Nazi-backed government in Iraq in 1941, for example. To argue, as Isaac has done, that Arabs cannot be antisemitic is simply an irresponsible diversion for which he and his publishing house should be ashamed.

The notion that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism is another absurdity. Anti-Zionism is not just “criticizing” Israel, but denying the legitimacy of the Jewish right to self-determination and sovereignty. For Isaac to provide cover for this agenda while at the same time affirming the Palestinian right to statehood, which has been offered numerous times to the Palestinians, is a bigoted act of hypocrisy.

Isaac’s invocation of Western guilt over the Holocaust to hinder discussion about antisemitism in Palestinian society is particularly outrageous. Christians who are truly intent on peacemaking in the Holy Land — whether they live in the West or in the Holy Land — must address the obstacles to peace between Arabs and Jews. One of the biggest obstacles is the use of antisemitism as a unifying political agenda by both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Hostility toward Jews is promoted in Palestinian textbooks, despite Isaac’s effort to downplay the issue (described below).

The fact is, Jew-hatred is a prominent part of discourse in Palestinian society.  What Rev. Dr. Isaac cannot grasp is that Western Christians cannot ignore antisemitism that has taken root in Palestinian society and remain faithful to the demands of peacemaking. This brings us to the next problem with Isaac’s book.

Isaac attempts to posit a false equivalence between unnamed Christian extremists and jihadists in the Middle East.

On page 147, Isaac writes:

As Christians, before confronting extremism in the other, we must recognize the existence of some extremists, though not always violent, in the Christian family today. There are some Christians who view Muslims with a condescending gaze. Let us be frank and face such extremism in our midst. There are Christians who dream of a Middle East (or an America) free of Muslims. That is extremism.

Who are these Christians that speak of an America “free of Muslims?” Exactly how numerous are they? Where are they? What institutions do they control? What attacks have they perpetrated? The fact is, Jews are the most likely target of hate crimes in the United States and some of this violence is caused by anti-Israel propaganda similar to what is issued by the Palestinian Authority’s allies in the U.S.

There is simply no equivalence between the problem of jihadist violence and Christian and Jewish animus toward Muslims.

Rev. Dr. Isaac knows well that there are many Christian organizations such as the World Council of Churches, the World Evangelical Alliance, and in the United States, the National Council of Churches that regularly condemn anti-Muslim hostility and work to engage in dialogue with Muslim leaders who sometimes promote bigotry to their audiences when Westerners aren’t looking. Even the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference itself, which Isaac organizes, has featured Mustafa Abu Sway, who in 1991 declared that he wished Israel would just “disappear.”

And moreover, there isn’t any mainstream Christian publication in the United States that promotes the “condescending gaze” that Isaac accuses Christians of having toward Muslims. You won’t find expressions of contempt in publications such as Christianity Today, Christian Century, or Sojourners.

By way of comparison, Jihadists have, in recent years, massacred thousands of Christians in Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria. The mistreatment of Christians, Jews, and other religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East is a source of misery in the region. Isaac’s deceptive effort to “twin” Christian attitudes toward Muslims with actual jihadist violence and hostility toward Christians, Jews, and other Muslims is a non-starter for anyone paying any attention to what has actually happened on the world stage over the past two decades.

When is Rev. Dr. Isaac going to treat anti-Western, anti-Jewish, and anti-Christian ideologies that have taken root in the Middle East and in Palestinian society as the obstacle to peace and human flourishing that they are?

Clearly this is a sensitive subject for Isaac. On page 33, Isaac complains of “always [being] criticized because we only blame Israel and mention Israel’s wrongdoing without calling out Islamic terrorism (which is not a true accusation by the way.)” He continues:

But let us read between the lines here. The message for us is that only after we speak and address all the wrong doings in the world, only then we are qualified to speak about our own suffering. To me, this is insulting. This logic essentially communicates to me that my perspective is invalid and that my suffering is not real but invented or imagined.

No one is saying that the suffering of Palestinians is invented or imagined, nor is anyone saying that he must speak about “all the wrong doings in the world” before he is qualified to speak about the suffering endured by the Palestinians. The problem is that Isaac reserves most of his criticism for Israeli and American leaders, without acknowledging the failures of the Palestinian Authority.

Isaac knows what the problem is. He knows that growing numbers of outsiders are concluding that the Palestinian elites play a significant role in causing Palestinian suffering. No amount of bullying self-pity can stop people from figuring this out.

But Isaac soldiers on.

Isaac accuses people who criticize the Palestinians and their leaders of “demonizing” them to deflect attention away from real obstacles to peace in Palestinian society.

On page 56, Isaac writes that “Palestinians are often dehumanized in the public discourse of American politics.” He continues:

This was brought to public attention in 2012, when New Gingrich, repeated again and again that we Palestinians are in fact an “invented people,” an invention of the late 1970s. (The late 1970s! And he claims to be a historian.) He has also stated that Palestinians are all terrorists and that our school textbooks teach things like “If there are thirteen Jews and nine are killed, then how many Jews are left?” This of course is factually wrong.

Gingrich was roundly condemned for his statement that the Palestinians are an invented people, but the fact is, there has been substantial Arab commentary about the origins of the Palestinians as a people that gives some credence to Gingrich’s remark.

As documented in a previous CAMERA article, “the lack of a distinctive Palestinian national identity apart from the wider Arab identity has been argued by many Arabs themselves.” These Arabs include the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin Al Husseini, Arab-American historian and Princeton University Professor Philip Hitti, and more recently, Azmi Bishara, former Israeli Arab Knesset Member who declared in a televised interview in 2009 that the “Palestinian nation” is a “colonialist invention.” (A pretty revealing comment from an Israeli Arab who was forced to leave Israel after he was accused of passing information to Hezbollah!)

Then there’s the issue of Gingrich’s hyperbolic and inflammatory statement about Palestinian textbooks. It’s highly unlikely that a Palestinian textbook would include a math problem about the number of Jews left after a terror attack. But there’s no doubt that Palestinian textbooks incite against Israel. Any true peacemaker would acknowledge that. They would confront the Palestinian Authority about this issue and not use Gingrich’s comments to stymie discussion.

By invoking Gingrich’s inflammatory and hyperbolic statement about textbooks, Isaac skillfully deflects discussion from a real issue that leaders must address if they are truly intent on promoting peace in the Holy Land.

Isaac promotes Al-Haq, a Palestinian “lawfare” organization whose leader has been declared a terrorist by the Israeli Supreme Court, to promote a distorted narrative about water consumption in Israel and areas under the control of the PA.

On page 11, Isaac writes declares that “according to an extensive study by Al-Haq, a prominent human rights organization, Israeli per capita consumption of water for domestic use is four to five times higher than that of the Palestinian population of the occupied territory.”

What Isaac fails to acknowledge is that per capita water consumption in the West Bank has increased substantially since Israel took control of the territory in 1967.  This report produced by Alex Safian, Ph.D. provides some detail:

In the period from 1967 to 1995 West Bank Palestinians increased their domestic water use by 640%, from 5.4 MCM to 40 MCM (Judea-Samaria and the Gaza District – A 16 Year Survey 1967 – 1983, Israel, Ministry of Defense, 1983; Arnon Soffer, The Israeli Palestinian Conflict over Water Resources, Palestine-Israel Journal, Volume 5, No. 1, 1998). By way of comparison, in the same 28 year period Israeli domestic usage increased by just 142% (Statistical Abstract of Israel 1996, V47).

This huge jump in Palestinian consumption was possible only because Israel drilled or permitted the drilling of over 50 new wells for the Palestinian population, laid hundreds of kilometers of new water mains and connected hundreds of Palestinian villages and towns to the newly built water system (Background: Water, Israel and the Middle East, Israel Foreign Ministry 1991; Marcia Drezon-Tepler, Contested Waters and the Prospects for Arab-Israeli Peace, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol 30, No. 2, April 1994)

And a report produced by the Begin-Sadat center in 2014 details the failure of the Palestinian Authority to take steps to reduce water shortages. All this indicates that Isaac is more interested in vilifying Israel than actually solving problems faced by the Palestinians.

There’s another issue, however. Why is Isaac relying on Al-Haq for information regarding water issues in the first place?

Al-Haq’s leader Shawan Jabarin was described by the Israeli Supreme Court in 2007 as “a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” whose time was divided between leading “a human rights organization” and “as an operative in an organization [PFLP] which has no qualms regarding murder and attempted murder.”

In 2008, the Israeli Supreme Court reaffirmed its assessment of Jabarin, declaring that he was “among the senior activists of the Popular Front terrorist organization.”

Al-Haq’s ties to terrorist organizations were so serious and demonstrable that American Express, Mastercard, and Visa stopped allowing their credit cards to be used to donate money to it.

In 2017, Al-Haq’s leader Jabarin defended the Palestinian Authority’s “pay-to-slay” program, which rewards Palestinian terrorists who murder Israeli civilians with regular salaries depending on the seriousness of the crimes committed (the more serious the crime, the more people killed or injured, the longer the sentence – the higher the payments).  If this pay-to-slay program were interrupted, Jabarin warned, “we are heading for a real crisis in Palestinian society and in due course toward an explosion.”

In other words, Jabarin threatened further violence to protect financial payments (underwritten by Western democracies) to terrorists.

Why is Isaac citing an organization like this?

In sum, Isaac’s book is more about conflict than peace.