Palestinian Christian Considers Gaza Turmoil: Part Two
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on the situation in Gaza from the perspective of Raouf Halaby, a Palestinian Christian who is a professor of English and art history at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark.
Raouf Halaby sometimes asks his students, as he’s breaking the ice about his background, how big they think the Jordan River is.
“Most of them will answer that it’s as big as the Mississippi or as big as the Arkansas River,” Halaby said. “They are surprised when I tell them the River Jordan is smaller than the Caddo River near our campus. It’s just 40 feet wide in places.”
The exchange is emblematic of both the problem and the challenge of understanding the current situation in Gaza. Truth is as much of a victim as people, said Halaby, who was born in Jerusalem, raised as a Christian by Palestinian parents, and is a naturalized American citizen who has taught at Ouachita Baptist for 35 years.
An aspect of the Christian response to the situation in Gaza, according to Halaby, is education on the geography, the issues and the history—things he claims are not available in news sound bites.
“The Palestinians don’t have the propaganda machine as the Israelis,” he said. “To their credit, the Israelis know how to get their message out.”
Halaby says he believes several things have skewed perspective of the Gaza situation.
“It starts with the Holacaust,” he said. “This awful, horrific moment in history produced so much sympathy for the Jewish people that now people don’t see anything wrong with protecting a people who have suffered so greatly. It leads to a mindset that Israel can do no wrong.”
He also pointed to the entertainment media in the United States, which he said fails to show Palestinians as decent people. “They are almost always portrayed as terrorists or the bad guys. But there are thousands of movies and books about the Holocaust and heroic deeds by the Jewish people.”
Halaby also framed the conflict with the messianic/apocalyptic view, held by some, that protecting Israel and preserving the Israeli state is essential to initiating God’s kingdom in the end times. “And it’s hard to argue with a viewpoint in which it is presented that this is God’s will and God’s way,” Halaby said.
He also said Israel realizes the political clout it has in America in all aspects of government. “To their credit, the Israelis know how the system works, and many of our politicians know the way to the White House has to go through Jerusalem,” he said.
He said Israel may be taking advantage of a transitional situation in America as the Barack Obama presidency begins. “I’m not sure the Israelis see Obama hopping to their order like George Bush has,” he said.
Halaby also said Sept. 11 had a major effect on the United States. “That set the Palestinian cause way back. There is a real fear of terrorism. And some people here and in Israel have been able to link in people’s minds the Palestinians and Hamas and al-Qaida and Islam and are now making a link to Iran.”
What about the missiles that Hamas and other Palestinian groups in Gaza are firing into Israel?
He doesn’t agree with the violent response, but said it is not unexpected since he thinks the Israelis are trying to strangle Hamas, the elected government, and the Palestinian people with poverty—another aspect of the situation that is misunderstood.
“If the people of the United States were squeezed into a tiny area and were blockaded and denied food, medicine, fuel and freedom of movement,” wondered Halaby, “would we not hit back with a missile?”
Halaby also referred to the ancient Hebrew prophets, who ranted and expressed God’s anger when Jewish leaders oppressed the poor, acted unjustly and did not reflect God’s love.
“From the very beginning, a legacy of justice has been a vital part of the Jewish tradition,” he said. “On this particular issue (treatment of the Palestinians), I think the Israelis have developed amnesia.”
Halaby said his commitment to Christianity and education causes him not to talk in the classroom about Gaza’s political situation. If asked, he said he will discuss his perspective outside the classroom.
“I take my teaching responsibility very seriously,” he said, “and nothing in my disciplines relate to the conflict. To express my views in the classroom in my view would be propaganda. That’s against what I believe as a Christian and an educator.”
And it also relates to what he thinks is the core of the Christian response to what is happening in Gaza.
“We need to be peacemakers,” he said, “and take Christ’s admonishments to be that very seriously.”
David McCollum is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.