Religion plays a role in the renewed conflict in Israel, but it may not be what you think

Religion plays a role in the renewed conflict in Israel, but it may not be what you think

Originally published May 12, 2021

(RNS) — Violence between Gaza and Israel intensified this week to levels not seen for years, with Hamas shooting hundreds of rockets toward the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and Israel retaliating with heavy strikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.

The buildup to the current conflagration — some are already calling it a new “intifada” or “uprising” —  began several weeks ago in a Jerusalem neighborhood near the Old City, close to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites for more than 1,200 years.

While Muslims pray at Al-Aqsa year-round, the mosque attracts even more worshippers during Ramadan. Wednesday (May 12) marked the end of Ramadan and the start of Eid al-Fitr, a joyous time for millions of Muslims concluding a monthlong fast.

There’s no doubt that the most extreme Jewish nationalists would like Israel to recapture the Al-Aqsa Mosque because they say it sits on top of the ruins of the ancient Jewish Temple, the only remainder of which is the Western Wall.

But except for the setting of the conflict, faith is only tangentially related to the violence. Here’s a quick explainer on the conflict of the past few days, and what, if any, role religion plays.

Why did Israeli police raid the Al-Aqsa Mosque to begin with?

The Israeli government said the police responded after the Palestinians started throwing stones at them. Palestinians say the fighting really began when police entered the mosque compound on May 10 and started firing rubber-tipped bullets and stun grenades. More than 330 Palestinians were wounded. Israel said 21 of its officers were, too.

But the underlying tensions may have more to do with a set of clashes in the larger east Jerusalem area, which was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and is home to about 350,000 Palestinians.

For weeks prior to the mosque violence, Palestinians had been protesting the threatened eviction of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem. At night they would clash with police and far-right Jewish settlers.

Those clashes are in turn part of a long legal battle over who owns the property. Some Palestinians  were relocated to Sheikh Jarrah by the Jordanian government in the 1950s after fleeing their homes during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.

On May 10, the Israeli Supreme Court was set to decide whether to uphold the eviction of six families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in favor of Jewish settlers. The court has since postponed the ruling.

So this is a land dispute?

On a large scale, yes. In Sheikh Jarrah, in particular, the dispute originates in the 19th century, when Jews living abroad began returning to what is now Israel and buying properties from Palestinians who lived there. The Jordanians took over the land between 1948 and 1967. Israelis are now claiming it’s theirs again.

The dispute in Sheikh Jarrah takes on political overtones because the neighborhood is part of east Jerusalem, which Palestinians want name as the capital of a future Palestinian state encompassing the West Bank and Gaza. Many Israelis, regardless of their views about a Palestinian state, believe Jerusalem must remain “a Jewish capital for the Jewish people,” and under Israeli control.

What’s Hamas got to do with it?

The clashes between Israel and Palestinians in Jerusalem have united Palestinians far and wide, as have the larger disputes over their displacement and disenfranchisement by Israel. Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, located about 60 miles south of Jerusalem, sees itself as a defender of Palestinians.

Hamas is at root an Islamic organization born from members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and so it also cares deeply about the Al-Asqa Mosque, which Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary.

On May 12, Israel assassinated several Hamas commanders in retaliation for the barrage of rockets on Tel Aviv, Ashkelon and Israel’s main international airport in the city of Lod.

What role does Judaism or Islam play in this?

At heart, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a dispute over land. But religion is often the proxy for those disputes, pitting two different ethnicities and religions. Little wonder those tensions tend to flare around religious holidays, both Jewish and Muslim.

But Hamas’ main goal is not war with Judaism, but rather with Israel, which is occupying land it believes is inherently Palestinian.

As Hamas has become more emboldened over the years, so too, have Jewish nationalists. On Monday, May 10, which was Jerusalem Day, a national holiday celebrating the unification of Jerusalem, Jewish nationalists marched through the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Muslim Quarter, in a display that provoked and angered many Palestinians.

As often happens, the exclusive claims to parts of the holy city often turn deadly.

 

 

Ahead of Andrew Brown Jr’s funeral, North Carolina clergy cry out for justice

Ahead of Andrew Brown Jr’s funeral, North Carolina clergy cry out for justice

by Yonat Shimron, RNS

(RNS) — Many of North Carolina’s prominent clergy have called for police reform and accountability in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin.

But the killing of Andrew Brown Jr., a 42-year-old man shot and killed by sheriff’s deputies in eastern North Carolina’s Elizabeth City, a town of 18,000 people on the bend of the Pasquotank River, is personal.

Brown died of multiple gunshot wounds — at least one to the back of the head — on April 21, as deputies served a warrant for drug charges. Coming one day after former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of second-degree murder of Floyd, Brown’s killing brought out deeper cries for justice from the state’s top religious leaders. His funeral will be held Monday (May 3).

Brown’s death served as a stark reminder that Chauvin’s conviction is not enough to reform a persistent pattern of unarmed Black people dying at the hands of law enforcement.

In North Carolina, where Blacks constitute 21% of the population but are twice as likely as whites to die at the hands of law enforcement, according to a project called Mapping Police Violence, the killing of Brown has stoked a renewed passion for change.

And no one has expressed as much pain and indignation at the killing as civil rights leader the Rev. William J. Barber II, co- chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

Barber grew up in Washington County, 50 miles south of where Brown was killed. His parents’ lifelong mission was to desegregate the public schools in the region, which resisted desegregation until well into the late 1960s and early 1970s.

On Wednesday, a judge said he would not consider releasing body-cam images for at least another month while the state conducts its investigation.

Barber and other clergy are demanding the full release of body-cam video of the killing and for the case to be handed over to North Carolina’s attorney general. The family of Brown, which has seen a short snippet of the video, has called his killing “an execution.” (An autopsy showed Brown was shot five times.)

“A warrant is not a license to kill, even if a suspect supposedly drives away,” Barber said. “A warrant does not mean a person is guilty. A warrant is not permission to shoot someone, possibly with assault rifles, multiple times.”

A coalition called Justice for the Next Generation, led by the Rev. Greg Drumwright,  protested Sunday at the Elizabeth City Courthouse.

In Elizabeth City, where Blacks make up 48% of the population, a march through the city earlier this week drew several clergy leaders. Those included the bishop of the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, the presbyter of the Presbytery of New Hope and the presiding bishop of the Eastern North Carolina Episcopal District of the AME-Zion Church.

“What I see this time around is, ‘Oh, my gosh, now it happened here, too,'” said the Rev. Jennifer Copeland, executive director of the North Carolina Council of Churches. “When it happens in your backyard you pay more attention to it and you get a little more involved in the different actions occurring. I do believe that’s happening.”

The council is planning a vigil on May 6.

Barber, who has made numerous visits to Elizabeth City, has reminded people of the South’s stumbling efforts to overcome a legacy of racism. He said he could count at least five Black men from Eastern North Carolina who were wrongly accused of murder and later exonerated. To this day, people of color are underrepresented in the court system, the judicial system and the police department.

“This is where I was raised,” Barber told RNS. “It brought back: Why am I 58 years old and still having to see and deal with what my father dealt with when I was 12 and 13 years old?”

Barber will deliver what he called “words of comfort” to the family during Monday’s private funeral for Brown at Fountain of Life Church in Elizabeth City. The Rev. Al Sharpton will deliver the eulogy.

A visitation for family and friends took place Sunday.

Elizabeth City has seen nights of street protests and the imposition of overnight curfews as people from the state and beyond have marched on the city to demand racial justice.

Barber and other clergy are planning another press conference next week.

 

 

Black pastor leads his white North Carolina church toward a fuller reckoning on race

Black pastor leads his white North Carolina church toward a fuller reckoning on race


Video Courtesy of Transformation Church


The Sunday morning service at Providence United Methodist Church last month began with a few praise songs, as usual, then an opening prayer. But before launching into his sermon, the Rev. Aldana Allen offered a personal testimony.

“I want to begin by glorifying and thanking God once again for my life, my health and my strength,” Allen told his congregants, who listened to the sermon from their cars as part of the new coronavirus routine.

He then proceeded to relate a terrifying incident that happened to him the Sunday before.

On his way home from church, he stopped for gas. As he was driving away, he noticed he was being followed, Allen said. He took an alternate route just to make sure, but the person continued to follow him. As Allen finally pulled into his driveway in a suburb of Charlotte, so did his pursuer, who began revving his car, lunging forward and pulling back.

The standoff in the middle of Allen’s driveway continued for several minutes. Eventually, the pursuer drove off. It was an important reminder, he said, of humankind’s fallenness. He then delivered his sermon.

Allen, who has led the small rural church for the past six years, is Black. His members are overwhelmingly white.

This North Carolina church about 40 miles northeast of Charlotte and several miles outside historic downtown Salisbury, is a microcosm of the old rural South. The country roads leading to the 182-year-old church are dotted with “Trump 2020” signs. Salisbury is the county seat of Rowan County, which voted for Trump over Biden by a 2-to-1 margin, 67% to 31%. The city is the birthplace of Bob Jones, the late Grand Dragon of the North Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Some homes here still fly the Confederate flag, and until this summer, a prominent bronze statue of an angel carrying a Confederate soldier stood on a pedestal right outside St. John’s Lutheran Church downtown.

Yet, at Providence United Methodist, race, one of the defining issues of 2020, is being negotiated in new ways. Allen, 48, doesn’t press the issue most Sundays. A Southerner, too, he walks a fine line — not wanting to alienate his congregants or risk a backlash. He did not tell his congregants that his pursuer that Sunday night was white (though he did tell the police who are investigating the incident). He did not point fingers. He did not issue a call to action.

But many congregants said they nonetheless understood.

“Hearing of his most recent experience tells us it’s still out there and it exists,” said the church’s youth leader, Marcie Petty, referring to racial intimidation. “It needs to stop.”

Allen is a Mississippi native who grew up in Tennessee, and has spent most of his career working in white churches. He has won the support of his congregants, in part by keeping the conversation comfortable and closely relating his experience to Christian themes. Along the way he has subtly raised his flocks’ awareness of how racism and racial discrimination continue to pose significant problems for African Americans.

Hesitant at first

The 300 or so congregants at Providence United Methodist did not choose Allen. Pastors in the United Methodist Church are appointed by bishops, normally for a year at a time.

In a commitment to create a multiracial church, United Methodist bishops have been assigning Black pastors to predominantly white congregations for about 50 years. In the Western North Carolina Conference, where Allen is based — covering Greensboro and areas west— there are 24 Black pastors among the conference’s 898 predominantly white churches.

“Our belief is that when people develop relationships, biases that are part of the racial context begin to diminish,” said Paul Leeland, bishop of the Western North Carolina Conference.

The conference has recently begun a larger conversation on how to be antiracist. For many churches, it’s a process. Most white churches are initially hesitant to accept a Black pastor, Leeland said.

Providence, where Allen was first appointed in 2014, was no exception.

“There was apprehension when he was announced,” acknowledged Neal Hall, the church’s lay leader and a lifelong member. “It’s something we’ve never experienced.”

Hall, 59, said his own apprehension faded a few months after Allen’s arrival, when his daughter, who had been in declining health, died. Hall called Allen, who rushed to the hospital where Hall’s daughter Amber was ailing, and stayed with the family, comforting them and reading Scripture passages into the early hours of the morning.

“He was my pastor in a time of need,” said Hall. “That bonds you.”

For Petty, Allen has been a “godly” role model — not only for the church youth but for her two boys, ages 14 and 21. Her eldest, John, had drifted away from the church under the church’s previous pastor. Allen visited her home and spoke to John about recommitting to Jesus and returning to church, which he did.

She has been so impressed with Allen she has invited friends, curious about her Black pastor, to hear him preach.

“He brings people to see both sides and to know that there are changes in the world, and we need to be a part of those changes,” Petty said.

Allen, who graduated from the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, said he was shaped by the Black liberation theology of James Cone, who saw justice for the poor and the outcast as the very heart of the Christian Gospel.

Married to a Presbyterian minister — the couple has  two boys —  Allen said he believes providing genuine care to his congregants will reduce racial prejudice and bias.

In a paper for his doctoral program at Hood Theological Seminary, a historically Black school located in Salisbury, Allen recently wrote, “The more I can express our existential commonalities, and emphasize that God is the solution to the human predicament, the more the artificial barriers will fall.”

Stifling healthy conversation

Being a Black pastor in a predominantly white church in the age of Trump has been a challenge nonetheless. The president has defended white nationalists, criticized the Black Lives Matter movement and generally exacerbated America’s racial divide.

The death of George Floyd, the Black Minneapolis man killed in police custody, and the subsequent protests that broke out across the nation, moved Allen to once again take a more direct approach.

Ten days after Floyd’s death, Allen used his Sunday sermon to expound on the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan and to recount a story from his youth. At a Fourth of July fireworks display in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a white man drove by in a truck, flicked a beer bottle cap against Allen’s head and then spat on him.

“That is the ugliest experience of racism I have experienced in my life, but it’s not the only one,”  he told his congregants. “I share that story because of all the things that are going on in the news. I want you to know it’s real.”

He then went on to say that Americans and Christians in particular need to raise their awareness and show more empathy.

Yes, “All Lives Matter,” he said, but added: “We’re asking you to have empathy for this particular subset of all lives. All lives matter may be theologically correct, but what you are actually doing is stifling healthy conversation.”

Several members said they were moved.

“I will tell you personally I thought everything was taken care of after Obama was president,” said David Shields, a church member. “I thought we were in a post-racial society. Aldana drove home the point that there was a lot of work to be done.”

Not all Providence members appreciated the sermon. A handful felt that church was a place of refuge. They didn’t want to be thrust right back into the storm.

A six-week Bible study about race and reconciliation that Allen started soon afterward was poorly attended. Allen said he wasn’t sure if people didn’t want to engage the subject or were staying away from church because of pandemic fears.

“I hate it for him that the race thing came up, and you hear people saying that they’re tired of hearing about it,” said Pam Ervin, a member who chairs the church’s mission projects. “It’s sad that we couldn’t have these conversations.”

Allen, however, hasn’t given up. Before COVID-19, the church had sermon swaps and common meals with a predominantly Black church down the road, and he wants that relationship to continue.

So far, church members say they’ve been able to see each other as people first, not Republicans and Democrats, but Allen is thinking of starting a Bible class on the nation’s political divides and how people might come together — perhaps around the time of President-elect Biden’s inauguration, he said.

Church members aren’t sure they can find unity on both sides of the political divide, but on racial issues, they said their consciences have been pricked.

“I don’t think that Pastor Allen being here is accidental,” said Hall, the church lay leader. “It’s God loosening us up. Pastor Allen was something we needed, and God delivered because he knew these times were coming. He’s showing part of what that different way looks like.”

Reform Jews call for reparations for slavery

Reform Jews call for reparations for slavery

Attendees of the Union for Reform Judaism biennial meeting gather in Chicago, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. Photo courtesy of Union for Reform Judaism

Delegates to the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial meeting in Chicago on Friday (Dec. 13) voted overwhelmingly to advocate for the creation of a federal commission to study and develop proposals for reparations to African Americans for slavery.

The resolution is the first such effort on the part of an American Jewish organization but has precedent among some Protestant groups.

The text of the resolution not only urges the federal government to act; it also commits the movement’s 850 congregations in the U.S. and Canada to redress the effects of historic and ongoing racism and evaluate institutional efforts to promote racial equity.

The Reform movement is the largest Jewish denomination in North America, comprising more than a third of the total U.S. Jewish population.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the movement’s Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said the resolution went through a rigorous vetting process. It was drafted by the denomination’s Commission on Social Action and sent out to its member congregations for discussion and debate. The denomination crafted a vehicle for congregants to consider reparations called Reflect, Relate, Reform that allowed them to study and consider ways to get involved in advocating for an end to mass incarceration and fighting white supremacy.

“In the context of the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and the emergence of a reality that we had a painful resurgence of racism and white supremacy — Charlottesville, etc. — many of our rabbis and lay leaders were asking what should we be doing at this moment in American history to fulfill our legacy as a movement committed to racial justice?” said Pesner, referring to the names of black Americans killed at the hands of police.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, center, speaks at Greater Grace Church in Florissant, Mo., on Aug. 17, 2014, during a rally for justice for Michael Brown, an unarmed teen shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer. Photo by Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The Reform movement has had a storied history of social justice activism, especially during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. One of its members, Kivie Kaplan, served as the national president of the NAACP from 1966 to 1975. Several others had a hand in drafting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Black and brown Reform Jews helped guide the movement on the issue of reparations, Pesner said. But as the resolution itself notes, the idea of reparations is not new to Jews. Since 1952, the German government has paid more than $70 billion in reparations to more than 800,000 Holocaust survivors.

“It’s time for the country to have a national conversation about what effective, strategic reparations would look like that would both address systemic racism but also be good for America as a whole,” he said.

With passage of the resolution, the movement will now advocate for HR 40, a bill that establishes a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. The bill has not yet come up for a vote.

(Adelle M. Banks contributed to this story)

Reform Jews call for reparations for slavery

Reform Jews call for reparations for slavery

Attendees of the Union for Reform Judaism biennial meeting gather in Chicago, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. Photo courtesy of Union for Reform Judaism

Delegates to the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial meeting in Chicago on Friday (Dec. 13) voted overwhelmingly to advocate for the creation of a federal commission to study and develop proposals for reparations to African Americans for slavery.

The resolution is the first such effort on the part of an American Jewish organization but has precedent among some Protestant groups.

The text of the resolution not only urges the federal government to act; it also commits the movement’s 850 congregations in the U.S. and Canada to redress the effects of historic and ongoing racism and evaluate institutional efforts to promote racial equity.

The Reform movement is the largest Jewish denomination in North America, comprising more than a third of the total U.S. Jewish population.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the movement’s Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said the resolution went through a rigorous vetting process. It was drafted by the denomination’s Commission on Social Action and sent out to its member congregations for discussion and debate. The denomination crafted a vehicle for congregants to consider reparations called Reflect, Relate, Reform that allowed them to study and consider ways to get involved in advocating for an end to mass incarceration and fighting white supremacy.

“In the context of the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and the emergence of a reality that we had a painful resurgence of racism and white supremacy — Charlottesville, etc. — many of our rabbis and lay leaders were asking what should we be doing at this moment in American history to fulfill our legacy as a movement committed to racial justice?” said Pesner, referring to the names of black Americans killed at the hands of police.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, center, speaks at Greater Grace Church in Florissant, Mo., on Aug. 17, 2014, during a rally for justice for Michael Brown, an unarmed teen shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer. Photo by Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The Reform movement has had a storied history of social justice activism, especially during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. One of its members, Kivie Kaplan, served as the national president of the NAACP from 1966 to 1975. Several others had a hand in drafting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Black and brown Reform Jews helped guide the movement on the issue of reparations, Pesner said. But as the resolution itself notes, the idea of reparations is not new to Jews. Since 1952, the German government has paid more than $70 billion in reparations to more than 800,000 Holocaust survivors.

“It’s time for the country to have a national conversation about what effective, strategic reparations would look like that would both address systemic racism but also be good for America as a whole,” he said.

With passage of the resolution, the movement will now advocate for HR 40, a bill that establishes a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. The bill has not yet come up for a vote.

(Adelle M. Banks contributed to this story)