“Inhabiting the Land: Seventy Years of MCC Work in Palestine and Israel”

by Alain Epp Weaver

Alain Epp Weaver staff photo
MCC Photo: Alain Epp Weaver

In 2019, MCC marks seven decades of relief, development and peacebuilding alongside Palestinians and Israelis. MCC’s work in Palestine and Israel began in response to the Palestinian refugee crisis following the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. That war—which Israelis refer to as the War of Independence and which Palestinians call an-nakba, or “the catastrophe”—left over 700,000 Palestinians (around two-thirds of the Palestinian population at the time) as uprooted refugees.

In 1949, MCC sent Titus Lehman of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to work as a nurse in the refugee camps around Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip. Later that year, MCC established a unit in Jericho in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank dedicated to providing humanitarian assistance and vocational training to Palestinian refugees in United Nations-administered camps around the town. From this initial focus on humanitarian relief distribution to Palestinian refugees, MCC’s program in the West Bank (and then later also in the Gaza Strip and inside Israel) took on numerous forms over the ensuing 70 years, including the promotion of Palestinian needlework, the establishment of Christian schools, the operation of an agricultural development program, partnership with Palestinian community development organizations, and support for Palestinians and Israelis committed to nonviolent opposition to Israel’s military occupation and to a struggle for a just peace in the land for both Israelis and Palestinians.

An essential part of MCC’s work in Palestine and Israel for the past seven decades has been accompaniment of and support for the centuries-long witness of the church in the land of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection. MCC workers from Canada, the United States and Europe have heard from their Palestinian co-workers, neighbors and friends about becoming refugees in 1948 when the State of Israel was established and about the small and large ways that Israel’s deepening military occupation since 1967 has progressively restricted Palestinian lives.

we refuse to be enemies
MCC Photo/Emily Loewen

Palestinians have called on MCC workers to speak out against Canadian and U.S. government policies that have uncritically supported Israel and given it diplomatic cover for the expansion of illegal settlements and the deepening of its military occupation: responding to this call, MCC has advocated to government officials in Canada and the U.S. since the 1970s against the occupation and for a just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in accordance with international law and United Nations resolutions.

Palestinian Christians, meanwhile, have urged MCC to share their stories with Anabaptists in the U.S. and Canada as a way to counter Christian Zionist theologies that justify Palestinian dispossession. MCC has answered this plea in multiple ways over the decades, including by organizing learning tours for pastors and other church leaders in Canada and the U.S. to meet with and learn from Palestinian Christians and with Palestinians and Israelis struggling for a peaceful future; itinerating Palestinians and Israelis to speak in Anabaptist churches, schools, and universities in the U.S. and Canada; and reflecting theologically about the church’s call to work for a just and lasting peace in which both Palestinians and Israeli Jews will be able to sit secure “under vine and fig tree” (Micah 4:4).

PrintMy recent book, Inhabiting the Land: Thinking Theologically about the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, is one of the most recent entries in a long line of writing (in the form of articles in the Mennonite church press to academic monographs and much in between) emerging from MCC’s work in Palestine and Israel. An incomplete list of some of the books written by present and former MCC staff since the 1970s about Palestine and Israel is found below. Through these writings, MCC workers have sought to help shape Christian discussions of Zionism and the State of Israel so that those theological reflections grapple seriously with the testimonies of Palestinian Christians, the different legacies of violence and trauma that both Palestinians and Israelis bear, and the stories of Israelis and Palestinians working for peace.

Aimed at readers with little-to-no prior knowledge about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Inhabiting the Land proceeds in four chapters. Chapter 1 provides an historical overview, examining Zionism and Palestinian nationalism as two intertwined phenomena. A detailed timeline and a set of maps at the end of this book supplement this historical account. In chapter 2, the focus shifts from historical narration and analysis to theological interpretations of that history, examining Palestinian Christian theologies that emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century as Palestinian Christians sought to understand Zionism and Palestinian dispossession theologically.

In chapter 3, the lens expands and draws back to place Palestinian Christian theology within broader Christian assessments of Zionism and attempts to rethink Christian theologies of the Jewish people. The chapter seeks to give the reader a deeper appreciation for the complex ways that Christian theological assessments of Judaism and Zionism have been intertwined and for attempts to disentangle them. The fourth and final chapter turns to the present, outlining the key issues at stake in the current form of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and assessing the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process and its prospects for revival. The chapter concludes with some constructive thoughts about what inhabiting the land rightly will entail for Israelis and Palestinians, thoughts that build upon insights from Palestinian Christian theologies of sumud (the Arabic word for steadfastness).

Inhabiting the Land appears at a time when the hopes for a just resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict appear increasingly dim. Yet the book is also informed by a spirit of sumud, a steadfast hope in the face of a seemingly hopeless present. Much of MCC’s work around the world, including in Palestine and Israel for seventy years now, consists of accompanying communities that are “pressed on all sides, but not crushed” (2 Corinthians 4:8). As it approaches its second century of work globally and its eighth decade in Palestine and Israel, may MCC remain committed to ongoing, lived solidarity with such communities as they strive for well-being, justice, and peace, yearning for the transformation of unjust structures that harm individual and communal dignity.

Books by MCC Staff about Palestine and Israel since the 1970s

Epp, Frank H. The Israelis: A Portrait of a People in Conflict. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1980.

—–. The Palestinians: Portrait of a People in Conflict. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976.

—–. Whose Land in Palestine? The Middle East Problem in Historical Perspective. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970.

Lapp, John A. The View from East Jerusalem. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1980.

Weaver, Alain Epp. Inhabiting the Land: Thinking Theologically about the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2018.

—–. Mapping Exile and Return: Palestinian Dispossession and a Political Theology for a Shared Future. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014.

—–. Ed. Under Vine and Fig Tree: Biblical Theologies of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2007. Chapters by Dan Epp-Tiessen, Esther Epp-Tiessen, Christi Hoover Seidel, and Timothy Seidel.

Weaver, Sonia. What is Palestine-Israel? Answers to Common Questions. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2017.

Alain Epp Weaver is MCC Director of Strategic Planning 

ACT Today: Urge your MP to show compassion for Gaza! Ask him or her to:

  • Insist to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister on continued humanitarian relief for the people of Gaza, but, more critically, that Canada support an end to the Israeli blockade on Gaza.
  • Support policies in keeping with Canada’s official commitment to promote the human rights of all people, including Palestinians and Israelis.

For more information and resources on the context in Palestine and Israel, and the work on MCC’s partners, see MCC’s A Cry for Home Campaign.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s