The five stages of grief in Palestine and Israel

by Felipe Gustavo Koch Buttelli last modified Jul 18, 2017 07:24 PM
The five stages of grief in Palestine and Israel

Ecumenical accompanier and Palestinian children cross a military checkpoint on the way to school. © C. Holtan/EAPPI

Jul 18, 2017

When it comes to the stance of churches towards the so-called conflict between Israel and Palestine, it is useful to understand it as a process of grief. The theory of the five stages of grief from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is a creative way to describe the “dying” and “mourning” process of the churches and international community. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 was seen by the Western world as a sign of justice for the suffering Jewish people after the Holocaust and centuries of persecution of Jews in Europe. Two elements played a major role in this initial excitement: the historical guilt of Europeans and the fulfilment of biblical prophecies related with the reestablishment of Israel.

However, the historical facts that followed, which from the perspective of the Palestinians and from the surrounding Arab countries were considered a nakba – a catastrophe – were not acknowledged by the churches and the international community. Invasion, destruction of Palestinian villages, expulsion of Palestinians from their houses and their homeland: all these aspects were fully neglected by the churches which effusively announced the joy of the creation of the state of Israel to the world.

A changing fact was the Six-Day War in 1967 and the consequent military occupation of the Palestinian territories: Gaza, West Bank and the Golan Heights. This historical fact - interpreted by the Western world as a victory of David (state of Israel) against Goliath (the Arab surrounding countries) – was later defined as illegal by the United Nations in the article 49 of the fourth Geneva Convention. Military occupation and the construction of settlements to colonize another country’s territory was regarded as a crime.

Here started the grief process of the churches and the international community: The state of Israel frustrated the expectancy of Christian Zionists that it would be the land of God, the establishment of its salvation project. It frustrated the discourse of those European nations that, according to their guilt and expectations, creating Israel was the right thing to do, a way to clean their conscience. From a theological point of view what Israel created was not what was promised in the Bible - a land of righteousness, a land of justice, where “honey and milk” flows.

The state of Israel placed itself outside the international law, disobeying several international conventions. The initial phase of grief is denial. The stages of grief can happen concomitantly, which means that many churches are still denying recognizing that the state of Israel is neither the biblical Israel nor the eschatological promise of God.

The second phase of grief is anger. It happens when we cannot deny any more. Some glimpses of recognition start to happen, but the general reaction is to become upset with the critical, condemning those who are calling it to the world’s attention. Many churches are at this stage. Especially those who have seen the real face of the occupation but who cannot recognize that it is occasioned by their very Zionist theological support and justification.

The third phase of grief is the bargaining stage. The bargaining can be described as a limited recognition of the suffering condition of Palestinians and a shy support to Palestinian Christians. Visiting them, writing notes of support, endorsements, and so on. That obviously should never represent any loss in terms of support to Israel. How to help Palestinians in their fragile situation without questioning the state of Israel’s practices?

Sometimes the bargaining also takes the form of "offsetting" violations of human rights and international law against acts of violence committed by individual Palestinians and – such is the accusation – condoned by Palestinian society. The bargain requires each criticism of Israeli policies to be "balanced" by a criticism of some wrong-doing from the Palestinian side. To overcome this phase of bargaining, we have to admit that there is no balance in this “conflict”, neither is there balance between violence committed by both sides.

The fourth stage of grief is depression. I would say that it is the contemporary stage of the koinonia of churches assembled by the World Council of Churches. It is mourning and lamenting the 50 years of occupation, identifying its support to the human rights violations of the state of Israel and its role in contributing to the suffering of Palestinian people. However, it is not showing any practical action taking sides and supporting those marginalized and who are suffering injustices, as the mandate of the Gospel would require.

The last phase of grief is acceptance. This is our task now: how to move finally to the acceptance of our responsibility? How to name our support to Zionist ideology that promotes death and apartheid? How to recognize our active role in overseeing Israeli crimes for so long while Christian churches are languishing in the Holy Land? How to change our practice of religious tourism to Israel, dominated ideologically and economically by those who are committing crimes and violating human rights and international regulations?

The dream of Israel as the fulfilment of the biblical prophecy is dead: the State of Israel is not the biblical Israel. We have to get over this death and accept reality as it is, changing the way we are acting and our official positions, not to be on the wrong side of history. It is time for churches to name Israel's continued illegal occupation of Palestinian territories by what it is: a sin. We owe this to our commitment with the gospel of justice.

The fourth stage of grief is depression. I would say that it is the contemporary stage of the koinonia of churches assembled by the World Council of Churches. It is mourning and lamenting the 50 years of occupation, identifying its support to the human rights violations of the state of Israel and its role in contributing to the suffering of Palestinian people. However, it is not showing any practical action taking sides and supporting those marginalized and who are suffering injustices, as the mandate of the Gospel would require.