Oakland Pastors Support Palestinian Struggle

a man wearing glasses and a suit speaks at podium
Knesset Member Samy Abu Shahadeh. Photo courtesy of The Knesset.

Sami Abu Shehadeh is one of only 10 Palestinian legislators in the 120-member Israeli Knesset (Parliament), even though Palestinians make up 20% of Israel’s citizens. Recently, he toured the U.S. to visit Palestinian American communities and to talk about his experiences as a Palestinian in the Knesset. One of his stops was in Oakland. 

One of the organizers of the Oakland event was Reverend Michael Yoshii, co-chair of Friends of Wadi Foquin, which was started in 2009 through the United Methodist Church Network. Wadi Foquin is a Palestinian village in the Occupied West Bank that is under constant threat of losing its land and livelihood due to the Israeli occupation, especially the expansion of the illegal Israeli settlement, Betar Illit. Yoshii has visited Palestine and Israel on many occasions since 2006. He thought that Abu Shehadeh’s talk was very good and said that the purpose of his trip “was to educate people about the inequities that Arabs face in Israel on a daily basis and to advocate for all, including Palestinians under military occupation.” Yoshii added, “The challenge for Israel is it cannot continue to be a Jewish state privileging Jewish citizens and also be a pluralistic democracy with equal rights for all.” 

Reverend Michael Yoshii. Photo by Jack Owicki

Reverend Theon Johnson III was one of the attendees at the talk. Johnson, who is African American, moved from his home state, Mississippi, to work in the Bay Area. He was at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco from 2012-2018 and, since 2018, at Downs Memorial United Methodist Church in Oakland, one of the sponsors of the talk. 

Johnson visited Palestine and Israel in 2012 and 2015 and said he sees commonalities between African American struggles and those of Palestinians. Johnson’s congregation is heavily African American and he connected events in Palestine/Israel with police violence experienced by African Americans. He said, “I am willing to wager that what most Palestinians want today is the same thing that George Floyd wanted from Officer Derek Chauvin, which is that the state ‘Get the knee off of my neck so that I can breathe.’ Folks want justice.” When talking about the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Johnson also said, “If you can understand what is happening between Russia and Ukraine, you can understand Palestine/Israel. It’s not rocket science.” 

For Johnson, a strength of the talk was Abu Shehadeh telling his personal story—what it is like for a Palestinian to live in Israel and to be a Palestinian politician in a predominantly Jewish Israeli Knesset, a story that is rarely heard in the U.S. 

image of a young Black pastor with glasses inside a church sanctuary
Reverend Theon Johnson III

Abu Shehadeh was born in Lod and now lives in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv. He talked about how there are separate schools for Jews and Palestinians and Palestinian children have to learn the Zionist history of Israel, but are not allowed to learn about their own history. He said, “Israel doesn’t acknowledge us as a minority. We’re not Palestinians. (They are referred to as Arabs). In the Jewish community, [students] are given information and building national identity, which is very important. But the same doesn’t happen for Palestinians. My children have to learn modern Zionist history and teachers can’t teach about Palestinian history.” He added that most of what the children learn about Palestinian history comes from the community.

Johnson said that Abu Shehadeh’s talk helped to humanize the conversation about Palestine/Israel, which is often so charged that the conversation can’t even begin. For many supporters of Israel, any criticism of Israeli policies and actions is considered anti-Semitic.

Abu Shehadeh spoke about the huge military imbalance in Palestine/Israel. For example, Israel has an enormous military budget, billions of dollars of which come from U.S. taxpayers, which is used to oppress Palestinians, who do not have planes, tanks, and sophisticated weapons with which to defend themselves from Israeli attacks. 

A long-term concern of Palestinians that Abu Shehadeh spoke about concerns the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. As he pointed out, it’s not a case of isolated Israeli settlers/colonialists invading Palestinian land, uprooting thousands of olive trees, contaminating water with raw sewage, seizing Palestinian homes, and shooting at peaceful protesters. This is a state project, part of the Israeli policy to Judaize Palestinian lands, he said. 

Another point that Abu Shehadeh made that resonated with Johnson is that Christian Zionists are among the strongest supporters of Israel in the U.S. today. These fundamentalist Christians believe that Jews will return to the Holy Land for the second coming of Christ. Johnson said, “Christian Zionism is an ideology that has deep challenges. It’s a colonialist ideology.”

Like Johnson, Reverend Allison Tanner, a pastor at Oakland’s Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church and an attendee at Abu Shehadeh’s talk, has visited Palestine and Israel. She is active in challenging the U.S./Mexico wall and, in 2017, she went to Palestine and Israel as part of an anti-wall delegation organized by Stop the Wall, a Palestinian grassroots anti-apartheid wall campaign. “For me, it was a transformative visit because it took me from being a social justice, anti-racist, anti-xenophobic person to seeing that intersection of injustice and oppression, to seeing state violence,” Tanner told Oakland Voices. 

“We saw a multi-faceted view of what Palestinians are struggling with,” Tanner said. Her group spent time in the Jordan Valley, where they met Bedouin farmers whose homes are repeatedly destroyed by Israel. They also witnessed Israeli settler violence, visited the apartheid wall, and talked with women and former political prisoners in the Occupied West Bank. The vast majority of Palestinian men are in prison or have been imprisoned, often without chargesWomen and children are also imprisoned by Israel.

A woman wearing a black face mask and sunglasses holds sign that says "Facebook: we need to talk about Christian Zionism"
Reverend Allison Tanner. Photo by Alex Madonik.

The group also toured Jerusalem, where they saw how places like Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood in Occupied East Jerusalem, are being ethnically cleansed by Israel through home demolitions and a controversial archeological dig in Silwan that has led to the collapse of Palestinian homes. 

Abu Shehadeh noted at the Oakland event, “All over East Jerusalem, what’s happening is land issues. The official policy is to Judaize. It means ethnic cleansing.” He also pointed out that this seizure of land isn’t limited to East Jerusalem, but is happening throughout Israel and in the Occupied West Bank.

When working on behalf of Palestinians, Abu Shehadeh said that he is accused of supporting terrorism. Also, in discussions in the Knesset, the views of Palestinians are not considered legitimate, so Palestinian members of the Knesset aren’t listened to and are interrupted. He found it incredible that when Palestinian members of the Knesset attend demonstrations, they are often attacked by the Israeli security forces. “I was attacked physically in a few demonstrations,” he said.  

Tanner’s congregation is ethnically diverse, about 45% African American, about 45% Euro American, and about 10% other, ​​including Chinese American, Filipino, Nigerian, Bangladeshi, and Central American. She said that her congregation has a deep commitment to racial justice and that they are concerned about what is happening in Palestine/Israel: “There was just an immediate resonance in my congregation to what was happening, and to hearing the stories and seeing the photos.” She described what she and her congregation have done since she returned from Palestine. For example, they explored Kairos Palestine through bible study and the church became an HP-free congregation

Tanner also talked about her work challenging Christian Zionism. She said that part of her role as Pastor of Public Witness is that she represents the church at Palestinian rallies and challenges Christian Zionism among Baptist organizations nationally. Last year, she organized within the Alliance of Baptists, a national board, and they unanimously passed a resolution denouncing Christian Zionism.

Other points that Abu Shehadeh made that particularly resonated with attendees include how Palestinian land has been stolen from Palestinians since Israel became a state. Johnson said, “Like so many issues related to justice, as much as there is an attempt on one hand for people to say, ‘Well, it’s very complicated,’ it’s not that complicated.You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know if I walk into your house and say, ‘Well, this is mine,’ something is off. You don’t need a PhD in political science to figure that out.”   

Author Profile

Katharine Davies Samway grew up in England, but has lived in the U.S. for over 40 years, more than 30 of them in Oakland. She is a long-term educator—a teacher, a researcher, a teacher educator, a professor of education. She is deeply committed to public education and is the mother of three children who went through Oakland public schools.For almost all her adult life, she has worked with and on behalf of people from underrepresented groups, particularly immigrants, refugees, and migrants for whom English is not their native language. Although retired, she continues to do research because she learns so much from careful and in-depth observations (e.g., of children’s writing processes and how children interact) and interviews (e.g., of children, teachers, parents, and community members). She also loves to write (e.g., articles, poetry, stories for children) and is enjoying being a reporter.

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