A presentation entitled “A Christian Critique of Israeli Apartheid” delivered at the ‘Palestine: Moments of Truth‘ international conference on Palestine arranged by the Muslim Study Center, Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand, together with the Council for Humanitarian Network of Sheikhul Islam Office of Thailand on 30 January 2024.
A Christian Critique of Israeli Apartheid in Palestine
On 28 August 1963 Martin Luther King, co-led a civil-rights march of 250,000 people in Washington DC against racism and segregation. In what has become probably the most well-known and widely quoted speech in history,
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by their character. When we let freedom ring, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
The origins of institutional racism can be traced back to the European colonization of the Americas, Africa and Asia and to the slave trade. With the abolition of slavery, institutional racism evolved into American segregation, German Antisemitism and South African Apartheid.
The word “Apartheid” describes the system of racial segregation that existed in South Africa from 1948 until the early 1990s.
The 1998 Rome Statute to the International Criminal Court defined apartheid as a crime against humanity consisting of three elements:
- An intent to maintain domination by one racial group over another.
- A context of systematic oppression by one racial group over another.
- Inhumane acts.
In 1975, the UN specifically applied this definition to Israel, describing the ethnic exclusivism intrinsic to Zionism as, ‘a form of racism and racial discrimination.’
Numerous human rights organisations have recently designated Israel to be an apartheid state – including B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
What does the Bible say about apartheid? Refuting any theological justification for apartheid is not difficult. Let me illustrate: Imagine the theology of apartheid to be like a bottle of clear lemonade or Sprite. It represents racial purity, a ban on mixed marriages, and fixed national boundaries based on ethnicity. What happens when you add some Coca Cola to Sprite? It changes colour.
How much Coke do you need to change the colour of Sprite? Very little. Once you have added even a small amount of Coke you cannot ever go back to pure clear Sprite. In the same way, just one mixed marriage is enough to confound any notion of racial purity. And in like manner, just one Bible verse that challenges apartheid will adulterate its theology. Here are a few examples:
1. The Ethnic Diversity of God’s People
Israel claims to be a democracy as well as a Jewish state. But this was dispelled with the passing of the controversial “Nation-state” law in 2018 which defined Israel as the state exclusively for the Jewish people, a claim many Zionists insist is rooted in the Bible. The fact is there is no biblical justification for racial segregation. Instead, Israel as a nation always incorporated people of other ethnic groups and nations.
2. An Inclusive People (Israel)
In the Hebrew scriptures, God explicitly welcomes people in the surrounding nations who worship him. For example, in Psalm 87, a list of other peoples – Egyptian (Rahab) Persian (Babylon), Palestinian (Philistia), Lebanese (Tyre) and African (Cush) share the same identity and privileges as the Israelites:
“I will record Rahab and Babylon among those who acknowledge me—Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush— and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’” Indeed, of Zion it will be said, “This one and that one were born in her, and the Most High himself will establish her.” The Lord will write in the register of the peoples: “This one was born in Zion.” (Psalm 87:4-6)
Note the phrase “This one was born in Zion.” What do you normally get when you are born? Citizen rights. Now why would the Lord God have to repeat himself three times in three verses? Perhaps because the Lord’s people did not want to share the land. And observe the only condition for citizenship God lays down is faith. God welcomes all ‘those who acknowledge me’.
Similarly in story of Esther, after God rescues his people from the hands of their enemies, what happened?
“In every province and in every city to which the edict of the king came, there was joy and gladness among the Jews, with feasting and celebrating. And many people of other nationalities became Jews because fear of the Jews had seized them.” (Esther 8:17)
Many people of other nationalities became Jews. There is therefore no justification for ethnic or racial superiority. God’s people were identified on the basis of faith, not race.
An inclusive people.
3. An Inclusive Inheritance (Land)
God explicitly instructs the Israelites to share his land.
“You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who have settled among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe the alien settles, there you are to give him his inheritance,” declares the Sovereign LORD.” (Ezekiel 47:22-23)
Notice again, the Lord has to say the same thing three times in two consecutive sentences. Why? Presumably because the retuning exiles did not want to share their inheritance. God makes it crystal clear, that Gentiles who acknowledge him have the same rights as ‘native born Israelites’. An inclusive people. An inclusive land.
4. An Inclusive Temple (Worship)
Through his prophet Isaiah, the Lord God is also quite explicit in insisting that Gentiles may enter his Temple.
“Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people…. And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants… these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer… for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:3, 6-7)
If the Lord insists that foreigners should not say “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people”, why on earth would they think it? Because the Lord’s people must have been doing the excluding – presumably on the same supremacist grounds advocated by Zionists today. The people of God in scripture were always defined on the basis of faith not race.
5. Ethnic Barriers Removed
In the Letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul shows how ethnic identities are transformed by the Christian gospel.
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:15-18, 29)
There is no justification for ethno-supremacism. Abraham’s inheritance is for all who believe in the one true God, irrespective of ethnicity. Ethnic divisions are transformed because God’s ultimate purpose is to create one new humanity.
6. One New Humanity
In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we are given a glorious insight into how Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus Christ have been brought into a new ‘citizenship’ that transcends ethnic barriers and religious divisions.
“His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” (Ephesians 2:11-16).
The Bible therefore provides no justification for racial exclusivity giving any race preferential or elevated status within God’s kingdom. God’s intention has always been to create for himself one new people, drawn from every race and nation, into the one people of God. To summarise, the Hebrew and Christian scriptures insist that membership of the people of God was always on the basis of faith not race. God’s intention was to create one new humanity of every language, tribe and nation.
The use of the Bible to defend apartheid was attempted by Europeans to impose their rule on other people and stelal their land and resources. In this regard, apartheid was and remains not about maintaining racial purity as about maintaining racial supremacy. More than twenty years ago, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said,
“The end of apartheid stands as one of the crowning accomplishments of the last century, but we would not have succeeded without the help of international pressure… If apartheid ended, so can the occupation, but the moral force and international pressure will have to be just as determined. The current divestment effort is the first, though certainly not the only, necessary move in that direction.”
We began with the dream of Martin Luther King. What is your dream? Your vision of the future? What kind of world do you want for your children and grandchildren?
In the Book of Revelation, there is a heavenly vision of a restored humanity ethnically, linguistically and culturally diverse yet standing together not segregated, one in heart, soul and mind.
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9-10)
Notice that tiny little word “from” in verse 9? The multitude which no one can count is from every nation, from every tribe, from every people and from every language. They are not segregated; they are not separated. They are not distinguished by these things. They are all standing together, all wearing the same white clothes, all singing the same song, united in joyful adoration. If that is what heaven will be like, surely people of faith should be aligning themselves with where we are headed, offering to unbelievers, by our example, a foretaste of heaven.
 Martin Luther King, “I have a dream” https://www.npr.org/2010/01/18/122701268/i-have-a-dream-speech-in-its-entirety?t=1631530554402
Resolution of the UN General Assembly on the report of the Third Committee (A/10320)
3379 (XXX). Elimination of all forms of racial discrimination. http://domino.un.org/unispal.nsf
 Desmond Tutu, “An international campaign : Build moral pressure to end the occupation” International Herald Tribune (June 14, 2002) https://www.nytimes.com/2002/06/14/opinion/IHT-an-international-campaign-build-moral-pressure-to-end-the.html