Children of Ishmael: an interview with Fr Elias Chacour

Elias Chacour is now the Melkite Archbishop of Galilee

[This interview was done in Galilee in June 1980 and published in the October 1980 issue of Sojourners magazine]

You won’t find it on the map of Israel unless the map is a remarkably good one, but if you draw a line between Haifa and the western bulge of the sea of Galilee, Ibillin is a quarter of the way from Haifa. This village of 5,500 Palestinians is atop a mound that, were you to dig through it layer by layer, would tell the story of life and faith in this contested land back to very ancient times. But the face of the past is largely buried, apart from a bit of a Crusader castle wall that was unearthed a few years ago when the villagers were building a community center.

Yet there are living monuments: the olive trees with their silvery gray-green leaves and gnarled, cratered trunks. Some on the hillside just south of Ibillin are more than 2,000 years old. It may be that Jesus, his family, and disciples ate olives from these ancient trees that, well-tended across the centuries, are still producing fruit.

Ibillin is a Christian and Moslem town. Two thousand of the villagers are Moslem, 3,000 Greek Orthodox, and 500 Melkite (Roman Catholics of the Eastern liturgical rite). The Melkite priest, a man well known throughout Galilee, is Fr. Elias Chacour. He is a gray-robed man in his middle years with a thick, jutting black beard, piercing gray eyes, and a contagious energy.

Chacour doesn’t fit either Christian or Palestinian stereotypes. A Palestinian who well understands the anger that occasionally leads to violence on the part of the Palestinian minority in Israel, an anger he shares, Chacour is a pacifist. Again and again he draws attention to a talk given some centuries ago on a hillside not far from Ibillin–the Sermon on the Mount.

A Catholic priest of tremendous dedication, Chacour is impatient with Christians’ preoccupation with their differences and their shrines–“holy stones and holy sands,” he says with impatience. His attention is entirely with living people. To the occasional bewilderment of his fellow Christians, including members of the hierarchy, Chacour has devoted himself to founding community centers, libraries, and kindergartens, in addition to his parish responsibilities. He organizes summer camps for Palestinian villagers in Galilee which are used by everyone–Moslem, Druze, Catholic, and Orthodox. He is raising funds now for Israel’s first peace center.–Jim Forest

Jim Forest: When did you first encounter the Israeli government?

Fr. Elias Chacour: I think I was six years old. My father told us–we were six children–that in a country called Germany there had been “a cruel Satan killing Jews.” Of course, we knew little about faraway places. We Palestinians had come out from under the slavery of the Turks, and then the British Mandate, ignoring almost everything else in the world. But nobody could ignore Germany, even if that nation was at the end of the earth.

Father said there were Jewish soldiers who had escaped from Germany and that they would be coming to our village, Ba’ram, in the north of Galilee. He said some of them wanted to settle near us. As Christians, he said, we must welcome them, help them, and give them food and drink.

When the soldiers came, he told us they would need to sleep in our beds, and he asked us to sleep on the roof. And we children gladly accepted this–it was fun to sleep on the roof! We thought of the soldiers as our guests. For the first time in my life I saw father slaughtering a sheep to prepare a feast. It was like this throughout the village, and the soldiers stayed in every house. It was the consensus to accept them.

But a few days later, the keys to the doors were collected by an officer. For security reasons, he said, we must all leave for a few days. He would be guardian for our village. Then we could come back.

We accepted this. People like my father never thought our guests could play an ugly game with us. So we left and for several days lived in the open, under olive trees. I remember it was very, very cold at night. Then my father managed to find us a cave. After that we went to an abandoned village, where our whole family lived in one room of a deserted house.

What was to be a few days became weeks and then months and now it is thirty years.

Forest: And now Ba’ram is only ruins. How was it destroyed?

Chacour: When the elders realized the Israeli army had fooled us, when we saw that all our furniture had been taken away and that we were expelled–such a reward from our guests!–we applied to the Israeli Supreme Court of Justice in Jerusalem, and at last we won the case.

But when we asked the army to implement the court’s order, the soldiers refused. Their own court! We applied to the court a second time, and in 1951 we won again.

When this happened, the Prime Minister, Ben Gurion, ordered the destruction of the village. On Christmas morning it was bombed, and then bulldozers swept away what was left.

Forest: When those in your family realized they could not soon return home, where did you go?

Chacour: To Gish, also in the north of Galilee. My parents are still there and many others of Ba’ram. From there I was sent to a boarding school in Haifa.

Forest: And your education after that?

Chacour: Then a secondary school in Nazareth. Later my archbishop sent me for studies in Paris: philosophy and theology in preparation for ordination to the priesthood. In 1965, I was ordained in Nazareth. Afterward I went to Jerusalem and studied Bible and the Talmud at the Hebrew University. Finally, I went to Geneva, where I spent a year with the World Council of Churches completing a doctorate in ecumenical studies.

Forest: Have you had other childhood experiences which have shaped your understanding of belonging to a minority?

Chacour: There is one event I can never forget. I was perhaps ten or twelve at the time. There was a telephone wire running on the ground in Gish. One morning it had been cut, and a section of it was missing. Soldiers came and accused some of the children, including myself.

They took us, and then gathered our parents and grandparents, our entire families. Then they said horrible things: “You are worth nothing, your children are worth nothing, you are doing underground work, your children are thieves and you are the teachers of theft….” Words like these.

Then, before our elders, the soldiers beat us with sticks. Our parents did not dare interfere. At the end, a soldier said to me, “Now bring that piece of wire to me.” I went to my father and asked, “Father, where should I go?” Then the soldier thought my father must have the wire, so he began to curse and accuse him.

But to whom could I go and ask this question? I was innocent, but even my mother did not know what to believe. The next day my father and I were taken to a police station in a Jewish town, and they threatened us with prison if we did not confess and return the wire.

When we returned, I remember mother made a few sweets for me, saying, “If you took it, tell me where it is.” But I didn’t know! A week later it was discovered that the wire had been cut by a bus. The soldiers got the wire from the driver who had taken it back to his home in another town. But for us in our village there was never an apology. Why? Because we were just Arabs.

Forest: Experiences like this must be rather common. And the effect must be deeply embittering.

Chacour: It is amazing. You will not believe it. While of course some grow an attitude of revenge–to do it back to the other, to do it worse–others become disgusted and do not want to see these things done again. They try to act in the opposite way.

Many of us Palestinian Arabs do not allow ourselves any feelings of hatred, although we will never give up our rights, and we question many things. We will even turn to God and ask, “How can you allow this to happen?” It is understandable. Our people have always trusted God in everything that happened. “Why now do you mislead us?” we ask. Yet even now there is this effort not to hate, not to take revenge.

Forest: Every year people come to Israel–the Holy Land–and yet seem unaware of the people who live here today.

Yes, they come to see the holy stones and holy sands. They do not care much for the people. We have many basilicas to take their time, and even now there are new ones being built. It reflects a church mentality of triumphalism, a priority in the churches for stones and antiquities.

On the other side, there are the tourists and pilgrims who are much more interested in the phenomenon of the Jewish state. It’s new. It has something to do with Europe. There is the guilt complex of the European Christians about what has been allowed to happen to the Jews. There is a wish, mainly in Germany, that Israel do what Europe was unable to do. And to these visitors the Arabs within Israel do not exist except as enfants terribles, as terrorists. We do not exist.

Forest: Speaking of terrorists, it is remarkable that so far this morning there have been no jets flying over the Galilee to drop bombs in Lebanon. There have been many the last few days. Do you get used to this?

Chacour: At first it was terrible. Now it is our daily bread. We know these are bombs for our heads. For Palestinians. With these jets they can kill more innocent people in a single day than all the Palestinian soldiers kill in a year. Yet it is the Palestinians alone who are said to be terrorists.

One thing strikes me about the Palestinian people. We have never been colonizers. We have been satisfied with our land. We have never wanted to conquer any other nation, although others have always tried to conquer us. Yet not once have the conquerers stayed. Not one has remained forever here. Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Babylonians, Assyrians, Crusaders, Turks, British: They all came, and they all have disappeared.

Forest: Yet Palestinians seem very new to nationalism.

Chacour: Nationalism in the Middle East began with the end of World War II and the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. The Arab states were stubborn and resisted Jewish existence here, and this did much to help the Jews found their separate state. Then in reaction to Jews becoming so radical, so fanatical, so Zionist in the negative sense, the Palestinians became more and more radical and nationalistic.

It is true there was little Palestinian national expression forty years ago. We were part of the Middle East. But this does not mean that today Palestinians have no right to a state, to nationhood, to existence on their own land.

Forest: What of the Jewish religious claim to the land?

Chacour: Many Jews truly believe they are fulfilling God’s will, that they are fulfilling ancient prophecies: “God gave us the land thousands of years ago, and we are coming back. These ugly Palestinians have no right to be here.” They forget we gave our name to the land of Palestine even before the Jews came. And they forget that the Holy Land was promised to Abraham and his descendants–all of them. If [Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin is one of the descendants of Abraham because he is a son of Isaac, I too am a descendant of Abraham because I am a son of Ishmael. We are all Abraham’s children.

What makes the Palestinian children of Abraham so sad is the realization that we are being made to pay the cost of what other people, not we, have done to the Jews. We have felt solidarity with the Jews because we are both people who have been often persecuted. And now we, not the Europeans, become the victims of the children of the martyrs of Auschwitz.

Forest: What do you see in the future regarding relations between Palestinians and Jews? Is healing possible?

Chacour: I don’t believe it is impossible. But Zionist ideology does not allow another people within Israel equal footing. It is not an ideology of tolerance, or equality. This is troubling.

The Palestinian Charter can be criticized, but its basic idea is to have a democratic, secular state with no official religion and no raising of one people over another. The idea of a Jewish state in which others are barely tolerated, this must be changed. Otherwise, as they say in the Talmud, we non-Jews will have a britah–a footnote in the margins about how to deal with us.

Forest: We in the West have little sense of connection with Palestinian or Arab culture. Through films, books, and personal encounters, we feel connected with Judaism and Israel as a Jewish state. But there is no Palestinian equivalent to The Diary of Anne Frank or Leon Uris’ Exodus. Instead, all we have is a terrorist image of Palestinians, or perhaps an idea of people who lived on a land but neglected it.

Chacour: Why are the Jews so well known in your countries? Because for two thousand years they were there, in the Diaspora, while we Palestinians were at home. The Jews are well known because they have had a strong, effective lobby in the United States and Europe.

And, to speak plainly, they have benefited because Europe has wanted to get rid of the Jews and, since Hitler, the remnants of the Jews: “Go away, wherever you want, and you will get from us all kinds of help. You can have weapons. You can steal warships from France. You can have heavy water for nuclear reactors from Belgium. Anything you want. But go away.” This Western “sympathy” for Jews is another way of getting rid of them.

I remember a Swiss professor who was angry at a PLO attack on a Swiss Air jetliner. “You Palestinians are welcome to throw bombs in Tel Aviv and Haifa and Jerusalem, but in Zurich, in a Swiss airplane, no!” I told that Swiss friend, “I prefer that every Swiss airplane, if they are empty, be exploded rather than one Jew or Palestinian be wounded. The airplanes are not worth a single drop of human blood.”

Forest: How do you humanize the Palestinian image so that there is something more in the Western perception than a political killer? It seems to me every PLO raid that kills more children or bystanders only reconsecrates the terrorist image.

Chacour: The image can be changed in two ways. One is the way of the Sermon on the Mount of Jesus Christ, which let us admit is a slow way, a way many, including most people in the West, do not think is efficient. The other way, sadly enough, is the violent way, which is also used in your countries.

And I have to ask you: Without those bombs and terrorist actions, would the world acknowledge any right of the Palestinian people? Would you notice that we even exist? Would we be anything but poor refugees? What else has made you look at us?

Forest: It is true in every country that one person with a bomb can draw more attention in five minutes than a thousand unarmed people in a month. But is not the Israeli government glad that the Palestinians are noticed only as a people of violence? The Israeli counterviolence, even if it kills many more people, then only seems part of the game.

Chacour: Ask why! What is on your TV, what is in your newspapers? Is it our fault you see only the killing? Until a few years ago, you were unable to say, “I saw a good Palestinian on television.”

In 1974, a Dutch television station made a program about how we Palestinians in Israel were organizing kindergartens and libraries despite the complete lack of public help. The program never mentioned discrimination or the problems between Jews and Palestinians. But one letter protested the program as Nazi because it dared to give a positive impression of the Palestinians.

Forest: I think your libraries and kindergartens are far more threatening to some than guns and dynamite.

Chacour: You are not the first to say that.

The prime minister’s adviser on Arab affairs once said, “It is more dangerous to give Fr. Chacour the opportunity to provide Arabs with books than to give him a bomb to throw in a Jewish shop.” He’s definitely right. With a bomb you kill. With books you can make people aware of their own responsibility. But perhaps he thought of that only as leading toward vengeance. Responsibility can also lead people toward forgiveness.

Forest: Why have you spent so much time founding libraries?

Chacour: Three-quarters of our young people are under twenty-eight. Our future depends on the opportunities they have. I did some research earlier and discovered that every young person here, and it is true in other villages of Galilee, has six to eight empty hours a day–sitting on street corners, playing with stones, waiting for nothing–growing bitter thinking of the opportunities young Jews have in neighboring villages raised on confiscated lands.

I wanted to find an alternative for this empty time. Each time a young person accepts a book, you have given meaning to twenty hours in his or her life, and perhaps have done more than that. In this one small village, we have every day one hundred twenty to one hundred fifty persons taking books home from the library.

Forest: How many libraries have now been founded?

Chacour: There are five, with each of the community centers that have been started, and two more community centers with libraries are now planned.

Forest: With what you have been through, after what you have seen, under daily bombing flights passing over your village, how do you keep your hope? How do you speak of forgiveness?

Chacour: I remember what my father said when he realized it was a trick and that we had been driven from our village. “Don’t forget to return, even if at the end of your life, but to do that never use the same means that were used against us.”

I believe that that foolish man of Galilee, Jesus Christ, had something to tell us, to tell me. Not considering his existence here, I would immediately go into despair. Immediately. And forgetting him, I would first despair of the institutional church and its hierarchy, and only later, of the Jews.

We have tried violence. We have tried wars. We are sure that wars will bring wars. I am sure that the attempt to kill the Arab mayors on the West Bank in early June will bring more killings of Jews. I am sure. It’s a vicious circle. It’s the logic of violence.

We know where violence leads. Even if we are not certain where we are going with nonviolence, let us try it. At least that. At least we can be sure with nonviolent action that, even if we are destroyed ourselves, we will not destroy any other person.

Forest: You said that, if you despaired, it would be first with the institutional church. Why?

Chacour: It is painful to say, but we clergy, if we read the New Testament at all, read it only as an instrument of instruction for the people, not to be instructed ourselves. You know the churches here in Israel are the most wealthy churches in the world. At the top. But there is a divorce between the institution and the people. The people get very little from the wealth of the church. Where all that huge amount of money goes, only God and the hierarchy know.

Forest: Is the peace movement in Israel a source of hope for you?

Chacour: There is no peace movement. There are various groups. Some are good. Some are motivated only by self-interest–the “peace” they speak of only means everyone accepting the status quo. Let everything stay as it is, but stop the fighting. We stay, in our places, the refugees stay in their places. This kind of “peace” can only lead us to pieces, and in the very near future.

So far none of these peace groups has had any impact on the national level. None whatsoever. The people are well-intentioned, but they are without influence. The general trend goes against them. The main political parties go the opposite way.

Forest: Still, the peace groups seem to be steadily growing.

Chacour: Yes, and that is encouraging. It indicates that, within the Jewish community, there are more people recognizing that they have to take note of the existence of others.

Forest: What, in general, is your advice to the traveler in Israel?

Chacour: Do not suffice yourself with holy antiquities. Jesus is not in Jerusalem. He is not there, he is risen. The Holy Sepulcher is only a reminder of a person who is not there. To touch Jesus Christ, to have contact with him, is only possible through his living brothers, his living sisters, the community.

We Christians in Galilee have a vocation to behave beyond all confessional and denominational boundaries, to try to behave as Christ behaved, to represent the living, risen Christ to all who come searching for him. We do not have to show you that we are reformed, or re-reformed, or not-yet-reformed, or Roman Catholic, or Orthodox. That should mean nothing to us here in Galilee. What means something is that the man of Galilee is risen and is still alive.

Forest: And how does the visitor find the community and not just stones and hotels?

Chacour: Here in this remote village, in less than two months, fifty-four groups have come just to have contact. Each year there are more people coming for such encounters, here and many other places. Tourists are less and less satisfied with shrines and historical explanations. They want to see something living.

Forest: And what about people who want to do something more than visit–who are ready to help in some way?

Chacour: First they can spread the word that people are, despite all differences, still alike–in each nation some good, some wicked. There is no terrorist people and no righteous people.

A second way is to come and help. There are ways of helping in the summer camps, the community centers, the libraries, and other projects.

A third way is to send money, through private, direct contribution, or through funding agencies helping the work here.

Or people can sometimes send things we need; for example, books.

There is one special need we have now. We are starting a peace center–the Galilee Peace Research Center. It will be a place where people can meet across the lines of conflict. We will be able to receive visitors from other countries. We will have the first study center with the first library on nonviolent alternatives in Israel.

Forest: What is it, in working for peace here, that you, a Palestinian Christian priest, hope to say to your Jewish neighbors?

Chacour: I want to say, “You can take our lands, you can take our houses, you can kill us. But you cannot take our hearts with violence. Impossible! I hope you will try to have our hearts in the way described by Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince–‘to tame each other’–not with bombs, but with silence, contemplation, and one’s own conversion. We have to tame each other. There is no alternative if we are to survive. We go on killing until there is no one left, or we choose to survive together.”

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