Where Zionism Leads - The Nassar Family Farm

Boulders blocking entrance to the Nassar family farm. Photo Credit: Tom Bell

Boulders blocking entrance to the Nassar family farm. Photo Credit: Tom Bell

The story of Tony Nassar and his family is typical of many Palestinians living in the West Bank. I know Tony from my years of living in nearby Bethlehem. He is a devout Christian and today I remain his pastor and friend. His story is well-known not only in Israel/Palestine but throughout the world.

The Nassar family purchased a 100-acre vineyard near Bethlehem in 1916, under the Ottoman (Turkish) regime. From the very beginning they have paid taxes on the land and have worked hard and successfully to plant grapevines, fruit trees, and olive trees.

The Nassar family has repeatedly applied to the occupying government for a permit to pump water from their wells and to have electricity provided to their farm, in the same way permits are given and electricity is provided to nearby Israeli settlements. But the occupation government has consistently denied these requests. In 2001, Israeli forces permanently blocked the main access road to the vineyard, placing immense boulders across the road so that no vehicles can pass. Israeli settlers shot and killed a mule the family used to work the land.

One evening in February 2003, Tony Nassar called me with news that Israeli settlers were using bulldozers and tractors to dig a road through his family’s property.  It wasn’t the first time this had happened, and I wondered how I could be any help. But I promised Tony my prayers and a visit to the land.

The next day Tony and I took Palestinian attorneys Jonathan Kuttab and Sani Khoury, a visiting Danish pastor, and a local land surveyor to the Nassar land. There we saw the bulldozers and tractors at work. Jonathan, speaking in Hebrew, tried to persuade the settlers to stop bulldozing, but they would not. Finally, Jonathan challenged us: “The only way to stop them is to stand in front of a tractor. Who will stand with me?”

Volunteers planting olive trees on the Nassar family farm. Photo Credit: Friends of Tent of Nations

Volunteers planting olive trees on the Nassar family farm. Photo Credit: Friends of Tent of Nations

Three of us joined Jonathan, taking our stand in the very spot where a tractor was carving the new path to finish the road. The settler operating the tractor cursed and threatened us, but Jonathan stood boldly in front of the giant machine and shouted that no matter what happened, he would not move. Astounded by his courage the operator called his boss in the settlement, who told him to stop clearing the land. Within 15 minutes, police arrived and with difficulty convinced the settlers to leave. The Nassar family was joyful that we were able to stop the settlers.

The next day we had a prayer meeting seeking God’s protection over the land. The Nassar family are longtime members of the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem and many of their fellow Christians had been praying for them. A Jewish rabbi and other peacemakers joined us to stand in solidarity with the Nassars and to come up with a strategy for protecting their land.

In the spring of 2014, the Israeli army ordered the Nassar family to stop cultivating their land, forcing the family to pursue an expensive and time consuming legal battle that continues to this day. But the army did not wait for the court to reach a decision—soldiers arrived early one morning and destroyed 1,500 fruit trees (primarily apricots and apple trees) and the special beds in which these trees are grown. This act of destruction would deprive the Nassar family of precious income for years to come, for it takes many years for newly planted trees to mature and bear fruit.  Since that day, international volunteers from all faith traditions have traveled to the Nassar family farm to help restore the orchards with trees that have been donated by supporters. Any summer it isn’t uncommon to see evangelical American students standing shoulder to shoulder with European Catholics supporting the Nassar family and caring for their farm.

Despite their struggles, the family has created inspiring programs for visitors. Volunteers from all over the world come to the Nassar farm, which is now called the Tent of Nations Farm, to help with the farm work and to participate in environmentally responsible projects, as well as to pray and discuss the Holy Scriptures. In addition, the Nassar family offers a summer camp for children, where the young campers enjoy artistic projects, music, games, and discussions on peacemaking.

The Nassar family’s saga is ongoing—a final decision on whether to deprive the Nassar family of their land is in the Israeli courts.  Their story is one of thousands of its kind that are all too familiar to Palestinians. Many landowners have been injured and even killed trying to protect their land. Yet their faith in God protects them against despair and feeds their spiritual roots in the land of their ancestors.

For many Christians the Nassar story is a case study in where Zionism leads. The presumption that someone has a theological or ethnic privilege to take land because God has given exclusive promises has led to the crisis at the Nassar farm. Israeli settlers believe they have this privilege because they were backed by the army and protected by a government unwilling to act on their behalf in defense of what is right. Plus many of them feel that they enjoy God’s support to take the land of others.

Christians also believe this evokes memories of the story of Ahab and Elijah from the Old Testament (1Kings 21). The Israelite king named Ahab coveted the farm of a man named Naboth. The king offered to buy the farm but Naboth refused and said. “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my ancestors.” Naboth loved his farm, it was well-cultivated, and it had been in has family for a long time.

The king sulked and when his wife, Queen Jezebel, heard about his frustration she counseled him that he should just take it. He had the privileges that came from power, and confiscating the land would be simple. Ahab’s army was nearby, and Naboth wouldn’t stand a chance. Queen Jezebel organized false accusations against Naboth and a mock trial followed. Naboth was convicted and stoned to death so that his farm might be provided to the king.

This injustice ignited the fury of the prophet Elijah. Elijah found the king at his palace and exchanged words that have echoed through history.

Ahab said to Elijah, “So you have found me, my enemy!”

“I have found you,” Elijah answered, “because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord.  He says, ‘I am going to bring disaster on you.’”

The force of the prophet Elijah’s words was clearly understood. Ahab’s reign was now doomed. God’s judgment would fall on his dynasty simply because he coveted a farm, plotted how to take it, and finally stole it from its historic owners.