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Sabeel No Friend of Peace

By Dexter Van Zile

Christian Outreach Director, David Project Center for Jewish Leadership

Member of The Coalition for Responsible Peace in the Middle East

During the next three weeks, a troupe of anti-Israel activists working under the umbrella of Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), will perform a modern day passion play to audiences in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Denver, Colorado; and Toronto, Canada. Judging from the group’s 2005 debut in Chicago during the first weekend of October, audiences are in for quite a show. These activists tell a story of Jewish savagery and innocent Palestinian suffering that portrays Israel as an aggressive apartheid aggressive state -- the 21st century’s South Africa and Nazi Germany rolled into one.

To these folks, the Jews are the new Nazis. They even gas their prey. George Rishmawi, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement, told the Chicago audience that Israel uses a muscle-weakening gas on non-violent Palestinian protesters that makes it difficult for protesters to move or run away. When asked for details, Rishmawi reported that Israeli soldiers retrieve the canisters from the ground to prevent people from learning the chemical composition of the gas.

“We don’t know where this gas is made. Maybe in America,” said to the audience which was apparently unable to recognize Rishmawi’s story for what it is – an utter fabrication, the product of a malevolent imagination with absolutely no evidence to support it.

FOSNA’s playwright and muse is Anglican Priest Naim Ateek, founder of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, a Jerusalem-based group largely responsible for the divestment campaign in Protestant churches. This campaign designed to isolate Israel both economically and politically, has garnered wide support in the leadership of mainline Protestant churches that routinely affirm their support for a two-state solution, just as long as the Jewish State is free of any and all imperfections.

Given Ateek’s theology, one has to wonder how he has been able to gather such a wide following in liberal Protestant churches, with some regarding him as the next Desmond Tutu. Ateek’s “theology” embraces the old anti-Jewish teachings that every responsible church—Protestant and Catholic—has officially renounced fifty years ago. Ateek is still mired in the hateful past and is an embarrassment to anyone knowledgeable with contemporary Christian theology and thinking. N ot only does Ateek deny Israel's right to exist, he traffics in anti-Judaic imagery that has been taboo since the Holocaust. And when Ateek writes to his Muslim countrymen in Arabic he offers words of support for their fight against Israel.

Ateek's explicitly denies the Jewish people's right to self-determination in their homeland. In 1989, Ateek wrote in Justice and Only Justice that he begrudgingly accepts Israel's existence—"although not its right—to exist." The passage of time has not softened his stance. In a September 2005 meeting with Jewish leaders from the U.S., Ateek refused to back down from his denial of Israel's right to exist and even asserted that if the Jewish State had to have been created, it should not have been created in biblical lands after the Holocaust, but some place else – Germany for example.

In Chicago, Ateek changed his script a bit, telling the audience that Sabeel is a bridge-building organization that supports the creation of a Palestinian State alongside Israel and not as a replacement, but this message was undercut by Michael Tarazi, a Palestinian-American lawyer who serves as legal advisor to the Palestinian Authority. Not only did Tarazi tell the audience that a two-state solution to the Arab/Israeli conflict is unworkable, except maybe as an interim arrangement, he encouraged American churches pursuing divestment to refrain from dialoguing with Jews in the U.S.

Another bit of evidence that Sabeel’s commitment to a two-state solution is not a matter of principle, but a provisional offering to make the rest of its agenda more palatable to American audience came from an article published by the Chicago Tribune which described Ateek describing his group as supporting a two-state solution “for the time being.”

Sabeel’s credentials as a peace organization are undercut by Ateek’s efforts to portray Judaism as a malevolent force that poses a threat greater than Islamic fundamentalism. For example in a 2001 sermon, Ateek stated: “Our Old Testament mentions the dictum ‘love your neighbor as yourself. Unfortunately, in classical Judaism it has been narrowly defined as being limited to loving one’s own fellow Jew.”

This is tame compared to his other writings. In his 2001 Easter Message, Ateek wrote the “Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily” and likened the occupation to the stone blocking Christ's tomb. In a February 2001 sermon, Ateek compared Israeli officials to Herod (the baby killer). The implication is undeniable: Israel is a baby- and Christ-killing nation that stands in the way of humanity’s salvation.

Given the role this imagery has played in promoting violence against Jews, and its use in reference to the Jewish state is inexcusable. Ateek’s language lends credence to themes of Muslim anti-Semitism now pervading the Middle East. Ateek’s writings bear unmistakable echoes of Islamic portrayals of Jews as prophet killers.

The failure of American churches to condemn Ateek’s crucifixion imagery becomes even more appalling when this imagery is read against the backdrop of his writings in Arabic to his fellow Palestinians. In a letter Sept. 30, 2000 Ateek wrote that the Dome of the rock is “the sole property of the Islamic, Arabic speaking Palestinians, which is the holiest shrine of Muslims in Palestine and it is a shame if anybody desecrates it or even touches it.” Moreoever, he cheered the Muslims in “defending their holiest shrine as we cheer our Palestinian people in all our countries.” Here, Ateek is clearly feeding into Muslim efforts to erase Jewish, and by extension, Christian connections to Jerusalem.

This is not the language of a peacemaker, but of a man intent on using the language of Christian witness as a weapon of war against Israel.

Those churches who are truly interested inpromoting the welfare of the Palestinian people without demonizingIsraelshould look elsewhere forguidance about the Arab/Israeli conflict. Sabeel is no friend ofIsrael. It is no friend of peace.Hidden in its rhetoric is the path to more violence andhostility.

Dexter Van Zile is Christian Outreach Director for the David Project Center for Jewish Leadership and a member of the United Church of Christ.

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