My first blog, ‘A bias thicker than faith’ marvelled at the paradox of Christians who side with their Palestinian persecutors. Christians, we can agree, have every reason to be pro-Israel. Why then do so many hate Israel? To get to the answer come with me to a reality show staged at Christendom’s cradle.
It was in and around Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, in April 2002, where three faiths assembled, if not for the apocalyptic showdown then for a 39-day drama which had a world audience glued to its seats. In the amphitheatre of Manger Squarea sound and light show played for 936 hours onto the church complex where one of the contesting faiths was born. Around a hundred Palestinian gunmen, fleeing an Israeli anti-terror round-up, ran into the church, trusting that the Jews with their guns and tanks would never dare to open fire. The gunmen figured well. The Israeli force took up positions around the complex, and waited. Inside the church the gunmen included many wanted terror-masterminds: from Tanzim, Hamas and Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade who had planned suicide bombings and other attacks. People of various callings, around 200, were trapped with the gunmen: nuns and priests, ordinary men women children. Hostage negotiators tried but failed to secure their release. At the end of the 39 day stalemate mediators concluded a deal. Some of the gunmen (13) would be deported to different European countries, others (26) transported to the Gaza Strip, and the remaining gunmen were free to go. The clerics and men women children came out and an army of newsmen with cameras closed in. The global audience watched enthralled as the freed hostages told how the gunmen had used pages of the Bible for toilet paper; how they plied themselves to the stockpile of victuals ‘like greedy monsters,’ before food ran out and the hostages went hungry; how the gunmen guzzled beer and wine and Johnny Walker scotch scavenged from the clerics’ living quarters. Meanwhile Israeli forces were recovering 40 grenades in the church.
So at the end of 39 days the curtain dropped on The Siege of Manger Square. A grande production; but we’re after something different: Israel -loathing Christology. For that we must skip to the aftermath when a Christian movement got born; when a ‘global advocacy week on the situation in Palestine’ was held; when a publicity flyer was created; and when a stirring Easter sermon was delivered. All these events followed on the heels of the frenetic sound and light spectacle. But there are some familiar and not so familiar names to slip in at this point. One is the World Council of Churches (WCC), the others two aligned bodies, SABEEL and EAPPI. Pooling their activities we may extract worthwhile lessons from the Bethlehem drama. But it would seem right to announce a birth before anything else. EAPPI, fathered by the fertile siege is the acronym of ‘Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme for Palestine and Israel.’ It brings volunteers (not tourists) to the Holy Land, puts them at key observational points (Israeli check points do nicely), and inculcates impressionable minds with examples of the inhumanity of God’s one-time chosen people. It also, when the occasion demands, teams up with the Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center – Sabeel, an Arab word for ‘the way;’ or ‘a channel’ or even a ‘spring.’ Working out of Jerusalem the founder, Rev. Naim Ateek, is a Palestinian Anglican priest, formerly Canon of St. George’s Cathedral in that city. He and Sabeel aim to ‘promote a more accurate international awareness regarding the identity, presence and witness of Palestinian Christians as well as their contemporary concerns.’ Our ears prick. Have we not stumbled on a Christian NGO making the world sit up to the persecution of Christian Arabs? But no – we find that Naim Ateek has a steely eye fixed on another faith entirely – on the Jews. He and Sabeel have been front runners in the campaign to isolate and delegitimize Israel through the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement.
After introductions we are ready to put the mix together: Jews in battle kit, men of the cloth and dungareed, gun-toting Islamic hostage-takers. They meet in a publicity flyer for an advocacy week under the banner of the WCC. If dates matter we are in March 12th, 2006. But it’s the flyer that demands our full attention. Two photographs, from the Siege of Manger Square, catch the eye. One is an Israeli tank, with canon aimed at the church; the other is of the partly concealed by smoke church complex. Looking at this flyer one would never suspect that gunmen were holed up in the complex with a couple of hundred priests, nuns and laypeople, good Christians all. The bald message conveyed is quite different. We are given to believe that Christendom’s holiest of holy sites was set upon by Israel. And the flyer’s text, with a heartfelt plea, adds to the visual idea. “We appeal to the world’s church leaders to pray and act to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians as a consequence of the extremely harsh measures and policies imposed by the Israeli occupying forces.” The Jews, we are to understand, launched an unprovoked attack on two faiths. Juggernaut Judaism at war with Islam and Christendom!
We come now to the Easter message – an important one for the road we’re taking. Naim Ateek, in the metaphorical style that would reappear in his flyer, worked in a leitmotif of the Passion – indeed of two Passions: “It seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him. … The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily”.
I am compelled to interrupt his muse to throw a new image into the vat we’re boiling and stirring. The cartoon, though not Naim Ateek’s, resonates with his crucifying-crazed Jews.
What lessons can we draw from the Jew-victim on the cross?
A couple of things, if we look for them. One is a clever propaganda tactic, the other some old theology; and the two dovetail perfectly. Yasser Arafat the icon’s right-hand woman will take the propaganda lesson. Attend to Hannan Ashrawi as she reworks the New Testament to establish her people in history books. ‘Jesus was a Palestinian.’ The quirkiness of her claim is not important. We must not be sidetracked by her failure to connect the claim to the Gospel narrative of Joseph and Mary, the Jewish couple on their way to sacrifice at the holy temple. And skip the problem why a Palestinian Jesus would celebrate the Jewish Passover (his Last Supper); or how the Gospels nowhere employ the word ‘Palestine’ but refer to where Jesus lived by the name, ‘Judaea, the land of the Jews. We may equally ignore Hannan Ashrawi’s self-entrapment in her spidery web; because if the Jews had no history in ‘Palestine’ (the article of faith drummed into young heads in the school curriculum, and reiterated on public platforms) how could she, like Naim Ateek, blame the Jews for persecuting her people as they had persecuted Jesus?
No; it’s not the quirkiness of the Jew-victim fable that’s important. It’s the lesson that the Palestinian camp, under theological license from the church, conflates Palestinian suffering with Jesus on the cross. We’re dealing then with a pair of canards: The Jews hounded Jesus to his death and, as gratuitously, they now persecute the Palestinians.
But let Naim Ateek go on with his biblical metaphors. We need to understand how it is that churchmen will punt for a people engaged in making Palestinewholly Muslim; churchmen like Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Meridiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
You will know of the scandal that embroiled Catholics in child abuse. Cardinal Meridiaga blamed it all on the Jews – how? The Vatican is anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian, he argued, so it followed that Jews had to get even with the Catholic Church. And by milking the scandal for all it’s worth, the Jews deflected attention away from their crimes in Palestine. They achieved all this by manipulating the media which they, of course, controlled. It’s not a clever new postulate because blaming the Jews, especially for the crimes of others, always was on the Jew-hater’s calling card. But the Cardinal’s honest and open hatred of Israeland support for its enemy is new. The enemy of his enemy is his friend, no matter that the friend wants Christianity, with Judaism, stamped out. When did other clerics admit to bias and bigotry instead of dressing up in humanitarian clothes? Now the veil is off the anomaly of Christians who punt for their persecutors. They have not really stood reason on its head. It only looked that way because we were missing a belief system that hooked them up from behind.
So we bid Naim Ateek go on; we should like him to bring us to that belief system, if he can. ‘Israel has placed a large boulder, a big stone that has metaphorically shut off the Palestinians in a tomb. It is similar to the stone placed on the entrance of Jesus’ tomb…’
If you are not stirred, Dexter Van Zille was. The Outreach Director for the David Project Center for Jewish Leadership in Boston wrote to the President of the United Church of Christ (UCC): ‘I am compelled, along with many others, to ask that the church rethink its support for Naim Ateek, founder and director of Sabeel. I feel uncomfortable with Ateek’s repeated use of deicide imagery. This is clearly intended to evoke feelings of hatred for Israel as a Jewish state… and not, as he and his defenders assert, merely an attempt to portray Palestinian suffering in ‘the language of the Cross.’ I also want to alert the UCC that Ateek on numerous occasions, declared that he does not acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and that he repeats the canard that Israel should have been created in Europe, not in the Middle East.’
Van Zille, with colleague Robert Everett, had studied that body well. Their study ‘showed that (Sabeel) is a major factor in extremist Christian anti-Israel activism. Statements consistently highlight Palestinian suffering and place blame on Israel, while ignoring such issues as corruption within the Palestinian Authority, violence perpetrated against Israelis and Palestinians alike by armed Palestinian militias, and attacks against Christian Arabs. It also described how …Naim Ateek employed classic anti-Semitic theological themes.
Greek Orthodox Helen Thomas, even with her lost status, can push our developing argument along. Before being fired the White House Press Corps member of 57 years told the Jews ‘to get the hell out of Palestine. (The Palestinian people) are occupied, and it’s their land; Israelis should go home – to Poland, Germany, America and everywhere.’
What is this but admonishment of the unchosen people for disregarding the Lord’s decree? Thinks Helen Thomas whilst haranguing the Jews: You were exiled by God from the land He gave you. Go back to where you came from, to the broken nation the Lord meant you to be: a wandering witness people, living in misery, daily demonstrating the truth of the New Testament you rejected. God meant for you to be permanently exiled, so get the hell out!
It was Augustine in the fourth century who made the exile of the Jews a matter of theological proof. Long after him, Pope Pious X, while giving an audience to Theodore Herzl in 1904, reiterated Augustine’s dogma. ‘The Jews, who should have been the first to acknowledge Jesus Christ, have not done so to this day. And so if you come to Palestine and settle your people there, we will be ready with churches and priests to baptize all of you.’ A Jesuit journal at the time explained that the Jewish people ‘must always live dispersed and vagrant among the other nations so that they may render witness to Christ by their very existence.’
So, the Vatican’s refusal to recognize the new state ofIsrael in 1948 was not a matter of pro-Arab bias, but a matter of dogma. The likes of Sabeel and EAPPI, the WCC, Tutu, Presbyterians, the Orthodox Church, etc, think in Helen Thomas’ words. Get the hell out; return to being the witness wanderers the Lord meant you to be.
Observe that Israel’s rise from Holocaust ashes equally troubles secular anti-Zionists, who find it difficult to come to terms with the military Jew. When were Jews meant to be stronger than their would-be exterminators? The stereotype of the pre-Israel Jew – that bearded bookish stateless wanderer – should never have evolved into a mean machine. What a vinegary mind activists turn on it, what sourball gaze at the juggernaut Jew. Get the hell out! Go back to your natural born fate!
With the same thing in mind BDS Christians look to punish the unchosen people. ‘Your destiny was never to make the desert bloom; to build a Tel Aviv of Manhattan skyscrapers; to win Nobel Prizes by the wheelbarrow full; to boast a bustling high-tech economy with a currency stronger than Europe’s.’
The pores of Israel-hating Christians leak not envy but error: the faith-losing error of dogma. Hence the driver of Christian angst and bluster towards Christian-friendly Israel: the spoilage of the plot, the shattering of the icon.