Autumn tours of North America may become an annual ritual for rabidly anti-Israel Naim Ateek, the founder and director of the Jerusalem-based Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. Following an October 2004 “exclusive” Canadian speaking tour, Ateek this month is attacking Israel in a series of U.S. church conferences before heading to a World Council of Churches gathering in Toronto, Canada.
This year’s anti-Israel barrage began in Chicago on October 7 and 8 at Hyde Park’s Lutheran School of Theology, where several Sabeel proponents held that the time for a two-state solution has past. Besides for that, Sabeel and Ateek are champions of a broad Israel-divestment campaign and advocates of replacement theology. Indeed, their work parallels that of other fraudulent peace groups, which also ultimately seek Israel’s dissolution.
While Sabeel in April 2004 ostensibly called for two states—Israel and Palestine—the group at the same conference contended that “the ideal and best solution has always been to envisage ultimately a bi-national state in Palestine-Israel where people are free and equal, living under a constitutional democracy that protects and guarantees all their rights, responsibilities, and duties without racism or discrimination – one state for two nations and three religions.”
The same two-faced pattern applied in Chicago, where Ateek described Sabeel as a non-violent organization seeking a Palestinian state alongside Israel—but then disparaged Christian Zionists. “We believe the Bible has been used as an instrument of oppression,” he said. Next, Harvard-educated Palestinian Authority legal adviser Michael Tarazi openly contended that a two-state solution will no longer work. Many others agreed.
In short, Ateek and Sabeel believe that while 22 Arab and 57 Muslim nations have unceremoniously expelled or excluded Jews and discriminated harshly against Christians, the Jewish people should not have a Jewish state in Israel, even one that gives full citizenship and rights to Christians and some 1 million mostly Muslim Arabs.
Tarazi went on to describe Israel’s separation barrier as a consequence of Israeli greed for more land, but failed to note that ceaseless terrorism and suicide attacks made the fence necessary, much less that the barrier has saved countless lives. Tarazi encouraged the crowd to support “morally responsible divestment” as the “only way to hold Israel accountable.”
He described Israel’s Gaza withdrawal as a “meaningless concession,” calling that territory as “the largest open air prison in the world.” He termed Israeli policies as “ethnic cleansing.” He also derided the offer of land at Camp David in 2000: “Isn’t it weird that they never showed you a map,” he asked rhetorically, ignoring the clear outlines of a map offered for a Palestinian state, according to negotiator Dennis Ross.
Also in Chicago on October 7, International Solidarity Movement co-founder George Rishmawi claimed that Israel uses special gas to impair the musculature of Palestinians, making them easier to arrest, according to StandWithUs activists and Evangelical Lutheran Dexter Van Zile, a United Church of Christ (UCC) member and Executive Director of the Judeo Christian Alliance, who attended the two-day meeting. When asked the name of the gas, Rishmawi skirted the issue, claiming that the Israel Defense Forces always quickly collect gas canisters so that no one will know what chemical is used. Rishmawi is well-known for his espousal of Christian jihad ideology, disseminated through both the ISM and the Rapprochement Center.
Rishmawi’s patently false charge (which nevertheless went unchallenged) parallels several other blood libels against Israel, including a 1983 incident in which Palestinian doctors falsely alleged that Israel had poisoned students en masse at several girls’ schools. As Professor Raphael Israeli carefully shows in Poison, that case was conclusively proven to be one of mass hysteria—although the international mainstream media never corrected the record.
Sabeel’s Chicago speakers included several other well-known Israel bashers too. According to both the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Abunimah, Ali Abunimah, a Sabeel board member, the co-founder of Electronic Intifada and vice president of the Arab-American Action Network, spearheaded a successful effort to have Investigative Project Director Steven Emerson banned from National Public Radio. In Chicago on October 7, Abunimah said “You cannot make a case for what Israel is doing because Israel will always lose the argument. So there is no discussion and the struggle will continue.”
Abunimah simply does not accept Israel’s right to statehood, much less the equal rights of Jews. “Ending the occupation does not solve the problem,” he said. “The Jews do not view all human beings as equal. The 1948 borders were calculated to harm Christians, Arabs, Palestinians and Muslims.”
Tel Aviv University Professor Yigal Bronner describes himself as a “conscientious objector who sat in military prison last year for refusing to serve in the occupied territories” and contributed to Alexander Cockburn’s anti-Israel and anti-Semitic Politics of Anti-Semitism. He too predictably disparaged Israel, showing the perfunctory anti-Israel images, including photos of Palestinians crossing through security checkpoints.
Among the church, Jewish and African American organizations present were Churches for Middle East Peace, American Friends Service Committee, Tikkun, the Lutheran Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Wheat Ridge Ministries, August Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem, International Solidarity Movement, Peace Not Walls, the Committee for Peace and Justice in Palestine, Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine, Americans for Middle East Understanding, American Educational Trust, Jews for Peace in Palestine and Black Voices for Peace.
According to the NGO Monitor, reliable funding information is unavailable for Sabeel, “but support is apparently provided by church-based groups in North America and Europe, including the Mennonite Central Committee.” Indeed, the Friends of Sabeel North America reported in its August newsletter that “Gifts and pledges from $500, $1,000, $2,500, $5000 and more are providing the funding needed for years to come.” Donations are taxpayer-supported in the U.S. The North American FOS has a Canadian, unit; the group also has Australian, U.K., Scandanavian and International branches.
The extent of Sabeel’s U.S. and international support should concern Christians and Jews alike. In addition to seeking an end to Israel, the organization mourns the “loss” of master terrorist Yasser Arafat and excuses suicide bombing: While easy to “quickly and forthrightly condemn it as a primitive and barbaric form of terrorism against civilians,” Ateek wrote in the summer of 2002, people of conscience must understand that “the phenomenon of suicide bombings …arises from the deep misery and torment of many Palestinians.” He blames the phenomenon entirely on Israel’s “illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories.” But now, according to Abunimah, discussing the occupation is no longer an Arab cause. In other words, Arabs will understandably continue suicide bombings in Israel until they take the entire land.
Sabeel’s position on suicide bombing fails to explain its frequent occurrence in Iraq, much less in Britain, Indonesia, Turkey or elsewhere. Then again, not only is Sabeel opposed to the war against terrorism in Iraq, but the organization actually argues that the “extremist elements in the governments of Israel and the United States,” are “presently seeking to impose their unilateral preemptive strategies and militaristic rule over others, including Palestine and Iraq.” Forget Saddam Hussein. Israel, according to this view, is partly responsible for the conflict. Furthermore, in Chicago, Sabeel speakers blamed the attacks on September 11 2001 on Israel’s “intransigence” concerning the establishment of a Palestinian state. “When the next 911 happens look to Israel for the cause,” said Tazari, a point with which several others concurred.
At times, the out-and-out Jew-hatred advanced in Chicago even came from Jews themselves. Baylor University professor of American and Jewish Studies Marc Ellis, for example, gave a power-point presentation featuring photographs of a Torah scroll superimposed with pictures of Israeli tanks and helicopters and Palestinians climbing over Israel’s security barrier. “He delegitimized everything Jewish,” says Allyson Rowen Taylor, a western region American Jewish Congress Associate Director who attended. “He said that now, when he reads the Torah to his son, he is afraid. When he sees the Torah taken from the Arc [in a Jewish sanctuary], he is afraid, and he has taught his son to feel the same way. He is basically indoctrinating every Christian at Baylor” to accept classic anti-Semitic portrayals of Jews.
Citing Richard Rubenstein’s landmark book, After Auschwitz,—which brought laughter from the audience of 200—Ellis rhetorically asked, “What can Jews say about the covenant after Auschwitz” and then sarcastically answered his own question. “It’s broken. There is a necessity for Jews to have power, … and Israel is an embodiment of that power. No one can ever tell Jews how to have power. They dictate.” As Ellis sees things, Israel’s victory in the Six Day War was sinful since the Jewish state’s weaponry was superior to that of its enemies—even though they hoped to consign Israel’s Jewish population to another Holocaust. Now, he says, in reference to the 613 good deeds required by Jewish law, the “614th commandment” is that “Jews cannot let Hitler win.” He sees Jews in Hitler’s role.
Not everyone in the mainstream North American church establishments is happy with these positions. The National Council of Churches hailed as a success its September trip to Israel with of a delegation from American Jewish communities. The groups’ visit to Sabeel’s Ateek left some UCC members cold, however. The UCC Truths website cites a September Anti-Defamation League report that lays responsibility for the divestment campaigns of “a few mainline churches” including UCC at Sabeel’s door. “Unfortunately, the story many in the UCC hear about Ateek and the Sabeel Center is incomplete and ignores [their] anti-Semitism….” The website also bemoans UCC sponsorship of this year’s conference in Canada.
Ateek told the September conferees that Israel should have been founded in Munich, Germany after World War Two and not the Holy Land. When challenged concerning his replacement theology, Ateek effectively suggested that Christians have a right to tell their own story, the Jewish people be damned.
But these Palestinian Christians—who behave with the classic dhimmitude of victims of Muslim aggression—go far beyond telling the “Christian” story, says UCC member Dexter Van Zile. “Look, the deicide imagery has been taboo since the Holocaust,” he says. “Ateek is not just telling the Palestinian story. He’s telling the Israeli story as well, and if he is truly interested in peace he would never use that language. He would know that that language is deeply troubling to Jews and many many Christians.”