by Dexter Van Zile
The Methodist Church of Great Britain is currently holding its annual conference in Portsmouth, England. At the conference, which began on June 24, 2010, delegates will vote on a report about the Arab-Israeli conflict titled â€œJustice for Palestine and Israel.â€
The 50-plus page report calls on Methodists in Great Britain to embrace the Kairos Document issued by Palestinian Christian leaders late last year and to participate in a boycott of Israeli goods produced in the West Bank. The arguments used to justify these actions are similar to those offered in statements and resolutions about the Arab-Israeli conflict offered by mainline churches in the U.S. during the past decade.
The document subjects Israeli policy and Jewish self-understanding to intense scrutiny but offers nary a word of criticism of the anti-Semitic ideologies used to justify violence against Israel and to deny its right to exist. The report also puts forth a narrative in which Israel can bring a unilateral end to the conflict through concessions and withdrawals without acknowledging that such actions have not worked in the past.
In sum, the report takes the anti-Zionist narrative put forth by Israel’s adversaries in the Middle East, repackages it a bit, and then offers it up for approval to Methodists in England in the guise of fair-minded analysis and peacemaking.
On this score, the document provides more insight about its authors than it does the conflict they are purportedly trying to end. In particular, the document reveals its authors are obsessed with Israeli use of force and indifferent to the ideologically and theologically motivated hostility toward Jews and Israel that afflicts many quarters of the Middle East.
As expressions of anti-Semitism become increasingly prevalent throughout the world, particularly in Europe, the authors of this document have seen fit to fan the flames by portraying the Jewish state as the primary source of conflict in the Middle East and the world.
In this context, Israel’s supporters, particularly those who are Jewish, become complicit in the suffering of the world by supporting the Jewish self-determination. Under the logic of the narrative offered in this report, Jewish sovereignty itself becomes a great obstacle to human rights and peace in the Middle East and its supporters, enemies of mankind.
Like the anti-war socialists in pre-World War II France, the authors of this report have chosen to view the Jewish people through the eyes of their enemies in the apparent belief that the Jews must have done something to deserve the enmity of fascists who seek their destruction, with the Methodist report being their effort to tell us exactly what. This mind set is described by Paul Berman in his 2003 text, Terror and Liberalism (W.W. Norton and Company). Berman writes:
The anti-war Socialists wanted to know: why shouldn’t the French government show a little flexibility in the face of Hitler’s demands? Why not recognize that some of Hitler’s points were well taken? Why not look for ways to conciliate the outraged German people and, in that way, to conciliate the Nazis? (Page 125)
In a desire to avoid the next Verdun, Berman writes, French socialists went out of their way to root hostility toward the Jews in the behavior of Jews themselves. Stirred by the â€œantique ideaâ€ that people are universally motivated by notions of Western rationalism, â€œanti-war Socialists gazed across the Rhine and simply refused to believe that millions of upstanding Germans had enlisted in a political movement whose animating principles were paranoid conspiracy theories, blood-curdling hatreds, medieval superstitions, and the lure of murder.â€ Berman continues:
At Auschwitz the SS said, â€œHere there is no why.â€ The anti-war socialists in France believed no such thing. In their eyes, there was always a why.
Hitler and the Nazis ranted about the Jews, yes, and the rants were medieval, and the tones of hatred and superstition grated on the ear. Still, the anti-war Socialists wanted to understand their enemies and not simply dismiss themâ€”everyone wanted to seek out whatever was comprehensible, the points on which everyone could agree. And so listening to the Nazis make their wildest speeches, the anti-war Socialists, in a thoughtful mood, asked themselves what is anti-Semitism anyway. Does every single criticism of the Jews reflect the superstitions of the Middle Ages? (Page 126).
This habit of mind, Berman reports, was embraced by intellectuals in the West confronted with suicide attacks against Israel during the Second Intifada. These attacks were motivated by a violent mass movement that regarded death as its goal, Berman reports, but this reality â€œseemed unthinkableâ€ to many people in the West.
And, all over the world, the temptation became great, became irresistible, to conclude that, no, the world remains a rational place, and pathological movements do not exist, and slanderers are weaving lies on behalf of narrow material interests. No, suicide terror must beâ€”it has to be, perhaps in ways invisible to the naked eyeâ€”a rational response to real life conditions. (Pages 133-134)
This temptation is clearly present in the Methodist report. And in order to make their story work, the authors of the Methodist report ignore Arab and Muslim misdeeds in the Middle East and the ideas that motivate them and focus almost exclusively on Israeli actions and their impacts on Palestinians.
The report was created by a working group established at the 2009 meeting of the Methodist Conference. The working group was comprised of a number of Methodist clergy, college lecturers and regular travelers to the Middle East (including one member of Sabeel). This group was charged with creating a report that outlined the British Methodist Church’s understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In creating this report, the working group was expected to take into consideration previous statements issued by the church, statements from church leaders in Jerusalem, the context of recent fighting, and international law and â€œhuman rights instruments.â€
Israeli Withdrawals = â€œPeaceâ€
The central theme of the Methodist document is quite similar to what mainline Protestants in the U.S. have said over the past decade: The Arab-Israeli conflict is the consequence of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. It states this premise as follows:
For this report, the key hindrance to security and a lasting peace for all in the region is the Occupation of Palestinian territory by the State of Israel, now in its fifth decade. This will be the central focus of the report, drawing on the witness of Israelis and Palestinians; Jews, Christians and Muslims. (Page 180)
The report also uses offers a one-sided discussion of Christian and Jewish theology to subject Israeli territorial claims to intense scrutiny, but says nothing about Muslim theology and Arab ideology about Jewish sovereignty in the Middle East.
The implication is that if Israel were to withdraw from territory expected to be part of a future Palestinian state, peace would ensue. This fails to take into account an enduring and troubling reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict â€“ that Israeli withdrawals have often been a precursor to increased violence. Israel has been attacked from nearly every bit of territory from which it has withdrawn since the 1990s.
After Israel withdrew its soldiers from cities and towns in the West Bank in the 1990s, these very same cities and towns became recruiting grounds for suicide bombers during the Second Intifada. After Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah attacked Israel from this country six years later. And after Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, it was attacked by Hamas the following year. Given these realities, how can the working group insist that the occupation is the â€œkey hindrance to peace in the regionâ€?
And on this score, exactly what does the working group mean with the phrase â€œpeace in the regionâ€? The entire Middle East? Exactly how can Israel’s presence in the West Bank be blamed for violence in say, Iraq?
On page 221 of the report, the working group reveals just how central the Arab-Israeli conflict is to their narrative of suffering in the Middle East by calling on countries to refrain from supplying arms to either the Palestinians or the Israelis because of the â€œimportance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in affecting the peace of the whole Middle East, not to say the peace of the worldâ€¦â€
By arguing that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory is the cause of the conflict and then asserting that this conflict undermines the prospects for peace in â€œthe whole Middle East, not to say the peace of the worldâ€ the working group has lent legitimacy to the anti-Semitic trope of the Jews being the cause of the world’s wars.
At no point does the working group even consider the possibility that it’s not Israel that is the source of violence, but the obsession with the Jews and their state that is the destabilizing factor in the Middle East. By embracing a Judeo-centric view of history in the Middle East, the working group has denied Arab and Muslim leaders in the Middle East of their moral agency and responsibility for the decisions they have made over the past 60-plus years.
This does not qualify as responsible Christian witness.
To its credit, the working group includes a condemnation of supersessionism in its document:
Particularly relevant for reflection on Israel/Palestine is a theology of supersessionism, whereby some have believed that the Church has succeeded the Jewish people as the New Israel and inherited all the promises previously made by God. Not only would this view seem to invalidate completely any claim on the land by the Jewish community but there is also a recognition that sometimes this doctrine has led to a perverse tradition within Christianity of anti-Judaism and possibly even anti-Semitism and has sometimes resulted in the charge of â€˜Christ-killer’ being the justification for pogrom, murder, discrimination and Holocaust against the Jewish people throughout Europe. No post-Holocaust Christian theology can fail to deal with this ugly legacy especially given the foundational connection between the Shoah and the creation of the modern State of Israel. (Pages 185-186)
This statement could have been used as a spring board to address the issues related to Muslim teachings regarding the Jewish people, but these issues are not addressed anywhere in the document. Christianity does not have a monopoly on theologically and scripturally based hostility toward the Jews, but for some reason the working group acts as if it does.
The issue of Muslim anti-Semitism in the Middle East, and the role it plays in fomenting hostility toward Jews and Israel in the region is not even mentioned in the report.
This issue has attracted much attention in the years since 9/11, but it was well documented before the attack. For example, in Past Trials and Present Tribulations: A Muslim Fundamentalist’s View of the Jews (New York: Pergamon Press, 1987) Ronald L. Nettler details how Egyptian scholar Sayyid Qutb retrieved early conceptions of Jews in Muslim scriptures, particularly the Koran, to portray modern Jews as enemies of God, Islam, and Middle Eastern civilization in his seminal essay “Our Struggle with the Jews.” In Qutb’s writing, Nettler noted, “Muslim personal and communal perspectives toward real Jews draw sustenance and backing from earlier mythology on the subject.”
The treachery and perfidy of Jews is in many quarters a central tenet of Islam’s message in Muslim-majority countries, just as it was – and perhaps still is – part of the Christian kerygma (message of salvation). As Robert Wistrich notes in A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad (New York: Random House, 2009), “Such statements are not marginal or unusual in the Arab-Muslim world, they are mainstream.â€ Wistrich adds that such archetypes are “projected onto the State of Israel and Zionism far more often than is generally assumed.” By failing to take these issues seriously, the working group renders its criticism of Christian supersessionism meaningless.
One half of the world’s Jews live in a region dominated by adherents of the Muslim religion. In light of this reality, one has to ask, what’s the point of condemning Christian supersessionism and the anti-Jewish hostility it engenders if one is going to ignore Muslim teachings regarding Jews?
Will it take a mass-killing of Jews in the Middle East for Christian peacemakers to finally put this issue squarely on their agenda?
Have not enough people â€“ Jewish, Arab and Muslim â€“ died already as a result of the hateful ideologies espoused by groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah for Christian peacemakers to address these issues?
How much longer will Christian peacemakers ignore these issues?
Another question needs to be asked. If the working group is truly sincere about confronting Christian supersessionism, then how can it ask the Methodist Church in England to embrace the Kairos Document, which was condemned as a supersessionist and anti-Semitic document by the Central Conference of American Rabbis?
Israel as a â€œParadigm Nationâ€
Further undermining its condemnation of Christian supersessionism, the working group engages in irresponsible theologizing about the Jewish people. It invokes teachings regarding the Holy Land to impose a utopian standard of conduct on Israel while remaining virtually silent about what the Holy Land demands of Israel’s adversaries. To this end, the working group invokes the writings of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. According to the report, the Archbishop views the notion of a homeland for a people of God â€œnot as an end in itself, but â€¦ as necessary for wisdom and justice to flourish.â€ The report continues:
Thus, Israel’s vocation as the paradigm nation, revealing to the rest of humanity how the divine will is to be fulfilled, can be pursued. This accords with Wesleyan understandings of land, namely that land can be no more than the space in which the vocation is practiced. Given this understanding, the modern state of Israel, if it claims also to be the homeland of the ancient Jewish people of God, must take seriously this vocation as the paradigm nation where justice and wisdom are seen to be done. (Page 189)
With this passage, the Methodist working group attempts to justify its intense scrutiny of the behavior of the Jewish state, while giving the behavior of its adversaries â€“ some of whom seek Israel’s destruction â€“ very light treatment. If one is going to affirm Israel’s status as a â€œParadigm Nationâ€ does this not require that the paradigm be used to assess the behavior of all nations and not just Israel? If not, then why demand Israel set the example in the first place?
Clearly, this line of reasoning contradicts the working group’s condemnation of Christian supersessionism.
On this issue, the Methodist document is quite similar to the report issued by the Middle East Study Committee of the Presbyterian Church (USA) which encumbers Jews with obligations while minimizing Muslim obligations to work for justice and peace. (For more detail of this problem scroll to the section titled â€œA Scriptural Millstone for Jews; Permissiveness toward Muslims.â€)
Interestingly enough, a 2004 text written by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, cited to introduce the notion of Israel as a â€œparadigm nation,â€ offers a few caveats that the working group ignored completely. First off, while the working group emphasizes the demands imposed on Jews living in the Holy Land, it never addresses an issue Williams raises about the land itself: â€œ[I]f the land has to be defended by ceaseless struggle which distorts the very fabric of common life, it ceases to be a â€˜sacramental’ mark of God’s calling.â€
Instead of taking Archbishop Williams’ warning into account, the working group asserts Israeli Jews have an obligation to behave as a â€œparadigm nationâ€ without acknowledging the genocidal hostility directed at them by offshoots of the Muslim brotherhood, namely Hamas and Hezbollah.
Methodists reading this argument must ask themselves if the working group is asking Israel to be a â€œparadigm nationâ€ or if it is asking the Jewish state to be the ram in the thicket on Mount Moriah. (Genesis 22:13)
Uneven Testimony, Uneven Scrutiny
In its effort to portray the Arab-Israeli conflict solely as a consequence of Israeli misdeeds, the working group relied heavily on testimony from a variety of sources including Palestinians and Methodists who have traveled to the West Bank under the auspices of the World Council of Churches. This testimony, while moving, does not provide a comprehensive view of the conflict being examined, but instead, encourages readers to view the conflict solely from the perspective of the Palestinians and to view the Palestinian cause as free of the religious zealotry that allegedly afflicts Israel.
One example of this tactic is evident in the story told by Liz Burroughs, who traveled to the West Bank as an â€œecumenical accompanier.â€ At one point, she recounts how she sat with the parents of a teenage boy who had been shot in the head by Israeli police during a peaceful demonstration against the Gaza war.â€ Burroughs reports that â€œnever onceâ€ did she â€œhear this man, a devout Muslim, utter one word against the Israeli soldier who shot his son.â€ (Page 182)
It’s moving testimony, but it does not provide any details that would allow outsiders to determine if in fact the demonstration was peaceful. Where was the protest held? When? Who organized it? Do other reports corroborate Burroughs’ assertion that it was in fact a peaceful protest? These questions are relevant because in many instances, so-called peaceful protests are not so peaceful, with Israeli police being subject to attacks by stone-throwers.
A bigger issue with Burroughs’ testimony is the inference she would have her listeners draw from her story. The implication is that the devout Muslim father who did not utter one word against the soldier who shot his son is somehow emblematic of the entire Palestinian cause. Perhaps Burroughs could listen to the testimony of Hamas spokesman Azzam Tamimi, who predicted Israel’s destruction â€“ in London no less â€“ in front of thousands of supporters in 2009, yelling â€œIsrael has dug its grave. Zionism has dug its grave.â€ He also stated that people can â€œcount the yearsâ€ until the Israeli embassy will be replaced by a Palestinian embassy. â€œThe Zionists, the Zionist flag will come down and the flag of Palestine will go up.â€
This is a persistent problem with testimony from participants of so-called peacemaking programs organized by the Mennonite-founded Christian Peacemaker Teams and the World Council of Churches. Upon their return to their home countries, these activists describe their close personal friendships with the Palestinians and invoke these friendships as proof of the overall good intentions of the Palestinian people.
During their subsequent talks before Western audiences, these activists give inordinate credence to their own experiences, as if the fellowship they enjoy with the Palestinians is somehow relevant to relations between Arab and Jew in the Middle East. Oftentimes these activists, laud the hospitality shown to them by their Arab hosts. (One of the other ecumenical accompaniers quoted in the report does just that.) The inference the reader is to draw is that if the Israelis somehow behaved differently they would be able to elicit the same response from Palestinians.
Do these activists who are sent to the West Bank to gather information about the righteousness of the Palestinian cause and bring it back to their fellow Christians in Great Britain really expect to be shown an accurate and comprehensive view of Palestinian society by her hosts? Here, Burroughs and other self-proclaimed peace activists, and those who would affirm their narrative, need to consider the following issue raised by Kenneth Levin, author of The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of A People Under Seige (Smith and Krauss, 2005):
One can appreciate the humanity of the Palestinian people but also recognize that their leaders have conveyed to them in their media and their schools and their houses of worship the message that they have been stripped of their patrimony by rapacious invaders who have no legitimate right to any part of Palestine and that only the extirpation of the Zionist state will satisfy the demands of justice and so they must dedicate themselves to that end. (Levin, page 281)
The image of a devout Muslim father responding with great dignity to the suffering of his son is quite moving, but by itself, does not provide readers with the type of information readers need to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict.
To be sure, the report does acknowledge Israeli security concerns in its description of the â€œcycle of fearâ€ between Israelis and Palestinians. It even provides testimony from the victims of an Palestinian suicide bombing (page 217). The narrative accompanying this testimony is linked, however to a description of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s writings about Jewish claims to the land of Israel. Here is what the working group reports about Israeli security measures:
The Israeli government has frequently said that such actions as we have described above are for security reasons and are necessary because many Israelis live with a real fear of what Palestinians might do to them. Suicide bombings, bus bombings and rocket attacks have involved indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population.
Such bombings have made government and people very wary of the Palestinian presence. This fear, placed along side the religious attitude that Jews have a right to ownership of the land presently belonging to the Palestinians, as well as an historical political belief going back to Ze’ev Jabotinskly in their right to the whole of the â€œLand of Israelâ€, has given rise to the considerable internal support for the actions the Israeli government has taken. (Page 217-218)
In addition to failing to take into account that Israel has been repeatedly attacked from territory from which it has withdrawn (which goes a long way toward explaining Israeli policies), the working group links support for Israeli policies to religious belief and extremist politics. The working group fails to report, however, that a strong majority of the Israeli people support continued negotiations with the Palestinians â€“ despite the history of post-withdrawal attacks on Israel. And the historical summary of the document (analyzed below) fails to even mention the 2000 Camp David negotiations in which Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians a state of their own on all of the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank, an offer which Yassir Arafat rejected and to which he refused to make a counter offer.
Through omissions like this, the working group exaggerates the role political and religious extremism plays in determining Israeli policy and ignores altogether the role theology and ideology plays in fomenting hostility toward the notion of Jewish sovereignty in Palestinian and Arab societies.
Such a strategy is frankly deceptive and fools no one.
Historical Omissions and Distortions
Given the distorted manner in which the working group addresses the â€œtheopoliticalâ€ realities of life in the Middle East, it should come as no surprise that the report deals with the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict in a distorted manner. For example, the working groups historical chronology makes no mention of the role Haj-Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem played in the Holocaust.
As documented in numerous websites and books, including Jennie Lebel’s The Mufti of Jerusalem: Haj-Amin el-Husseini and National Socialism, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, courted the Nazi regime in his effort to keep Jews from Palestine. As a result of his relationship he recruited Bosnian Muslims to serve in Waffen SS units in 1943. These units were responsible for the murder of Jews in Croatia and Hungary, and as a result, Yugoslavia called for the Grand Mufti to be charged with war crimes for his recruiting efforts, but he escaped prosecution by fleeing to Egypt in 1946.
In addition to blocking deals that would have saved Jewish children from the death camps, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem also worked to spread Nazi propaganda into the Middle East and Muslim world through radio broadcasts and leaflets. Echoes of this propaganda have become an enduring aspect of religious and political discourse in the Middle East, most notably in the outlook of the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoot organizations, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Clearly, this is a relevant and instructive bit of history. Why is there no mention of it in the working group’s report?
And while the report emphasizes attacks perpetrated by Jewish paramilitary organizations in 1947, it makes no reference to numerous Arab attacks on Jews in the months before Israel declared independence in 1948.
The chronology also gives light treatment to calls for the destruction of the Jewish state by Arab leaders in 1948. Instead of acknowledging that the leaders of five Arab countries declared war on Israel and promised its destruction, the working group merely reports that in 1949, â€œseveral Arab countries attempted to intervene in support of the Palestinians.â€ (Page 195). This is a pretty antiseptic way to describe Arab efforts to destroy the Jewish state. Exactly what does the working group believe would have happened to the Jews in Israel if this â€œinterventionâ€ had succeeded?
The working group addresses the issue of refugees in a one-sided and distorted manner. It reports that 750,000 Palestinians were â€œforced from their countryâ€ by Zionist â€œmilitary pressure.â€ To be sure, some Palestinians were expelled, but not all 750,000. Arab leaders called on many Arabs to leave Palestine to make way for Israel’s destruction. CAMERA analyst Gilead Ini writes:
Palestinian leaders â€¦ explicitly instructed Palestinians to leave their homes. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseini, told a delegation of Haifa Arabs in January 1948 that they should “remove the women and children from the danger areas in order to reduce the number of casualties,” and continued to encourage evacuations in the months that followed. Indeed, just a few months later, when Haifa’s British, Jewish and Arab leadership were working to negotiate a truce, the Arab side, in line with the Mufti’s orders but to the great surprise of everyone involved, insisted on a complete evacuation of all Arab residents.
Similarly, the national Palestinian leadership (or “Arab Higher Committee”) published a pamphlet in March 1948 urging the evacuation of women, children and the elderly from areas affected by the fighting. The local Palestinian leadership (or “National Committee”) in Jerusalem heeded this call, ordering Jerusalem Arabs to evacuate these populations, and asserting that those who resisted doing so would be seen as “an obstacle to the Holy War” and as “hamper[ing]” the actions of the Arab fighters.
Jordan’s Arab Legion ordered women and children out of Beisan, a town near the Jordanian border and an anticipated point of invasion by the Legion.
In Tiberias, local Arab leaders chose to clear the town of its Arab residents, and did so with the help of the British authorities. In Jaffa, after the British forced Jewish militiamen to withdraw from the city, local Arab leaders organized the evacuation of the roughly 20,000 residents who hadn’t already fled during or before the fighting.
Similar scenes played out in dozens of Arab villages across the land.
Predictably, the report makes no reference to Jews who fled to Israel to escape mistreatment in Muslim and Arab-majority countries in the Middle East, nor does it acknowledge that Jews living in Mandate Palestine also lost their homes.
Most tellingly, the working group omits any mention of the failed negotiations that took place at Camp David in 2000 during which Yassir Arafat said no to Ehud Barak’s offer of a state on all of the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank. Not only did Arafat refuse to make a counter-offer, he also refused the Clinton Parameters put on the table a few months later.
How can any honest and comprehensive description of the Arab-Israeli conflict omit this part of the story?
Predictably, the working group is asking the Methodist Conference to approve a series of one-sided condemnations of Israeli policies regarding the settlements, the security barrier and the blockade of the Gaza Strip. By way of comparison, the working group offers little, if any criticism of Hamas’ mistreatement of the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, it’s theft of humanitarian aid and its refusal to accept Israel’s right to exist.
Taken together, these recommendations do not promote the cause of peace, but instead cast Israel as the Azazel Goat of the international system. If the Methodist Conference in England affirms this document, it will endorse a dishonest and one-sided understanding of the conflict that will serve to isolate Israel and embolden Muslim extremists in the Middle East who seek Israel’s destruction.