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By Dexter Van Zile
For the past few decades, Palestinian Christians have been the primary source of information about the Arab-Israeli conflict and Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle East. Working on behalf of this community, peace activists in mainline Protestant churches, work to convince their denominations to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), campaign against Israel. These activists, and the denominational leaders who support them, describe their anti-Israel activism as part of their mission to stand in solidarity with these Christians who are suffering under Israeli occupation.
The most notable of these Palestinian Christians has been Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, an Anglican priest who has used anti-Jewish polemics from the New Testament to portray Israel as a singular obstacle to peace in the Middle East. In the story Ateek tells about the Arab-Israeli conflict, Palestinians are powerless and as a result, cannot be held accountable for their misdeeds. Israeli Jews, however, are powerful and are excoriated for their misdeeds and for their insistence on using force to maintain their sovereignty. The Jewish insistence on sovereignty is, in Ateek’s view, a violation of the higher principles of Judaism.
Clearly, Ateek has a problem with Israel and created a theology to justify and broadcast his enmity.
Given that Jewish soldiers evicted Rev. Dr. Ateek from his home in 1948 when he was an 11-year-old boy, it’s understandable that he would be angry at Israel. It is also understandable that he would be angry over another loss suffered by his Arab and Palestinian countrymen 19 years later during the Six Day War. These two humiliating traumas play a significant, if not determinative role, in the formulation of Ateek’s theology regarding the Jewish state.
It took a while, but eventually, Ateek was able to inflict his anger and rage on Israel, and he it did it under the guise of peacemaking and reconciliation. He did it through his writings and by founding Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, a vehicle by which he reached out to mainline Protestants in the United States and invited them to embrace his enmity toward the Jewish state.
Sadly, more than a few people accepted Ateek’s invitation. Ateek fed his sheep anti-Israel propaganda for decades.
In looking at Ateek’s career, it is particularly shocking to see how his allies, friends and handlers in the United States helped him gather the resources necessary to attack Israel in the manner in which he did.
The Episcopalians who were Sabeel’s first supporters bear large measure of the blame, as do the people who awarded Ateek his doctor of ministry degree at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. The folks at this seminary should have seen the anti-Jewish aspects of his theology at first glance. It was all right there in his dissertation.
He did not hide it.
The people at Orbis Press, who published this dissertation under the title Justice and Only Justice (1989), should have recognized the unwholesome enmity toward Israel Ateek was encouraging his readers to embrace.
This same publishing house should have recognized the defamatory nature of his later text A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation that it published in 2008. For example, in this book, Ateek accuses Israel of perpetrating “a slow and creeping genocide.”
Yes, of course, Ateek had every right to write his book, and Orbis had every right to publish it.
But authentic Christian expression is not merely about license and what people have a right to do. It is also about responsibility and what people ought (and ought not) to do. Ateek and his enablers in the U.S. encouraged people to hate on Israel. Ateek never transcended his enmity toward Israel. He refined it and worked to make it socially acceptable.
In so doing, Ateek set a bad example that far too many Christians in the U.S. and Europe followed. Eventually people got wise to this reality but not until mainline churches had embarked on a campaign that demonized Israel and its Jewish supporters in some pretty ugly ways.
This campaign does not enjoy the support it did a few years ago, but it is still alive and kicking. Earlier this month, the United Methodist Church’s General Conference voted down a divestment resolution but passed a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli products made in the West Bank. The General Assembly of Presbyterian Church (USA) is considering two similar resolutions. And the United Church of Canada’s General Assembly will also be voting on a boycott resolution in the upcoming months.
All of these votes about Israel have, or will have, taken place against a backdrop of virtual silence about anti-Christian violence in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
Christians have been murdered in Iraq, Egypt and Nigeria and yet these churches say nothing, or almost nothing about these murders. They do however, talk incessantly about Israel.
This is no exaggeration. When the national assemblies of United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ met in 2011, well after it was clear to anyone who was paying attention that Christians were under siege in the Middle East, these gatherings said nothing about this problem.
You can search the agendas of the UCC’s General Synod yourself here. The words Iraq, Egypt and Copt appear nowhere in the minutes to the UCC’s 2011 General Synod, but the word Israeli appears 15 times. A list of the resolutions passed by the Disciples of Christ in 2001 is available here.
You will find nothing about anti-Christian violence at either of these links, but you will learn that the assemblies of these two churches did, however, pass two resolutions warning about the evils of Islamophobia.
You got that right. Christians got murdered in Iraq and Egypt and the assemblies of these two churches passed resolutions warning about the evils of anti-Muslim hostility. Under the circumstances, it would seem reasonable for the assemblies of churches to pass a resolution about anti-Christian hostility in Muslim-majority countries, but they didn’t.
They said nothing.
This is what happens after your church has been exposed to two decades worth of anti-Israel propaganda from people like Ateek. Your church becomes afflicted with a monomaniacal focus on Israel while having its eyes and mouth sewn shut when confronted with Islamist violence against Christians.
Christians from Iraq, Egypt and Nigeria who want their story told by these churches will have to contend with the legacy left by Ateek and his enablers in these churches.
Lord have mercy.
Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).