by Shelley Neese
What type of lense must one wear to look at the situation of the world and determine that America is a power-hungry empire, Israel is an apartheid state, Christian Zionists are delusional militants, and Palestinians are peaceful advocates for justice? Welcome to Sabeel’s International Conference on Challenging Christian Zionism.
Sabeel is the Jerusalem-based “Palestinian Liberation Theology Center.” Sabeel (Arabic for “the way”) is an ecumenical grassroots movement operating under the leadership of Palestinian Anglican Revd. Canon Naim Ateek. The most familiar example of activities Sabeel spearheads is the divestment campaign to punish companies “profiting” from Israel’s takeover of the West Bank and Gaza (i.e. Caterpillar, Motorola, etc.).
In April 2004, Sabeel hosted its Fifth International Conference to address what it perceives as one of the world’s biggest threats: Christian Zionism. One product of the conference was a published book of collected papers by the conference speakers—an array of international scholars, peace activists, and clergy. One of the recurring themes in the book, Challenging Christian Zionism, is their charge of an apparent lack of “public criticisms of Israel’s political policies” from Christian Zionists. Sabeel says that in the face of perceived wrongdoings by Israel, a “profound silence” emanates from the pro-Israel Christian camp.
Indeed, part of what it means to be a Christian Zionist is to believe in Israel’s divine claims to the land and to support the Jewish state’s policies to fight terror and protect its citizens. In that respect, Christian friends of Israel do not question its right to exist or protest its defensive measures. However, Christian Zionists are more than willing to criticize actions of the Israeli government that run counter to God’s promises and covenants or violate Judeo-Christian moral values. For example, Christian Zionist organizations have roundly criticized withdrawal from Gaza, Olmert’s realignment plan, and the plans for Jerusalem’s international gay pride parade.
There is certain hypocrisy though to Sabeel’s accusations against Christian Zionists for turning a blind eye. While reading Challenging Christian Zionism, it does not take long to notice the apparent censorship of criticism for Palestinian terrorism. Excluding one lecture by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, in 328 pages of enumerating the problems that plague the region, terrorism is mentioned only four times. To be sure, counting those four references, totaling fifteen lines, is being very generous because at no point is Palestinian violence ever referred to as terrorism. “Resistance” is the term of choice and “suicide bombings” are never named. Also, Palestinian violence is never actually denounced. Instead, it is excused in subsequent sentences as an understandable reaction to the ills of “occupation.”
In Prof. Marc H. Ellis’s lecture he says, “Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam contains elements of both beauty and violence.” There is no further elaboration of what is Islamic violence, just a general acknowledgment of its existence. The Rt. Revd. Edmond L. Browning blames the terrible situation in the region on Israeli and Palestinian fanaticism and says “both the oppressor and the oppressed suffer damage.” Browning goes on, however, to call on Israel to end the “occupation” because he says, “the occupation is the root cause of all the violence today.” He makes no effort to ask Palestinians to end terror. Sabeel board member Zoughbi E. Zoughbi says there are four types of violence: “insurgent violence, structural violence, environmental violence, and state-sponsored violence.” According to Zoughbi, the Israeli government and settlers are the perpetrators of the last three types of violence while Palestinians have used “insurgent violence” to “revolt against the occupation, siege, and oppression inflicted upon them for more than 37 years.” Zoughbi even calls on Palestinians “to continue their proactive struggle to get rid of the Israeli occupation.” Out of the four speakers who mention terror, Revd. Dr. Elias Chacour is the only one to say “we cannot agree with terror” and to acknowledge the fact that there are Israeli civilians who have died. Immediately after this disclaimer, however, he refers to terrorists as martyrs.
Only one of the conference’s thirty-one speakers denounced terrorism for its ugliness or acknowledged the holocaust and centuries of Jewish persecution. In any other setting Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams would not be considered a pro-Israel sympathizer, but in the company of the other self-censoring speakers Williams was accused of what in Sabeel’s opinion is the worst of crimes—being “a kind of Christian Zionist.” This label was forced on him because he made due reference to Scripture as proof that Jews do have a special place under God. His speech provoked so much “outrage” and “disappointment” that the last three chapters of the book are critical responses to his address.
While the conference speakers’ refuse to acknowledge the horrible effects of terrorism, there are literally countless instances where America, Christian evangelicals, and Jewish leadership are defined as the “root of all evil.” To offer just a brief glimpse into Sabeel’s view of the world, here are a few highlighted quotes:
“Zionism is responsible for the last 56 years of dispossession, dispersion, and humiliation of the Arab population of Palestine.”
“This is the most dangerous regime ever to ascend to power in the history of the United States of America. It is dangerous because they want war; they want to bully nations.”
“There is too much contempt and there are too many evil words-and evil deeds—emanating from the Jewish leadership.”
As opposed to four short references to Palestinian “resistance,” one-quarter of the book describes activities of Palestinian nonviolent movements. Sadly, the emphasis on Palestinian peaceful resistance is exaggerated at best. Sabeel pathologically ignores the prevalence, or even existence, of Palestinian homicidal ideologies. Ignoring the corruption, despotism, and fanaticism prevalent in the West Bank and Gaza, Sabeel presents nonviolence as the current principal strategy of “resistance.” Zoughbi says the difference between Israelis and Palestinians is that Palestinians “believe violence dehumanizes human beings” and Israelis are “racist and deal with fear and anger through violence.” Revd. Dr. Bishara Awad regrettably notes, “To my delight, nonviolent struggle has also become the talk of the Palestinian Authority.”
In Challenging Christian Zionism, the reasons given for why Christian Zionists are allegedly uncritical of Israel are ignorance, heresy, and militancy. Enduring the onslaught of these accusations, reading the book becomes an exercise in trying to diagnose Sabeel’s duplicity. Their claims of Palestinian preference for nonviolence are not supported by Palestinian polls or history, the continuance of suicide bombings, or the democratic election of a terrorist government. Considering this, there are only two ways to explain why all the conference speakers, with the exception of Williams, refused to discuss terrorism, preferring to promote the myth of a Palestinian moderate majority and lament the evils of the American administration and Christian Zionism. They either understand the truth about the problem of terrorism and culture of violence in Palestinian society but are censoring the conference speakers in a deliberate attempt to misrepresent reality and avert blame. Or their vision is truly so distorted that this is their perception of the conflict. To assume it is only a difference in perceptions, however, is to grant them the courtesy of ignorance.