Monday, August 27, 2007

Sabeel and the Palestinian Lobby vs. History

1. On Sabeel: the nexus of Replacement Theology and terrorism

I recently posted a piece from Lee Kaplan's blog concerning the organization called Sabeel. This group, which is led by Episcopal Reverend Canon Naim Ateek (author, among other books, of ''Faith and Intifada'' and ''Challenging Christian Zionism''), is a radical anti-Israel activist group which uses religious themes to appeal to Christians in Europe and the New World. They are at the root of the divestment movement within the mainstream Protestant churches in the U.S., having lobbied, disseminated propaganda to, and created a network of anti-Israel activists within the Presbyterian,United Methodist, United Church and Christ, and Evangelical Lutheran churches, as well as the Episcopal Church, with which it is connected. Among Sabeel's offenses are asserting that Jews crucified Jesus just as Israel crucifies thousands of Palestinians (metaphorically, one presumes). They also state that Jesus was not a Jew but was, in fact, a Palestinian. (More here and here and here and here and here.) Interestingly, Sabeel's advocacy for divestment comes, like the second intifada (which it supported), in response to the peace efforts by Israel, not as an effort to reach peace. Still , they are portrayed as part of a peace movement.

Lee Kaplan's piece relates rhetoric and tactics of Sabeel to a deliberate strategy to separate the religion of the bible from Jews and Judaism in order to delegitimize Israel. Kaplan tells of attending the national conference of the International Solidarity Movement (the ISM or PSM) at Ohio State University in 2003. For those who don't know, the ISM is a pro-Palestinian group which both proclaims itself as non-violent and supports violence by Palestinians against Israel (see "The 'peace' group that embraces violence" from the London Telegraph). Among other "support" they provide to Palestinians, they actually provide logistical aid to terrorists in Gaza and the West Bank. As an example of their idea of non-violence, check out this article on their website entitled "Humanism or Collaboration? Palestinian Police Saves Israeli Soldier In Jenin", posted today, protesting the fact that a Palestinian saved the life of an Israeli who was being attacked by rock-throwers. (There's much more there, I just happened to spot this in a cursory first-glance at the site.) Kaplan relates that he attended "a seminar on how to put a good face on suicide bombings" where a participant stated "that the Bible was being 'reinterpreted' so it would no longer be sympathetic to the Jews." (I don't know Mr. Kaplan, and recount his story with the appropriate dosage of grains of salt, but it certainly rings true based on what the ISM says openly. My understanding is that he's made a practice of infiltrating ISM meetings and reporting on it on various websites. I strongly support his infiltrating and reporting on a group that misrepresents itself as pro-peace but actually support terror. We need to know what goes on behind the scenes at ISM.)

It is sad but true that the extremist Sabeel has insinuated itself into most of the large mainstream Protestant churches and many Christian charities in the U.S. Sabeel capitalizes, on the one hand, on the good intentions of those who uncritically accept distortions and, on the other, on the bad faith of those with religious-based prejudices. They have worked to hijack the agendas of various peace and human rights committees within the churches and move them away from a balanced, worldwide approach toward anti-Israel activism. This is largely happening among the leadership of these committees out of the sight of the rank and file. I simply cannot believe that the members of these denominations are aware that Sabeel has sometimes taken the position that Israel has no right to exist and should be eliminated, and, at other times said that Israel should be recognized under law after "the Occupation ends", while still asserting it has no moral right to exist. Rev. Ateek, in spite of these logical contortions, is represented in many churches as a peace advocate. In fact, in 2006, he received the John Nevin Sayre Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, which continues to promote Sabeel (see their "WAVE of PRAYER for Sabeel").

If you're interested in who some of Sabeel's friends are, have a look at the Friends of Sabeel website. And, if you're interested in who the Friends of Sabeel's friends are, they include the ISM, to bring this full circle.

If you have any doubts about the anti-Semitic nature of Sabeel, read this, from the ADL website:

On April 2004, Sabeel hosted a conference in Jerusalem titled "Challenging Christian Zionism: Theology, Politics and the Palestine-Israel Conflict." The conference had more than 600 participants from 32 countries, including members of FOSNA and representatives from the U.S. Presbyterian Church, according to organizers. One of the keynote speakers at the conference was Anglican Reverend Stephen Sizer, author of Christian Zionism: Justifying Apartheid in the Name of God. According to Sizer's theological concept, God's special connection with the Jews becomes irrelevant following the appearance of Jesus, and with it their entitlement to the land. Furthermore, the Jews' exile becomes part of the necessary order of things. The Jews, according to Sizer, deserve to be exiled because they refused to accept Jesus, "as a judgment for their failure to recognize Him as the Messiah," in addition to their otherwise sinful ways. Contemporary Jews living in Israel, according to Sizer, are just as sinful and rebellious as their forefathers and deserve the same fate: "The present brutal, repressive and racist policies of the State of Israel would suggest another exile on the horizon rather than a restoration…. how sinful do you need to be to get to be on God's hit list?"

I refer the reader of that quote to the works of Rev. Franklin Littell on the relationship between anti-Israel sentiments and the theology of supersession (also called "Replacement Theology" i.e. the belief that Christianity has replaced, and eliminated the need for, Judaism). Littell is a scholar and a Methodist minister who has devoted much of his career to studying and opposing anti-Semitism. He has defended Israel against unfair attacks (while maintaining the right to criticize Israel's errors) and has had to withstand some attacks himself over the years on this issue. Here, from a piece called Early Warning: Identifying Potentially Genocidal Movements, was his response:

I am always challenged these days about what Israel is doing. I respond that the U.S. government is doing some things that I do not like too much either, but Israel has a legitimate government and sooner or later the people -- who have structures and channels to make changes -- can get at mistakes when they are made by those making decisions. But there is not a single legitimate government in the Arab League. Every one of them is either an old-fashioned despotism -- one that has not yet entered the period of liberty and self-government -- or a typical twentieth century dictatorship. That fact should make some difference when people are talking about policy matters and decisions that have to be made, and also how we judge what respect we owe what types of government.

He knew a double-standard when he saw one, and he knew that an imperfect democracy was far superior to a perfectly despicable tyranny.

Of course, Sabeel and the Palestinian lobby don't really like to discuss what kind of government they foresee for a Palestinian state. I can understand why because I don't like to think about it either.


2. On the origins and nature of the term "Palestine"

In debunking Sabeel's claim that Jesus was a Palestinian, Lee Kaplan points out that the term "Palestinian" did not exist when Jesus lived. You may be interested to hear when and why the term was first used and where it came from. This from Palestine Facts:
From the fifth century BC, following the historian Herodotus, Greeks called the eastern coast of the Mediterranean "the Philistine Syria" using the Greek language form of the name. In AD 135, after putting down the Bar Kochba revolt, the second major Jewish revolt against Rome, the Emperor Hadrian wanted to blot out the name of the Roman "Provincia Judaea" and so renamed it "Provincia Syria Palaestina", the Latin version of the Greek name and the first use of the name as an administrative unit. The name "Provincia Syria Palaestina" was later shortened to Palaestina, from which the modern, anglicized "Palestine" is derived.
The use of the term "Palestine" was originally intended to erase the memory of the Jewish state -- it is the result of a deliberate act of historical revisionism. The term (ironically) fell into disuse with the Arab conquest of the region, was revived by the Crusaders, was used only as a geographic term under the Ottoman Turks (the "Three Palestines" were the administrative regions, or "sanjaks", of Acre, Nablus and Jerusalem which were collectively administered in Damascus), and was later revived by the British after their defeat of the Ottomans during World War I.

Were the residents of the region culturally "Palestinians"? Not according to Zuheir Muhein of the Syrian branch of the PLO:
The Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity. In reality today there is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people, since Arab national interests demand that we posit the existence of a distinct "Palestinian people" to oppose Zionism.

For tactical reasons, Jordan, which is a sovereign state with defined borders, cannot raise claims to Haifa and Jaffa, while as a Palestinian, I can undoubtedly demand Haifa, Jaffa, Beer-Sheva and Jerusalem. However, the moment we reclaim our right to all of Palestine, we will not wait even a minute to unite Palestine and Jordan.
This truth, that Palestinian nationalism and, in fact, Palestinian identity itself are merely a pretext for pan-Arab nationalism and not a true "indigenous liberation movement", is too much for some to bear. People such as Professor Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University assert a Palestinian identity almost as ancient as that of the Jews. (Read the wikipedia article on Palestinian people for an outline of his and similar beliefs.) These claims, based in the desire to cloth nationalism in a legitimate national identity, fly in the face of objective scholarship.

This campaign to falsify history also applies to the history of the Palestinian nationalist movement itself. Khalidi claims that Palestinian nationalism began, like Zionism, in the 19th Century heyday of national movements, not as a reaction to Zionism as the facts indicate. This sort of mythological intellectual history may help sooth the inferiority complex of a Palestinian nationalist with knowledge of Zionist history, but the original literature of Zionism would fill a library, whereas that of Palestinian nationalism would first need to be re-edited and repackaged to take on the appearance of a coherent political movement and then would only fill a bookshelf. This is the scholarship of consolation, sometimes unearthing items of interest, but always making claims that dwarf the facts upon which they are based. For all the verbiage it may generate, it is a house without a sound foundation.

With respect to how the term "Palestinian" was actually used prior to the creation of the State of Israel, all residents of the region, regardless of ethnicity, might have been referred to as Palestinians by dint only of their location, but none, including the Arabs, were called Palestinians by dint of membership in a distinct cultural unit. Arabs in what is now Israel would have been known by their family, tribe, class, religious belief, by their immediate location or as Arabs. These, and not Palestine, were the true sources of identity, pride, tradition, and culture. Similarly, the Jews, Armenians, Turks, Europeans, etc. of Palestine would have been known by those designations, as well as their other ethnic, religious and linguistic characteristics. And, if, in the literature of 19th century Europe, they were called Palestinian Jews, Palestinian Armenians, Palestinian Arabs etc., it was a term used unfreighted with any sense other than geographical location.


3. Sabeel vs. history

Sabeel would like to erase the facts from historical memory and replace them with fictions of a Palestinian Jesus crucified by evil Jews. That makes the indoctrination of the gullible and uninformed easier. It forms a nexus with certain troubling Christian beliefs concerning supersessionism ("Replacement Theology") and Jewish deicide. However, as bad as these beliefs are, Sabeel takes them a step further into territory that few Christians previously ventured. While Sabeel (like Prof. Khalidi) claims cultural continuity from the biblical Philistines to the modern Palestinians, they also, like Columbia Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj, Yasir Arafat, and many others, pretend to believe that the Jewish connection to the land of the bible is merely myth and without a basis in history. In a sense, this deliberate distortion of history shows an aspect of Sabeel's world view which owes more to Stalin or Big Brother than it does to Jesus.

Seldom before has a Christian group made the claim that Jews were not connected to the land of Israel, to Jerusalem, to Zion, to the land of the bible. Previous claims of this sort were largely based on contortions of racial theory that involved the Jews of the bible being replaced by other groups such as Khazars, the racial myth preached by the Christian Identity and British Israelite groups. These bizarre ideas have recently gained popularity throughout the Muslim world as well and are part of the arsenal of disinformation currently being deployed against Israel and the Jews in the Muslim popular, academic and official cultures. While Sabeel has not preached the Khazar replacement myth, they have participated in the sort of revisionism that choses to ignore all the evidence of the Tanakh, the New Testament, the Talmud, the Roman historians, the Koran, and oral traditions, not to mention the archaeological evidence. In a sense, Sabeel's mission of denying the bible while asserting the theological basis for Palestinian nationalism is the most challenging contortion of any in the anti-Israel lobby. How strange that the internal contradictions of this religious literature have escaped the notice of its supporters on the Protestant left.

Sabeel tries to be all things to all people, but, ultimately, it opposes the existence of Israel, and will support war against Israel as long as it exists. It portrays this as a peace movement, but it's not. That's a war movement in peace movement's clothing.

4. A note from the blogger:

I want to reach out to those in the Christian community who may have been swayed by Sabeel's propaganda or its echoes to open youR hearts (as the recent advertising for the United Methodists says) and to attempt to reach out across the ideological fault lines. Read Franklin Littell's books, which are widely available. I ask you to consider the harm that can be done by well-intentioned people who view Israel only as an evil abstraction, not as a nation of real people contending with insoluble problems and struggling to survive. Israel is a disorganized, imperfect democracy, not the monolithic evil empire Sabeel portrays it as. It has tried to make peace with the Palestinians and give them a state, only to be rebuffed and suffer horrific attacks against its innocents in response. Israel deserves to be supported in its efforts to resolve the conflict with the Arabs, not undercut in those efforts as they have been time and again. I plead with Christians not to dishonor their traditions by advocating war against those who would make peace.

The best sort of assistance the Palestinians could receive from their lobby within the U.S. Protestant community would be to end the pointless divestment movement and, instead, lobby their Palestinian friends to make peace. A good first step would be to stop enabling Sabeel.

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