The following Op-Ed was originally published in Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent on April 21, 2008.
Most people who feel nostalgic for the Middle Ages pack the children into the car and drive to one of those restaurants where you can drink soda out of oversized pewter tankards filled by waitresses dressed in costumes from 12th-century England. While the kids feast on turkey drumsticks and fries, they’re entertained by jugglers, jesters and, if they’re lucky, the spectacle of a jousting contest.
Peace activists in Philadelphia looking to get medieval can dispense with all of this by attending a two-day “peacemaking” conference at Villanova University on April 25-26.
At this conference, organized by Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, peace-loving Christians, Muslims and even a few Jews will talk about the modern State of Israel the way Christians talked about Jews in Medieval Europe — as a plague on humanity, whose mere existence represented a cosmological insult to all that is good and just.
Hyperbole? You be the judge!
During the second intifada, when responsible religious leaders would try to calm tensions, Sabeel’s founder, Anglican Priest the Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, compared modern Israelis to Herod, who, according to the Gospel of Matthew, murdered all the infants of Bethlehem in an effort to kill the baby Jesus. He also compared the occupation to the stone-blocking of Christ’s tomb and wrote of an “Israeli government crucifixion system” operating in the territories.
As ugly as Ateek’s rhetoric is, the most obscene aspect of his activism is the story he tells of about the Arab-Israel conflict — that violence done to Israel will come to an end as soon as Israelis render themselves acceptable to neighbors taught from a very early age to hate their guts.
In Sabeel’s worldview, Israelis must withdraw from the territories, acknowledge the Palestinian right of return, and ultimately acquiesce to a one-state solution and support the creation of “one state for two nations and three religions” for peace to reign in the Middle East.
The fact is, Israel did withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005, but this wasn’t enough for Gaza-based terror groups like Hamas, which started a war with Israel the following year. And Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, but this wasn’t enough for Hezbollah, which started a war with Israel six years later.
Sabeel’s prophetic voice has a frog stuck in its throat when it comes time to forcefully condemn (or even draw attention to) the blood-curdling anti-Semitism expressed by the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah, who speak about Jews in the same manner as Nazis did in Europe during the 1930s and ’40s — as a cancer that must be excised before their nations can be restored to their rightful places on the world stage.
While Sabeel calls itself the voice of the Palestinian Christians, some of the most ferocious criticism of Israel at these conferences comes from the mouths of American and Israeli Jews, like Marc Ellis and Jeff Halper, who invoke the Israelis-as-Nazis trope in front of Christian audiences.
Appearing at Sabeel conferences in Chicago and Denver in 2005, Ellis displayed a letter written by his son that equated Israeli policies with the Nazi regime, and when Halper appeared at a Sabeel conference in Boston in October 2007, he described his fellow Israelis as believing that the only solution to the Arab-Israeli impasse is the “Final Solution.”
Some Christian “peace” activists — whose appetite for stories of Jews behaving badly is matched only by their indifference to Muslim and Arab violence against Jews, Christians and gays throughout the Middle East — devour this intra-Jewish debate over Israeli policies with the same vigor with which Christians imbibed of the intra-Jewish polemic over Jesus.
Sabeel uses Jewish self-criticism as a weapon against Israel in the manner that medieval polemicists used scriptures, largely written by Jesus’s earliest followers (who were Jewish) to demonize the Jewish people. It’s one thing for American and Israeli Jews to debate Israeli policies; it’s another altogether for Sabeel’s Christian leaders and supporters to invoke one side of this debate and hold it up as the Gospel truth.
If such behavior qualifies as peacemaking, then we truly must be living in the Middle Ages.
Dexter Van Zile is a Christian media analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.