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Middle East Issues





Lutheran Bishop Responds Angrily to CAMERA Letter


On March 19, 2009, Rev. Margaret Payne, Bishop of the New England Synod for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), appeared on Interfaith Voices, a radio show broadcast on 62 stations throughout North America. During her appearance in which she recounted impressions of her recent trip to Israel, Bishop Payne offered three misstatements of fact that were detailed in a CAMERA analysis published on May 11, 2009.

First, she asserted that Augusta Victoria Hospital, a facility owned by the Lutheran World Federation (of which ELCA is a part), is “the only hospital in the country” that provides cancer treatment to Palestinians. In fact, Israeli hospitals have routinely provided all sorts of medical care, including cancer treatment, to Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Second, she asserted that Israel's security barrier “completely” surrounded the city of Bethlehem. Numerous maps of the barrier reveal that it is located only to the north and west of the city.

Third, Bishop Payne reported that as a result of the security barrier, “tourists do not have a chance to shop and support the economy.” In fact, the Christian Science Monitor reported that 2008 was a record year for tourism in Bethlehem.

These errors are remarkable in that they all serve to portray Israel in a negative light.

The first error downplays Israel's willingness to provide medical care to Palestinians even during times of conflict. The second error portrays Israel as if it built the security barrier in an effort to completely block Bethlehem off from the rest of the West Bank when its goal was to stop the passage of suicide bombers into Israel. The third error exaggerates the impact of the security barrier on tourism in Bethlehem.

On May 15, 2009, CAMERA sent a letter (full text printed below), to Bishop Payne, asking her to correct the record by publishing a retraction and a correction of the misstatements and publish it on the Website of ELCA's New England Synod. (CAMERA also contacted Maureen Fiedler, host of Interfaith Voices, who said that she would not address the misstatements of fact because she broadcast a response from a rabbi from the Washington, D.C. area in a subsequent show. CAMERA has asked for a link to the audio to ascertain whether the rabbi addressed the errors detailed above, but Maureen Fiedler has not responded to this request.)

On June 4, 2009, Bishop Payne responded to CAMERA's request for a correction with a letter that reads as follows:

Dear Mr. Van Zile
 
Here is a brief sampling of the reality that I find abhorrent and totally unacceptable regarding the actions of the Israeli Government:
 
1. It has no respect for and refuses to obey international law.
 
2. It uses the inappropriately inflated excuse of security to steal Palestinian land.
 
3. It denies the existence of checkpoints, theft of land, abuse and daily persecution of Palestinians that I have witnessed with my own eyes.
 
4. The system of Israeli roads further steals Palestinian land, and by its denial of use to Palestinians, further cut them off from work, family, and medical care.
 
5. The incursion into Gaza was disproportionate to basic humanitarian values. Its continued limited access to outside aid is morally inexcusable.
 
I could go on and on.
 
With regard to your particular points: Bethlehem is effectively isolated by the wall in combination with other restraints – it is not “abuzz” with economic activity – it is being strangled; and Palestinians are routinely denied medical care by the existence of checkpoints and other systemic harassment.
 
Not only will I not offer a retraction, but I will look for every opportunity that I can find to advocate for the end of Israeli occupation. When the “facts on the ground” are truly known, and not further distorted by organizations such as yours, then I hope that there can be further dialogue about the ultimate security and freedom of both Israelis and Palestinians.
 
(A pdf of Bishop Payne's letter can be found here.)

Discussion

Bishop Payne's refusal to correct the record (and the denunciatory tone she uses in her letter) is troubling on a number of levels.

Bishop Payne is member of the Middle East Ready Bench, a group of ELCA Bishops that serves a source of information and provides advice about how the denomination should respond to events as they take place in the region. (The denomination has similar “ready benches” related to other issues such as the environment, immigration and poverty, with the Middle East Ready Bench being the most prominent.) As a member of this group, Bishop Payne's voice carries great weight within the denomination, and the cue that she is giving to her fellow Lutherans is that when Christians speak prophetically about the Arab-Israeli conflict, they have no obligation to respond forthrightly and honestly to factual challenges.

For example, when confronted with a Christian Science Monitor article about 2008 being a record year for tourism in Bethlehem, Bishop Payne states the city is “not ‘abuzz' with activity – it is being strangled.'” If Bethlehem is truly being “strangled” (as opposed to being “completely surrounded,” by the security barrier, as Bishop Payne said on Interfaith Voices), then how does she counter shop owners in Bethlehem who were quoted in the article that clearly report otherwise?

Moreover, Bishop Payne does not counter the factual evidence of Palestinian admissions and treatment statistics in Israeli hospitals.

She also asserts that the Israeli government “denies … checkpoints, land theft, abuse and daily persecution of Palestinians” when in reality, Israeli officials defend the checkpoints as necessary, lament the impact of security measures on Palestinian families, and regularly holds High Court of Justice hearings about military policies in the West Bank.

Bishop Payne's refusal to respond in a forthright manner to factual challenges is particularly troubling given that during her appearance on Interfaith Voices, she spoke as someone who had command of the relevant “facts on the ground” and had made a measured assessment of these facts in determining how to bring an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

When challenged on her facts however, Bishop Payne adopted a denunciatory and prejudicial tone that indicates she is unable or unwilling to acknowledge or process information that contradicts the narrative that she has already embraced about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Mainline Protestant churches, ELCA in particular, have a reputation for dealing with complex and controversial issues in an intellectually honest, forthright and deliberative manner. Bishop Payne's letter belies this reputation.

To be sure, the Palestinians are suffering and yes, Israeli policies do contribute to this suffering. But there is a lot more to the story than what Bishop Payne has reported during her interview and in her letter, both of which ignore the role Palestinian leaders have played in contributing to the suffering of the people they govern. She also pointedly ignores the Israeli perspective about the policies she condemns.

For example, Bishop Payne asserted that Israel “has no respect for and refuses to obey international law.” Nowhere in her letter does she acknowledge that suicide bombings and attacks on civilians that preceded the barrier's construction were also clear violations of international law. Nor does she acknowledge that many of these attacks emanated from areas in the West Bank from which Israel withdrew in the 1990s as part of the Oslo Accords.
 
More to the point, Bishop Payne's assertion that Israel has "no respect for" international law fails to take into account that Israel's high court routinely addresses issues of international law in its rulings regarding Israeli actions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Bishop Payne may disagree with the specific decisions, but the Israeli Supreme Court must make choices between conflicting and competing values that Bishop Payne does not. In particular, the court must choose between Israeli safety and the rights of Palestinians whose leaders have called for Israel's destruction and have acted on this goal. This is no simple task, Bishop Payne's demonizing hyperbole notwithstanding.

Bishop Payne also asserts Israel uses the “inappropriately inflated excuse of security to steal Palestinian land.” This statement reveals a merciless attitude toward Israel's legitimate efforts to protect its citizens that undercuts her stated goal of bringing about peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli activists and officials have debated over the location of the barrier, but its construction is largely regarded as a necessary response to Palestinian terror attacks. In 2004, Haaretz reported the following:

Despite the domestic and foreign criticism of the separation fence, the Israeli-Jewish public almost unanimously (84 percent) supports it (13 percent oppose it and 3 percent do not know). Although only 16.5 percent think the fence and the other physical means of partition can completely prevent terror attacks, 70 percent believe such means can significantly reduce the number of attacks. The wide public support for the fence crosses the political parties.
The bishop's obsession with alleged Israel's misdeeds is particularly obvious when she condemns Israel for the “continued limited access to outside aid” which she calls “morally inexcusable.” While Israel does control the access of goods into Gaza Strip from the entry points on its border, Egypt also controls access into the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing which it kept it closed during the recent fighting, and yet she holds Israel, and only Israel, responsible for the suffering in the Gaza Strip.
 
Bishop Payne obliquely acknowledges that Israel, unlike Egypt, did allow the regular shipment of goods into the Gaza Strip, albeit at a reduced level, during the recent round of fighting when she writes that Gaza's "continued limited access to outside aid is morally inexcusable." Apparently, the bishop believes that Israel is obligated to allow an unfettered flow of goods and services into territory that has been used as a launching pad for thousands of rocket attacks for the past several years. No other sovereign state in the world would be expected to behave in such a manner, and the bishop believes Israel should do so.
 
Again, Israeli officials have to balance between competing and conflicting values. In this instance, they were forced to navigate between a legitimate desire to stop Hamas' rocket attacks, and a humanitarian concern for the well-being of Palestinian civilians. Bishop Payne, who lives thousands of miles from the rocket and mortar fire, may disagree with the choices made by Israeli officials, but ultimately, who responsible for creating the situation where these choices had to be made? Israel, which withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005? Or Hamas, which launched the rockets?

The overall message of Bishop Payne's commentary is that Israel is in control of the violence and enmity directed at it and can bring a unilateral end to the Arab-Israeli conflict through concessions, withdrawals and peace offers. The implication is that because Israel is still subject to attacks, it is somehow responsible for the violence directed at it.

This message is most obvious during her appearance on Interfaith Voices, when she asserts that “the end of the occupation is the answer to everything.” She re-affirms her commitment to this belief in her letter when she promises “to look for every opportunity that I can to bring an end of Israeli occupation.”

Bishop Payne, who described her recent trip to the Holy Land as an effort to understand and report about “the reality of life for the Palestinians and for everyone in the Middle East,” has made little if any effort to process an important reality of life for Israelis: Their country has been attacked from nearly every bit of territory from which it has withdrawn since the 1990s.

After the Oslo Accords, Israel ceded jurisdiction of 40 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority, but between 2000 and 2004 that same area became the staging ground for an unprecedented onslaught of suicide bombers who crossed easily into Israel, killing 1,000 men, women, and children in buses, restaurants, and religious festivals. In 2005, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip completely and unilaterally only to suffer an increase of rocket attacks on its civilians. And in 2006, Israel was attacked by Hezbollah after withdrawing from Lebanon in 2000.

Given this reality, it should be of little surprise that Israel's recent attack on Hamas, which Bishop Payne characterized as “disproportionate,” was supported by a vast majority of Israelis. According to a December 2008 conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, Israel's attack on Hamas enjoyed overwhelming support, with 94 percent of Israeli Jews supporting the incursion. Citing this poll the Guardian reported the following on Jan. 14, 2009:

“There's no doubt that Israelis feel that justice is on their side,” said Ephraim Yaar, who conducts the survey.
 
The base point for the Israeli perspective is 2005, when the Jewish state unilaterally withdrew its military bases and settlers from inside Gaza. “The Israeli public sees that the Palestinians had their chance and instead of using it they decided to attack,” said Yaar.

Israelis were not the only people to find fault with Hamas' behavior. In January Louis Michel, the chief of foreign aid for the European Union, condemned Hamas as a terrorist movement, telling Reuters that "Hamas has an enormous responsibility for what happened here in Gaza." Reuters also reported that Michel “echoed Israeli criticisms that Hamas used civilians as "human shields" by fighting in populated areas and, describing Hamas rocket fire on Israel as a "provocation", he said in English: "Hamas is acting in the way of a terrorist movement."

Bishop Payne is careful to condemn the Israeli government for the policies she dislikes, but ultimately, her disagreement is with the Israeli people who are largely supportive of the policies she condemns, raising an important question: What effort has the bishop made to understand the mainstream Israeli perspective on these issues?

Clearly, Bishop Payne leaves out important facts (and perspectives) that must be addressed if one is to arrive at a full understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict. For example, while the bishop condemns Israel for its attack on Hamas, she offers little, if any, criticism of Hamas' behavior in the Gaza Strip after Israel withdrew from the territory in 2005. Instead of working to improve the quality of life of the people who lived in Gaza after winning parliamentary elections in 2006, Hamas instead kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, launched thousands of rockets into Israel from civilian installations, and murdered scores of its political opponents in 2007. Throughout all this it has repeatedly expressed a desire to destroy Israel.

How can Bishop Payne purport to participate in any honest dialogue “about the ultimate security and freedom of both Israelis and Palestinians” by willfully ignoring these historical facts?

Instead of offering a comprehensive description of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Bishop Payne offers an extended litany of alleged Israeli misdeeds, and hardly a word of criticism of the moral and strategic errors made by Palestinian leaders – which have had a substantial impact on Israeli public opinion. And yet, despite all this, Bishop Payne is on ELCA's Middle East “ready desk” and put forth as a trusted and reliable source of information and context about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Appendix

Below is the text of the letter CAMERA sent to Bishop Payne on May 15, 2009:

Bishop Margaret G. Payne
New England Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
20 Upland Street, Worcester, MA 01607

Dear Bishop Payne:

I am writing on behalf of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). CAMERA is a national non-profit organization that promotes accurate, fact-based coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

I am writing about your recent appearance on the radio show Interfaith Voices. During your interview with Maureen Fiedler, which aired on March 19, 2009, you offered three misstatements that need to be corrected in the interest of accuracy.

CAMERA asks that you publish a retraction and a correction of these misstatements on the website of the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

These errors, which are detailed in an accompanying article published on CAMERA's website (camera.org), are as follows:

First, you asserted that the security barrier “completely surrounds” Bethlehem when in fact, it does not. The barrier passes by the north and west of the city, but not to the east and south. When host Maureen Fiedler challenged you on this assertion, you repeated this erroneous assertion.

Second, you stated that August Victoria Hospital is the only hospital in the country that provides cancer care to the Palestinians. This is also false. Israel hospitals have routinely provided advanced medical treatment – including cancer treatment – to Palestinians. And they continue to do so, albeit at a decreased level of service, even after the Palestinian Authority decided to stop paying for medical treatment in Israeli hospitals.

Third, you asserted that that because of the security barrier and the checkpoint leading into Bethlehem, “tourists don't have a chance to shop and support the economy.” This is false. As The Christian Science Monitor reported in December 2008, “with record bus loads of Christian pilgrims filing through the Church of the Nativity and sleeping at local hotels, Bethlehem is abuzz” and that “The revival of tourism in the West Bank is one of the few bright spots in the Palestinian economy …”

These are not matters of opinion, speculation, or interpretation, but errors of verifiable fact, all of which serve to portray Israel in a negative light.

Because of your status as Bishop of New England's ELCA Synod, and as a member of the Middle East “ready bench” which serves as a resource to your fellow Lutherans about the Middle East, your voice is accorded great credibility in discussions of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Under these circumstances, CAMERA hopes that you will want to set the record straight.

We look forward to hearing from you about how you are going to address this issue.

Sincerely,

Dexter Van Zile

Christian Media Analyst

CAMERA

CC:

Maureen Fiedler, Interfaith Voices

Bishop Mark S. Hanson, Presiding Bishop, (ELCA)
Bishop Bruce Burnside, Chair, Middle East Ready Bench, (ECLA)
Bishop Floyd M. Schoenhals, Member, Middle East Ready Bench, (ELCA)
Bishop Gerald L. Mansholt, Member, Middle East Ready Bench, (ELCA)
Bishop Duane C. Pederson, Member, Middle East Ready Bench, (ELCA)
Bishop Dean W. Nelson, Member, Middle East Ready Bench, (ELCA)
Bishop Harold L. Usgaard, Member, Middle East Ready Bench, (ELCA)
Bishop David B. Zellmer, Member, Middle East Ready Bench, (ELCA)

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