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Middle East Issues





The Episcopal Church’s Anti-Israel Media Campaign


The Episcopal Church has approximately 2 million members and 7,200 churches in the U.S. and is part of the 77-million member Anglican Communion. Because of its presence in the U.S., the relative wealth of its members, and its connections to Anglicans throughout the world, the Episcopal Church is in a strategic position to influence attitudes toward Israel on both a national and global scale.

Sadly, the Episcopal Church is not a trustworthy observer of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The church’s leaders and constitutive bodies routinely issue one-sided statements about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and its publications portray Israel as exclusively responsible for violence in the region. Moreover, the church has provided substantial support for anti-Israel activists in both the U.S. and the West Bank. Its so-called peace activism amounts to an ad hoc anti-Israel media campaign that serves to delegitimize Israel’s rightful place amongst the nations of the world.

The Episcopal Church’s antipathy toward Israel has not gone unnoticed within the denomination. Concern about the one-sided condemnations issued by church leaders, staffers and constituent bodies was raised at the denomination’s General Convention held in Columbus, Ohio in June 2006, when three Bishops put forth a resolution calling on the church to apologize for its “consistently unbalanced approach to the conflict in the Middle East.” An explanation accompanying the resolution asserted correctly that “virtually all General Convention resolutions concerning the Middle East – and all public policy statements by Episcopal agencies – have relentlessly criticized the state of Israel, portraying the Jewish state as an oppressor nation and the Palestinian people as victims of Israeli oppression.”

A careful reading of public statements regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict confirms that, indeed, the Episcopal Church has been relentless and unfair in its criticism of Israel.

Anti-Israel Resolutions

The Episcopal Church is governed by a bicameral General Convention, which meets every three years and is comprised of the approximately 200-member House of Bishops and the approximately 900 member House of Deputies. Both clergy and lay members of the church serve in the House of Deputies. When the General Convention is not in session, the church is governed by an Executive Council comprised of bishops, clergy and lay members.

Both the General Convention and the Executive Council have exhibited a marked tendency to issue one-sided statements about the Arab-Israeli conflict that hold Israel to a utopian standard of conduct and its adversaries to no standard at all. Some examples include:

• In November 1994, the Executive Council approved a resolution asking Motorola to “establish a policy to prohibit the sale of products or provision of services to any settlement, including persons residing in those settlements, located in the Occupied Territories.” This resolution, passed one month after two Hamas suicide bombings had killed 13 Israelis and wounded 80, did not offer any condemnation of Palestinian violence or call on companies to ensure that equipment they sell to the Palestinians is not used for terror attacks.

• In June 1995, the Executive Council passed a resolution asserting that Jerusalem should be a shared city (ignoring decades of Arab aggression against Israel that make such an arrangement untenable) and condemning the construction of settlements in the West Bank including East Jerusalem.

• In July 2000, the General Convention approved a resolution affirming the “right of return for every Palestinian, as well as restitution/compensation for their loss as called for by the United Nations.” In fact, under international law there is no such collective “right of return.” Moreover, were such a “right” exercised, the result would be the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state. Finally, the resolution offered no acknowledgment of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries who came to Israel after its rebirth in 1948.

• In August 2003, the General Convention approved resolutions condemning the construction of the security barrier and home demolitions without explicitly condemning or calling for an end to Palestinian suicide bombings, drive-by-shootings and other violence.

• In June 2006, so-called peace and justice activists within the Episcopal Church presented draft resolutions to the General Convention condemning the security barrier without asking the Palestinians to stop the terror attacks that prompted its construction.

Other problems with the resolutions as submitted by the denomination’s peace and justice community to the most recent General Convention include:

• Another call for Jerusalem to be a shared city, which denies 58 years of persistent Arab violence and aggression against Israel. It should be noted as well there is no evidence the church ever called for Jerusalem to be a shared city when its eastern half – containing Judaism’s holiest site, the Temple Mount – was illegally occupied by Jordan from 1948 to 1967.

• A condemnation of unilateral action – a clear reference to the withdrawal from Gaza and the security barrier.

• A failure to call upon Israel’s adversaries to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.

• Silence about Palestinian suicide bombing.

• A failure to call upon Hamas to dismantle terrorist infrastructure.

• Silence about anti-Jewish and anti-Israel hate-mongering in mosques, media and children’s textbooks.

After pressure from Christians for Fair Witness in the Middle East, amendments that called for Palestinian leaders to accept Israel's right to exist, greater fiscal transparency in the Palestinian Authority and condemnations of Palestinian terrorism were added to the resolutions. Because of a clerical error, the resolutions were not approved by the General Convention. One question which needs to be asked is why so-called peace and justice activists needed to be reminded of the need to include these changes.

Statements from Clergy

Bishops and Priests of the Episcopal Church have also weighed in on the Arab-Israeli conflict in a partisan manner.

• On June 30, 2006, Rev. Frank Griswold, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, signed a letter to President Bush asking him to restrain the Israeli government's response to the kidnaping of an Israeli soldier, but did not similarly ask the President to pressure the Palestinians to release the soldier in question or to stop their Qassam rocket attacks emanating from Gaza. This letter, which was also signed by Rev. Mark S. Hanson, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, failed to acknowledge other violent acts of war perpetrated by the Palestinians, including other kidnapings and hundreds of rocket attacks from Gaza.

• On July 12, 2006, the Boston Globe reported that Bishop M. Thomas Shaw of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts would protest the Israeli incursion into Gaza in front of the Israeli Consulate in Boston. At this protest, held on the same day Hezbollah launched rockets into Israel and kidnapped two soldiers, so-called peace and justice activists accused Israel of “genocide.” The presence of Bishop Shaw in clerical garb at this protest lent unwarranted credence to these false accusations.

Anti-Israel Church publications

The Episcopal Church’s publicity about the Arab-Israeli conflict offers a distorted historical and moral narrative that downplays Israel’s attempts to achieve peace and ignores the role Palestinian leaders have played in prolonging the war. Articles published by the Episcopal Church offer little, if any, acknowledgment of Arab rejectionism of Israel’s right to exist, Muslim anti-Semitism or Palestinian terrorism.

For example, on July 31, 2001 the Episcopal Church’s “Peace and Justice Ministries” published a patently dishonest portrayal of the Camp David offer of 2000 which repeats many of the lies and distortions put forth by Palestinian leaders at the beginning of the Second Intifada.

This document states:

Israel's proposal divided Palestine into four separate cantons surrounded by Israel: the Northern West Bank, the Central West Bank, the Southern West Bank and Gaza. Going from any one area to another would require crossing Israeli sovereign territory and consequently subject movement of Palestinians within their own country to Israeli control. Not only would such restrictions apply to the movement of people, but also to the movement of goods, in effect subjecting the Palestinian economy to Israeli control. Lastly, the Camp David proposal would have left Israel in control over all Palestinian borders thereby allowing Israel to control not only internal movement of people and goods but international movement as well. Such a Palestinian state would have had less sovereignty and viability than the Bantustans created by the South African apartheid government.

What the document does not acknowledge is that by the end of negotiations brokered by the Clinton Administration, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed to a settlement that would have ceded all of Gaza, approximately 95 percent of the West Bank, and an additional 1-3 percent of Israeli territory from its pre-1967 border to the Palestinians. Dennis Ross, U.S. Envoy to the Middle East from 1988 to 2000 who presided over the Camp David/Taba negotiations, describes the final offer to the Palestinians as follows:

[Ehud] Barak’s government had now formally accepted ideas that would effectively divide east Jerusalem, end the IDF’s presence in the Jordan Valley, and produce a Palestinian State in roughly 97 percent of the West Bank and 100 percent of Gaza. (Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace, page 755).

The claim about “bantustans” or cantons is also contradicted by Ross, who told Fox News on April 21, 2002 that:

... the Palestinians would have in the West Bank an area that was contiguous. Those who say there were cantons, completely untrue. It was contiguous... And to connect Gaza with the West Bank, there would have been an elevated highway, an elevated railroad, to ensure that there would be not just safe passage for the Palestinians, but free passage. (Fox News, April 21, 2002)

The Episcopal Church’s statement regarding the Camp David negotiations also asserts “there is no evidence that the PA or the majority of Palestinians have abandoned the two-state solution” when in fact, Yasir Arafat routinely spoke of the destruction of Israel to his followers while talking peace with Israel and the Clinton Administration.

Moreover, a distorted timeline on the church’s Web site deceptively omits key aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict. For example, the timeline uses the word terrorism once – in reference to Jewish violence against Great Britain in 1946 – while making no mention of the suicide attacks against Israeli civilians that began in 1994. And while omitting any direct reference to Palestinian terrorism, the timeline emphasizes that Israeli-Arabs were shot during the Second Intifada.

The chronology describes the Six Day War as follows: “Israel conquers the Sinai, Golan Heights, Gaza Strip, West Bank, and East Jerusalem, which it annexed.” What the chronology omits is that Egypt provoked the war by closing the Straits of Tiran and blockading the Israeli port of Eilat, an act of war under international law, that Egypt expelled UN peacekeeping troops from the Sinai Peninsula, and that Egypt issued bellicose statements promising the imminent destruction of Israel. And while referencing  UN Security Council Resolution 242, which established the “land-for-peace” principle, it does not mention the Arab response to that resolution: the Three No’s of Khartoum issued by the Arab League in 1967 – no recognition, no negotiation and no peace with Israel. Israel gained territory in a defensive war, tried to negotiate and was rebuffed. The chronology conveys none of this.

The chronology reports that Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978 and 1982 without describing the attacks by the PLO that prompted these invasions.

The chronology states that the Camp David negotiations broke down, without acknowledging that Yasir Arafat walked away from negotiations – without making a counteroffer – after Israel made far-reaching land for peace offers.

Moreover, the chronology places responsibility for the Second Intifada on Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000, even as Palestinian officials have admitted preparing for the Second Intifada immediately after Yasir Arafat returned from the failed negotiations at Camp David in July.

The chronology also fails to report that Sharon’s visit was coordinated with the Palestinian Authority’s security chief.

The chronology states that in 2002, “[r]eoccupation of Palestinian areas begins” without reporting that the return of Israeli troops to the West Bank was precipitated by an unprecedented campaign of violence that killed hundreds of Israelis. Operation Defensive Shield began one day after the March 27 bombing at a Passover Seder in a Netanya hotel that killed 30 Israelis and injured 140. In that month of March alone 128 Israelis were murdered in Palestinian terror attacks. To place this number in context, consider that as a percentage of the Israeli population this would be comparable to the killing of 6400 Americans, or more than two 9/11's in one month. What possible justification could the church have for keeping such crucial information from its readers?

The chronology ends in 2003, and as a result omits any reference to Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and to the hundreds of Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel that followed.

Episcopal News Service

A search of the archives of the Episcopal News Service (ENS) reveals a similar bias against Israel. As with their timeline, resolutions and public statements about the Arab-Israeli conflict, this bias manifests itself through generally ignoring violence against Israeli civilians, presenting detailed coverage of anti-Israel criticism, omitting any response from Israeli officials and a tendency to repeat without scrutiny allegations issued by Anglican Archbishop Riah Abu al-Assal of Jerusalem. (The antipathy expressed by Bishop Riah and Sabeel is discussed below.) Articles covering the ongoing violence perpetrated against Israelis, however, are few and far between, while articles dedicated to detailing the suffering of the Palestinians are routine fare for the ENS.

Of the more than 200 articles in the ENS archives, the headlines of four are readily identifiable as sympathetic to Israel’s security concerns. Two of these articles were written in response to comments by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who in October 2005 called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.”

The other two articles with headlines readily identifiable as sympathetic to Israel’s security concerns include a description of efforts by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews to provide bomb detectors to public buses in Israel. (It should be noted that this article was initially published by the Ecumenical News Service). The other article describes the creation of a pro-Israel group – the Episcopal-Jewish Alliance, founded in response to anti-Israel activism by Bishop Thomas Shaw in 2002.

Notwithstanding these two articles, the Episcopal Church’s coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict fails to provide any real description of the threats faced by the Israelis as a result of Palestinian terror. Emblematic of this bias is an article about the impact of the security barrier Israel is building to stop terror attacks from the West Bank. The article offers virtually no explanation as to why the barrier is constructed, even in a section ostensibly devoted to “Security issues.” The paragraphs and the heading follow:

Security issues

In a visit to Bethlehem, the group passed through a part of Israel's separation barrier, built inside the pre-1967 border (the "Green Line"), a nine-meter-high wall around the city, and noted that Rachel's Tomb, another venerated holy site, has been placed on the Jerusalem side of the barrier, cutting off access from Bethlehem where it is located. The Israeli government maintains the barrier is built to provide security to Israel. (emphasis added)

"What the commission members found the most shocking of all was that the Wall or Separation Barrier or Fence, as it is variously called, is perceived by all parties as being almost entirely underwritten by the American taxpayer," said Michele Spike, another member of the commission. "The Wall invades Palestinian fields, dividing grazing lands -- including the valley of the shepherds at Bethlehem -- and, at times, encircling Palestinian cities."

The delegation observed that some parts of the separation barrier cut off Palestinians from one another and often makes a two-minute walk into a journey of a mile or more. Family members or friends often find it difficult to see each other, which has hugely negative effects on Palestinian society, the group learned.

This article devotes one sentence to describe why the barrier was built and goes into extensive detail about its impact on Palestinians. While this impact is undeniable, so is the impact of Palestinian terrorism on Israeli civilians – which the article entirely omits. The decision to build the barrier was precipitated by an unprecedented campaign of suicide bombings that killed Israeli civilians in markets, movie theaters and bus stations. Offering readers such key facts would provide context for Israel’s actions, but the author of the article, Brian Grieves, director of the Episcopal Church’s Office of Peace and Justice Ministries, did not see fit to include them.

The Episcopal News Service has also devoted substantial coverage to Mordechai Vanunu, who served 18 years in prison for revealing secrets about Israel’s nuclear weapons program to the British press. Vanunu, who is regarded by Israelis as a traitor, is portrayed by the ENS and the Episcopal Peace Fellowship (which named an award after him in the 1990s) as a “whistleblower.” While the Episcopal Church and its constituent bodies have used the court rulings regarding Vanunu’s status in Israel as an opportunity to once more direct harsh criticism towards Israel, the church has remained relatively silent about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. A search of the Episcopal Church’s website (episcopalchurch.org) reveals almost 50 entries about Vanunu, but fewer than five entries about the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Clearly, the Episcopal Church seems more concerned about the nuclear weapons held by a representative democracy trying to defend itself than it is about a nuclear weapons program pursued by a repressive dictatorship whose leaders have, on numerous occasions, called for Israel’s destruction.

Support for Sabeel

Another salient aspect of the Episcopal Church’s anti-Israel stance is the pattern of links between it and Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center headquartered in Jerusalem (Sabeel) and its sister organization, Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA).

These two organizations demonize Israel and wrap Palestinian violence against Israelis in the mantle of innocent suffering.

(For more background please see Sabeel’s Teachings of Contempt and Sabeel’s One State Agenda.)

Sabeel is itself a creature of the Anglican Communion and has received substantial institutional support from the Episcopal Church and substantial financial support from Episcopalians in the U.S. When Sabeel’s sister organization, FOSNA was founded in 1996 the Episcopal Church was one of its primary sources of support. In the intervening years, both Sabeel and FOSNA have been able to reach out to other denominations for financial and logistical support, but the Episcopal Church remains a significant backer. Mainline churches such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Disciples of Christ and the United Methodist Church routinely send missionaries who work in Sabeel’s office in Jerusalem. Upon returning to the United States, these missionaries play an important role in the passage of anti-Israel resolutions by their denominations.

As a result of the Episcopal Church’s financial and institutional support to Sabeel and FOSNA, anti-Israel activists have had the resources and credibility necessary to convince other mainline Protestant churches in the U.S. to approve resolutions that condemn Israel while giving short- shrift to the motive and impact of Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians.

For example, three denominations that have asked Israel to take down the security barrier on the West Bank without asking the Palestinians to stop the terror attacks that prompted its construction – the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ – have been subject to sustained lobbying by Sabeel and FOSNA activists.

Links between the Episcopal Church and Sabeel and FOSNA include the following:

• Sabeel’s Founder is Anglican Priest Naim Ateek, who before his retirement served as Canon at St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem.

• Edmond Browning, former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church is currently listed as the President of FOSNA, and as having donated $10,000 to the organization ( January 2006 Sabeel newsletter).

• Rev. Canon Dick Toll, an Episcopal priest from Milwaukie, Oregon is national chair for FOSNA.

• The group’s IRS disclosure form (990) for 1998 states that its primary founders and board members are from the Episcopal Church.

In short, the three most prominent members of Sabeel’s leadership in Jerusalem and the United States are members of the Anglican communion, one of them a former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

The Episcopal Church provides a substantial amount of publicity and institutional support for Sabeel’s activities in the U.S.:

• In June 2006, the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, an affiliate of the Episcopal Church awarded Rev. Naim Ateek its John Nevin Sayre Award for peacemaking. At the dinner where this award was bestowed, Rev. Canon Brian Grieves, director of the Episcopal Church’s Office of Peace and Justice Ministries introduced Rev. Ateek and defended him from so-called “?slander and demonizing’ tactics” and said the award serves as “a rebuke to those voices who would silence Naim’s own strong voice as a Palestinian and a Christian living under occupation.” (Grieves was responding to call issued by Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East for Rev. Ateek to apologize for his anti-Semitic language in reference to Israel.)

• Former Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning was a prominent participant in a Sabeel Conference in 2004, sharing the stage with Yasser Arafat and Naim Ateek. Photos of Bishop Browning – distributed by the Episcopal News Service – sitting next to Arafat helped to legitimize Arafat in the minds of Episcopalians.

Bishop Riah’s Anti-Israel Ministry

It should also be noted that the Episcopal Church provides a substantial amount of support to Bishop Riah El-Assal, the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, a well-known apologist for Palestinian terrorism.

For example, at a luncheon sponsored by the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese in Jerusalem, where Bishop Riah was introduced by Phoebe Griswold, wife of the current Presiding Bishop, he stated that Americans did not have an accurate view of Yasser Arafat. After explaining that he first met Arafat in the 1980s, Bishop Riah said he found Arafat “to be charming.” This luncheon took place during the denomination’s 2006 General Convention in Columbus, Ohio.

Bishop Riah has also worked to incite hostility toward Israel during its recent conflict with Hezbollah and Hamas. On July 26, he posted a letter on his diocesan website that read: “For the past forty years we have been largely alone on this desert fighting a predator that not only has robbed us of all but a small piece of our historic homeland, but threatens the traditions and holy sites of Christianity.”

Bishop Riah ignores Israel’s efforts to negotiate with those who actively seek its destruction, and blames Israel for the decline of the Christian community in the West Bank. Contrary to Bishop Riah, the emigration of Christians is largely the consequence of Muslim extremists who, in addition to promoting chaos in the region, routinely target and mistreat Christians.

In this letter Bishop Riah also accuses Israel of racism, hate crimes, terror, violence, murder and ethnic cleansing in the disputed territories. In reference to the conflict with Lebanon-based Hezbollah, Bishop Riah portrays Israeli government’s response to provocation as a “disproportionate reaction ... consistent with their opportunistic responses in which they destroy their perceived enemy.”

In short, Bishop Riah exaggerates Israeli misdeeds and whitewashes its adversaries of their undeniably malign motives. In Bishop Riah’s mind, Israel is a marauding murdering nation overreacting to Arab aggression he does not see fit to acknowledge.

Bishop Riah’s tendency to exaggerate Israeli misdeeds was evident when he appeared on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on April 23, 2002. During his appearance, Bishop Riah repeated Palestinian claims that 500 people were killed during the battle at Jenin:

Many of them were of the aged, still staying in their homes, buried under the rubble.

Previous CAMERA analysis reveals that Palestinian assertions of 500 deaths at Jenin had been demonstrated as gross exaggerations on April 16, 2002 – one week before Bishop Riah’s appearance on PBS, yet the Bishop felt entitled to repeat this false statement as fact.

For more information about Bishop Riah’s anti-Israel ministry, please see Arab Christians Vilify Israel previously published by CAMERA.

Conclusion

The Episcopal Church’s public pronouncements regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict exhibit a troubling antipathy toward the Jewish State. Through its support for Sabeel and FOSNA, and its efforts to broadcast a distorted anti-Israel message to its members and the general public, the Episcopal Church has helped delegitimize Israel as a country with a rightful place amongst the nations of the world.


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