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Middle East Issues





Methodists Invite Children Into Alternate Universe


Judging from a children’s book and a Sunday school teacher’s manual published by the United Methodist Church in 2006, the anti-Israel activists in the denomination are fans of St. Francis Xavier, the 16th century missionary who proclaimed “Give me the children until they are seven and anyone may have them afterwards.” These activists also believe in an alternative universe in which Israeli concessions and withdrawals bringing about an end to Palestinian violence – a fairy tale that has been proven false on numerous occasions in the past decade.

 

The book, “From Palestine to Seattle: Becoming Neighbors and Friends” is billed as a “storybook on Israel and Palestine” for children six through 12. This is no benign Sunday school text, however. It is a well-crafted bit of propaganda that portrays Israeli security checkpoints as the cause, not the result, of Palestinian violence. This message is underscored by the teacher’s guide marketed along with the storybook.

 

 

The Story Book

 

The storybook, written by Mary Davies, a retired Methodist missionary, describes the adventures of two children from Seattle – Allison and Matthew – whose father, a Protestant minister, has just returned from a visit to Bethlehem.

 

The book describes the children’s email correspondence with Tarek, a young Palestinian boy whose family’s life has been disrupted by checkpoints on the West Bank and Miriam, a Jewish Israeli girl, who participates in a program that brings nine- to 12-year old Israelis and Palestinians so they play together and learn about each other's religion and culture. Miriam’s cousin, an Israeli soldier, has been put in prison for refusing to man checkpoints “because he thought they were wrong and were hurting people.”

 

In one email, Tarek writes that “Between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint make all Palestinians without passes go back home instead of being able to go into Jerusalem.” As a result, Palestinians can’t get to work and sometimes Palestinians with passes are denied passage.

 

Matt asks his father “How can people be so unfair?” Accompanying this section of the story is a crudely-drawn image depicting a grim-faced soldier examining American passports against a backdrop of a guard shack and barbed wire. Grim Faced Israeli Soldier
 
This image is offered in stark contrast to the other drawings in the book which depict Allison and Matthew riding happily in the backseat of a car driven by their father, gifts he brought back from the Holy Land (an attractive purse and a statue of the Holy Family), children sitting at their computers while emailing one another across the globe, and a plane flying from North America flying to the Middle East. The only people depicted carrying guns in the story book are Israelis. (In fact, armed menacing soldiers are the only people in the book who are recognizable as Israeli.) There is no visual depiction of the Palestinian violence or hostility that checkpoints are designed to prevent.
 
The narrative continues with Miryam, the Jewish girl providing some context to checkpoints by admitting that she’s afraid “that one day a bomb will go off in my neighborhood.” Her testimony, however, is undercut by criticism of her Jewish friends who think she is “crazy” for meeting with “dangerous” Arabs. Miriam reports that she likes her “new Arab friends, especially Salim, he always makes everybody laugh with his jokes.”

 

Thus, the storybook offsets and downplays Miriam’s legitimate fear of terrorism with Palestinian complaints about the checkpoints, a reassuring image of a Palestinian class clown and the depiction of her Jewish friends as unreasonably afraid of Arabs.

 

When Allison and Matthew see a checkpoint for themselves as they travel to Bethlehem, they are “shocked to see a barricade across the road, with sandbags and barrels lining the street. Looking up they saw a soldier with a gun sitting in a watchtower!”

 

The image accompanying this part of the story shows five soldiers standing around the van in which Allison and Matt ride and a sixth soldier standing in a guard tower nearby. The image of barbed wire, guard shacks, sandbags, and menacing armed soldiers surrounding a brightly-colored van of innocent children is reminiscent concentration camps in Eastern Europe in the 1940s.

 

The story continues with the children participating in a peace rally in Bethlehem. Before the rally they are greeted by the Mayor of Bethlehem, who in real life is a U.S. citizen named Victor Batarseh, who according to a May 20, 2005 report by Agence France Presse is a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

 

The PFLP group is responsible for the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi in October 2001, a December 2003 suicide attack that killed three Israelis, and the murders of several Americans including wheel-chair bound Leon Klinghoffer, who was pushed off a cruise ship in the Mediterranean in 1985. Batarseh was elected to the Bethlehem city council in May 2005 while running on Hamas’s slate of candidates. After his election as councilor, he was elected Mayor with the support of other three councilors from the PFLP and five from Hamas. A Dec. 29, 2005 report by Chiesa, a Catholic journal, states that Batarseh was also supported by the terror group Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

 

Predictably, the existence of these groups, and the mayor's connection to them, is left unmentioned in the Methodist storybook.

 

 

The Teacher’s Guide

 

The teacher’s guide, written by Faye Wilson, an educator from Maryland, encourages instructors to have their classes play a game of “Stop and Go” after reading the section in the storybook on the checkpoints. In the game, some children are given “STOP” passes and others are given “GO” passes.

 

The children are then directed to form a single line and approach a refreshment table and attempt to get a cup of orange juice. Those with “GO” passes are given a drink, but those with “STOP” passes “must either wait in line or go back to their seats.” Then the process is repeated with grapes. Children with “GO” passes are allowed to eat; those with “STOP” passes are not.

 

The teacher’s guide then tells instructors to ask how the children with the “STOP” and “GO” passes feel about the situation. The lesson then ends with this coda: “Remind the children that when people are denied things that they believe everyone should have, they feel bad and sometimes become angry, too. Invite the remaining children to get juice and grapes from the refreshment table.”

 

The implication is undeniable. Suicide bombings – which are not described anywhere in the either the storybook or the teacher’s manual – are the consequence of Israeli checkpoints, which deny the Palestinians “the things that they believe everyone should have” and in turn make “people feel bad and sometimes become angry.” The impression the children are left with is that if the Israelis took down the checkpoints, Miriam, the young Israeli would no longer be frightened of bombs going off in her neighborhood.

 

History demonstrates otherwise. From 2000-2004, Israel was attacked by suicide bombers from the West Bank with many of the attacks originating from towns from which Israel withdrew its soldiers in the 1990s. In 2006, Israel was attacked by Hamas from the Gaza Strip from which it withdrew in 2005. Also that year, Israel was attacked by Hezbollah from Lebanon from which it withdrew in 2000.

 

Other distortions

 

The teacher’s guide offers other distortions about the Arab-Israeli conflict. For example, on page one, the text reads in part:

 

For Palestinians, some of the concerns include curfews; restriction of movement for Palestinian families (using passes, going through checkpoints) limited access to Jerusalem, a holy city for Christians, Jews, and Muslims and the destruction of homes. For Israeli children, there are issues of being safe in their country, understanding the need for people of other faiths to have access to Holy Sites in Israel; and learning to live peacefully and responsibly with Palestinian neighbors.

 

This passage is emblematic of the bias in much of the UMC’s materials regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, particularly the last half of the last sentence – “and learning to live peacefully and responsibly with Palestinian neighbors” – which puts the onus for the conflict's existence on Israel.

 

The fact is since the Olso Process, official Israeli school books have taught peace; Palestinian schoolbooks continued to demonize Israel and Jews. Palestinian media outlets encourage Palestinian children to become suicide bombers and extol the virtues of murdering Jews. Official Israeli television does not show Mickey Mouse-like characters conversing with children who call for violence against their neighbors; Palestinian television does. And yet, the teacher’s guide portrays this as a problem that Israeli, not Palestinian children must address.

 

Another example of the UMC’s bias is the suggestion that Israelis need to understand “the need for other faiths to have access to Holy Sites in Israel.” Israel’s record for showing respect for religious sensibilities in the Holy Land is much better than that of Palestinian leaders who have on numerous occasions, denied the existence of a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount and who have failed to protect the rights of Christians in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.  And again, the teacher’s guide portrays this as a problem that Israeli, not Palestinian children must address.

 

In short, Palestinians are viewed through the lens of suffering and powerlessness; the Israelis are viewed through a lens of sin. Moreover, Israeli suffering is described in abstract terms such as “safety,” while Palestinian suffering is described in concrete words, such as “destruction of homes.” (To be fair, the bias of describing Palestinian suffering in concrete terms and Israeli suffering in diffuse and abstract terms is not limited to UMC materials; it is a bias evident in a lot of mainline commentary about the Arab-Israeli conflict.)
 

Another distortion appears on page 31 of the teacher’s guide, which asserts:

 
Apartheid is similar to the pass system that exists for Palestinians. In Palestine, movement is restricted from one area to another. Only individuals who have proven business or work duties can go from one area to another; even then, a soldier can deny honoring a person’s pass. In addition, families who live in Palestine often receive unequal treatment in terms of food, recreation, and employment. This inequity in work and recreation also parallels the former apartheid system in South Africa.
 
It is important for children to understand that in Palestine the pass system means that many families and children cannot go very far from home and they cannot find the jobs that will help them build a nice community.

 

What the teacher’s guide omits, however, is an explanation as to why Israel imposed the checkpoints, or a description of what happened in the Gaza Strip after Israel withdrew from the territory in 2005.
 
Before the First and Second Intifadas, which prompted Israel to substantially increase its presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian workers were able to work in both Israel and the rest of the Middle East in the years after the Six Day War. As a result, the Palestinian economy was one of the fastest growing economies in the world. According to the World Bank, the real per capita Gross National Product (GNP) in the occupied territories more than doubled between 1970 and 1980, making it the fourth fastest growing economy in the world. In 1993, the World Bank reported:
 
The economy of the [occupied territories] grew rapidly between 1968 and 1980 (average annual increase of 7% and 9 percent in real per capita GDP and GNP respectively), triggered by a number of factors, including the rapid integration with Israel and the regional economic boom. In the early years of the occupation, there was a sharp expansion in the employment of unskilled Palestinian labor in Israel and a rise in incomes, which in turn spurred domestic economic activity, especially in the construction sector. Earnings of Palestinian workers in Israel rose from negligible levels in 1968 to almost one quarter of GNP in 1975.
 
According to the World Bank, economic growth in the disputed territories continued even as Israel experienced an economic slowdown in the mid-1970s as many Palestinians were able to find work in other countries in the Middle East:
 
Since unskilled labor played a central role in the growth, the poor shared in this growth, and as a result, in all likelihood, there was a significant reduction in poverty in this period. Household conditions improved substantially, with a several-fold rise in the possession of consumer durables and significant increases in access to municipal water and electricity connections. Life expectancy increased by a decade, and there was significant progress in reducing infant mortality. School enrollments also rose during this time. These advances mirrored substantial improvements in income levels and in living conditions all through the region during the 1970s.

Not only did the violence perpetrated during the intifadas necessitate increased security measures, they also decreased Israeli appetite for Palestinian goods and labor. But instead of acknowledging the relationship between Palestinian violence and Israeli security measures, the UMC’s teacher’s guide portrays these security measures as motivated by Jim Crow racism and not as a regrettable, but understandable response to suicide bombings and sniper attacks perpetrated, in many instances, by groups intent on depriving the Jewish people of a sovereign state, not merely to build a Palestinian state.

An honest portrayal of Palestinian suffering would at least acknowledge the possibility that Palestinian violence caused decreased opportunities in “food, recreation and employment,” but this reality is not acknowledged anywhere in either the storybook or the teacher’s guide. (Most people understand that engaging in acts of war against a neighbor with whom you trade is not conducive to economic development, but such wisdom is absent from the storybook.)

In these texts, the United Methodist Church is inviting its children into a universe in which Palestinian violence can be magically ended by Israeli concessions and peace offers. Sadly, this universe has no connection to reality. It is one thing for adults to choose to reside in this utopian fog; it is another thing altogether to invite children into such a universe.


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