Backgrounder: Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center

Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center was founded sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s (accounts differ on the exact date) by Anglican Priest Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, author of Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (Orbis, 1989). The group and its sister organization in North America – Friends of Sabeel, North America (FOSNA) – organizes national and regional conferences in both the United States and Canada where speakers portray Israel as an apartheid state and excuse Palestinian terror attacks against Israeli civilians. The organization, which also hosts international conferences in Jerusalem, has been at the forefront of the campaign in mainline Protestant churches in the U.S. to target Israel for divestment and to pass anti-Israel resolutions at church-wide assemblies.


Sabeel’s narrative about the Arab-Israeli conflict can be distilled to one sentence issued in a 2005 letter signed by the Rev. Canon Dr. Richard K. Toll, chair of FOSNA, who wrote: “End the occupation and the violence will end.”


This narrative has been proven false by history. There was ongoing Arab violence against Israel before the 1967 when the Israel took possession of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – in a defensive war against adversaries intent on destroying it. And the violence against Israel increased after Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.


Nevertheless, Sabeel has exhibited a resilient capacity to influence mainline churches when they issue public statements about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

For example, under the influence of Sabeel and other activists, the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly voted to initiate a campaign of “phased, selective divestment” from companies that did business with Israel in 2004. This resolution, which made no mention of incitement on Palestinian television, or growing anti-Semitism in the Middle East, stated that the occupation had proven to be at the root of violence against innocents on both sides of the conflict. (This resolution, which singled Israel out as a target for divestment was overturned by the PC(USA)’s General Assembly 2006, but it is still a possibility that the denomination’s Mission Responsibility Through Investments (MRTI) committee will divest from Israel using pre-existing criteria for its investments.)


Sabeel activists were present at the 2005 church-wide assemblies of the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ that passed resolutions asking Israel to take down the security barrier without asking the Palestinians to stop the terror attacks that prompted its construction. Sabeel activist Jonathan Kuttab also played a prominent role in the passage of a divestment resolution at the UCC’s 2005 General Synod.


Sabeel has also been active in the Episcopal Church, which has engaged in an ongoing campaign to portray Israel as exclusively responsible for the Arab-Israeli conflict and to downplay Palestinian and Arab responsibility for violence Israelis. The organization receives substantial financial and institutional support from the Episcopal Church.


Sabeel’s Agenda


Aside from the dishonest and false “end-the-occupation-and-the-violence-will-end” narrative offered by Sabeel, the most salient characteristics of the group’s message are its tendency to traffic in anti-Jewish rhetoric, its efforts to undermine the legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty, its support for a one-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and a willingness to excuse or portray Palestinian violence targeted at civilians as part of a liberationist movement, when the people responsible for this violence proclaim their desire to destroy Israel. The group has also proven adept at enlisting the aid of Israel’s Jewish critics – who have very little credibility in Israeli society – to buttress its narrative about the Arab-Israeli conflict to American audiences that know little about Israeli politics.



Opposition to Jewish Sovereignty


One troubling theme in Rev. Dr. Ateek’s writing is that by pursuing sovereignty in modern Israel, Jews have abandoned the principles of Judaism. This theme is evident in Justice and Only Justice, a book based on his 1982 doctoral dissertation for which he received a doctor of ministry from the San Francisco Theological Seminary – Toward a Strategy for the Episcopal Church in Israel with Special Focus on the Political Situation: Analysis and Prospect. (On page 188 of this dissertation Rev. Dr. Ateek writes that Jews living in Israel should “stop and consider the deeper and higher demands of their religion” but offers no such suggestion that adherents of the Muslim faith in the Middle East should do the same thing.)


On page 101 of Justice and Only Justice, Rev. Dr. Ateek writes:

What is quite clear from a Palestinian Christian point of view … is that the emergence of the Zionist movement in the twentieth century is a retrogression of the Jewish community into the history of its very distant past with its most elementary and primitive forms of the concept of God. Zionism has succeeded in reanimating the nationalist tradition within Judaism. Its inspiration has been drawn not from the profound thoughts of Hebrew scriptures but from those portions that betray a narrow and exclusive concept of a tribal god. Consequently, the finely worded Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel is no more than a mask behind which these retrogressive ideas hide.


Rev. Dr. Ateek then invokes a 1967 assertion by Chief Rabbi Nissim, head of Israel’s Sephardic Jews that Israel should not return the territories taken in the recent war as a “clear indication of how far the Jewish religions has been influenced by the Zionist ideal and the nationalistic tradition.” Ateek continues:

It has been done at the expense of the prophetic tradition and the suppression of the higher tenets of Judaistic faith and the God who was portrayed by the prophets as the God of righteousness. (Justice and Only Justice, page 101).


In his effort to portray Zionism, and its allegedly negative influence on Judaism, as a primary cause for the continued existence of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Rev. Dr. Ateek uses Rabbi Nissim as a symbol for all Israelis and for official Israeli policy.  He also distorts history. It was not Rabbi Nissim who made a land-for-peace deal impossible in 1967. Instead it was the Arab leaders who issued the “Three Nos of Khartoum” stating there would be no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no peace with Israel after the Six Day War.


If Rev. Dr. Ateek had acknowledged this history, it would have undercut his suggestion that the continued existence of the war is rooted in how Israelis understand and practice Judaism, which he offers on page 102 of Justice and Only Justice:

From my perspective as a Palestinian Christian, Zionism is a step backward in the development of Judaism. What the Jewish community had finally and unequivocally rejected in the second century A.D. with the defeat of the Zealots, many Jews have accepted eighteen hundred years later. This has been done at the expense and even weakening of the higher principles and demands of the Jewish religion. Ethical Judaism with its universalistic outlook has been swamped by the resurgence of a racially exclusive concept of a people and their god.
The tragedy of the state of Israel is that it has locked itself up and entrapped its people in an impasse from which there is no escape as long as it espouses this exclusivist understanding of God.


The Jewish people, like any other sovereign nation, must struggle with the demands of security and concern for human and civil rights. On this score, Israel’s record is not perfect, but it compares favorably to other states in the world, particularly its adversaries in the Middle East where one-party dictatorships are the norm, the oppression of religious and ethnic minorities is official policy, and the imprisonment of dissidents a regular occurrence. The presence of numerous Jewish human rights groups in Israel, many of whom work with Rev. Dr. Ateek (despite his anti-Jewish rhetoric) demonstrate that many Israelis continue to pay close attention to and struggle with the “higher tenets and demands of the Jewish religion.” Apparently, this is not enough for Rev. Dr. Ateek who seems to think that the higher tenets and demands of Judaism require Jews to suffer whatever mistreatment the world hands them.

The Jews, whose prophetic tradition as well as their long history of suffering qualify them to play a peacemaking role, have acquired a new image since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. By espousing the nationalistic tradition of Zionism, they have relegated to themselves the role of oppressors and war makers. By so doing they have voluntarily relinquished the role of the servant which for centuries they have claimed for themselves. This has been a revolutionary change from the long held belief that Jews have a vocation to suffering. (Justice and Only Justice, page 160 — emphasis added).


This passage is emblematic of Rev. Dr. Ateek’s moral inversion. Israel took up arms in response to repeated attacks against it by its neighbors, not out of any desire to become “oppressors and war makers.” Israel was attacked by five Arab armies during the 1948 War. During the run up to the 1967 War Arab leaders made it perfectly clear that they were intent on destroying Israel. Rev. Dr. Ateek’s statement that “The Jews [….] have relegated themselves to the roles of oppressors and war makers” as a result of their efforts to defend themselves against repeated efforts to destroy their state is ultimately an attempt to subject the Jewish people to a racist stereotype. One can only wonder how Orbis Press could publish such a racist and defamatory statement.


Just as troubling is Rev. Dr. Ateek’s insistence that Jewish sovereignty contradicts the vocation of the Jewish people to suffer. It is one thing for Jews to embrace the notion that they have a vocation to suffer, but it is another thing altogether for Rev. Dr. Ateek, a Christian and a proponent of Palestinian nationalism to invoke this belief in an obvious attempt to undermine the legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty in the Middle East.


In addition to portraying Zionism as contradicting the calling of the Jewish people to suffer, Rev. Dr. Ateek portrays the move for a Jewish State as a miscalculated and erroneous response to Jewish powerlessness in 19th century Europe. In a sermon titled “The Zionist Ideology of Domination Versus the Reign of God: The Ultimate Triumph of Justice and Love,” which he gave at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in February 2001 he wrote:

I believe that the background to the Zionist movement was good, but it got corrupted and I hope it will be redeemed. I can appreciate the noble reasons for the rise of Zionism among European Jewry. Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), the founder of Zionism and his friends must have deeply felt the plight of their Jewish brethren. Anti-semitism was a menace. One can only admire Herzl’s perception of the problems and determination to do something about it rather than sit back and complain. The Jewish religious leaders had passively accepted their people’s predicament, but the secular Zionists were not going to be apathetic to the agony and misery of their brethren.
The assessment of the Zionist leaders regarding the suffering of their people in 19th century Europe was correct. Anti-semitism was rife and many Jews were suffering as a result of causeless hatred and prejudice. The Zionists intention to help was noble. The questions they raised were right, how can they help their fellow brothers and sisters who were being oppressed due to the fact that they were ethnically and religiously different from the majority of the population around them? Tragically, it was difficult for the Zionists to anticipate the evolution and development of democracy in Europe. Democracy was the right answer to the problem, a true democracy with equality for all. They did not anticipate the day when Europe would have democratic system s of government that attract many people to its shores as we see happening today. The Zionists could not foresee this. They decided to opt out of Europe. (Emphasis added.)


By chiding the Jewish religious leaders who “had passively accepted their people’s predicament,” Rev. Dr. Ateek contradicts his previously stated belief that the Jewish people have a call to suffer. But even more amazingly, Rev. Dr. Ateek asserts that if only Jewish leaders had anticipated the democratization of Europe, they would not have needed to pursue the creation of a state of their own. (Apparently, the Holocaust – which killed two-thirds of Europe’s Jews – would have proven to be only a bump in the road toward the process of democratization.) The obvious intent of such rhetoric is to portray Zionism as a movement as an overreaction, a miscalculation to a bad stretch of European history and not a legitimate response to 2000 years of persecution.


The intent to delegitimize Zionism is even more obvious in an article by Michael Prior, C.M. published in the Winter 2003 issue of Cornerstone. Prior describes “Political Zionism” as “a movement thoroughly at home in the racist, colonial spirit of nineteenth-century Europe – to establish a state for Jews (Judenstaat) in a land already inhabited.” In this article, Prior complains about the 750,000 Palestinians expelled during the 1948 War, but makes no mention whatsoever of the 800,000 to 1 million Jews thrust out of Muslim countries in the Middle East in the aftermath of Israel’s creation. In Prior’s analysis, Jewish nationalism is racist, but the expulsion of Jews in the name of Arab nationalism is unremarkable. Such is the stuff of Sabeel’s “peacemaking” agenda.


One-State Solution


Given Sabeel’s portrayal of Jewish sovereignty as a malevolent force, it should come as no surprise that the elimination of Israel as a Jewish State figures prominently in the imagination of its founder, Rev. Dr. Ateek and his supporters. In Justice and Only Justice, Rev. Dr. Ateek writes:

Contrary to what some people may feel—and this will come as a shock to many others—the PLO has always proposed the ideal solution for Palestine: one united and democratic state for all Palestinians and Jews. Interestingly, the United States, which prides itself on being the champion of democracy, has never accepted this proposal.
I still believe that this solution is feasible. It is the best and easiest to implement. However, in line with the biblical injunctions above, I would have to agree, with Israel to reject it. Israel insists above all on being a Jewish state. As part of a democratic, binational Palestine, the Jews would eventually become a minority in the country. Furthermore, many Jews so distrust the Palestinians that they would not wish to consign their future to them. So in spite of all of its attractiveness, the idea of a binational state must be discarded. (Page 165-166)


Eventually, Rev. Dr. Ateek’s reluctant support for Israel’s right to exist gave way to an expressed desire to see it dismantled. In 2004, Sabeel issued a statement in which it said its vision for the future was: “One state for two nations and three religions.” More recently, in its spring 2007 issue of Cornerstone, Sabeel published an article by Alain Epp Weaver, who wrote:
After the horrors of the Shoah, it is understandable that the idea of Israel as a safe haven with a Jewish majority would be so important to many Jews.  But must such a haven be tied to a project of maintaining and projecting a Jewish majority by any and all means? Might not a bi-national future in one state be one in which Palestinians and Israelis alike both sit securely under vine and fig tree?


Ultimately, Sabeel’s narrative is that Jewish sovereignty, not Arab efforts to deprive the Jewish people of their homeland, is the cause of suffering in the Middle East. Broadcasting this narrative only encourages further violence against Israel.



Deicide Imagery


One of the most troubling aspects about Sabeel’s message is Rev. Dr. Ateek’s use of the story of Christ’s trial and crucifixion as a template for the Arab-Israeli conflict. With this rhetoric, Rev. Dr. Ateek dishonestly portrays Palestinians as innocent sufferers and Israel as a Christ-killing nation. For example, in his 2000 Christmas Message, Ateek wrote describes how Herod the king attempted to destroy the infant Jesus.

Wishing to leave nothing to chance, Herod ordered his security forces to sweep the Bethlehem area and kill all children under the age of two. 
In the Christian tradition, Herod’s cold-blooded action is known as the Massacre of the Innocents, and its victims are regarded by the church as martyrs. It is a sobering reminder that the coming of the One whose life represents goodness and truth, peace and justice to the world, provoked an evil response from the ruling power. The innocents were helplessly caught between the domination of a violent man and the reign of the Prince of Peace.
The Christmas message for this year takes cognizance of the story of King Herod, the baby Jesus, and the massacre of the innocents. The events of the past three months of protest in Palestine have seen the killing of many children, youths, and even elderly people by the Israeli army. We have witnessed the destruction of many homes and businesses and a siege imposed on three million Palestinians. The state of Israel has been brutally gunning down hundreds of people and injuring thousands whose only crime is their desire for a life of freedom and the independence of their own country from the oppressive occupation.
King Herod allowed himself to stoop down to the basest of all feelings. He stripped himself of all semblance of humanity when he ordered the killing of innocent children. This scenario is being repeated in a different guise. Almost 40% of those killed have been less than 18 years old. Some younger teenagers died by bullets fired from further away than their stones of protest could possibly reach. These young Palestinians posed minimal threat, no real danger to their killers. Why do Israeli soldiers target protesters in the upper parts of their body, given the use of such powerful weapons? This expresses the intent to destroy, not deter. These deaths are a crime against the value of human life. They dehumanize not only the killers, but also those who command them.
At this Christmas time, when we remember the message of peace and love that came down from God to earth in the birth of Jesus Christ, our celebrations are marred by the destructive powers of the modern day “Herods” who are represented in the Israeli government.

By comparing Israeli officials to Herod the king who ordered the murder of infants in Bethlehem, Rev. Dr. Ateek is clearly trying to portray Israeli leaders as indiscriminate killers intent on murdering innocent Palestinian children. To be sure, Israeli soldiers have killed civilians, but it does not target them. In fact, it tries to avoid killing innocent civilians while its adversaries target and attack civilians while hiding behind civilians – guaranteeing civilian casualties.


Rev. Dr. Ateek, does not acknowledge this, but instead offers a dishonest description of Palestinian violence against Israelis during the Second Intifada, which was marked by the murder of numerous Israeli civilians. According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 43 Israelis were killed by terror attacks during 2000, 263 Israelis were wounded, and there were four suicide attacks at this time. A few of the attacks include:

Oct 19, 2000– Rabbi Binyamin Herling, 64, of Kedumim, was killed when Fatah members and Palestinian security forces opened fire on a group of Israeli men, women, and children on a trip at Mount Ebal near Nablus.
Nov 10, 2000 – Sgt. Shahar Vekret, 20, of Lod was fatally shot by a Palestinian sniper near Rachel’s Tomb at the entrance to Bethlehem.
Nov 20, 2000 – Miriam Amitai, 35, and Gavriel Biton, 34, both of Kfar Darom, were killed when a roadside bomb exploded alongside a bus carrying children from Kfar Darom to school in Gush Katif. Nine others, including 5 children, were injured.


Palestinian gunmen targeted Israeli children for murder during the beginning of the Second Intifada, which Rev. Dr. Ateek downplays with phrases like “three months of protest” and “stones of protest.”


Rev. Dr. Ateek’s defamation of Israel with the use of Christian scriptures continued in February 2001 when Ateek likened the Israeli occupation to the boulder sealing Christ’s tomb in a sermon at Notre Dame Chapel in Jerusalem.

Israel has placed a large boulder, a big stone that has metaphorically shut off the Palestinians in a tomb. It is similar to the stone placed on the entrance of Jesus’ tomb, which mark the evangelist describes as being “very large”. This boulder has shut in the Palestinians within and built structures of domination over them to keep them in. We have a name for this boulder. It is the OCCUPATION. Unless this boulder of OCCUPATION is removed, there will be no justice and no freedom.


In this passage, Rev. Dr. Ateek is figuratively blaming Israel for blocking Christ’s resurrection in an obvious attempt to suggest that Christ was oppressed by the Jews who insist on repeating this crime against the Palestinians. This motif was made explicit in Rev. Dr. Ateek’s 2001 Easter Message which included the following passage:

As we approach Holy Week and Easter, the suffering of Jesus Christ at the hands of evil political and religious powers two thousand years ago is lived out again in Palestine. The number of innocent Palestinians and Israelis that have fallen victim to Israeli state policy is increasing.
Here in Palestine Jesus is again walking the via dolorosa. Jesus is the powerless Palestinian humiliated at a checkpoint, the woman trying to get through to the hospital for treatment, the young man whose dignity is trampled, the young student who cannot get to the university to study, the unemployed father who ne eds to find bread to feed his family; the list is tragically getting longer, and Jesus is there in their midst suffering with them. He is with them when their homes are shelled by tanks and helicopter gunships. He is with them in their towns and villages, in their pains and sorrows.
In these paragraphs, Rev. Dr. Ateek is clearly portraying the modern state of Israel in the same frame as the Jewish and Roman leaders responsible for the death of Jesus Christ, holding the Israelis figuratively responsible for his trial and crucifixion. This motif of Jewish guilt for Christ’s death becomes more explicit in the next paragraph where Ateek portrays the Palestinians as Christ-like innocent sufferers (with no mention of Palestinian violence) and the Israeli government as engaged in an act of crucifixion (not self-defense).
In this season of Lent, it seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him. It only takes people of insight to see the hundreds of thousands of crosses throughout the land, Palestinian men, women, and children being crucified. Palestine has become one huge golgotha. The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily. Palestine has become the place of the skull.


Language like this is not the stuff of peacemaking, but demonization that fits the working definition of anti-Semitism issued by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) in 2004 which mentions the use of “symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.” Rev. Dr. Ateek has done this repeatedly.


Rev. Canon Dr. Richard Toll, FOSNA’s chair (and one of Rev. Dr. Ateek’s primary handlers at Sabeel events in the U.S.) implicitly acknowledged that Rev. Dr. Ateek’s rhetoric is unacceptable in an interview with The Columbus Dispatch on June 9, 2006. The Dispatch reported that “Toll said Ateek has toned down his rhetoric since his crucifixion statement.” Rev. Ateek would not find it necessary to “tone down” this rhetoric unless it was harmful.


Rev. Dr. Bruce Chilton, Bernard author of Rabbi Jesus and Rabbi Paul, called on Rev. Dr. Ateek to repent for his use of deicide imagery in June 2006.

Anti-Semitic language is sinful. If Canon Ateek wishes to put his past rhetoric behind him, I welcome that, but he should repent of what he has done and express an intention to change. By the same token, if he wishes to acknowledge today that his previous suggestion of dismantling the State of Israel was destructive, the way of repentance is open to him.


It appears however, that neither Rev. Dr. Ateek or the group he founded has any intention of following Rev. Dr. Chilton’s advice. In the Spring 2007 issue of Cornerstone, Sabeel activist Jonathan Kuttab wrotes the following after a dishonest comparison between Christ’s innocent suffering and the plight of the Palestinians:

And lest our friends think we are demonizing Jews or promoting anti-Semitism between the suffering of Palestinians or promoting anti-Semitism by making analogies between the suffering of the suffering of the Palestinians and the crucifixion of Jesus, let me reiterate that those responsible for the evils of the occupation are Zionist entities.


Rev. Dr. Ateek’s use of deicide imagery is not merely a dishonest attempt to make a false analogy between Christ’s innocent suffering and the inevitable consequences of Palestinian terrorism tragically rebounding on Palestinian civilians; it is an attempt to portray Israel as a baby-killing and Christ-killing nation blocking the political salvation of the Middle East.


This attempt is clearly evident in a 2005 Sabeel document, The Contemporary Way of the Cross. A CAMERA analysis of this liturgy details “the relentless tone of irresponsible self-pity that permeates the document.” The analysis reports:

The way the Arab-Israeli conflict is described in the liturgy, nothing is the fault of the Palestinians or their Arab “supporters;” everything is Israel’s fault, and ultimately, there is nothing the Palestinians can do to improve their lot except enlist Christians in the U.S. in their efforts to demonize and isolate Israel. (The only Israelis whose humanity is acknowledged are Israeli peace activists that can be used to lend credence to the notion that the conflict is all Israel’s fault.)


Sabeel’s use of deicide imagery affirms the widely-held Muslim belief that the Christian story of Christ’s betrayal by Judas and Caiaphas’s decision to hand him over to the Roman authorities for death reveals the true nature of the Jewish people. A 2002 report published by MEMRI about Palestinian educational materials reported that textbooks in schools under control of the PA include do not give a “comprehensive account of Jesus’ life” but instead “focus on parts that relate to the friction between Christians and Jews. For example, the role of Judas in the Romans’ capture of Jesus is emphasized.”


The report continues:

The description of Pontius Pilate’s sentencing of Jesus reiterates Jewish treachery. Pilate gives the Jews the choice of pardoning Jesus or the convicted thief Barabbas, and he is answered with a vigorous judgment against Jesus.
Carefully chosen references to controversial passages in the Koran and the New Testament can serve to promote resentment toward Jews and to impugn the Jewish character throughout history up to the present day.


This is not a new phenomenon. For example, in his book, Semites and Anti-Semites, Bernard Lewis quotes Kamil al-Shinnawi who wrote the following in an Egyptian newspaper in 1963:

I as a Muslim do not accuse the Jews of killing Jesus, since the noble Quran lays down that they neither killed nor crucified him but only a likeness shown to them.
But the historic facts confirm that the Jews fought against Christ and pursued him and sought his blood and that they accused him of lying and making false claims and denied that he was the awaited Messiah, and the priests assembled in Solomon’s temple and sentenced him to death by crucifixion … and they sent their sentence to the Roman authorities to be put into effect.
This was about 1934 years ago, and from that day the Jews went on boasting that they had killed and crucified Christ, and the Quran came and confirmed that they had neither killed nor crucified him, but Christian belief holds the Jews guilty of the crime of killing and crucifying him. … The Christian religion holds firm to its belief that the Jews shed the blood of Christ because they admitted their guilt and boasted of it, and because of their treatment of Christans and people in general, like murders and bloodsuckers. I as a Muslim and not shocked by the Jewish claim that they are innocent of the blood of Christ, since this claim accords with my religious beliefs, but I wonder that induces these vagrants today to try and clear themselves of a crime which they admitted perpetrating nearly two thousand years ago. Why do they insist on clearing their conscience of the blood of Christ, at a time when so many fingers are pointed at them to demand justice for the blood of Kennedy?


Lewis also quotes a commentary about an impending visit to Jordan by Pope Paul IV broadcast on from Radio Amman Jan. 4, 1964:

Some two thousand years ago the Jews crucified Jesus, after beatings, humiliations, and tortures that heap shame on mankind everywhere. And fifteen years ago, in the most cruel manner, the Jews overran Palestine. They attacked its innocent unarmed civilians and subjected many of them to the most villainous atrocities. Thus do the Jews prove their responsibility for the infamies of their forebears, and for the crucifixion and humiliation of Christ nineteen centuries ago.

More recently, in 2004, some commentators in the Middle East offered praise for the Passion of Christ, a Mel Gibson film condemned for emphasizing Jewish guilt for Christ’s murder. For example, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute, Adel Hamood, a writer in the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram described the film as “a courageous challenge to the political, financial, and media power of the Jews, who have been successful in exonerating themselves of all the crimes that they committed everywhere throughout history, including washing their hands of Christ’s blood…

The MEMRI translation continues:

‘Adel Hamooda explains that all the Jews supported the priests insofar as the crucifixion of Jesus, some openly and others silently. He then focused on the symbolism of the Devil in the film saying: “In every scene where the Devil is depicted, he appears behind Jews. He is not seen behind Judas Iscariot, or behind the Roman soldiers or their commanders. He appears only behind the priests and the murderous Jews. This is Mel Gibson’s clear and courageous message that needs no explanation or interpretation.”


The similarity between Rev. Dr. Ateek’s use of deicide imagery with anti-Jewish propaganda broadcast in the Middle East by undeniable anti-Semites raises legitimate questions about Sabeel’s true motives.



Sabeel’s Jewish Defenders


Despite its obvious hostility toward Israel, Sabeel, like several other Christian “peacemaking” organizations has proven itself adept at enlisting American and Israeli Jews in its campaign to demonize Israel. Jewish activists, who offer a narrative of Jewish self-reform and Israeli concessions leading to an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict are a steady staple at Sabeel conferences, where sadly, very little Palestinian self-criticism is displayed.


For example, Marc Ellis, director of Jewish Studies at Baylor University in Texas has appeared at Sabeel conferences displaying Powerpoint images of a helicopter gunship flying out of the Torah to document how Israeli use of force and sovereignty has affected Jewish identity. To further his argument, Ellis has displayed at Sabeel conferences the text of a letter written by one of his sons to an Israeli diplomat asserting that the modern state of Israel is using force in a manner similar to the Nazi regime:

If you are too ignorant to step out of your position for one second and see that the Israelis are using brute force to oppress the people, just as the Nazi regime once used against the Jewish people, then I don’t think you can be helped.


Professor Ellis’s theme – that Jewish sovereignty and power has undermined Jewish and identity and worship – fits in with the analysis offered Sabeel’s founder Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, who has asserted that Zionism has “hijacked” Judaism. In fact, Professor Ellis helped Rev. Dr. Ateek get his doctoral dissertation – in which he asserts Zionism has corrupted Judaism – published as a book – Justice and Only Justice (Orbis, 1989). Predictably, Professor Ellis’s critique of Jewish-power and its impact on Jewish identity is well-received at Sabeel events.


Another Jewish activist whose narrative of Jewish self-reform leading to peace is Jeff Halper, founder of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions. Halper, (who speaks wistfully of the one-state solution which means the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state) appears at Sabeel conferences decrying Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip while downplaying Arab hostility toward Jews and Israel by portraying Palestinian violence as a resistance to oppression while failing to acknowledge to acknowledge the desire of groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to destroy Israel .


In Halper’s view, there is no difference between terrorists who target civilians while hiding behind and Israeli soldiers who try to avoid killing civilians while attacking legitimate military targets. For example, at Sabeel’s October 2008 conference at Old South Church in Boston Halper told the audience

If we define terrorism as killing, wounding, harming, attacking innocent civilians, Israel is greatly more culpable than the groups we call terrorists.


Halper, like Ellis has invoked the notion of Israelis-as-Nazis. At Old South Church he said that while the Israeli public supports a two-state solution, successive Israeli governments have confused the Israeli public into thinking there is no political solution and no one to negotiate with on the Palestinian side of the conflict.

They don’t believe that peace is possible. The Israeli government has done the same thing that the Bush Administration is trying to do – mystify the conflict, to depoliticize it so that there’s no solution – the problem is them. [Applause.] And if the problem is them, then of course to put it in very harsh terms then of course the only solution is the Final Solution. [Emphasis added.]


The sight of Jews and Israelis accusing Israel of Nazi-like intentions and policies toward the Palestinians lends credence to Sabeel’s assertion that the Arab-Israeli conflict is largely the result of Jewish sovereignty and intransigence – not repeated Arab attempts to deny the Jewish people a sovereign homeland of their own.


The willingness of these individuals and groups is part of a larger phenomenon detailed by Kenneth Levin in The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege (Smith and Krause, 2005).


Levin, a psychiatrist, describes how Israelis and Jews outside of Israel embrace a narrative of Jewish self-reform and Israeli concessions leading to peace out a desire achieve a sense of master over circumstances over which they have no control, which in this case is intractable Arab and Muslim hostility toward Israel.


Under these conditions, American Jews and Israelis sometimes embrace an unreasonably critical attitude toward Israeli policies as having fueled the conflict; thereby giving Israelis the power to end the conflict unilaterally through self-reform and peace offers.

Both the self-deprecating and the grandiose distortions of reality have a common source: A wish to believe Israel to be in control of profound stressful circumstances over which it, unfortunately, has no real control. Genuine peace will come to the Middle East when the Arab world, by far the dominant party in the region, perceives such a peace as in its interest. Israeli policies have, in fact, very little impact on Arab perceptions in this regard, much less than the dynamics of domestic politics in the Arab states and of inter-Arab rivalries. Israeli strength may deter Arab assaults and fend them off when deterrence fails and assaults occur, but it cannot force peace. This is a painful reality that does cast its shadow over life in Israel. Some Israelis are so pained by it that they prefer to take refuge in delusions of Israeli culpability, the subtext of which is that the proper self-reforms and concessions by Israel can and would suffice to win peace, despite all evidence to the contrary. (The Oslo Syndrome, page xv.)


In addition to exaggerating Israel’s sins (and by extension its ability to bring about an end to the conflict), Levin reports there is a tendency to condone or minimize Arab expressions of hostility toward Israel to maintain the illusion of control.


Levin’s work helps explain the abundance of Jews and Jewish groups willing to defend Sabeel’s founder Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek’s use of deicide imagery in reference to the Jewish State. For example, Prior to Sabeel appearance at Old South Church in Boston in October 2007, local activists from Jewish Voice for Peace issued a flier asserting  that Rev. Dr. Ateek’s references to the crucifixion are “homiletic, focusing on the suffering of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government” and not directed at the Jewish people as a whole. (The problem with this analysis is that those who would defend Israeli policies are by extension, defending the crucifixion of an innocent people.)



Mainstream Jewish Response

While Sabeel has been able to enlist fringe Jewish voices in its campaign to demonize Israel, other mainstream leaders have vociferously condemned the organization.


Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, Judaic scholar at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, described the fears elicited by Rev. Dr. Ateek’s use of crucifixion imagery  at a conference about Christian Zionism at North Park University in April 2005. (The event was organized by Don Wagner, a frequent speaker at the upcoming Sabeel conference who, in his book Dying in the Land of Promise) compares the “one-hundred year process of Zionist occupation in Palestine” to a “killer-vine” destroying a rose bush in his back yard.) Again, such is the stuff of Sabeel’s “peacemaking” agenda.


Rabbi Poupko said the following:

When Christians apply the passion of Jesus of Nazareth to indict the Jews for once again causing others to be crucified, something terrifyingly ominous is afoot. By applying these narratives to the Jewish people today and to the State of Israel, they are [doing so] amid consequences and implications that their use in any other present situation does not engender. No other people have had the narrative of the passion and the crucifixion applied to it as have we the Jewish people. For the past 2,000 years, it is we – forced to exchange places on the cross – who have lived this narrative.
The continued application of the crucifixion today … perpetuates the worst elements of the Christian teachings of contempt for Judaism and for Jews. We have just begun in the past few decades to enjoy relations with Christianity that has made profound changes in its attitudes toward us. And now, through the words of these writers, the clock has been turned back. We Jews are once again ever enduring Christ-killers and what this means is that the source of Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a people who for two millennia – we the Jews – have embodied evil. And that kind of conflict can only be resolved we know how. 
The application of the central drama of the New Testament, the Passion and the Crucifixion, the resurrection of Jesus to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict simply doesn’t work. The sacrificial victim always finds him or herself in an unjust situation. He or she is sinless and blameless without error or mistake. Therefore, this sinless death for the Christian has salvific power. Because it is unjust, the act is redemptive and the one who crucifies is as Paul notes, demonic. This paradigm does not fit the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. To invoke this paradigm is to demonize the Jews. …
There is enough suffering and responsibility to go around, but to place responsibility by the use of the metaphor for crucifixion is to demonize the Jews. This paradigm admits only one possible outcome: the demonic Jew must be destroyed [so] Christ, the Palestinian will be resurrected.
What we are all working for is peace and reconciliation based on compromise. No compromise is possible when the crucifixion is invoked.


Rabbi Poukpo is not the only Jewish leader concerned about Sabeel’s impact. On August 23, 2007, the Anti-Defamation League analyzed a Sabeel document (“A Call for Morrally Responsible Divestment”). The ADL stated “the document ignores the good-faith efforts Israel has made at peace, and fails to recognize the terrorism and violence perpetrated by Palestinians aimed at destroying the State of Israel.”


In January 2007, the ADL issued a backgrounder that condemned Sabeel for “generating hostility towards Israel” and for its use of “theologically charged accusations” that belie “its professed passion for reconciliation.” The report continues:
… Sabeel often compares the Palestinians to the crucified Jesus, and Israel to his murders, alluding to the ugly and false deicide charge against all the Jewish people – a concept rejected by prominent historians and repudiated by the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian Denominations.


And on Jan. 19, 2007, Ethan Felson, associate director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs criticized U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) for giving a keynote address at a Sabeel event in Cleveland. Felson told the Baltimore Jewish Times that:
The Sabeel center is a significant problem in the search for a balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a group that plays to the political fringe. By virtue of how it operates, Sabeel removes itself from the universe of people in the interfaith world who are working constructively for a fair and constructive conversation about the Middle East.
On May 15, 2006 the Simon Wiesenthal Center protested the decision of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship to honor Rev. Dr. Ateek with a “peacemaking” award, stating that “honoring Ateek rewards and emboldens the forces of extremism in the Middle East and is a supreme slap in the face of the Jewish people.”

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