CMEP Disguises Anti-Israel Propaganda as Lenten Reflection

Founded in 1984, Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) is a lobby organization supported by 23 churches and church-related organizations from Catholic, Protestant and Protestant faith traditions in the United States. The organization, which works to influence Congress, the White House and the State Department, sends alerts to its supporters who in turn are asked to contact government officials about their concerns. The churches that support CMEP, particularly mainline Protestant churches, sometimes broadcast these alerts to their members.

CMEP alerts and newsletters indicate that the organization has embraced the notion that the Arab-Israeli conflict can be brought to an end largely through Israeli withdrawals and concessions. CMEP pays little attention to the ideological and religious components of hostility toward Israel in the Middle East and oftentimes remains silent about the misdeeds of Arabs and Muslim regimes in the region, particularly in reference to human rights. For example, a Google search of CMEP’s website indicates the organization has remained largely silent about the mistreatment of Coptic Christians in Egypt. One document on CMEP’s website that deals with this issue is congressional testimony offered by Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Wenski in 2006 on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

CMEP exhibits a persistent bias against Israel but does not traffic in obvious anti-Jewish rhetoric used evident in Sabeel materials. In the main, the organization couches its criticism of Israel in cautious and circumspect language.

Consequently, CMEP has the credibility necessary organize trips to the Middle East with prominent lawmakers. For example, CMEP sponsored, along with J-Street, a Congressional trip to Israel in February 2010 that included U.S. Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass).

Every once in a while, however, CMEP’s bias manifests itself in an obvious manner. For example, when Israel began excavating 180 feet from the Temple Mount in 2007, the organization issued a letter to the U.S. State Department affirming the anti-Israel hysteria promoted by extremists throughout the Middle East. Israel was working to maintain access to the Temple Mount and CMEP lent credence to the notion, spread by anti-Israel extremists, that Israel was undermining the Al Aqsa Mosque.

Rumors about Israel undermining or attacking the Al Aqsa Mosque have a long history of inciting violence against Israel, and by affirming these rumors, CMEP revealed a troubling bias and naiveté.

Since Warren Clark, a former State Department diplomat, replaced Corinne Whitlatch as CMEP’s executive director in January 2008, the organization has not made any obvious missteps. Nevertheless, the organization remains firmly committed to placing the onus for ending the Arab-Israeli conflict on Israel’s shoulders.

Lenten Anti-Israelism

This is particularly evident in the Lenten and Easter Reflections issued by the organization in early February. Four of the seven reflections, written to fortify local CMEP activists in their peacemaking efforts, are pretty neutral and offer no evidence of anti-Israel bias.

Three of the reflections, however, are obvious attempts to direct attention to Israel’s alleged sins and portray Israel as solely responsible for the Arab-Israeli conflict. The material does not encourage the same level of attention or understanding to the role Israel’s Arab and Muslim adversaries have played in contributing to the continued existence Arab-Israeli conflict.

Fourth Sunday of Lent – Peter Makari

One reflection with a noticeable bias was written for the Fourth Sunday of Lent by Peter Makari, executive for the Middle East and Europe for the Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ.

Makari was the primary author of the notorious “Tear Down the Wall” resolution passed by the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ in 2005. This resolution lamented the uprooting of olive trees in the West Bank to make way for the security barrier but made no reference to the deaths of Israeli children killed by Palestinian suicide bombers during the Second Intifada

In his reflection, Makari invokes a passage from 2 Corinthians to highlight the righteousness of God. He then uses the theme of God’s perfect righteousness to assess, or interrogate Israeli (and only Israeli) policies. Given that God is perfectly just, and Israel is a human institution, it is no surprise that Israel ends up looking bad. Makari shields Palestinians and Arabs from the hermeneutic of God’s righteousness through vague and diffuse language.

Makari writes:

In Israel and Palestine, Israeli settlements, the separation barrier, conditions of refugees, and myriad aspects of occupation—as well as destabilizing and debilitating violence—diminish hope and dehumanize people. Palestinian Christians offer a plea in their “Moment of Truth” kairos document.

Makari contrasts concrete nouns such as Israeli settlements and the separation barrier with a diffuse and vague reference to “destabilizing and debilitating violence.”

This is a shop-worn technique of anti-Israel activists in the Christian peacemaking community in America: Point out Israel by name, speak in specific terms about the things it does and then offer up a vague pro-forma condemnation of violence – without mentioning by name Israel’s adversaries.

This strategy, documented in a report about mainline human rights activism issued by the Institute on Religion and Democracy in 2004, makes it difficult to determine who, aside from Israel, is being criticized.

The IRD report – “Human Rights Advocacy in the Mainline Protestant Churches (2000-2003)” – states that “when the subject of Israeli abuses comes up, mainline resolution writers frequently discover a zest for hard hitting prose. They name the victims, describe their specific sufferings, and point a finger at the perpetrator. Every detail serves to heighten the sense of outrage.”

Clearly, Makari has dialed it back substantially since authoring the “Tear Down the Wall” Resolution in 2005. Nevertheless, a distinct bias is clearly evident in Makari’s reflection.
Makari is not writing about the brokenness of the world writ large, nor is he asking people to contemplate their own sin. Instead he is asking readers to ponder Israeli alleged misdeeds and wrongdoing as part of their Lenten discipline.

Sixth Sunday of Lent – John Sullivan

Fr. J ohn Sullivan uses a similar strategy in his reflection for the Sixth Sunday of Lent. After invoking Isaiah 50:49 which speaks of the prophet being given the “tongue of a teacher” Fr. Sullivan confesses:

Perhaps I have been too silent in my communities of Faith, and among friends in speaking out for the homeless Palestinians, and in protest to the unjust and discriminatory policies of an Israeli Government that makes them homeless.
As People of Faith and Justice, and citizens of a Nation supportive of Israel, are we not being called upon to speak out about the continuing siege and blockade of Gaza; about the thousands of homes there which cannot be rebuilt?
Are we not being called upon to speak out in solidarity with the dispossessed Palestinian families in East Jerusalem?
Are we not being called upon to speak out in protest to the continued growth of the older Israeli settlements, and the building restrictions imposed upon the West Bank Palestinians?
Are we not being called upon to speak out about collective punishment, and the continued construction of the Wall of Separation?
Especially during Lent, may the Lord God help us to hear Isaiah and speak with his words.
Like Makari, Fr. Sullivan is engaging in a shop-worn technique of de-legitimizing Israel. He uses the exhortations of a biblical prophet to assess and condemn Israeli behavior without assessing Palestinian behavior, as if Israel’s Palestinian adversaries are without sin. Archbishop Desmond Tutu did the same thing during his speech at a Sabeel conference in 2007. Gary Burge did this as well in his text, Whose Land? Whose Promise?
Under the schema adopted by these writers, the Jewish people and their institutions are placed under intense biblical scrutiny while the misdeeds of those who attack them are ignored.

Fr. Sullivan offers not one word of admonition or correction toward Palestinians, and makes no reference to the actions of Hamas that have caused so much suffering in the Gaza Strip. Nowhere does Fr. Sullivan condemn the violence that preceded Israel’s attack on Hamas in 2008. Are thousands of rocket attacks unworthy of mention, of condemnation?

Yes, indeed, Palestinians are suffering. But Palestinian leaders share responsibility for this suffering and moreover, Israeli officials have worked to mitigate this suffering. Fr. Sullivan’s statement notwithstanding, the Israelis have allowed foodstuffs, medicine, fuel, and in some instances, building materials into the Gaza Strip only to see these materials stolen by Hamas. Fr. Sullivan also neglects to condemn Egypt, which has also restricted the flow of goods into the Gaza Strip.

Fr. Sullivan’s “confession” is not really a confession of his sins, but a recapitulation of the narrative offered by anti-Israel extremists in the Middle East and their supporters in the West. As a religious leader, Fr. Sullivan has an obligation to steer people away from grievance narratives, and yet he affirms them, just as CMEP did in 2007 during the controversy surrounding the excavation near the Temple Mount.

In a manner similar to Makari’s reflection, Fr. Sullivan is not encouraging his readers to ponder their sin and their own need for redemption, but to focus specifically on Israeli sin as part of a Lenten discipline.

Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach – Easter

The last of CMEP’s reflections is written by Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach, an activist from the Mennonite Central Committee. Shlabach’s Easter Sunday reflection, begins as follows:

“We just want to be treated as human beings.” This sentiment was echoed repeatedly by Palestinians during my recent travels to Gaza and the West Bank.
Around the world those with power try to de-humanize those with less power. We build up false divisions and try to categorize the “other.”

She then invokes a passage from Acts in which Peter asserts that God shows no partiality. She subsequently condemns “Western Christians [who] have too often promoted the view that there is a chosen people in the Middle East and have used that belief to support unjust policies.” (Italics hers.) Schlabach ends her meditation with the following:

Peter’s message should prod us to take a different approach: one that lends our energies and support to all who meet the criteria of fearing God and doing what is right, including the many Israelis and Palestinians who work for peace, speak out against injustice and uphold the dignity of all human beings.
This Easter let us break down the barriers that divide us.

Like the other reflection writers before her, Schlabach focuses the reader’s attention on Israel and its supporters, in this case Christian Zionists who believe that Israel’s creation in 1948 was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy and that God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people. Such people, Schlabach, obliquely suggests, support “unjust policies.”

Schlabach does not address however, the role theology plays in fomenting unjust and violent acts against Israel and Jews in the Middle East. Numerous Islamic writers regard Israel’s hoped-for destruction as a fulfillment of Muslim prophecy. While Schlabach’s critique could, in theoretical terms, be used to condemn these commentators as well, she does not make the effort to do so.

Taken together, these reflections portray the Palestinians as innocent suffers and the Jewish state of Israel as solely responsible for their suffering and pain. The authors of these reflections use Israel as a negative backdrop to highlight their own moral and intellectual superiority.

Such polemics have no place in Lenten reflections.