The Christian Aid Conference on Peace and Justice in the Holy Land, Gateshead, 3 November 2012
Belfast-born Denis MacEoin attended a Christian Aid conference in the North East of England, where he found Christian love and understanding being extended to one side only of the Arab-Israel conflict and resolutely withheld from the other. In this abridged version of his letter, Denis asks Christian Aid if it is upholding Christian ideals of charity and a caring mission – or simply taking sides.
On Saturday 3 November 2012, I attended the Christian Conference on Peace and Justice in the Holy Land. I did so in part to make a record of proceedings for the local Jewish community, whose members were unable to attend because the conference was held on a Saturday. I also did so out of strong personal interest. I used to teach Arabic and Islamic Studies at nearby Newcastle University, I have written widely on the Middle East, and I have produced a sizeable body of writing on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the Arab world and beyond, particularly Iran. I remained at the conference throughout the morning sessions, but was unable to attend the Workshops or the question and answer panel at the end.
I address you in the spirit of a search for peace and justice in the Holy Land, but as I do so I find I cannot reconcile either of those noble aims with the spirit or the reality of the conference. I shall start as I intend to go on, by saying that the conference was, from beginning to end, a total travesty of those ideals. It was in all respects one-sided, often dangerously so. One after another, the speakers all presented the pro-Palestinian narrative and arguments derived from Palestinian political theory. Not once was an Israeli narrative even mentioned, where such a narrative would differ in substantial terms from the Palestinian one,yet Israel was on several occasions ridiculed and condemned. How could anyone expect peace or justice to emerge from the pursuit of a discourse that leaves one side morally and intellectually triumphant because it is entirely rightand the other ignored and called to account because it is always wrong? I do not see where this is consonant with Christian values, with the ideal of charity or caritas, with a caring mission to both sides in a conflict, not just one.
I do not want to make much of what I felt to be an undercurrent of anti-Semitism, but I will say that it was there. It is, of course possible, legitimate and often healthy to criticize Israel without implying that Israelis or even all Jews share in its sins. But given that Israel is the only Jewish state in the world, statements like this feel intemperate: ‘Israel is the only state in the world that can defy international law’. It is a ridiculous and arrogant thing to say, given the existence of countries like Iran, Syria, Pakistan and many others. And that exceptionalism conveys a strong note of anti-Semitism to me. A speaker referred at one point to ‘Jewish oppressors’ and speaks of Israelis (meaning Jewish Israelis) as ‘tough and arrogant conquerors’. It was claimed that Christian churches are bullied by the Jewish lobby. An earlier speaker strongly urged that Jewish criticism of the Methodist Conference rulings on the conflict were something like hysterical and not worth considering. Only one speaker, Fr. Colin Carr, dared to mention the subject, and I am grateful to him for addressing, even if only briefly, the Jewish issue. But not even he chose to mention the extraordinary level of overt and often violent anti-Semitism in Arab – including Christian Arab – society in Gaza and the West Bank, something that is of primary relevance to the Palestinian view of Israeli Jews. This anti-Semitism (which speaks of al-Yahud as much as al-Sahyuniyya) is present on television shows, radio broadcasts, mosque sermons, newspapers, children’s textbooks, and political speeches. In other words, it is ubiquitous. How could a conference devoted to peace and justice in the Holy Land choose to say nothing about the constant provocation to violence found on the Palestinian side?
Throughout the conference, several tables were made available to a variety of groups. These groups were Christian Aid, CAFOD, Sabeel UK, Kairos Palestine, Methodist Working Party – Campaign Actions, Pax Christi, Friends of the Holy Land, the Villages Group, and Ecumenical Accompaniment. Every one of these organizations is in some measure fiercely pro-Palestinian. How could there be any hope for balance or an open debate when not a single pro-Israel group or organization had been invited or given a table on which to display books and pamphlets? The conference was from the outset closed to alternative viewpoints even by qualified organizations or individuals. Is that a Christian idea of justice? Do you have any plans to hold a second conference at which participants from the first might be exposed to pro-Israel and Jewish experience? If not, then it seems that bias of the worst kind dominates your approach to this problem…
It horrified me to realize that in a large room of pious Christians not one individual saw fit to mention the enormous suffering heaped on the citizens of Israel by the Palestinians, Hezbollah, Syrians, Egyptians and Jordanians. How can you hope to pray for justice if the sufferings of one side only are deemed fit for lamentation? Throughout the conference, it was the turn of one speaker after another (matched by each of the video presentations we had to watch) to lay all the blame for sufferings without limitation on Israel while exonerating the Palestinians of all blame. The Israelis oppressed and the Palestinians suffered, and that was the last– and only – word.
William Bell, for example, strongly denied that he was one-sided… He claimed that Christian Aid deals in advocacy in order to get to the root of things in politics and more. But he did not explain why advocacy for the Palestinian side, especially in politics, should not be interpreted at its face value as taking sides. It was as though speakers had a fanciful self-image of a lack of bias while actually they expressed themselves in some of the most forcibly pro-Palestinian language I have encountered anywhere….
Why do attacks like (the slaying of the Fogel family – including a baby in a cot) count for so little compassion and understanding in Christian hearts that their deaths dare not even be mentioned at a conference of this kind? Why did this conference show love and consideration only for Palestinians?
One woman, an Ecumenical Accompanier, gave a short presentation on her experiences with checkpoints, and regaled us with the difficulties faced by Palestinians on their account. It is indeed true that checkpoints hamper the daily lives of Palestinians and that their presence is regretted by everyone involved. However, not a single word was said about why the checkpoints have been deployed in the first place. Nor did the speaker mention the simple and important fact that over one third of the checkpoints have been removed in the last few years, precisely as a matter of Israeli policy to make life easier for the Palestinians. But the rationale behind these structures could not be easier to understand. In January 2005, Wafa al-Biss, a 21-year-old Palestinian woman from the Jabalya refugee camp was badly burned in a cooking accident. She was hurried to Soroka Hospital, an Israeli institution near Beersheva, where she was treated and cared for. On leaving, she was given a special pass to return to the hospital for out-patient care. In July that year, she was stopped at the Erez checkpoint en route for Soroka. She was wearing a suicide vest of ten pounds, which she planned to detonate in the hospital, killing doctors and nurses from the team who had treated her until then and, she herself said, as many children as possible. A Palestinian doctor from Gaza has written eloquently of his horror on learning what she planned to do. He said this: ‘As for Biss herself, she should have been a messenger for peace among her people, and should have been bringing flowers and appreciation to the Soroka doctors for healing her burns…’ Was this session not an opportunity to at least acknowledge thatIsraeli compassion existsand that Palestinian cruelty also exists…Is a checkpoint which stopped Biss blowing up doctors and patients in a hospital morally unacceptable to Christians in the UK?
This Ecumenical Accompanier saw the checkpoints from one side only, as inconveniences and sometimes major obstacles to Palestinians, with no consideration for those who are faced with a major terrorist threat from hospital patients, women with fake pregnancies, or – horror of horrors – from little children primed with bombs. No, the woman from EAPPI only wanted to tear down the checkpoints (and let the murderers through?). Similarly, another speaker, Norah Carmi, called for the dismantling of the wall and security fence. Was that advisable from a representative of a Christian charity? …Is Norah Carmi’s call, in effect, for Israel to allow the bombers unimpeded access to create death and havoc in Israeli cities,capable of being included within the boundaries of Christ’s compassion?
Carmi is, of course, closely associated with the ecumenical association called Sabeel, for whom she had worked in Jerusalem, just as she currently works for Kairos Palestine, closely associated with Sabeel and what many consider to be supercessionist theology. At the conference was a large table and poster for Friends of Sabeel, and at one point Stephen Leah referred favourably to a book by Sabeel founder Naim Ateek. Significantly, Ateek’s earliest writings focus on the trope that the Jews have no right to a sovereign state of their own.
At one point Carmi said ‘Peace which is in the Old Testament, the Book of the Jews, is not seen in our land’. Now, in a conference dedicated to the subject of peace, this is a strong statement. It leaves too many important questions unanswered. Peace questions, which should have been at the very core of this conference but which went unaddressed. Chief among these was ‘who has been responsible for an absence of peace?’ It was a general consensus that the blame for this fell every time on Israel. But the historical facts are quite the opposite. If honesty is a Christian virtue – which it surely is – then those assembled at the conference did their utmost to ignore it.
In 1967, a conference of the Arab League made the following statement: ‘No negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel [as a Jewish state], no peace with Israel.’ These three ‘Nos’ have been accepted everywhere, and you will find it in the Hamas Charter, in the PLO Constitution, and in a famous ‘Risala Maftuha’ or Open Letter of Hezbollah/Hizbullah. Citing an elementary part of Shari’a Law, the Hamas Charter says ‘In face of the Jews’ usurpation of Palestine, it is compulsory that the banner of Jihad be raised.’ In Article Thirteen, it states ‘Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement.’ And in the same article it writes ‘There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors.’ I draw attention to statements such as these in order to clarifying where the resistance to peace comes from. It does not come from Israel. Yet neither Mrs Carmi nor any other speaker saw fit to draw attention to these egregious attacks on peacemaking on the Palestinian side. This was a conference about peace, yet the main obstacle to peace was discreetly set aside. Many of those gathered in Gateshead say they work closely with Palestinians, and Norah Carmi is a Palestinian herself, yet there was no indication that anyone enters into dialogue with Muslim Palestinians to engage them with this dilemma. Instead, speaker after speaker called on Israel to reach a resolution. This was absurd. Israel has made numerous demarches for peace and has been rejected for over sixty years. If talk is good and balance is essential, I have to ask what right the conference had to blame Israel as an obstacle to peace and to pass over the many sins of the Palestinians, not in silence, but with lavish praise?
Elsewhere, Carmi declared herself to be ‘very connected to the Palestinian cause’. Given that no Jewish or Israeli views were expressed throughout the day, Carmi let slip the veil of impartiality which she drew about herself when she said ‘I am impartial’. Clearly, she is as impartial as any party member toeing the line. Given her prominence as a speaker, her blatant espousal of one side tainted the atmosphere. I would have no problem with her being pro-Palestinian were it not that the Israeli cause was ruled out from the start…
Carmi’s grossest comment came about halfway through her address, when she argued that ‘Israel is the only state in the world than can defy international law’. It seems she had forgotten countries like Syria, Iran, Burma, North Korea, China, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Somalia, Morocco, Pakistan, Afghanistan and many others, including the United States. This is particularly ironic because she condemns Israel, where religious freedom is genuine and ubiquitous, yet she signally ignores countries like Egypt or Pakistan which restrict religious freedom, especially for Christians, who flourish in Israel.
It is hard to understand why a fair-minded person would exceptionalize Israel in this way, following a long established pattern that defines Israel and Israel alone as a violator of human rights, an initiator of violence, and a selfish actor that refuses to withdraw from someone else’s territory. The truth is very different. At the very least, should Israel’s status be debated, we must start with the Jewish state as one out of a large number of countries involved in disputes. And we should also emphasize that Israel is alone among all the nations in the world to have its very existence challenged by dictatorial neighbouring states and organizations, been invaded, attacked regularly by gunmen, suicide bombers, and rockets, and made the subject of horrendous lies and curses that no other country has faced.
I found it worrying that Mrs Carmi said Christians are not persecuted (by Muslims) in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This was cause for grave disquiet. Numerous Christian organizations, such as the Barnabus Trust, the Global Jesus Christ Network, Open Doors, Persecution.com, and International Christian Concern, that work to alleviate suffering from the persecution of Christians worldwide, draw attention to the plight of Christians in the Middle East in general and the Palestinian territories in particular, where Bethlehem has shifted from a Christian majority town to one with a Muslim-majority in only a few generations. By contrast, the Christian population of Israel is the only one in the entire Middle East to have grown since 1948.
Here are some figures that should give pause for thought –
Christians in Bethlehem, Jesus’ birthplace:
Under Arab rule 1948-67: fall from 85% to 45%
Under Israeli rule 1967-94: steady at 45%
Under Palestinian Authority rule 1994 – 2012: fall from 40% to 15%’
That an ostensibly pious Christian woman chose to deny the persecution of her brethren came as a shock to me. It also shocked me that she berated Israel despite its genuine efforts to protect its Christian communities from both Muslim and Jewish extremists. Moreover, I was deeply dismayed that, even though she must know this very well, she said not a word about the Islamic hatred for Jews, not just in the Palestinian territories but in every single Arab country, and non-Arab countries like Iran, Turkey and elsewhere.
At one point, for example, Mrs Carmi spoke of Israelis as ‘tough and arrogant conquerors’. The Israelis have never marched into another land as conquerors, but in self defence. They have pulled out of Sinai and Gaza and Southern Lebanon – not as a result of military defeat, but in order to establish and encourage peace,hardly the actions of ‘arrogant conquerors’. They have repeatedly appealed to the Palestinians to make a comprehensive and permanent peace and allow them to withdraw from the vast majority of the West Bank, subject only to mutually agreed land swaps. Which arrogant conquerors would do that, and do it so often?…
[Norah Carmi upheld a Palestinian “right of return”].But what if they did return, as Norah Carmi hopes? According to UNWRA, there are around 5 million Arab refugees, mainly from the 1948 war, but the vast majority of these are descendants of the 1948 refugee population. There are roughly 6 million Jews and some one and a half million Arabs residing in Israel. The influx of 5 million Arabs would overwhelm the Jewish population and lead to the disestablishment of the world’s only sovereign state for the Jewish people. This would create an unparalleled injustice and in every likelihood a humanitarian disaster, a very legitimate fear and concern that should have been addressed in a conference on peace and justice in the Holy Land. Zionism, a movement devoted to the creation of a Jewish state, emerged out of the persecution inflicted on Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe. The establishment of Israel brought to an end two thousand years of wandering by Jews driven from their original homeland. It brought a degree of restitution for those two thousand years, restored hope in Jewish hearts, and created a safe place where Jews could defend themselves from further attempts to deny them the simple rights afforded other human beings. The return of all Palestinian refugees would destroy Israel, would invite violence by the many jihadist groups who openly call for the destruction of Israel and death to Jews, and would return Jews to their earlier status as wanderers in a hostile world.
And yet today, once again, the enemies of the Jews are doing it again, are inventing myths about Jews, deriding them, bullying them, describing Israel without a shred of evidence as a Nazi state and an apartheid state. And here are Christians supporting the bullies and adding to the abuse….Today, the Palestinians call Israel a ‘Nazi State’ and deny that Jews have ever had even a suggestion of connection to the Holy Land or built two temples in Jerusalem. For Christians, this is a denial of both Old Testament and New Testament, yet few Christian voices are raised in defence of their own scriptures and the promises held in them for the Jewish people.
A disturbing statement made by Mrs Carmi was that ‘most Christian churches are intimidated by the Jewish lobby’. This is outrageous in the extreme, and I am sure you can see it in all its glaring dishonesty. I have been associated with the pro-Israel lobby for a great many years, and I have yet to hear or read anything by Jewish groups that displays even a hint of ill feeling towards the Christian churches.
It seems closely allied to the Palestinian and pro-Palestinian defamation, derived in many cases from the Nazis, that the Jews control the world, including the media, the banks and perhaps we are expected to believe – indirectly the Churches.Such calumnies are widespread in the Palestinian territories, in Egypt, in Jordan and elsewhere. They are enormously harmful – not just to the Jewish people, whom they are directed against, but also deeply corrupting for organisations which turn a blind eye to them when they are said at events they are sponsoring. I call upon you directly to distance your organisation from this profoundly un-Christian statement, uttered on church premises, by a Christian speaker, at an event you – Christian Aid – are responsible for.
More than once, she has expressed herself to be critical of the occupation [of the West Bank]. That is reasonable: most Israelis are keen to see an end to the occupation, which has cost them so much in lives and money. But a more balanced comment would have gone on to show why, given the long years of Palestinian attacks on Israel, no Israeli government can pull out until it has cast-iron guarantees that there will be no further recourse to arms. Why? Because Israel is 9 miles wide at its narrowest point and the entire country would come within range of missile and rocket attack. There is no reason to think it would not. Israel’s bitter experience of Gaza is a strong proof that Israeli caution is justified. Like everything in the conference, this remained unbalanced.
She wanted Israel to pull back to its 1967 borders. This is unforgivable. The borders in place before the Six-Day War were notoriously hard to defend and if renewed would only tempt the Arab states to launch another invasion.
Here is a very recent statement by Abbas Zaki, a member of the Fatah Central Committee. It comes from an interview that aired on al-Jazeera on 23 September 2011:
‘The settlement should be based upon the borders of June 4, 1967. When we say that the settlement should be based upon these borders, President [Abbas] understands, we understand, and everybody knows that the greater goal cannot be accomplished in one go. If Israel withdraws from Jerusalem, evacuates the 650,000 settlers, and dismantles the wall – what will become of Israel? It will come to an end. […]’
I find it hard to understand how a caring Christian, fully cognizant of Jesus’s message, and surely fully aware of the genocidal intentions of some of her fellow Palestinians, including those in the political leadership, could take this position and remain silent on these points despite the Christian call for love, compassion, and forgiveness.
Christians and Jews have much in common. A belief in God, reverence for Moses and the prophets and the writings of the Tanakh, a commitment to the religious life, to piety, and to a profound code of morality. But in recent years, although the Third Reich has long been gone and anti-Semitism relegated to the cold corners of most discourse, general hatred for the Jews has grown, not just in the Middle East, where it is rampant and murderous, but in Europe and North America. The far left has shifted from support of Israel and the Jews to contempt, lying and betrayal, and many Christians, under that influence, have espoused a similar philosophy. I say that as a life-long liberal, not a hardline right winger. Something has gone badly wrong when a conference of Christians recognizes only one narrative, places blame on only one side, praises the side most prone to violence and least disposed to peace, presents falsehoods as facts, calls indirectly for the destruction of the only state the Jews have had for two thousand years, and even denies that there is serious persecution of their own brethren in the Palestinian territories.
Dr. Denis M. MacEoin