Working in North America to undermine Christian support for Israel
Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, a Palestinian Christian organization headquartered in Jerusalem, is a group you probably never heard of. But Sabeel plays a critical role in seeking to reverse Christian support for Israel around the world.
In the U.S., Friends of Sabeel – North America (FOSNA) is behind or involved in virtually every divestment resolution pending before various Christian denominations, often teaming up with Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).
You need to know about Sabeel, and how Sabeel and JVP team up against Israel.
Sabeel provides the Christian liberation theology, JVP provides the Jewish cover.
1. United Church of Christ
For the past few days, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ (UCC) has been deliberating in Cleveland, Ohio on several resolutions related to Israel.
Back in 2005, the UCC passed a resolution condemning Israel’s security barrier and calling on Israel to “tear down the wall” (Israel’s construction of the security barrier began in 2002 as a counterterrorism measure).
This week its General Synod is considering a divestment resolution modelled after the one that narrowly passed last year by a 310-303 vote in the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the largest of several Presbyterian denominations in America.
But in an unusual move, also up for the General Synod’s consideration this week is a resolution that declares Israel an apartheid state. As discussed in a recent LI post, the resolution mistakenly tries to apply the legal definition of apartheid found in several international statutes and conventions to Israel’s “actions against the Palestinians”.
Writing this week for Philos Project, a new organization “promoting positive Christian engagement in the Middle East”, Dexter Van Zile thought the resolutions were probably going to pass. I will have more on Philos Project in a future post.
Zile, who serves as the Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), noted that:
considering the implicit support the UCC leadership has given to the anti-Israel resolutions, unless there is some sort of miracle and a significant number of delegates come to their senses, it’s entirely possible that the apartheid and BDS resolutions will pass”.
At the time of this writing, the resolutions have not yet come up for a vote at the UCC plenary. While we cannot yet confirm it, various pro-BDS Twitter feeds are reporting that at least one of the resolutions passed unanimously in committee this afternoon.
As reported in a recent article for the Israel-bashing website Mondoweiss, attending these church meetings—and lobbying hard—will be BDS activists affiliated with FOSNA. Mondoweiss says FOSNA staffers will be on hand to “lend moral support”, and to help church delegates “come to a more informed understanding” about how BDS strategies are founded on the “biblical call as followers of Christ to be peacemakers”.
It’s a role that they know how to play well.
They’ve been playing it for nearly twenty years.
2. Sabeel’s Assault on Israel in America’s Churches
According to its promotional materials, Sabeel serves as the “voice for Palestinian Christians” of the “indigenous Church”.
Founded in 1989, it defines itself as “working for a just and durable peace” and as a “refuge for dialogue”.
Sabeel’s bucolic name—Arabic for “the way” and a “spring of water”—is meant to convey a “message of love”. And its founder, the Rev. Naim Ateek, often speaks of the “Christian responsibility to respect the dignity of every human being”.
But according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) the organization uses “Holocaust-related language to demonize Israel and Israelis”.
Critics say that instead of promoting faith-based understanding and reconciliation, Sabeel “actually seems to be a political organization promoting anti-Israel propaganda while driving Church policy toward destroying Israel through BDS”.
Yet most supporters of Israel have never heard of it.
Unlike other anti-Israel organizations, Sabeel doesn’t have a large online or social media presence. It’s also been relatively uninterested in boosting membership for its U.S. national chapters, many of which are made up solely of a few committed activists.
Sabeel/FOSNA has occasionally engaged in boycott campaigns outside of the churches. As the ADL notes, in recent years it’s also focusing more attention on anti-Israel initiatives on American campuses, sending speakers to give lectures and co-sponsoring BDS events with Students for Justice in Palestine.
But FOSNA mostly works behind the scenes—organizing scores of church conferences in major cities across America, and bringing thousands of church members to Jerusalem for “witness trips”, where visitors are taken through the Stations of the Cross adapted to “mirror the Palestinian struggle”.
FOSNA has flown under the radar for years.
Now hoping to change that is the Jerusalem-based research institute NGO Monitor.
Last week, it released a 49 page report on Sabeel’s “Theological Assault on Israel in Churches”.
Written by Yizhak Santis, NGO Monitor’s Chief Programs Officer, the report offers detailed evidence of Sabeel’s global efforts to spearhead BDS resolutions in mainline Protestant churches and to promote an “anti-Israel message [that] is often intertwined with theological anti-Semitism”.
It documents how Sabeel and its “Friends of Sabeel” affiliates have worked for nearly two decades in the U.S., Canada, and Europe to advance a radical theology that vilifies Zionism, attacks the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, and even questions the very essence of Judaism itself.
Noteworthy is the report’s focus on Sabeel’s funding sources, which are non-transparent and appear to be non-compliant with Israel’s reporting requirements for registered non-profits.
Hundreds of hyperlinks to Sabeel events, speakers, and writings are coupled with eye-witness accounts of Sabeel-sponsored conferences, including one hosted by the First Presbyterian Church in San Anselmo, California in March 2010 which drew an audience of 500 (see Appendix E, pp. 41-43).
The report includes a transcript from a Bay Area Presbyterian Elder who attended that event, describing it as:
A steady, relentless, downward progression into expressions of genuine hatred for Israel, its leaders and its people…The number of anti-Semitic statements grew as the day progressed (worldwide Zionist control, Zionist control of the media, Zionist control of Obama, Zionists make us kill a million Iraqis, etc.) The expressions on the faces of the audience grew grey and hard…This was all very slick. It was offered as a theological conference but was actually an extremist political rally”.
Basically, as the NGO Monitor report makes clear, European governments are funneling tax-payer funds toward an Israel-based organization that’s advancing anti-Jewish messaging worldwide.
3. Sabeel’s Israel-Bashing Catechism
Sabeel’s founder is the Anglican Rev. Naim Ateek, an American-trained Palestinian Christian priest. An Israeli citizen, he grew up in Nazareth, where for many years he was a parish priest before becoming the canon of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. George in Jerusalem.
Ateek promulgates a Palestinian form of “liberation theology”.
In a nutshell it’s “based on the premise that the Bible’s explicit descriptions of the land of Israel as belonging to the Jewish people must be repudiated and redefined”.
Ateek and his fellow Sabeel travelers view Jewish national self-determination as both “bad theology” and bad for the Jews.
Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel are renounced as a “relapse to the most primitive concepts of an exclusive, tribal God”.
A central theme is that Zionism has compromised and corrupted Jewish identity and worship, enlisting anti-Israel speakers like Max Blumenthal.
In an important 2011 article published in Jewish Political Studies Review, Zile claims that Sabeel’s perspective holds Jewish sovereignty in contempt—Jews are supposed to “accept suffering” because their status as a subjugated and exiled people is a way of “being faithful to their religious and moral traditions”.
Theologian Adam Gregerman, who wrote a seminal article on Palestinian liberation theology in 2004, also describes it as a kind of sanctification of Jewish persecution:
This valorization of holiness in subjugation reveals an antipathy to the basic rights of the Jews, like all people, to security, freedom and self-determination…[it] elevates Jewish weakness and vulnerability to a pure or ideal state, ignores the Jewish experience of powerlessness, and perpetuates some of the most offensive anti-Jewish themes in the Christian tradition”.
Ateek’s work, which challenges mainstream understandings of the Old Testament, also features imagery of Jewish acts of deicide.
In an April 2001 Easter address, which Ateek has never publically disavowed, he declared that:
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…Here in Palestine Jesus is again walking the via dolorosa. Jesus is the powerless Palestinian…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.”
In the months (November-March) before Ateek delivered this Easter message, Hamas and Islamic Jihad perpetrated 12 suicide bombings that killed 23 Israelis and maimed 276, including children who were seriously wounded (source: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs).
At no point in his sermon did Ateek refer to these atrocities.
In later addresses and writings during the second intifada, Ateek would excuse Palestinian violence as a justifiable nationalist response and would draw false moral equivalences between the terror attacks and Israel’s efforts to stop them.
In 2006, Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East, a group which has long challenged anti-Israel and anti-Jewish bias within church teachings, criticized Ateek for dismissing legitimate Israeli security concerns and called on him to “repent in full” for characterizing modern day Israeli Jews as Christ-killers.
4. Sabeel Goes Uncontested in the Pews
The new NGO Monitor report shows how Sabeel/FOSNA has become well-entrenched in America’s mainline Protestant churches.
With regard to the UCC, it meticulously documents how the church has been donating funds to Sabeel, hosting its conferences (including one held at its flagship Old South Church in Boston back in 2007), and promoting its materials for over a decade.
Some UCC pastors, such as Rev. Graylan S. Hagler, Senior Minister of the Plymouth Congregational UCC of Washington, D.C., have been keynote speakers for Sabeel events (Rev. Hagler also recently opened his pulpit to the notorious anti-Semite Gilad Atzmon).
The UCC’s Palestine-Israel Network (UCCPIN), a subgroup that’s responsible for educating church members on the issue, has established a close working relationship with Sabeel. (The UCCPIN has its own disturbing penchant for disseminating loopy anti-Semitic materials, as noted recently here and here).
The Episcopal Church is also tightly associated with Sabeel, hosting its conferences in churches across the country for over a decade.
It’s been so impressed by the group that in 2006 The Episcopal Peace Fellowship honored Ateek with its peacemaking award.
Then there’s the United Methodist Church (UMC), where FOSNA’s message is a staple because its top leaders are also Sabeel activists.
Janet Lahr Lewis, a prominent missionary in the UMC’s Board of Global Ministries and currently its Advocacy Coordinator for the Middle East, also served as coordinator of the International Friends of Sabeel from 2001-2007. Lewis has recently been criticized for likening the situation facing Palestinians to the Holocaust, and the Armenian and Rwandan genocides.
Modelled after the 1985 Kairos call issued by black pastors in Soweto, the KPD views boycotts and “disinvestment” as tools that churches can use to “take a position of truth” against a racist and oppressive Israel, and draws an explicit comparison between contemporary Palestinian society and the black townships of South Africa.
It’s a ludicrous charge.
For years Christian faith leaders have criticized the KPD for its false comparison of Israel with old apartheid South Africa.
FOSNA promoted and helped to market the IPMN’s widely discredited 2014 “educational resource” Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Study Guide, which views Zionism as an “oppressive, imperious, and exploitative” ideology.
Ateek even wrote its postscript where he characterized Zionism as a “false theology” and a “struggle for colonial and racist supremacist privilege”. In Ateek’s words, the 72 page booklet and accompanying DVD
is the equivalent of declaring Zionism heretical, a doctrine that fosters both political and theological injustice. This is the strongest condemnation that a Christian confession can make against any doctrine that promotes death rather than life”.
According to Zile, after last year’s divestment vote, and the negative publicity it generated, some PCUSA leaders have become disillusioned with the “so-called peace activists” within their denomination.
But IPMN-affiliated church members are still planning another debate on BDS at the PCUSA’s next general assembly. And Zionism Unsettled remains available for purchase at the PCUSA online store.
5. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and Sabeel
One section of the NGO Monitor report (pp. 36-38) is devoted to documenting FOSNA’s extensive collaboration with the organization Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).
For many years JVP has played an “outsized role” in U.S. church conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it’s one of the few Jewish lobbies that pro-BDS activists will embrace.
Over the past 10 years, JVP has established a strong alliance with FOSNA. They’ve co-sponsored over two dozen events, rallies, and church gatherings.
Recently, JVP’s Rabbinical Council issued a statement of support for Sabeel that declared: “As rabbis and people of faith, we stand in solidarity with the work of FOSNA”.
Of particular interest to LI readers will be JVP and FOSNA’s co-sponsorship of the “National Rasmea Defense Committee”, which last year lobbied the U.S. government to discontinue its proceedings against Rasmea Odeh.
Odeh was found guilty of immigration fraud after concealing her role in two terrorist bombing deaths in Israel.
Leaders in JVP are also top FOSNA activists.
David Glick, who is a prominent JVP member, is also a member of the NorCal Friends of Sabeel chapter and has written for Sabeel publications. For the Spring 2012 edition of Sabeel’s quarterly publication, Cornerstone, Glick authored a poem titled “Hear O Israel” that claims Israel is inherently racist, and compares Israeli policies to those of Nazi Germany.
The Ithaca-based anti-Israel activist Ariel Gold is also a leader in JVP and a professional organizer for FOSNA. (She also served in a leadership capacity for the NY Committee for Justice in Palestine. Several months ago, it posted onto its website a grotesque photo-shopped image of Jewish concentration camp victims holding signs to “Free Gaza”. She claims she had no involvement, but later published a false accusation that Sabra Hummus was named after the Sabra & Shatilla massacre.)
As reported in a number of past LI posts, Gold has been involved in efforts to have Ithaca’s Green Star Food Coop boycott Israeli products. A referendum was recently rejected by the Green Star Council.
In March, Ariel Gold was featured as “a FOSNA representative and JVP organizer” on the “ShutDownAIPAC” program in Washington, D.C.
The multi-day protest campaign was co-sponsored by JVP, FOSNA and a number of ADL-flagged hate groups, including CODEPINK and Alison Weir’s If Americans Knew (see my previous LI post on JVP’s partnership with Alison Weir).
Over the years, a number of staunch Jewish American critics of Israel have spoken out against Sabeel/FOSNA’s rhetoric and its agenda.
But not JVP activists.
They remain perfectly willing to participate with it, apparently unbothered by its vilification of Israel or its repeated use of blood libel imagery.
Last month, JVP’s Shelley Cohen Fudge spoke at the Sixth Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C. for a spring program hosted by Sabeel’s DC Metro affiliate.
There, according to Shiri Moshe, who recently wrote about the event for The Tower, Fudge sat on a panel where one speaker after another depicted Jews as “genocidal racists, foreigners, and oppressors who are engaged in a colonialist project and control the American government”.
According to Moshe, JVP’s representative made no objections to these attacks.
6. A Warning from NGO Monitor
In researching this post, I looked hard to find some indication that FOSNA activists care about the threat of radical Islam to the Christian communities in the Middle East.
I came up empty.
For all their talk about Palestinian suffering, FOSNA appears indifferent to reports of increasing anti-Christian hostility in the Palestinian territories, which has erupted in recent years in the form of physical attacks and seditious hate speech.
The reality is that FOSNA doesn’t really do much to address the real dangers facing Palestinian Christians, nor does it advance Middle East peace.
Instead, it invites church congregations to demonize Israel, to reject the Jewish people’s historical connection to that land, and even to “attack Judaism itself”.
It’s a radically hostile message that’s resonating today in many mainline Protestant churches in America and across the globe.
But not always.
Back in September 2011, it co-organized one of its typical conferences to promote the Kairos Palestine Document (KPD) in the Protestant Churches of the Netherlands (PKN).
Then something unexpected happened.
As described by NGO Monitor, instead of boosting support for the KPD, Sabeel’s event generated significant pushback.
Some Protestant groups called for an end to the partnership with Sabeel. A number of church leaders criticized both the KPD and the “anti-Israel bias of Sabeel’s position”.
NGO Monitor credits the backlash to individuals within the PKN who, having received its research reports and fact sheets on Sabeel in advance of the conference, were able to create a “different dynamic”:
Sabeel, whose claims are often accepted at face value in many church settings, was in this case challenged. This demonstrates the importance of exposing the bias and confronting organizations and institutions that are allied with Sabeel”.
I contacted Yitzhak Santis at NGO Monitor’s offices in Jerusalem to see if he thought that the release of his new report could have the same kind of impact at American church gatherings this summer.
He wasn’t very optimistic.
Here’s what he wrote back to me:
Our hope is that the mainline churches will begin to discuss how internal anti-Israel activist groups have maneuvered themselves to become the sole source of information—really disinformation—about the Arab-Israeli conflict for their respective churches. The mainstream Israeli and American Jewish voice is being systematically silenced by these groups within the churches. In the Presbyterian Church (USA) the Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) played this role in last year’s pro-BDS vote in that church. This year at the United Church of Christ the UCC Palestine-Israel Network has done the same.
In the case of the IPMN, NGO Monitor documented a strong undercurrent of overt anti-Jewish bigotry within the IPMN as expressed on the group’s Facebook page. Numerous postings uploaded to this site by IPMN members over a period of two years demonstrate an ongoing pattern of expressions of anti-Semitism, including a “‘Zionist controlled America [has a] desperate lust’ for war with Iran;” the “‘Christian Holy Land’ is ‘occupied’ by the ‘zionist (sic) instigator;’” and even racial theories of Jewish origins claiming Ashkenazi Jews are not racially ‘Semitic,’ are actually ‘Khazars,’ and therefore should not be in the Middle East.”
I have little hope that many of these denominations will take seriously these concerns. We sent our report on IPMN to the Presbyterian Church’s leadership last summer, and received no reply. They have ears, but do not listen”.
The bottom line is that for years Sabeel/FOSNA, a little-known center in East Jerusalem and its U.S. affiliate, has proven particularly skillful at recruiting well-meaning Protestant Christian church congregations into joining its campaign to delegitimize Zionism and the Jewish state.
Spread the word about Sabeel, it’s agenda, and the role of JVP in providing cover for the anti-Israel Christian liberation theology.
Because sunlight is the best cure for the anti-Israel propaganda campaign working its way through Christian denominations.
Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs of Syracuse University