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October 16, 2006

Questions for Sabeel Conference

This weekend (Oct. 21 and 22), the Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas will host a “peacemaking” conference organized by Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center and its sister organization in the U.S. – Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA).

Sabeel’s founder, Rev. Naim Ateek, an Israeli-Arab who lives in Jerusalem, is well known for his use of imagery reminiscent of the deicide charge in reference to Israel, the Jewish state. For example, Rev. Ateek has written that the “occupation” is the equivalent of the stone blocking Christ’s tomb and that “The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily.” He has also compared Israeli officials to modern-day Herods. (According to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod killed all the infants in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the infant Jesus.)

Sabeel’s brittle narrative about the Arab-Israeli conflict is easily challenged.

Sabeel places all the blame for the conflict onto the shoulders of the Israelis and denies the Arab world of moral agency or responsibility.

Sabeel ignores or downplays the religious component of the war against Israel.

Sabeel denies Arab refusal to accept Israel’s right to exist.

Sabeel does well with audiences unwilling or unable to challenge its narrative, but a few well placed questions can help expose the group’s silence about problems in Palestinian society that hinder the prospects for peace and darken the future of the Middle East.

Here are a few questions for those who realize that truth-telling forms the basis of peacemaking.

1. Is it appropriate for the leader of a so-called peacemaking group to use language reminiscent of the deicide charge in reference to Israel, the Jewish state?

Background: Sabeel’s founder, Rev. Naim Ateek has used hostile imagery that is clearly reminiscent of the deicide charge – the notion that the Jews are collectively responsible for the death of Jesus – to demonize Israel. Rev. Ateek’s defenders have attempted to downplay this problem. Nevertheless, the European Union Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia has written a working definition of antisemitism that mentions the use of “symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.”

2. Should Rev. Ateek apologize for his use of this imagery?

Background: When Rev. Ateek’s use of crucifixion imagery in reference to the state of Israel was brought to the attention of the ecumenical community, Rev. Ateek’s defenders attempted to downplay its inappropriateness. But in June 2006, Rev. Richard Toll, chairman of Friends of Sabeel North America, implicitly acknowledged that its use is unacceptable in an interview with the Columbus Dispatch. On June 9, 2006 the paper reported that “Toll said Ateek has toned down his rhetorical since his crucifixion statement.” Why would Rev. Ateek find it necessary to “tone down” his rhetoric unless it was inappropriate?

3. Sabeel’s prescription for peace between Israelis and Palestinians seems to be based entirely on Israeli concessions and withdrawals. What evidence is there that Israeli concessions and withdrawals will lead to peace? At what point can Israel expect a reduction in violence against its citizens?

Background: In Dec. 2005 Rev. Richard Toll, chairman of FOSNA, wrote “End the occupation and the violence will end.” This prescription has not been borne out by recent events. Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip last year and the rocket attacks increased. Israel was attacked by Hezbollah this past summer from the very territory from which it withdrew in 2000.

4. Did Yasir Arafat have an obligation to make a counter offer at Camp David in 2000? Yes, or no?

Background: If previous behavior is any predictor, Sabeel’s speakers will likely portray the offer at Camp David negotiations as a “five-state solution” – Gaza, Israel and three “bantustans” on the West Bank. Challenging their mis-characterization of negotiations at Camp David and Taba is not the point of this question. This question merely asks if Arafat had an obligation to make a counter offer, which he did not make.

5. Who should we believe about Camp David/Taba negotiations, Sabeel Activists, who say the Palestinian Authority was offered “bantustans” or Dennis Ross who says the offer included contiguous land on the West Bank?

Background: At Sabeel conferences held in the U.S. last fall, Sabeel activists who spoke about Camp David negotiations described Israel’s offer as a “five-state solution” that included Israel, Gaza, Israel and three “bantustans” on the West Bank. Dennis Ross, the chief Middle East peace negotiator for the Clinton Administration contradicts these claims. In his book, “The Missing Peace –– The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace,” Ross offers maps of the Camp David Proposal put forth by the Clinton Administration in July 2000 and another proposal put forth in Dec. 2000. Both maps clearly show a contiguous West Bank –– not three separate “bantustans.”

6. Just how reasonable is it to expect Israel to negotiate with Hamas, a group that speaks about Jews in undeniably hateful terms and which denies Israel's right to exist?

Background: Earlier this year, Hamas broadcast a video on its website in which a suicide bomber expressed a desire to drink Jewish blood. On Oct. 6, Al-Jazeera broadcast a speech in which Palestinian Prime Minister Isma'il Haniya stated: “The language of blood is my language, and there is nothing but blood. I have shut my mouth to the art of speech, and let the machine-gun do the talking. I let Al-Qassam do the talking, to turn the dens of the Jews into hell.” Later in that same speech, he stated: “We will never recognize... We will never recognize... We will never recognize Israel.”

7. Isn’t Sabeel’s support for a one-state solution just a code-word for the elimination of Israel as Jewish state?

Background: In “The Jerusalem Sabeel Document, Principles for Just Peace,” published in 2004, the organization states its “vision for the future” is “One state for two nations and three religions.”

8. If this single state were created, would the Jews be safe?

Background: Edward Said, who spoke at an international conference hosted by Sabeel in 1998, admitted in 2000 that he worried what would happen to a Jewish minority in a single state. “It worries me a great deal,” he said. “The question of what is going to be the fate of the Jews is very difficult for me. I really don’t know. It worries me.”

9. If Sabeel and its supporters are truly interested in peace, doesn’t the organization have an obligation to acknowledge Yasser Arafat’s troubling legacy and the role in played in promoting the suffering of both Palestinians and Israelis?

Background: In November 2004, Sabeel issued a press release that described Yasser Arafat as “the father figure of the Palestinians.” The document did not mention Arafat’s role in the death of 11 Israeli athletes in the 1972 Munich Olympics, the anti-Jewish incitement broadcast on Palestinian Television with his approval, the thousands of people on both sides of the conflict who lost their lives after Arafat failed to make a counter offer at Camp David, or the millions wasted and stolen by the Palestinian Authority under his leadership.

10. Will the people arrested for setting Christians homes in Taybeh on fire in Sept. 2005, be tried and punished for their crimes?

Background: In September 2005, a group of Muslims who were detained after allegedly setting fires to Christian homes in a Taybeh, a town outside Ramallah. Within hours of their arrest by the Palestinian Authority, they were released.

11. Has Sabeel’s founder Rev. Naim Ateek, spoken to Hamas about his fears of the future Palestinian state being governed by Islamic teachings on the status of women and religious minorities?

Background: At the Episcopal Church’s General Convention held in Columbus, Ohio in June 2006, Rev. Ateek stated that Israel should not be allowed to maintain itself as a Jewish state. If Israel is a Jewish state, Rev. Ateek will not be able to tell Hamas that the future Palestinian state should not be an Islamic state, he said.

At this point, one of Ateek’s listeners – a bishop in the Episcopal Church – asked him if had spoken to Hamas about this issue.

Rev. Ateek’s response: “Not yet.”

Rev. Ateek voiced these concerns more than three months ago – giving him ample opportunity to speak to Hamas about benefits of a secularism and pluralism.

Attendees should not expect direct answers to these questions. But asking them will challenge the distorted one-sided narrative the organization has broadcast to well-meaning Christians in the United States.

Posted by CameraBlog at October 16, 2006 02:41 PM

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