Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Smearing Sabeel -- One Conference at a Time

I was running a little late on the second day of the Berkeley Sabeel conference several weeks ago. It had taken me a little longer to find a parking spot than I had anticipated, so I was practically running down the sidewalk when I encountered a handful of people in black on the corner in front of St. John's Presbyterian Church. The group -- a couple of men, a couple of women and a giant puppet -- were holding signs and handing out flyers. Seeing the words, "Oakland Women in Black," I took one as I hurried past. But I realized that something wasn't quite right as I skimmed the flyer (aside from the fact that I had never seen any men with Women in Black at peace vigils before). In addition to the harsh criticism of Sabeel, including charges of anti-Semitism, most of the websites it recommended that I recognized wouldn't be given much credence by any leftists or progressive Christians that I know:

Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East
Judeo-Christian Alliance
UCC Truths
Zionism and Israel Information Center
Mid-East Web
Israeli-Palestinian Crossfire
Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information
Middle East Media Research Institute
Palestinian Media Watch

MEMRI? try, selective and distorted recollections!
UCC Truths? more like, IRD Lies!

As it turns out, they weren't with Women in Black; in fact, there is no such group as Oakland Women in Black. According to Bay Area Women in Black, the vigilers were actually with San Francisco Voice for Israel -- an Affiliate of StandWithUs (from the comments):

From Bay Area in Women in Black

We would like to clear up the deliberately created confusion about Women in Black at the Sabeel Conference in Berkeley on August 18, 2007. Bay Area Women in Black held no vigil outside the conference nor did any other known or established Women in Black group. The people in the photo posted on Boston Indymedia's site on August 29, 2007 calling themselves "Oakland Women in Black" are actually members of the San Francisco Voice for Israel, who describe themselves as "a grass roots community based organization that takes to the streets to respond to enemies of Israel in the San Francisco Bay Area." They have counter-demonstrated against Bay Area Women in Black for the last four years and use tactics such as producing flyers intended to look like ours to confuse passersby and create disinformation at our weekly vigils. They also try to intimidate people participating in BAWIB vigils by aggressively taking their photo, breaking into picket lines, verbal harassment, etc.

Their intolerance of views critical of the Israeli Occupation and
their aggressive tactics are intended to confuse, misinform,
deceive, and silence others.

We do vigil weekly in Oakland, CA and would love you join us if you are in the area. Check out for more information

Bay Area Women in Black

As you can see from the photo, they had written their own Women In Black style signs rather than downloading some signs from StandWithUs Perhaps the San Francisco group thought this "vigil" was consistent with the national goals of Stand With Us on community activism:

Pro-Israel churches should be strengthened with quality materials. We offer educational resources and would be happy to guide a committee as to what materials would be appropriate.

Some churches are vulnerable to anti-Israel groups like SABEEL. This Palestinian Christian organization spreads anti-Israel propaganda to well-meaning North American church communities that invite them to speak. Keep an eye on this type of activity and offer alternative speakers.

SF Voice for Israel wasn't the only group of hardline Defenders of Israel "[Keeping] an eye on this type of activity" in Berkeley. The event was also covered by Daniel Pipes' Campus Watch beforehand and received a few reviews by Bay Area hardline bloggers afterwards (here and here) who got a few details right (Anna really is beautiful) and so many wrong (for starters, Chris Brown is African American, not South African -- as is clear from his accent even if one knows nothing else about him -- and he spoke more about nonviolence, protecting children and Black Churches than about apartheid). Like SF Voice for Israel's flyer, these also listed some of the common smears about Sabeel and Naim Ateek, its founder.

The west coast regional conference was held at St. John's Presbyterian Church, located just a few blocks from the edge of the UC Berkeley campus in a residential neighborhood. The upcoming New England Regional FOSNA conference has been attracting even more controversy. Scheduled for this coming weekend at the historic Old South Church in downtown Boston, its lineup of high-profile speakers has been drawing a lot of publicity. According to a recent article in the Boston Globe:

The conference, titled "The Apartheid Paradigm in Palestine-Israel," is rapidly becoming another source of tension between the leadership of the Jewish community and mainline Protestant denominations. Its keynote speaker is scheduled to be Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy of nonviolence in the struggle against apartheid in his native South Africa. Tutu, in a 2002 appearance at Old South Church, compared the treatment of Palestinians by Israel to that of black South Africans during the apartheid years.
The major Jewish community organizations in Boston say the use of the word apartheid in reference to Israel is inappropriate.

"We absolutely, unequivocally, do not see Israel as an apartheid state," said Nancy K. Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. Kaufman said the fact that Arabs living in Israel can serve in the Knesset, the Israeli legislature, demonstrates that the situation in the Middle East is not race-based discrimination. She also contrasted the resistance tactics of the African National Congress, which she said sought to minimize civilian casualties, with the terrorism associated with Hamas.
"Anyone who uses apartheid as an accusation is really employing old anti-Zionist arguments - that's really what it is - and is really applying a double standard of judgment to Israel which can be traced to historic anti-Semitic rhetoric, that all things Jews do are evil, including their nationalism," Kaufman said.

The apartheid conference is being sponsored by Friends of Sabeel, an organization of American Christians founded to support Sabeel, a Jerusalem-based organization of Palestinian Christians. Supporters say Sabeel is working for peace in the Middle East, but critics say it is working against the state of Israel. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a Boston-based organization that argues media coverage of the conflict is biased against Israel, describes Sabeel as "an anti-Zionist organization that traffics in anti-Judaic themes."

Interestingly, some of the most visible critiques are being offered by some of those "alternative" sources offered by the SF affiliate of StandWithUs. Prominent among those sources are ones connected to the David Project Center for Jewish Leadership. Charles Jacobs, the President of the David Project and co-founder of CAMERA, wrote one of the initial critiques for the Jewish Advocate, a Boston area paper:

In October, an anti-Jewish hate-fest rolls into the Hub, and where will it be hosted? In Boston’s Old South Church. The headliner is none other than Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Laureate (like Arafat). When last in Boston, Tutu said “Israel is like Hitler and apartheid.” He has also said Israel “… reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa …” And, “People are scared in the U.S. to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful – very powerful.” How nice.

Accompanying Tutu at “Old South” will be Naim Ateek, founder of Sabeel, a Protestant “human rights” group based in Israel that orchestrated the divestment campaign against the Jewish state in America’s mainline churches. Dexter Van Zile, Boston’s extraordinarily talented pro-Israel Christian researcher, outed Ateek as a purveyor of classic anti-Semitism. Ateek writes: “Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him … Palestinian men, women, and children being crucified … The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily.” Israelis are crucifying Palestinians – just like the Jews crucified Jesus. Now who would want this hate in their Boston church?

Conservative columnist, Jeff Jacoby, writes in his critique of Sabeel:

IN CIVILIZED circles it is considered boorish to speak of Jews as Christ-killers, or to use language evoking the venomous old teaching that Jews are forever cursed for the death of Jesus. Those circles apparently don't include the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, an anti-Israel "peace" organization based in Jerusalem, or its founder, the Anglican cleric Naim Ateek.

Sabeel and Ateek are highly regarded on the hard-line Christian left, and regularly organize American conferences at which Israel is extravagantly denounced by numerous critics. So far this year, such conferences have been held in Cleveland, Berkeley, Calif., and Birmingham, Ala.; another begins Friday at Boston's Old South Church.
In Ateek's metaphorical telling, in other words, Israel is guilty of trying to murder Jesus as an infant, of killing Jesus on the cross, and of seeking to prevent his resurrection. To use "this imagery in reference to the Jewish state is inexcusable," says Dexter Van Zile, a layman in the United Church of Christ who serves on the executive committee of Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East. Millions of Christians would doubtless agree.

Among the problems with these critiques is that Dexter Van Zile is not just "a layman in the United Church of Christ" or "Boston's extraordinarily talented pro-Israel Christian researcher", but {has been an} employee of the David Project (which reproduces Jacoby's column with an interesting graphic). Van Zile is the President {has been the Director} of the Judeo-Christian Alliance, an Initiative of the David Project, and an Executive Committee Member of Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East (a great number of whose resources are authored by him). Speaking of resources, several other backgrounders on Sabeel in the Israel Lobby, have been authored by him -- including this one in the ADL. Unsurprisingly, CAMERA (the organization co-founded by Jacobs of the David Project), has a response to this Sabeel Conference written by Van Zile ({employed for the past year by CAMERA, previously by}of the David Project,):

Sadly, rather than responding to Jewish concerns about Sabeel's hostile rhetoric in an honest and forthcoming manner, as responsible interfaith dialogue would require, Rev. Taylor has engaged in a patently obvious divide-and-conquer startegy [sic] with the Jewish community in Boston. In her Sept. 9, 2007 sermon, Rev. Taylor portrays the Jewish community in Boston as divided between two groups -- an “angry hard right side” that complains about Sabeel in “colorful and incedinary language” and another more compliant side willing to negotiate through “quiet, respectful and meaningful communications.” What Rev. Taylor does not reveal however, is that the two groups she describes as part of the reasonable Jewish establishment – the local chapter of the ADL, and the Jewish Community Relations Council – are both part of national organizations that have raised grave concerns about Sabeel's hostile rhetoric and agenda. The revulsion of the Jewish community toward Sabeel's use of deicide imagery is across-the-board and is not confined to the Jewish community's “hard right.”

Some final critiques of the Boston FOSNA Conference come from UCC Truths, the IRD front group {an IRD cheerleader}. As many here know, especially those who follow the diaries of Frederick Clarkson and the blog Talk to Action, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) is a Scaife-funded organization that undermines mainline Protestant Churches by feeding lies and distortions to some of those Churches' more conservative members and trying to split and weaken those denominations. The IRD was founded in the early 80s particularly to undermine the support mainline Churches were giving to refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador and the criticism the leaders of those Churches were directing at the Reagan Administration's support of oppressive regimes in Latin America. The IRD soon branched out from just opposing Liberation Theology to promoting the Republican agenda in mainline churches (mostly by claiming that the churches were too aligned with the Democrats and should be "non-partisan," "apolitical" and basically uninvolved in social justice). The IRD specifically targets the three largest mainline denominations (Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal), but also works to undermine other Churches and organizations like the UCC and the NCC (UCC Truths is one such {a similar} "renewal" organization).

The IRD has long been closely aligned with the ideology of hardliners in the Israel Lobby. One of the IRD’s staff members even writes a regular column for David Horowitz's Front Page. UCC Truths saves much of its ire about the Boston Sabeel conference for Rev. Taylor, the pastor of Old South Church (UCC):

Taylor's sermon only tells part of the story. If she were to be completely honest with her congregation, she would let them know that:

1. The Anti-Defamation League has spoken out strongly against Sabeel and the UCC's support for Sabeel: "While it is heartening that the United Church of Christ has come out strongly against those who advocate for Israel's destruction, it is troubling that church leaders continue to embrace the Sabeel Center while ignoring statements from its leader questioning Israel's right to exist," said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, ADL Director of Interfaith Affairs. "You can't have it both ways."

2. Criticism of the UCC by Jewish groups is not limited to the "angry hard right side of the Jewish community" - every major Jewish group representing the spectrum of political ideologies has been critical of statements against Israel by the United Church of Christ including Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements; the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and B'nai B'rith International.

3. The Simon Wiesenthal Center called the UCC's divestment resolution "functionally anti-Semitic"
By characterizing the issue in political terms, Taylor's sermon seems to indicate that she either doesn't understand the concerns of the Jewish community or she simply doesn't care

As in other cases, the pastor's explanation for hosting Sabeel has been misrepresented by taking bits from the whole out of context:

* While the UCC receives criticism from a variety of Jewish groups on many issues, Taylor's sermon addressed the particular criticism by a particular hardline columnist:
A columnist in The Jewish Advocate [Charles Jacobs of CAMERA and the David Project], a local Jewish paper, has publicly accused me and Old South of hosting, “an anti-Jewish hate fest” and has demanded that we “do the right thing” and bar Sabeel and the Archbishop from speaking here.
The columnist [Charles Jacobs] who wrote those things in The Jewish Advocate represents an extreme, angry hard right side of the Jewish community. While he is busy writing in his own style of colorful and incendiary language, I have, for months, been in quiet, respectful and meaningful communication with leaders in the Jewish community. “
“These leaders are not happy with our decision to host Sabeel and the Archbishop. They express concern, disappointment and fear. Why? Because the Archbishop and Sabeel use the language of apartheid to describe the situation of Palestinians and because they promote a program of selective investment in Israel as a means of applying pressure. Our Jewish friends experience these as a threat to the security, and as an affront to the dignity, of the state of Israel.

* Old South Church and Rev. Taylor have shown not just by words, but by deeds that they do care about the concerns of the Jewish community, especially by working with moderate Jewish leadership in Boston for an interfaith dialogue series, including a lecture by Dennis Ross, the day after the conference ends:

In addition to the presence of the Archbishop, we have designed a series of speakers and events to enable us to encounter different perspectives and to meet and hear from Jews, Muslims and Christians. As a part of this, I have invited the leaders in the Jewish community to identify a speaker of their choosing as a part of this program. They have agreed to do so.

* Old South Church is not trying to "have it both ways" but to hear both sides:
Old South has been asked to host a Sabeel conference, scheduled for late October, in which Archbishop Tutu will be the key-note speaker.
Knowing this would cause significant consternation among our Jewish friends and place Old South in the midst of a controversy, I brought this request to Council in March and briefed them on what we could expect. Having hosted Sabeel and Archbishop Tutu four years ago, many members of Council had already experienced the fallout from this sort of decision. Council members agreed to host Sabeel and to give welcome to Archbishop Tutu.
I want you to know – and I want you to hear it from me before you hear it from others – that the fallout has begun and we are right in the middle between two friends, our Jewish friends on one side and Palestinian Christians and their advocates on the other.
I regret causing a rift between Old South and our friends and allies in the Jewish community. Nevertheless, the position of our Church Council – and my position – is that, as one of a handful of great world leaders of our time, Archbishop Tutu has earned the right to express his views on this most painfully contested part of the world. ... Due in no small measure to his own spiritual genius, his humility and his love for God, he was able to achieve what others scoffed and laughed at.

The recent smears about Desmond Tutu, one of the headliners for the Boston conference, were well covered in the blogosphere last month. Indeed, that controversy at St. Thomas was oiled initially by disinformation spread by the ZOA (Zionist Organization of America), misquotes of Tutu’s remarks at a Boston Sabeel Conference from 2001. Fortunately, the pushback by Tutu's supporters may be having even greater consequences than his being reinvited to speak at St. Thomas University, if today's article in the Boston Globe is any indication.

In fact, several other conference speakers, such as Noam Chomsky, John Dugard and Jeff Halper, have been harshly criticized in the past by the Israel Lobby. But the topic of the conference and the noted speakers are not getting nearly as much attention as the founder of the organization and interpretations of his theology. If Ateek's Palestinian Liberation Theology can be branded anti-Semitic, then anyone attending one of Sabeel's conferences risks being tainted by association.

Ateek's theology is consistent with other Christian Liberation Theologies. Best known for its history in Latin America, Liberation Theology has roots in the political theologies of post-WWII Europe. The theology of a suffering and protesting God finds early expression in Political Theology of Johann Baptist Metz:

he argued for the concept of a 'suffering God' who shared the pain of his creation, writing, "Yet, faced with conditions in God's creation that cry out to heaven, how can the theology of the creator God avoid the suspicion of apathy unless it takes up the language of a suffering God?"

In addition to suffering, another political theologian, Jurgen Moltmann articulated other beliefs about God that are formative for Liberation Theology:

“Shattered and broken, the survivors of my generation were then returning from camps and hospitals to the lecture room. A theology which did not speak of God in the sight of the one who was abandoned and crucified would have had nothing to say to us then.”
Moltmann proposes instead a “crucified God” who is both a “suffering” and “protesting” God. That is, God is not detached from suffering but willingly enters into human suffering in compassion.
... in contrast both with the move of theism to justify God's actions and Atheism's move to accuse God. Moltmann's “Trinitarian theology of the cross” instead says that God is a protesting God who opposes the 'Gods of this world' of power and domination by entering into human pain and suffering on the cross and on the gallows of Auschwitz. Moltmann's “theology of the cross” was later developed into "Liberation Theologies" from suffering people under Stalinism in Eastern Europe and military dictatorships South America and South Korea.

Ateek's Liberation Theology attests that suffering for Palestinians is just as worthy of God's concern as that of Latin Americans, South Africans, African Americans and other oppressed peoples.

Liberation Theology is not just about suffering, but about protest. In contrast to moralistic interpretations of faith, which focus on personal sin or personal relationship to God, Liberation Theology focuses on corporate sin or complicity in oppressive structures, whether that structure is racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism or imperialism.

When Liberation Theologians, like Moltmann, refer to the suffering of the oppressed of any stripe saying "And Christ is Crucified," they are not accusing the oppressors of deicide. Jesus of Nazareth was crucified 2000 years ago. They are saying that the oppressed have not been abandoned by God, that God is so close to them that God shares their suffering and that God knows suffering intimately because of Christ's crucifixion.

Of course, the glowing reception with which hardliners in the Israel Lobby greet John Hagee and other leaders of CUFI make the protests about Ateek's theology seem ridiculous. See troutfishing's diaries about CUFI for real examples of anti-Semitism and supercessionism. Liberation Theology may not appeal to everyone, John Paul II had quite a few objections to it, but Sabeel's Palestinian Liberation Theology does not teach hatred any more than those which have addressed other forms of oppression.

Smear tactics and front groups can't obscure the reality forever.

Update [2007-10-31 14:12:47 by Rusty Pipes]:
In addition to Clarkson's point in the comments at TTA about UCCTruths, in light of requests for clarification in correspondence TTA received from Mr. Van Zile, I am making a few corrections to the diary (indicated by {bold brackets}). The changes are related to Van Zile's first 3 points, based on tense, title and authorship: Mr. Van Zile is a former employee of the David Project, not a current one. While in its employ, he served as Director of the Judeo-Christian Alliance, not its President. And, although when researching this piece, I recall seeing Van Zile's name on a Sabeel backgrounder, that information is not at the ADL now and I did not save a screenshot of that page; so I will withdraw that claim. However, by doing the google of "Charles Jacobs" and "co-founder of CAMERA," I got over 80 hits, some of which praised him or quoted the bio from his site in 2004. So I will not honor Van Zile's fourth request: to alter the designation of Charles Jacobs as a co-founder of CAMERA.

Update II [2007-11-16 21:22:28 by Rusty Pipes]: Three weeks after posting this diary, the website of the Judeo-Christian Alliance still lists Dexter Van Zile as its Christian Outreach Director, giving contact info for him at both JCA and The David Project. Any reasonable person would still believe from the evidence on the JCA site, that he is still not only associated with it, but responsible for it. Consequently, I am amending the diary to reflect that Mr. Van Zile claims that he is no longer associated with the Judeo-Christian Alliance or David Project. If that piece of my original diary was in error, it was based on information for which Mr. Van Zile or the David Project has been responsible (and which hasn't been changed in the three weeks since I wrote the diary).

(Crossposted at street prophets, Talk to Action and Daily Kos)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Easter Greetings from the "Holy Land"!

American Mission Workers from Mainline and Peace Churches live and work alongside Palestinian Christians and Muslims. Their reports give American Christians a clearer picture of the day to day realities of occupation than we see through the Mainstream media. One such organization is the MCC - Palestine:

(MCC) is the relief, development, and peace agency of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches in North America. MCC seeks to demonstrate God's love by working among people suffering from poverty, conflict, oppression and natural disaster. MCC serves as a channel for interchange by building relationships that are mutually transformative. MCC strives for peace, justice and dignity of all people by sharing our experiences, resources and faith in Jesus Christ. MCC has worked in Palestine for over fifty years, providing relief aid and development assistance. Arriving in 1949 to provide material assistance to Palestinian refugees driven from their homes in 1948, MCC stayed to work alongside Palestinians in their search for freedom and dignity. Since the Israeli occupation began in 1967, MCC has also focused on how to promote reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis on the solid foundation of justice. Today MCC works in partnership with several Palestinian and Israeli organizations, which promote sustainable development, strive for justice and peace, and strengthen the witness of the Palestinian church.

Timothy and Christi Seidel are current Peace Development Workers for Mennonite Central Committee - Palestine. I am reproducing Timothy Seidel's Easter reflection with his permission:

Easter Greetings from the “Holy Land”!

Al-Masiih Qaam! Haqaan Qaam!
Christ Is Risen! He Is Risen Indeed!

This Arabic greeting will be commonly heard this week as Christians from across the world travel to Jerusalem to experience Easter. It is truly an exciting experience. Yet at the same time, we witness with sadness the realities that our Palestinian sisters and brothers continue to face.

This week has already been quite a full week, here in the “holy land.” This past Sunday, Palm Sunday, was marked by a huge procession from the historical town of Bethphage, where Jesus began his donkey ride 2000 years ago, up and over the Mount of Olives, and then back down again up to the old city of Jerusalem. Many languages could be heard along the Mount of Olives as people from all over the world traveled here to participate in this procession. Though it was great to see so many people, our Palestinian friends and neighbors told us that it was not nearly the size it used to be seven or ten years ago, before Israeli incursions into the Occupied Territories. We can only hope that so many people will return to their homes with a deeper knowledge of the oppression of this land, and tell what they have seen. Unfortunately, few of the internationals we saw on Sunday will take the time to even come to Bethlehem to meet their Palestinian brothers and sister. This is a discouraging and, as a U.S. Christian, an embarrassing witness on our part to the Christians of this land.

I suppose this is one of the reasons why we do not often talk about the biblical sights we are seeing on a daily basis. Though it is an incredible privilege to walk in the steps of so many before us, it honestly can be difficult feeling present in a spiritual sense. It is hard standing in the Church of the Nativity, or in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or up on the Mount of Beatitude overlooking the Sea of Galilee and not also be confronted at the same time by the injustices and the suffering that plague this land, especially as a Christian who believes that when Jesus walked this land his heart was also broken by the injustices and the suffering of those around him, living as they did also under (Roman) occupation.

Knowing that Palestinian brothers and sisters here in Bethlehem will not even be able to travel the short distance of six miles or ten kilometers to worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—the site in Jerusalem’s Old City where tradition holds Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected—on Easter Sunday morning is heart-breaking.

For this is also a special time of remembrance for our Jewish friends. This is the time of Pesach or Passover, when Jews remember their liberation from slavery and oppression in Egypt. But in this place, the celebration of liberation from oppression for Jews becomes a time of increased restrictions imposed on Palestinians. Beginning on April 1, a week long general closure was imposed by the Israeli military on the West Bank due to the Jewish holiday of Passover. This will undoubtedly affect those Palestinians who were fortunate enough to receive special permits to celebrate Easter in Jerusalem. As is often the case during Israeli military closures, no Palestinian can move in and our of their walled-in communities, often-times even if they have a permit.

This was the case for one of our neighbors who, along with a women’s group from her church, were all stopped at the Bethlehem checkpoint trying to go to Jerusalem this past Sunday. The permits they were all carrying were useless. As a sign of protest, they ripped up their permits in front of the Israeli soldiers who would not let them pass through the checkpoint.

Pointing out this disconnect between remembering past oppression and imposing oppressive measures today, our friend Zoughbi often asks, “why does the right to exercise freedom of religion for Israeli Jews mean collective punishment for the Palestinian people?”

And yet our Palestinian friends respond with such grace. As we were sharing our experiences on Palm Sunday in Jerusalem, one friend here in Bethlehem who is a Palestinian Christian (and who has not been “allowed” to go to Jerusalem for about eight years now because the Israeli military will not issue him a permit) responded not with bitterness or hate, but instead told us that though he was not allowed to be there, he was experiencing it as we were telling of our experiences. “I was just now there with you,” he said, thinking back to when he was young and walked in that procession. I almost broke out into tears.

But so many Christians who do travel to this land, seldom take the time to meet with the people, especially with Palestinians. This land is marketed and sold as a pilgrimage destination, a land full of “holy sites” and “dead stones” with little to no attention paid to the “living stones”—those Christian communities that feel most forsaken.

This is why Palm Sunday is such a paradoxical remembrance, for only five days later, those singing the praises of Jesus and the God he bore witness to 2000 years ago were calling for his crucifixion. Indeed, Jesus felt forsaken in more ways than one. This is a great challenge to me and to all of us: how are we complicit in crucifixions even today as we sing Palm Sunday praises?

Nonetheless, we do still appreciate and take the time to be present in a very spiritual way in this “holy land.” Many events throughout this week—Holy Week—are keeping us busy and keeping our minds and hearts reflective. On Good Friday morning there was another procession. This one began at 6:30am in the Old City of Jerusalem, and walked along in prayer through the Stations of the Cross, the “Via Dolorosa,” beginning at the site where Jesus was condemned by Pilate and ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. On Sunday, we will return to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to remember, pray, and give thanks for the resurrection of our Lord. We will do this later in the morning, after a 5:30am sunrise service on the Mount of Olives, looking out over the Jordan Valley to the see the sun rise, shining down on the evil and the good, the righteous and the unrighteous—a poignant reminder as a concrete wall snaking through the hillside separating Palestinian from Palestinian is illuminated by the sun’s light, that we are to strive to love and pray for all in this broken land. (Matthew 5:45)

For us what has been most meaningful though, has been those time we spent here in Bethlehem, with friends and colleagues of organizations MCC works with. One example was during Holy Week last year, when the staff of the Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center ( in Bethlehem met every morning to read and reflect upon Scripture. For me, this was more meaningful than even visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Easter Sunday morning. For this is where Jesus truly walks among us today, among the poor and the oppressed and those forgotten and forsaken.

Peace to you all,

Timothy Seidel

cross-posted at Street Prophets

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A New Set of Eyes and Ears

American mainline churches and peace churches have had a presence in the Middle East since the mid-19th century. Although American Churches did found a small number of Protestant congregations throughout the Middle East, these denominations made a larger impact in the region through the founding of schools (like the American University in Beirut and the Friends' Girls School in Ramallah) and hospitals, through the continued involvement of their mission workers in ministries of social service and through ecumenical cooperation with indigenous Middle Eastern Churches.

The impact of American Mission Workers in the Middle East has not only come from what they have given, but from what they have received -- not only from the talents they have invested but also from what they have learned and experienced through living in Middle Eastern societies. Some of the most reliable information American Christians get about the situation in the occupied territories comes not through the Mainstream Media, but through the reports of their Mission Workers who not only observe, but experience the day to day realities of Palestinians. It is not unusual to hear from a United Methodist mission worker who is serving as principal of a school or a Mennonite Mission Worker who is working with Palestinian environmental groups. While many mission workers bring years of experience in congregational ministry, in social service or in study of Middle Eastern and Interreligious history, others bring the enthusiasm and energy of youth. In fact, a few denominations, like the PC(USA) and the UMC, have programs geared especially toward young adults, where they place recent college grads in mission with partner churches or NGOs in various parts of the world.

A regular feature of this blog will be to share some of the reflections of American Mission workers in Israel and Palestine. The first report I am highlighting is from one of these younger mission workers, "long-term volunteer" Shannon O'Donnell. She has been serving since October 2006 as a Webmaster and an information technology specialist in the Sabeel Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. Sabeel is a mission partner of the PC(USA) which describes its mission thus:

Sabeel is an ecumenical grassroots liberation theology movement among Palestinian Christians. Inspired by the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, this liberation theology seeks to deepen the faith of Palestinian Christians, to promote unity among them toward social action. Sabeel strives to develop a spirituality based on love, justice, peace, nonviolence, liberation and reconciliation for the different national and faith communities. The word "Sabeel" is Arabic for ‘the way‘ and also a ‘channel‘ or ‘spring‘ of life-giving water.

Sabeel also works to promote a more accurate international awareness regarding the identity, presence and witness of Palestinian Christians as well as their contemporary concerns. It encourages individuals and groups from around the world to work for a just, comprehensive and enduring peace informed by truth and empowered by prayer and action.

In one of her first reflections, Shannon says:

Slowly, I am learning the underlying rules of this land, and the consequences for all of the people they impact. There is a saying that if you come to this land for a week, then you will leave and write a book; if you come for a month, you will write an article; if you stay for a year, you will write nothing. The situation is complex, like a snowflake. The closer you look at it, the more intricate it appears, and the more difficult it is to explain.

I am learning more about the history behind the conflict here and now I am familiar with words like “Nakba” and “Occupied Territories.” Everyone knows about the Holocaust, but few in the West seem to have heard about Nabka. I find that there is a whole lot more to history than I was ever taught. There is a whole other side of the story that is never talked about.
Every day I watch them construct the separation wall, one of the biggest obstacles to a possible future state of Palestine. It’s getting difficult to see hope for a two-state solution, because there’s a big grey wall blocking my view.
My biggest asset to keeping a hopeful outlook has been the people with whom I live and work. The Christians I have met, those from Sabeel, those who come to visit what they call the “Holy Land” and also include what we call “Palestine” in their visit to Israel. I now read the Bible with a new set of eyes and ears that have become especially attuned to the perspective of the oppressed, to the words of Christ. But I still have so much more to learn. I look forward to learning from all the people I encounter, no matter what side of the wall they live on."

Whether our Mission Workers have been in the Holy Land for a week, a year or a lifetime, by sharing what they experience with their eyes and ears, each becomes the voice of the voiceless whose stories do not make the evening news. Let those who have an ear, hear.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Beyond Bethlehem

Bethlehem holds a special place in the hearts of Christians. Even from our earliest memories, before we understand the words of Jesus, we know about the baby born in Bethlehem through stories told in word and pageant. In fact, we often begin our journey as his disciples when we as children -- dressed as angels, shepherds or sheep -- meet him in Bethlehem.

And yet modern American Christians have little understanding or experience of the Bethlehem of today. Recent surveys of the opinions of American Christians and Bethlehem residents show extreme differences between our perceptions and their lived realities. Among the most surprising differences are that most Americans are unaware that there are Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem (even though the percentage of Christians in Bethlehem has declined from 80% to 15% over the past 60 years, a Christian community still exists there).

According to Open Bethlehem, which commissioned the Bethlehem poll:

Most Americans believe Bethlehem is an Israeli town inhabited by a mixture of Jews and Muslims, according to a nationwide survey by top U.S. pollsters Zogby International. Largely unaware of Bethlehem's historic community of Palestinian Christians, only 15 percent of Americans realize that Bethlehem is a Palestinian city with a mixed Christian-Muslim community, lying in the occupied West Bank.

The Christians of the Holy Land are known as the Fifth Gospel or The Living Stones of the Church because Christ was born into our community and took his disciples from among our ancestors. Tragically, our community in Bethlehem may not survive another two generations if trends noted in a 2004 United Nations report on Christianity in Bethlehem continue.

Bethlehem has survived because it has remained open to the world, offering hospitality to pilgrims for centuries. This openness is threatened by the Israeli-built concrete wall and electric fences that encircle Bethlehem.

Fears for the survival of Bethlehem are based on many factors. A prime indicator of hardship in this tourist town is the drop in the number of visitors -- with an accompanying decline in related businesses. Whereas, before the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, Bethlehem drew more than 90,000 pilgrims a month, last year, at what is usually the height of tourist season, only 2,500 foreign visitors came for Christmas.

Tourism only accounts for part of Bethlehem's financial difficulties. According to the city's mayor, Dr. Victor Batarseh,

"With the closure of Jerusalem to Palestinians and the limitation of permits granted by the Israeli authorities, unemployment has soared to 65 percent, which simply means that 65 percent of the people of Bethlehem live under the poverty line," he said.

"In light of the prevailing acute financial crisis in which we are living, the municipality couldn't pay the salaries of its employees for more than three months now," Batarseh said. "There will be no new clothes for the employees' children this year, and Santa will not visit them."

As the mayor notes, The city's challenges, go beyond financial.

“[Bethlehem] has been turned into a big prison for its citizens by the settlements that surround it and envelop it in all aspects, and because of the Wall which has further tightened control over the city, and the army checkpoints at all the entrances.” Amid all this, the mayor reminds, are daily Israeli invasions. “Israeli forces storm the city and its environs on a daily basis, without missing a beat for more than a month. They besiege houses and shoot citizens, killing and injuring a number of them. This is apart from the large-scale arrest campaign against young people. The effects have been huge and tourism, particularly in the hotels, is expected to be extremely low this year.”

Aside from the many daily impacts of the occupation, the growing presence of the Separation Wall overshadows Bethlehem in many ways. The wall has cut into the city -- 15 percent of which, its northern section, has been lost in the last year. The northern barrier has also cut off access between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, so that there is no longer geographical contiguity -- making it more difficult for the Christian communities to share in mutual celebration of Holy Days. In addition,

The wall is being built around Bethlehem's urban core, though at the closest point Bethlehem sits one mile from the Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 border with the West Bank. The wall separates Bethlehem from neighboring villages and threatens to cut off 70 percent of Bethlehem's land, thus facilitating the expansion of Israel's illegal West Bank settlements."

Being unaware of these daily realities, Americans' perceptions are at odds with those of Bethlehem's residents.

"While 78 percent of Bethlehem Christian's blame the Christian exodus from the town on Israel's blockade, Americans are more likely (45.9 percent) to blame Islamic politics, and are reluctant (7.4 percent) to blame Israel. And while four in 10 Americans believe the wall exists for Israel's security, more than nine of 10 Bethlehemites believe its aim is to confiscate Palestinian land."

James Zogby of the Arab American Institute sees this lack of awareness among Americans for the plight of Bethlehem’s people as

a metaphor for the entire Palestinian situation. When Americans think at all about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they do so through the prism of the Israeli narrative. They either do not see the Palestinian side of the story, or see a Palestine gutted of its human content.

In this context, Palestine becomes merely a “problem to be solved,” or an issue of terrorism to be stopped, or refugees to be resettled.

The result is that the Palestinian story, as told in the West, is never about real people struggling to survive, living as they do under the yoke of occupation. But the reality is that Bethlehem, like the rest of Palestine, is, in fact, populated by real people facing conditions of harsh foreign domination not unlike that experienced by the city’s inhabitants 2,000 years ago.

In a recent article on Beliefnet, Deanna Murshed responds to these survey results by asking
Will we in the West only see Bethlehem as a quaint town on holiday cards and nativity scenes? Or will we open our eyes to the present realities that affect our real, though distant, relatives?

As Christians, it is natural that we should be concerned about the well-being of Holy Land Christians, our brothers and sisters in Christ -- even those whose church traditions are unfamiliar to American Mainline Christians. It is natural that we would be concerned about the preservation of the Holy sites of our faith and other antiquities. But as disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, we also are called to care about more than sacred places and about more than just our sisters and brothers, even our extended families of faith. Not only did Jesus embrace the Hebrew tradition of welcoming the stranger, he taught his followers to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them. If we care that our brothers and sisters in Christ may live in peace, then we need to pray for their neighbors as well, whether their neighbors are friends or enemies, allies or oppressors.

Our journey may begin in Bethlehem, where the places of Shepherd's Field and Nativity square evoke childhood memories, where we feel comfortable with our family of faith. But Christ calls us beyond our comfort zone to view unfamiliar places and people through his eyes, to follow in his path seeking justice and mercy. I take one of the inspirations for the the mission of this blog, Beyond Bethlehem, from a poem by the African-American theologian Howard Thurman, "The Work of Christmas":

When the song of the
angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes
are home,
When the shepherds are
back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.
--Howard Thurman

cross-posted at Street Prophets