The Jewish Week - New York
Friday, July 22, 2005 / 15 Tammuz 5765
Palestinian Nationalists Seen Behind Divestment
Little-known Jerusalem center termed ‘spiritual fuel’ for sanctions efforts
James D. Besser/Washington - Washington Correspondent
Radical Palestinian nationalists seeking an end to the Jewish state and not a two-state solution to the region’s woes may be the engine driving the divestment push by mainline Protestant churches.
That is the conclusion of a growing number of Jewish leaders who concede dialogue with groups like the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ over the accelerating push for economic sanctions against Israel has produced scant results.
And according to several Jewish leaders, traditional theological anti-Semitism is among the tools of groups such as the Sabeel Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, which played a major role in the recent surprise decision by the UCC reviving the divestment threat, according to several analysts.
“They are the spiritual fuel for this effort,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center.
He said legitimate concerns about the Middle East conflict among churches here have been “hijacked by a determined, brilliant and very focused effort by a group of activists. They’re going door to door through the various denominations, and they’ve been very successful.”
It’s not only Jewish groups like the Wiesenthal Center that see something more sinister behind the divestment push.
Groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which have championed dialogue with Christian groups since the divestment bandwagon started rolling one year ago, are revising their estimates of the motives behind divestment and moving toward a more confrontational stance.
“There is a recognition that the problem may be different than we had thought,” said Ethan Felson, JCPA’s assistant director. “And there’s a recognition that the influence of these foes of Israel seems to be reaching a level where it trumps many of the strong voices for moderation in these churches.”
The primary problem facing Jewish groups fighting divestment, he said, “is the fact that the leadership of these churches has given the dais to these very problematic, influential groups. We’re increasingly aware of these groups’ ability to influence policy, despite dissonance within these churches.”
At the top of the list is the Sabeel Center, a Palestinian Christian group that describes its mission as developing “a spirituality based on justice, peace, nonviolence, liberation and reconciliation for the different national and faith communities.”
A number of analysts say the center is playing a much more malevolent role, pressing for punitive actions against Israel, ignoring Palestinian violence and ultimately arguing against the legitimacy of a Jewish state.
At the recent UCC General Synod, the group played a leading role in convincing a handful of church leaders to abandon a compromise resolution on “economic leverage” to promote Mideast peace that Jewish leaders said would not have singled out Israel.
“An initial resolution on divestment was carefully debated by a synod committee,” said the Rev. David Runnion-Bareford, executive director of the Biblical Witness Fellowship, a theologically conservative faction within the UCC that opposes divestment. “They took hours of sometimes emotional testimony from both sides and then worked hard to produce an amended resolution … that Israel’s advocates thought was much more balanced and fair than the original. It did not use the word ‘divestment,’ and emotions relaxed.”
But on Tuesday, Rev. Runnion-Bareford said, a substitute resolution written by “an ad hoc group made up of Sabeel representatives and UCC officials” was put before delegates. Advocates of a more balanced approach were accused “of being ‘hostaged’ by our history of Jewish-Christian dialogue into taking the ‘wrong’ side of this debate,” he said. “Sabeel’s representatives made emotionally passionate and somewhat intimidating presentations. Most delegates were clueless on this issue.”
The emotional appeals by Palestinian Christians worked. Delegates were “seduced into a denial of their long-standing commitment to peace and justice on this issue,” said Rev. Runnion-Bareford.
Dexter Van Zile, a one-time deacon at a Congregational church in Massachusetts and now director of the David Project of the Judeo-Christian Alliance in Boston, pointed to the critical role of Sabeel’s founder and president, Naim Ateek, the former canon of St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem.
“If you look at his use of deicide imagery against the State of Israel, it becomes really difficult to give this organization the benefit of the doubt,” he said.
Ateek, he said, “has compared Israeli officials to Herod, who tried to kill the baby Jesus. He has said Israeli officials are ‘crucifying’ the Palestinian people.”
And in a 2001 sermon, Ateek likened the occupation to the “stone placed on the entrance of Jesus’ tomb. … This boulder has shut in the Palestinians within and built structures of domination to keep them in. We have a name for this boulder. It is called the occupation.”
Van Zile said “language like that has a long history of encouraging violence against Jews.
And Sabeel is not alone, he said. A growing number of Palestinian Christian groups are providing their counterparts in this country an overheated mix of Palestinian victimization, liberation theology and “unrelenting criticism of Israel.”
Many Christian leaders buy into Sabeel’s analysis of the region out of sympathy for the Palestinians and “naiveté,” Van Zile said, without knowing about his harsher comments about Israel. “It’s a coalition of the ignorant led by the malevolent.”
The Sabeel theology has also received a boost from the perception of a growing alliance between pro-Israel forces and the Evangelical right — religious and political adversaries of the liberal Protestant churches.
Sabeel, other analysts say, has not confined its activism to the UCC.
“They have been present and active players at each of the conventions where divestment has been discussed, influencing the leadership,” said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, interfaith director for the Anti-Defamation League, who described the group as “very smart and very sophisticated.”
But he said Sabeel’s ultimate goals are “blatant: the eradication of the Jewish claim to the land of Israel. It is one nation, three faiths, which ultimately means the delegitimization of Israel.”
Part of that effort is theological, Jewish leaders increasingly believe. Sabeel and other Palestinian Christian groups are seeking to change basic Protestant doctrine concerning the Jews.
“What they are promoting is a return to ‘replacement theology,’ ” said Rabbi Eugene Korn, Jewish affairs director for the American Jewish Congress. “It essentially writes Jews out of the biblical covenant.”
God’s covenant with the Jews, Rabbi Korn said, is reinterpreted as “a metaphor for God protecting and helping the weak. It’s not about God and the Jewish people, but about taking the side of the weak. In biblical times, it was the Jews. Now it’s the Palestinians.”
Groups like Sabeel, he said, argue that the existence of a Jewish state and the idea it is justified by Scripture are root causes of Palestinian “oppression.” Rabbi Korn said liberal Christian groups here, steeped in liberation theology and a “might makes wrong” political perspective, are willingly sucked in by their radicalism.
Mainstream Jewish leaders involved in the anti-divestment fight concede they were slow to pick up on the role of groups like Sabeel. But that is changing as Jewish leaders increasingly see a pattern going back to the 2001 United Nations conference on racism and xenophobia in South Africa, which turned into a festival of Israel bashing and outright anti-Semitism.
As a result, Jewish groups may be changing their strategy.
Dialogue with local church groups around the country will intensify, said Rabbi Bretton-Granatoor.
At the same time, Rabbi Bretton-Granatoor suggested a tougher approach on the national level aimed at exposing the radical agenda of the Palestinian Christian groups that Jewish leaders increasingly see as driving the divestment effort.
Some Jewish leaders say they are sending out a strong message to their Protestant friends that critical coalitions on domestic issues are in jeopardy because of the one-sided divestment push.
Jewish leaders say they won’t be as readily taken in the next time around by church leaders who say they support the Jewish state even as they give a prominent platform to implacably anti-Israel groups.
The next time comes soon. Next week, the Disciples of Christ will vote on a resolution similar to the UCC “Tear down the wall” resolution.
And next month, the Evangelical Lutheran Church will vote on an “invest in peace” resolution at its convention in Orlando, Fla., and Jewish leaders are fearful of another last minute bait-and-switch.
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