‘Friends of Sabeel UK’ : promoting BDS and harming interfaith relations.

One day in the spring of 2008 whilst I was living in England, an elderly friend who is originally from Germany and a Holocaust survivor telephoned me. She told me that a Catholic neighbour of hers had come to visit bringing with her a pamphlet she had been given at her church which stated that members of the congregation should join the boycott of Israeli goods. My friend, who does a lot of interfaith work including lecturing about the Holocaust, was very upset by the idea that the local priest might be promoting such a blatantly political campaign and asked me to find out more.

So off I went to the church and to my surprise, on the notice board in the entrance in among the announcements of services, the flower arrangement rota, and the advert for a bring and buy sale with strawberry and cream tea was also assorted anti-Israel propaganda, including literature informing the congregation of their duty to join the BDS campaign. I later found out that the priest is also a member of the local branch of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), but during the time I spent in that small English town, the Catholic Church proved to be far from the only local religious establishment engaging in anti-Israel propaganda.

 To mention but several of many incidents, during Operation Cast Lead the Methodist church on the high street displayed a large poster adorned with blue Stars of David on its outside notice board declaring to passers -by that “Israel commits war crimes”. One Christmas time the local Methodist pastor wrote a long article in the town’s newspaper comparing Joseph and Mary to Palestinians crossing Israeli checkpoints and shortly before I left the UK, the town’s Baptist church hosted a PSC –organised screening of the virulently anti-Israel film The Zionist Story’.

I must say that as someone who spent her childhood in rural England with neighbours and classmates from all the various branches of the Christian Church, this volatile (and often aggressive) mix of religion and politics promoted by seemingly mild-mannered middle-aged British Christians was completely foreign to me. In the past few months many on this blog and others have expressed dismay mixed with a degree of incredulity at the decisions of the Methodist Church and the Quakers to adopt boycott resolutions. The mechanisms which have contributed to such broadly publicised actions and to the increasingly hostile environment in so many of Britain’s faith groups are, however, right under our noses.

As I write these words, a conference is being held in that most English of towns, Oxford. It is organised by a UK registered charity named ‘Friends of Sabeel UK’ (FOSUK), is entitled “Christianity, Zionism and Justice?” and features the speakers Ilan Pappe of Exeter University and the Rev. Stephen Sizer of Virginia Water.

Readers will need no introduction to Ilan Pappe’s virulent anti-Zionism which features heavily on the anti-Israel circuit and is founded on his peculiar political interpretations of history. As a prominent supporter of BDS and the ‘one-state solution’, Pappe promotes the notion of ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Palestinians at any and every opportunity, despite the demographic evidence to the contrary.

The name Stephen Sizer will also be familiar to many; particularly those who used to read the Seismic Shock blog before the Anglican vicar managed to have it closed down.  Besides being a very busy man who is involved with many anti-Israel political campaigns featuring some of the more unsavoury characters on the circuit, Sizer appears to have one particularly angry bee in his bonnet when it comes to the subject of Christian Zionism , even appearing on Iran’s PressTV to talk about the subject.

So why would Friends of Sabeel UK want to invite two such extremist and controversial figures as Pappe and Sizer to speak at their AGM? Well the fact is that the clue is in the name. FOSUK are merely one branch of ‘friends’ groups in numerous Western countries which support the Jerusalem-based organisation Sabeel, otherwise known as the ‘Palestinian Liberation Theology Centre‘.

Established in 1994 by a former member of the Anglican clergy in Jerusalem, Sabeel promotes the ‘one-state solution’ by means of a brand of Christian theology which dabbles in supersessionism, claiming that the Jewish refusal to acknowledge Christ as the Messiah in fact forfeits any Jewish claims to the land of Israel and deems Jews to eternal wandering. According to Sabeel’s founder, Naim Ateek:

“The Jews, whose prophetic tradition as well as their long history of suffering qualify them to play a peacemaking role, have acquired a new image since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. By espousing the nationalistic tradition of Zionism, they have relegated to themselves the role of oppressors and war makers. By so doing they have voluntarily relinquished the role of the servant which for centuries they had claimed for themselves. This has been a revolutionary change from the long held belief that Jews have a vocation to suffering. Many rabbis had taught that Jews should accept suffering rather than inflict it as a means of changing the world. One of the great rabbinic dictums was “Be of the persecuted rather than that of the persecutors.” Sholem Asch cried, “God be thanked, that the nations have not given my people the opportunity to commit against others the crimes which have been committed against it.” This has been dramatically changed by the creation of the State of Israel.”

Sabeel leaders also played an instrumental role in the drafting in 2009 of the not-coincidentally named Kairos Palestine Document, which promotes BDS (at least one member of Sabeel’s board, Samia Khoury, is also a member of PACBI) against Israel and is supported by the World Council of Churches.  To quote the document:

“4.2.6 Palestinian civil organizations, as well as international organizations, NGOs and certain religious institutions call on individuals, companies and states to engage in divestment and in an economic and commercial boycott of everything produced by the occupation. We understand this to integrate the logic of peaceful resistance. These advocacy campaigns must be carried out with courage, openly sincerely proclaiming that their object is not revenge but rather to put an end to the existing evil, liberating both the perpetrators and the victims of injustice. The aim is to free both peoples from extremist positions of the different Israeli governments, bringing both to justice and reconciliation. In this spirit and with this dedication we will eventually reach the longed-for resolution to our problems, as indeed happened in South Africa and with many other liberation movements in the world.”

Stephen Sizer is a frequent guest of Sabeel at its conferences, particularly those dealing with the subject of Christian Zionism, and has shared platforms with speakers such as Jeff Halper of ICAHD, Attalah Hanna, Donald Wagner and Azmi Bishara who apparently received a standing ovation on one occasion when he asked “how can a people who are denied their basic freedom be guilty of acts of terror?”.

Functionaries of ‘Friends of Sabeel UK’ have also attended Sabeel conferences and events. Self-described ‘eco-feminist liberation theologianRoman Catholic Professor Mary Grey, who is a patron of FOSUK and chair of its theology group, attended the 2006 and 2008 conferences. She has contributed to the ‘Holy Land Studies Journal and sits on its editorial board along with Ilan Pappe. Here is an example of her somewhat un-academic style of writing at another venue:

 “…many people fear that Israel has achieved so much at the expense of losing its soul. Pray for those who chose and oppose… who chose to inflict the very merciless policies that they had endured for two thousand years on the indigenous Palestinians of the Bible Lands. I think to myself of the famous philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, for whom gazing on “the face of the other” meant being opened up to the transcendence of God. But the reality of occupation, settlements, security Wall, confiscated land and demolished houses, prohibits this opening up, as then Israel would feel compassion for its neighbor, and be compelled on moral grounds to take different actions.”

Another Catholic member of FOSUK’s theology group is Stewart Hemsley from Cambridge, who represents Pax Christi, of which he is the former chair, on that body. Pax Christi’s philosophy can be glimpsed in its recent statement regarding the death of Osama bin Laden:

“However, we also mourn our nation’s misguided response to the events of 9/11, the carnage and mayhem unleashed, the distortion of our deepest values, the abandonment of our highest principles and ultimate subversion of our national character.”

In a briefing prior to the 2010 British elections, the issue of the Palestinian-Israel conflict was for some reason among the subjects which Pax Christi deemed important for the British voters to consider when electing their new government.  Suggested questions for parliamentary candidates included:

What would your party do to encourage Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza?

What plans does your party have for re-energising the peace process for Israel–Palestine?

Settlements and the separation wall have both been challenged in international law. How would your party engage with Israel on these issues?

Would your party be prepared to enter talks with all parties in the ongoing conflict – including Hamas – as a sign of genuine openness to a process of conflict resolution?

 As a step in the demilitarisation of the region, would your party be prepared to support an arms embargo of Israel?

Can you assure us that your party would not engage in any pre-emptive military actions against Iran?

Not unsurprisingly, Pax Christi is heavily involved with the ‘Stop the War Coalition’ and Stewart Hemsley has shared a platform with Hamas supporter Azzam Tamimi at events sponsored by that organisation, together with the PSC and ‘Friends of Al Aqsa’. Like several other members of FOSUK, Hemsley is involved with Palestinian groups in the UK which draw upon increasing support from Christian ‘pacifists’.

FOSUK is a multi-denominational organisation including Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists and Quakers. Another member of its theology group, Colin South, is a Quaker who spent several years working at the Friends school in Ramallah. Unsurprisingly, considering that the clerk of the Friends House in Ramallah –Jean Zaru – is also a prominent member of Sabeel, he appears to have been heavily influenced by Naim Ateek. It is worth noting that the British Quakers fund the organisation New Profile’ which attempts to persuade Israeli youth to break the law of their country by draft-dodging.

FOSUK’s patrons include the ubiquitous (to any anti-Israeli organisation) Baroness Jenny Tonge, Ibrahim Hewitt of the Hamas-supporting ‘charity’ Interpal which was cited as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holyland Trial, and the head of the Palestinian delegation to the UK, as well as some well-known anti-Israel clergy.  FOSUK has close ties to Christian Aid and is involved in the ‘Greenbelt Festival’.  For the past three years this annual Christian arts event has focused on the Israel-Palestine conflict, in partnership with Just Peace – which is run by the Amos Trust and co-ordinated by none other than Ben White. It includes a coalition of organisations including ICAHD UK, Friends of Al Aqsa, War on Want, the PSC, Independent Jewish Voices, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine and the Alternative Tourism Group.

It is, of course, hardly surprising that FOSUK’s members are naturally attracted to such blatantly anti-Israel – and in some cases, anti-Semitic – organisations. Reading the FOSUK newsletters gives one an idea of the kind of prevalent opinions within its ranks. An editorial in the Autumn 2009 edition declares that:

“The Israeli government is systematically going about the dispossession of the Palestinians by every possible means to force them to leave the country, or give up their national identity, so that Israel can become a totally Jewish state in all the land of pre-1948 Palestine.”

In the Spring 2008 edition we read that:

“Sixty years on, the Nakba continues under the relentless policy of apartheid and ethnic cleansing.”

In the Spring 2010 edition, it is possible to read of the experiences of a FOSUK member on a ‘Viva Palestina’ convoy to Gaza.

If all this virulent anti-Israel sentiment and campaigning sounds to readers like something more befitting of a script for Midsomer Murders than what one would expect to find going on in the Christian churches of tranquil leafy British towns and villages, I can most definitely sympathise.  FOSUK may not be a particularly large organisation, but its influence is being felt widely. Beyond the obvious damage done to Israel by the kind of misinformation deliberately propagated by Friends of Sabeel UK, there is additional damage done to interfaith relations, at least according to my own experiences in the UK.

Evidence would suggest that there are considerable numbers of Christians who are unhappy about their churches being taken over by a minority with a very specific and vocal agenda. I would imagine that quite a few of them are also concerned about the real causes of Christian persecution in the Middle East. Perhaps the time has come for some interfaith co-operation in order to reclaim some of the good-natured tolerance between Christians and Jews which I remember as part of my English childhood.

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