The Great Methodist BDS Hijack

Until this time last year, whenever I thought of Methodists, I thought of pressed blue flowers. The explanation behind that perhaps strange-sounding connection is that as a small  child in England I grew up with Methodist next-door neighbours and in 1961 they became the first people I knew who travelled to Israel after the country’s independence. When they returned, they gave me some tiny blue flowers which they had picked on the Mount of the Beatitudes and carefully pressed in their Bibles. At the time, I had never seen flowers like them and I still keep them, wrapped inside yellowed paper with Annie’s spidery handwriting on it: “A present from Galilee”.

Fifty years on, I can see the Mount of Beatitudes and its glorious array of spring flowers from my home. Unfortunately, since last year I can also see a different kind of Methodist to the ones I knew who not only respected their neighbours’ different faiths, but practised Interfaith relations before anyone had ever heard of the term by cultivating the common ground between themselves and others.

The octagonal Methodist Chapel, Heptonstall, UK

At the end of this month the Methodist Church will be holding its annual council in Southport. On the agenda is an update to the decision taken at last year’s conference to boycott Israeli goods from certain regions of the country.  The text of the paper to be presented can be seen by clicking on MC1165 on this list.  From that text one gathers that the Methodist Church appears for some inexplicable reason to have been rather surprised by the reactions to its boycott decision and that attempts have been made to contain the damage by engaging with the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

In this exchange of letters the current President of the Methodist council assures the BoD that her church “[u]nequivocally affirms the right of Israel to exist as an independent state and in security and peace alongside a Palestinian state” and “[a]bsolutely opposes antisemitism in all its forms”.  Those claims cannot be accepted as genuine so long as the Methodist Church continues to work with, promote and support people and organisations involved in the assault on Israel’s legitimacy with the ultimate aim of denying the Jewish people’s right to self-determination by bringing an end to the Jewish state.

Document MC1165 recommends to its church members a number of organisations as sources of valid information on the subject of the Israel/Arab conflict. One of those organisations is “Rediscovering Palestine” which includes among its members the Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood linked ‘Palestinian Return Centre’ which is outlawed by Israel. Other members include the non-transparently funded Palestine Solidarity Campaign, ICHAD, Friends of Birzeit (the university with the distinction of having produced numerous suicide bombers and PACBI), Friends of Sabeel UK which embraces Naim Ateek’s offensive supersessionism theology, and the AM Qattan Foundation which, among other things, funds an organisation named Al Shabaka which is involved in undermining the Palestinian Authority’s peace negotiations with Israel.

Also on the list is Christian Aid, and the radical NGO War on Want – who produced this Christmas cardwith a picture of Israeli soldiers conducting a body search of Joseph, and a pregnant Mary on a donkey, blocked on their way to Bethlehem:

Last but not least there is the Amos Trust which is also the organisation behind ‘Just Peace for Palestine (also promoted by the Methodist Church) which employs Ben White – author of the odious book ‘Israeli Apartheid – A Beginner’s Guide’. 

Ben White’s book also appears on the ‘Rediscovering Palestine’ recommended reading list on the subject of the conflict – as promoted by the Methodist Church. Unsurprisingly, most of the books there are virulently anti-Zionist and include works by Naim Ateek and other Sabeel activists such as Jean Zaru and Elias Chacour as well as many of its sympathisers such as Jeff Halper of ICHAD and Donald Wagner.   

Other authors included on the list are Ilan Pappe, Garth Hewitt of the Amos Trust, Shlomo Sand with his highly offensive and academically suspect The Invention of the Jewish People” and of course Amos Trust and Friends of Sabeel UK activist Stephen Sizer, who recently visited Malaysia as a guest of the Hamas supporting outfit ‘Viva Palestina’.

Should the Methodist Church’s endorsement of such extremist organisations and literature come as a shock? Indeed it would have once, but if one has read the report produced by its working party last year upon which the decision to engage in a boycott was based and noted the sources used in the compilation of that report, one would be aware that many of the above mentioned authors, along with other highly biased sources, form its backbone. That fact, of course, resulted in gross historic inaccuracy becoming the report’s most outstanding feature. That, in turn, ensured that rank and file Methodists were unable to make an informed decision on the subject.

But of course the Methodist working party did not produce such a biased and inaccurate report merely as a result of chance or bad luck; it was programmed to do so from its very inception. Its members were obliged in advance to “affirm that they are in agreement with previously stated Conference positions on the occupation”. Calls for a greater diversity of opinion among working party members were deemed unhelpful.

“Requests have been received that the group should be “balanced” and contain members who are not in agreement with Conference statements.  This is not believed to be a constructive approach given the remit of the group.”  

And so, a working party made up of people with remarkably homogenous opinions and guaranteed to come up with the ‘right’ result was formed. Its members and their qualifications for the task were described as follows:

  • Revd. Graham Carter (Chair) – former President of the Methodist Conference.
  • Revd. Alan Ashton – over 32 years experience of living there and visiting, with family living in the West Bank.
  • Revd. Warren Bardsley – returned accompanier with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel.
  • Dr. Elizabeth Harris – Senior Lecturer in Comparative Study of Religion, Hope University.
  • Steve Hucklesby – Policy Advisor, Joint Public Issues Team.
  • Revd. Nicola Jones – member of Friends of Sabeel and frequent traveller.
  • Revd. Marian Jones  – frequent traveller with contacts in Israel/Palestine.
  • Dr. Stephen Leah – Peace campaigner with contacts in the UK peace and justice community and in Israel/Palestine.
  • Revd. Sam McBratney – involvement in university programme with students from Gaza and Israel.

Predictably, the Methodist document makes no mention of the engagement of some of the above in reactionary politics or their associations with extremist organisations, but once those connections are clear, it is more than obvious that the Methodist Church has been steered by a committed group of activists into waters more coloured by politics than theology.

The motion to engage in a boycott of Israeli goods was proposed by Revd. Nichola Jones who is – as stated above – a long- time member of ‘Friends of Sabeel UK’. Like the leader of the parent organisation Sabeel, Naim Ateek, she appears to have jumped on board the supersessionism bandwagon. Whatever the theological arguments behind that, Methodists should be aware that not only is such theology deeply offensive to Jews, but that it is employed by Sabeel in order to promote anti-Zionism. At the 2010 conference Nichola Jones said ( at 73 mins): 

“In the Bible we learn of the Chosen People. Who are they and what were they chosen for? Genesis tells us again & again that God chooses Abraham and makes a covenant with Abraham & his heirs: a covenant being a two-sided agreement with obligations on both parties, like marriage……Of course, Israel today is not the same as Israel in the Bible: in the Bible, Israel refers to the people of Abraham’s descendants, who are in covenant with God. Israel today is a modern, secular state, created in 1948…….

For years I cherished the Galatian text…now I read it properly: ‘In Christ there is no longer male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek (we could say Jew or Arab): we are all one in Christ.’ We are heirs of Abraham, and so inheritors of the promise of Abraham. Jesus, who makes with us a new covenant which transforms us utterly, never speaks of the land or owning it: he speaks of the Kingdom & joining it and invites us to do so. He teaches us God is not a racist God with favourites, but God loves all his children & blesses them

Nichola Jones attended the 2011 Sabeel Conference together with other members of the British Methodist Church including its President and Vice-President. Anyone who is aware of Sabeel’s record and its commitment to campaigning for a one-state ‘solution’ (i.e. the end of the Jewish state) should be deeply worried by the close co-operation between the two organizations.

The seconder of the BDS motion was Revd. Stephen Leah. He was rather disappointed that his church only agreed to boycott goods from certain areas in Israel.

” I personally would like to have divestment going a little bit further into the full boycott of Israel, but I know how much I can get away with in the churches sometimes. […] Churches are paranoid about being critical of Israel sometimes, they want to be balanced all the time, we must put pressure on church leaders.”

Of course that stance is perfectly understandable when one appreciates the fact that Leah is also the chairman of the York branch of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. In his spare time he re-writes Christmas carols which are in turn promoted by Stephen Sizer at his Virginia Water church.

“O Little Town of Bethlehem

Imprisoned you now lie.

Above thy deep and silent grief,

Surveillance drones now fly.

And through thy old streets standeth,

A huge illegal Wall.

The hopes and dreams that peace will come

Are dashed in this year’s Fall.”

Another member of the working party with PSC connections is Revd. Warren Bardsley who has appeared as a speaker for the PSC promoting the Kairos Document as well as organizing demonstrations on behalf of the PSC West Midlands branch and meetings for Action Palestine. Bardsley is also the Midlands representative for ‘Friends of Sabeel UK’.

Revd. Alan Ashton makes no secret about his support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, having signed up (along with Stephen Leah, Marian Jones and Warren Bardsley) to this campaign – complete with Tim Biles’ infamous fake maps of so-called ‘land grab’ which were also used in the working party’s report.

Dr Elizabeth Harris is probably best remembered for her more than unfortunate remarks relating to a visit to Yad Vashem, which were made in a section her paper entitled “Jewish perspectives” under the sub-heading “An ethos of victimhood”. The document later had to be removed from the Methodist website.

“A pilgrimage through the exhibition rooms of the Centre, which bring home both the horror of the Holocaust and the vigour of Jewish resistance, brings you out in the open air, overlooking the beauty of Jerusalem. This perspective is transmitted to young Israelis through visits to Yad Vashem organised by schools and other groups. When I visited the Centre with a group from Britain, I noticed that many visitors were not of European Jewish descent. As Michael Ipgrave, then Secretary of the Churches’ Commission for Inter Faith Relations, wrote in his report of the visit: ‘The Holocaust has come to serve as a national story embracing also Oriental Jews for whom this was not part of their family history.’ Peace groups in Israel have to work against this backdrop.” (emphasis added)

Dr. Harris then went on to claim that “[w]hat is given at Yad Vashem is an interpretation of history” and that “[c]ollective memory of the Holocaust also feeds into an ethos of victimhood within the Jewish community”. Beyond the obvious fact that only a couple of generations ago two-thirds of European Jewry were indeed victims of the most extreme kind of European antisemitism and few families in Israel are untouched by that fact in one way or another, one cannot but also wonder how Harris became such an expert on Jewish group psychology and mark the deep contrast between her lack of sympathy for the biggest tragedy the Jewish nation has known to her 2006 statement on the subject of the Mohammed cartoons in which she stressed “the responsibility to draw back from causing deliberate provocation or offence”.  

Steve Hucklesby has been issuing statements on behalf of the Methodist Church for several years in his capacity as Secretary for International Affairs. Many of them show a profound lack of understanding of the situation in the Middle East and yet despite that he is listed as one of the church’s ‘experts’ on Israel. Here, for example, he makes uninformed and irresponsible statements on the subject of the Gaza blockade, failing to recognize that humanitarian aid has been transported daily into Gaza unless terror attacks on the crossings made that impossible. Here he is voicing his opinions on the 2006 Lebanon war, when the Methodist Church was apparently very worried about the plight of Lebanese children but found nothing to say about Israeli ones bombarded by over 4,000 Hizbollah missiles.

Earlier this year, Hucklesby organized and participated in a visit to ‘Israel/Palestine’ together with the President and Vice-president of the Methodist Church. As can be seen from their blogposts, there was significantly more ‘Palestine’ than ‘Israel’ in the tour and the few Israelis they did meet seemed to be mostly of the far-Left variety such as ICHAD and Rabbis for Human Rights. The trip was rounded off with a visit to the Sabeel Conference and a chat with the British Consul in Jerusalem who recently attended the Bil’in conference together with the proscribed terror organization the PFLP and the DFLP.  Apparently, the Methodist dignitaries felt no need to meet up with mainstream Israelis, let alone the people whose livelihoods they are attempting to harm with their boycott, which just goes to show that convictions do not always go together with courage.

Hucklesby also blogged individually about the trip and in a post about Hevron, his apparently uncontrollable bias oozes from practically every sentence but even so, it takes considerable effort to revise history to the extent which he achieves.

“We arrive at the Ibrahimi Mosque (the Tomb of the Patriarchs) a site that is holy to both Muslims and Jews.  In 1994 a Jewish settler shot 29 Palestinians dead while they prayed. Following that act, Israeli authorities turned one-third of the Mosque into a synagogue.”

Working party member Sam McBratney also visited the region in 2008 for the first time. Unlike his colleagues above, he did spend some time in Israel, but appears to have found little Christian tolerance in his heart for the local way of life.

“Why is it, for example, that pedestrians are treated so badly in this country? Again and again, walking along minding my own business, the pavement suddenly disappeared altogether. Or worse still, drivers feel no compunction at mounting the pavement and parking right across the walkway. Don’t ever daydream in Israel or the chances are you’ll be mowed down by a bloody scooter weaving its way along the PAVEMENT – what part of footpath don’t they understand?

Maybe it’s a state secret or part of the security operation but would it kill someone to put bus routes on a piece of paper and make it widely available? What do they call those things? Oh, I know, a MAP! Negotiating buses and fares is nightmarish to say the least. So, of course, that makes tourists reliant on taxis. Plenty to choose from, sadly it seems, most drivers are out to fleece you.” 

Obviously nobody told Revd. McBratney that Israel is a nation which is technologically at least on a par with his native country and that we have a dandy little thing here called ‘the internet’ – accessible from the laptop he obviously had with him – where bus timetables are readily available.   

The members of the Methodist working group on Israel/Palestine are obviously not unintelligent people and yet it is quite difficult to believe that mature adults could be so gullible as to accept every politically motivated distortion and fabrication they are fed as being gospel truth. But unfortunately the holders of extremist ideologies often have a tendency to picture the world in neat compartments of good and bad, black and white.

Sadly for the Methodist Church, it is apparently being led and coerced by such blindly partisan adherents to extremist political ideologies at present. It is this fact which made the adoption of the boycott motion inevitable last year and it is this fact which will have to be addressed by the rank and file members of the Methodist Church if they wish to return to the values of their faith rather than being tools in the hands of a small group of extremist political activists. 

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