Eyeless in Gaza

It is saddening that leaders of mainstream churches, Catholic and Protestant, unlike most Evangelicals, have expressed such little concern about the fate of Christians in the Middle East, let alone registered any support for Israel in its efforts to deal with the incessant attacks on the country.  They do not heed the warning of Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custodian of the Holy Land, an individual appointed by the Franciscan order with the approval of the Vatican, of the increasing violence that Christians in the West Bank suffer at the hands of Muslims.  Nor do they accept the Evangelican conviction that the establishment of the State of Israel and the return of Jews to their historic land is the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, or agree with the declaration of the 4th International Christian Zionist Congress in 2001 to "fulfill our biblical command to stand with, bless, and support Israel."

This mainstream clerical criticism, at its worst animosity, regarding Israel has become very visible at the moment because of the upcoming Christ at the Checkpoint (CAC) Conference organized by the Biblical College, Bethlehem (West Bank), in partnership with the Holy Land Trust and the World Council of Churches to be held this March.  Two previous CAC conferences took place in 2010 and 2011.

The thrust of these conferences was clear from the outset.  At the first in 2010, Rev. Stephen Sizer, vicar of Christ Church, Virginia Water, Surrey, England, who is to be the main organizer of the 2012 CAC conference, in one of his frequent denunciations of Israel, supported the call of the journalist Helen Thomas for Jews to "get the hell out of Palestine."  The Lutheran priest, Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Evangelical Christian Church in Bethlehem, acknowledged that a DNA test would show the mutual origin of King David and Jesus, but there was no link with Benjamin Netanyahu, who came from Eastern Europe, not Palestine.  The British Anglican Rev. Colin Chapman asserted that because Muhammad had "bad experiences" with the Jews of Medina, it must seem to Palestinian Muslims as if the Jews of the modern period were simply repeating the hostile behavior of Jews towards the Prophet many centuries earlier.

At the 2011 CAC conference Naim Ateek, former Palestinian head of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, compared the fate of Jesus on the cross to that of present-day Palestinians.  He saw Palestine as one huge Golgotha in which the Israeli government crucifixion system was operating daily.  Elsewhere, he argued, with curious theology, that "the original sin is the work of the violence of the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank."  In his book Justice, and Only Justice, Ateek, calling for a liberation theology, contended that the Bible is a problem for Palestinian Christians because of its use in the justification of Zionism.

The March 2012 CAC conference is expected to attract a considerable number of U.S. theologians, including well-known individuals such as Samuel Rodriguez, head of the U.S. National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; Tony Campolo, a sociologist and pastor who was for a time a spiritual adviser to Bill Clinton and founder of the Evangelical Association for Promotion of Education; and the South Korean pastor Sang-Bok David Kim, head of the World Evangelical Alliance, the parent group of the National Association of Evangelicals, and also head of the Asian Evangelical Alliance.

Campolo illustrates differences within the evangelical community.  The fervent evangelical Zionists pledge undying love for the Jewish people and, like John Hagee's Christians United for Israel, call for solidarity with Israel.  Campolo is one of the 34 evangelical leaders who called for a fair, two-state solution in a letter of July 29, 2007 to President George W. Bush.  Yet this apparent even-handedness is belied by their fallacious history that "both Israel and Palestinians have legitimate rights stretching back for millennia to the lands of Israel/Palestine."  Their advice to Israel was to remember in dealing with Palestinians "the profound teaching on justice that the Hebrew prophets proclaimed so forcefully."

In connection with the forthcoming conference, a Bethlehem Call manifesto has been published.  The manifesto speaks of the Israeli occupation that has "reached a level of almost unimaginable and sophisticated criminality.  This includes the slow yet deliberate and systematic ethnic cleansing and the genocide of Palestinians and Palestine as well as the strangling of the Palestinian economy."  Taking it for granted that Israel is an apartheid state, the manifesto deplores the failure to resist the Israeli government; such silence "makes us accomplices in crimes against humanity."

The Bethlehem Call was preceded by the Amman Call of June 2007, which urged the end of Israeli occupation of Palestine.  The Amman Call was presented in September 2007 for approval by the participants in the meeting of the World Council of Churches in the United Nations Advocacy Week in Geneva.  The Council, which claims a membership of 580,000 adherents in 349 Protestant and Orthodox churches, urged all churches and Christians to stand against injustice and modern-day apartheid in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Following the Amman Call was the Bern Perspective of 2008, issued after a conference co-hosted by the World Council of Churches, which wrote of the "decades of dispossession, discrimination, illegal occupation, violence and bloodshed in Palestine-Israel."  The document distinguished the Israel of the Bible from the modern State of Israel.  It declared that references to Israel in the Bible should be seen as metaphorical.

Some Catholic groups are also engaging in this excessive rhetoric critical of Israel.  An interesting contrast is evident between these activities and those of Evangelical Christians.  The latter, as early as February 1996, at the 3rd International Christian Zionist Congress meeting in Jerusalem, proclaimed their deep concern about the increasing threat posed by radical Islam to Israel, to Christian minorities in the Middle East, and to the world.  However, the communiqué issued by the eight Catholic bishops and one auxiliary bishop visiting the Holy Land, as part of the Holy Land Coordination in January 2012, expressed no such concern, but instead was critical of Israel.

The bishops, who included those from Evry (France), Liverpool (England), and Tucson (U.S.), did appeal for tolerance and courageous leadership and the need for resumption of dialogue between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.  But they also pointed out they had seen for themselves "occupation, fear and frustration dominate the life of people across the land."  They expressed no skepticism about the validity of the information given them by Archbishop Fouad Twai, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, that the separation barrier, presumably meaning the fence built by Israel which tried to minimize disruption to Arab life and which has largely succeeded in preventing terrorist attacks against it, had caused people to emigrate, to sell homes in the West Bank, and led to an increase in demand for housing in Jerusalem.

The most disconcerting of the remarks made by the bishops were those by Michel Dubost, who asked prisoners in his home town of Evry to pray for people in Gaza, which he described as a large prison, and by William Kenney, auxiliary bishop in Birmingham, England, who also asserted that two of the largest "open prisons" in the world were Bethlehem and the Gaza Strip.

The strong animus against Israel inherent in the activity of the mainstream churches echoes that in the political world, particularly in the international community of United Nations agencies, NGOs, and academics who excessively criticize or condemn Israel and call for its elimination.  What is different and disturbing in the clerical rhetoric is the use of the doctrine of supersessionism, or replacement theology.  In this train of thought, the church has replaced the people of Israel in God's plan, and biblical references to Israel really refer to Christians.  Theological dispute apart, the doctrine of supersessionism has played a significant role in the past in leading to mistreatment of Jews, and may do so in the future.  Most troubling is the argument that Jewish Israelis are crucifying Palestinians as Jews of old crucified Jesus.  The establishment of the State of Israel is equated with the killing of Jesus.  Not only are those Christian adherents who argue this way eyeless about the real treatment of Christians in Gaza, but they also have lost focus in their vision of Middle East politics.

Michael Curtis is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University, and author of the forthcoming book, Should Israel Exist? A Sovereign Nation under attack by the international community.