There has been an enormous uproar over the decision by the Church of St. James at Piccadilly to erect a mock version of a wall that is part of Israel's security barrier around the West Bank. The barrier is seen in black-and-white, politically biased terms, something that has become commonplace among politically motivated Christians in the UK, for whom there is only one narrative in the Middle East, namely the Palestinian narrative. The attack on Israel that it represents is high-minded, inarticulate, and without compassion for the Jewish people. It is also without compassion for those Christians who live in the West Bank and are attacked, persecuted, and expelled by their Muslim neighbours: an outrage St. James's and its clerics fail to address.
Visitors to the festival inscribe their messages on the replica wall at St. James Church, London.
The Christians who berate Israel in this fashion have two biases. First, they seem to be in favor of a style of Christianity that takes Christ's vocation for the poor — a value that has led to so much good throughout history — and blends it with political strategies that may sound well-intended, but that often harbor dark and corrosive side-effects. It has for some time seemed natural to many Christians to follow a political path that disparages the norms of stable society by taking decent liberal values to extremes, by elevating the rights of gays above the rights of the majority, or women above men, disruption against the state (something that led to violent action in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s), a hatred for colonialism, that has led to a wider hatred of the West and its values, a love for the Third World that results in turning a blind eye to things such as honor killings and executions for apostasy, and a concerted hatred for Israel that slips all too easily into anti-Semitism in a bizarre reflection of the far right. What it adds up to is a striving for political correctness above all other values.
Where well-intentioned yet dangerous strategies lead, some Christians (and others) follow all too eagerly. Thus, Israel is condemned as an oppressive "colonialist" state, as an "apartheid" state, even as a "Nazi state," and actions that are in fact defensive are interpreted as hate-driven persecution of an innocent, harmless people who have done nothing to deserve the predicament in which they find themselves.
The second bias is more disturbing. The man behind the St. James Wall is none other than Stephen Sizer, an Anglican clergyman who has become obsessed with the wrongs of Israel. The church-based group he founded, Sabeel (Arabic for "path"), pursues his doctrine of supercessionism.
Supercessionism, which has an ignoble history in the Christian churches, is the doctrine that God has finished with the Jews, that the Covenant he made with them has been superseded through a new Covenant with Christ. Whatever its value as a theological concept, when supercessionism is allied with the sort of "far-left" political thought we have looked at above, it creates a particularly unpleasant form of anti-Semitism. If the Jews have been abandoned by God, it goes, they have no rights on this earth. Above all, their claim to the Holy Land is spurious and must be resisted. Curiously, what the Christians who oppose Jewish rights in Israel are actually doing is to endorse the Muslim belief that all the land belongs to them — by right of conquest. But Muslim supremacism, which entails the persecution of Christians, Jews, Baha'is and others across the Middle East, is all right.
The Wall expresses this supercessionist philosophy very well. It is no good to argue with the anti-Israel crowd that the barrier saves lives, that it has already saved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives. If the Palestinians are hurting, they will say, and are being prevented from launching terror attacks that will kill innocent Israeli men, women, and children, then every last inch of the barrier must be torn down, for nothing should stand in the way of the Palestinian freedom to kill and maim, least of all Jews.
Just over a year ago, after a Christian conference on Israel and the Palestinians, I wrote a long report that showed the prejudice that ran right through the proceedings. One speaker made an impression on me. She belonged to EAPPI, the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme for Palestine and Israel, which takes visitors to the West Bank and gives them a pro-Palestinian story. This woman spoke for half-an-hour on the checkpoints manned by Israeli troops in the West Bank. Having lived some of the time in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, I know a bit about checkpoints. The EAPPI speaker complained that these checkpoints should be torn down, like the Wall. No-one challenged her by pointing out the number of times when Palestinian terrorists tried to go through checkpoints with weapons and suicide belts. What did this woman want? More dead Jews? Because that is what any dismantling of checkpoints would lead to.
There is a constant problem for those of us who provide information in support of Israel, and it strikes me as the reflection of a deep moral emptiness: How often do we point out that there are countries all round the world that carry out human rights abuses on a grand scale, and that Israel, by comparison, is a model democracy that is only forced to take action to defend the country and to save Israeli lives. No one ever seems to understand what that is about. The answer is usually along the lines of, "Just because other countries are worse doesn't mean we shouldn't protest about Israel." (They might add, "and that empowers us to ignore what goes on in Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, China or any of those other countries we aren't interested in.")
St. James's officials hold radical perspectives on many issues, using a range of liberation theologies to bolster their position. Much of this is commendable, such as the value they place on black people, women, and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community. But it seems at times that the motive for such support may be less Christian charity and more a need to be politically correct in their politics.
One of Israel's great achievements is the way it has become the only country in the Middle East (and beyond) where gay men and women are safe from attacks, imprisonment, torture or execution. We often refer to this as a sign that Israel is a democratic, tolerant society, like anywhere in Europe or North America. It is a justifiable cause for pride in a country surrounded by states that condemn all homosexuals as criminals. But put this to anyone who takes a pro-Palestinian line and they might tell you this is just "pinkwashing," which is to say that Israel pretends to be tolerant in order to whitewash its crimes towards the Palestinians, that their concern for minorities is not genuine.
In other words, whatever Israel does, it cannot win. It can never be granted the benefit of the doubt. It must always be wrong, whatever its actions: To defend itself against terror attacks is aggression against innocent people. To build a wall and fence that save lives has nothing to do with self-defense, but is designed as part of a creeping occupation of Palestinian territory. Whatever the Biblical record, Christians acquiesce in the Palestinian claim that there were never Jews in the Middle East, that they are all European immigrants who arrived holding machine guns, that there was never a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount (not even the one Jesus visited), that Palestinians — who did not exist by that name until the establishment of the British Mandate of Palestine in 1920 and who arrived in the Levant in 637 with the Arab invasions after Muhammad — have lived on the land for 9000 years. Again, I am moved to suggest that Christians who believe such nonsense are motivated, not by the Bible text or by Biblical archaeology, but by a need to see the Palestinian people as dispossessed, vulnerable denizens of a land they have tilled and pastured on for millennia, and to see the Jews in every possible light of infamy, stealing with bloodied hands the treasures of Israel's true and ancient inhabitants; the builders of barriers, not bridges; Christ killers; and the inhabitants of the world's most criminal state — perhaps the world's only truly criminal state.
In Europe, anti-Semitism reaches new heights every year. Most Jews have fled from Norway, others are leaving Sweden, Denmark, France and the UK in growing numbers. In Ukraine, Romania, Hungary and elsewhere, "far-right" parties have become major players in politics. The "far right" is typically racist, anti-gay, anti-feminist, and anti-Semitic, often modelling itself explicitly on the Nazis or Mussolini's fascists. When did St. James or Stephen Sizer last hold an event to protest this deep evil, this resurgence of fascism and Jew-hatred in the lifetime of the last survivors of the Holocaust?
The Jewish experience in Europe is starting to approach the level of anti-Semitism found there before the rise to power of the Nazi party in Germany. Isn't that something to preach about from the pulpit? But Christians of many varieties do not speak out about this resurgence of one of the greatest evils to befall mankind. They prefer to tell obvious lies — Christians are safe in Muslim countries, but endangered in Israel; Israel is an "apartheid state"; Bethlehem has been "surrounded" by the security barrier; Israelis deliberately kill Palestinian children; life would be better if suicide bombers could gain free access to Israel) -- and to let radical "far-left" politics define who and what they are as Christians.
During the Second World War, nineteen thousand of Christians risked (and gave) their lives to provide safety and security to Jews threatened with death by Hitler's merciless machine of destruction. Such noble individuals have been known as the "Righteous among the Nations" and have been honored by Israel as such. Martin Gilbert has written a book about them, The Righteous. But many of today's Christians show no understanding of the morality that inspired their predecessors. Today, Jews are the victims of persecution once again, and in Israel they face the threat of a second Holocaust. Yet so-called Christians have allied themselves with the sworn enemies of the Jews. They want to pull down a barrier that has a track record in saving Jewish lives, and if they should ever succeed, anti-Semitic killers will start to work their way into the places where they plan to bring death and disability to who works or plays or eats or drinks or dances or sings or studies or worships or teaches or heals or writes poetry or serves with the army or writes books of great erudition, or walks or runs or flies. Terrorists I can understand. But Christians who actively help them?
Christians have many vocations, and St. James Church illustrates this in bold and incisive ways. But one vocation seems to have been lost: the vocation to tell the truth, to use Christian morality as a measure for all other judgements. The clergy and congregants of St. James have open and tolerant hearts, yet not, it seems, for Jews or Israelis. They have trapped themselves within a single, immoral narrative that exalts and venerates Palestinians above other suffering people elsewhere, and that fails to distinguish between Palestinians who suffer from the conflict and those whose hate for Jews drives a cycle of violence that hurts both Israelis and their own people. They lack a moral compass by which to choose between right and wrong. A wall, however oppressive, is not equivalent to a bomb aboard a crowded bus.
The West Bank barrier is only one of over 30 walls and fences round the world. Most of those are also anti-terror fences. Some are electrified and have killed many people — over 4000 in one instance, the barrier between Ceuta and Morocco. The long North Korean barrier is policed by two million soldiers. Yet St. James does not build mock-ups of any of these walls, nor does it preach about the deaths they cause. The clergy at St. James just concentrate on part of a security barrier that has saved lives. Shame on them for their blatant hypocrisy coupled with the assumption of moral superiority. Shame on them for their adroit negotiation of meaning, portraying themselves as champions of human rights while they show a streak of anti-Semitism in their routine assignment of evil only to the Jewish state.
Open Letter to the Clergy of St. James
Dear Revs. Meader, Winkett, and Valentine,
The last time I was in your beautiful church was for a memorial service — a thing of great beauty, with some wonderful music, as one might expect from your church. You are very welcome to visit my parish church. St. George's in Jesmond, which is widely thought to be the most beautiful church in the north of England.
The welcomes you extend to LGBT people, the homeless, refugees, and innovative approaches to the liturgy and beyond (as in its Zen group) have always interested me. As the bulk of my academic work has centered on the Baha'i religion and its precursors, I am very conscious of the plight of the Baha'is still living in Iran, where they have been and are being persecuted with great severity. I don't know if you include them in your prayers, but perhaps I can ask you to.
Compassion for those who suffer is necessarily an automatic response of Christians, given the emphasis Christ placed on love for one's fellow man.
For myself, my earliest encounter with true suffering came through a Czech teacher at my drama school in Belfast, Helen Lewis (née Katz). I had heard that she had been imprisoned in a concentration camp, but it wasn't until one day when she rolled her sleeve up and I saw numbers tattooed on her arm that her plight came home to me. She had spent a long time in Theresianstadt (Terezin), where she saved her life because she was a professional ballet dancer: the Nazis used Terezin as a Potemkin village with dancers, musicians, actors, painters and writers to impress the Red Cross and others with their kindly treatment of inmates (while thousands died behind the scenes). Helen's first husband died in Auschwitz.
Helen's legacy to me, an Irish teenager baptized in the Church of Ireland, was a growing concern for the Jewish people and, from that, a deep love for the state of Israel and the enormous good it has done and does in the world. In all the Middle East and far beyond, no other country but Israel gives refuge to the Baha'is. They have built a famous world center there, with gardens and shrines and white marble buildings for their administrative needs. Throughout the Middle East, Christians are dwindling rapidly in numbers, mainly because extremist Islamic groups drive them out. Israel is the only country in the region where Christian numbers have been growing steadily since 1948. It goes without saying that Israel is the only country across the Islamic world where Jews can live safely, after almost a million were killed or driven out of Arab lands in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Those few Jews who live in Iran live on a knife-edge.
Why do I mention all this? Because your church has constructed a mendacious wall on its premises in order to make an ignominious political point, something I would not have believed you capable of. It is mendacious because it pretends that the entire separation barrier is a wall, when the wall actually covers about 1%. It is mendacious because it does not mention the 30 or so security walls and fences that have been built by other countries, many much longer than Israel's. It is mendacious because it carries no message to explain why it is there, when it is explicitly there to deter violent attacks from the West Bank into Israel. It is mendacious because it carries no statement alerting onlookers to the fact that the barrier has already saved thousands of lives. Or does saving lives really not matter to Christians? Or are Jewish lives not as important as the lives of suicide bombers and other terrorists? If you seek fairness — and I suspect that in a muddled way you do — why did you not contact the Israeli embassy, who could have loaned you something apposite: a bus on board which passengers died when a suicide bomber detonated himself?
From the moment Israel was established, the Palestinians and their neighbours tried again and again to fight wars and to inflict wounds on Israeli civilians. The Palestinians were offered a state of their own but rejected it and turned to 65 years of violence. Why is this not made clear?
Sadly, large numbers of people on the far political left, aided and abetted by a surprising and disappointing force of Christians, have become fiercely one-sided. I have attended a Christian conference where much of the discourse verged on anti-Semitism. These people will not engage in open debate, they stamp their feet and shout to drown out pro-Israel speakers, they lumber into a controversy about which they know little or nothing. An Anglican priest, Stephen Sizer, who was responsible for your wall, is a fanatic whom all Jews I know consider to be an anti-Semite, brings back to modern churches a theology that had been thought discarded. Supercessionism is just another way of saying that Christians are superior to Jews, that Jews have denied God and are destined to hell. It is not a pleasant doctrine, and it shocks me that you make room for it.
In an age when anti-Semitism is growing daily, when Jews are fleeing European countries, when calls to exterminate the Jews are easily found on the Internet, what on earth are you thinking to dice so freely with the very forces you might otherwise despise? Why do terrorists win your sympathy more readily than Jewish children murdered in their beds? The Palestinians still freely quote the words of the 1967 Khartoum Declaration: 'No peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel (as a Jewish state)'. Doesn't that tell you how hard it has been for Israel to make a peace agreement? Why don't you publicize that? It is Palestinian refusal that has blocked peace, not Israeli aggression. Why don't you say so? Surely you believe in the truth and the virtue of speaking the truth. Why should well-meaning Christians let themselves be guided by hardline communists and anti-Semites? It seems altogether confused to me. When I recognized Helen Lewis's suffering and saw how she had survived a terrible ordeal through great inner strength, and when I saw how well she used her talents to teach and to create her own modern dance troupe in Northern Ireland, I also understood that when it came to a real choice, then I would opt for the Jews and I would lend what little help I could to Israel. I have never been disappointed in it. There have been mistakes, but no more than for any other country I know, and a great deal less than many other nations. Why on earth do you criticize the building of a fence to keep out terrorists when you make no tableau of Syria or Egypt or South Sudan or Iran or Saudi Arabia or North Korea, all places that make Israel stand out as a cloister for human rights, decency, and tolerance?
The wall your church so wantonly displays is often called an "apartheid wall," a slur that resonates with the frequent accusation that Israel is an "apartheid state." It has become commonplace to demonize the state of Israel and the seven and a half million people who live there. But the slightest investigation will show that Israel is one of the least apartheid states in the world. It is simply a lie to say so, and it is a lie to speak of the wall as an apartheid wall. It is a security barrier, just like dozens of others round the world, none of which is ever called an "apartheid wall." I should have thought that you would have carried out some kind of inquiry into this before constructing a fake wall that is so frequently characterized as apartheid-based. A short trip to Israel might have helped, a long trip even more.
We know very well that the wall and fence have saved countless lives, lives of Israeli Jews, lives of Israeli Arabs. Its purpose is to keep out terrorists, but the long barrier is not designed to keep out all Palestinians. At frequent intervals along its route, the fence has controlled openings through which Palestinians working in Israel may pass. Let me illustrate the importance of the fence with a single example. In 2005, a young Palestinian woman called Wafa al-Biss was badly burned in a domestic fire, taken to Israel's Soroka Hospital, and treated there for months. When discharged, she was given a permit to return as an out-patient. Some time later she headed for the hospital wearing a suicide belt with the aim of exploding it among the doctors and nurses who had treated her, as well as however many children she could find. She was caught at a checkpoint and imprisoned. Earlier this year she was released as part of a prisoner release agreement. Within hours she was speaking to Palestinian children, urging them to put on suicide vests and kill as many Jews as possible. And some people wonder why the Israelis need a security barrier.
It is simply wrong, I believe — and, I am sure, all Christians believe — to flaunt one people's suffering as righteous while condemning another people for simply seeking to secure themselves and their children from vicious attack. Wafa al-Biss was not a mentally disturbed lone killer, but someone who had every reason to be grateful to the men and women who had saved her life. She was part of a killing system, a system that has taken the lives of thousands of Israelis down the years. The Palestinians have made hatred their reason for being. It defines their radio and television broadcasts, the lessons they are taught in school, their mosque sermons, their political speeches, their publications, their newspapers, and the actions of terrorist outfits who truly do not care whom they kill, not even if their victims are four-month old babies in their cots.
I repine against all this hatred and unnecessary death, and I wish there were no need for a barrier of any kind. I have just re-read a letter from a Palestinian doctor from Gaza, who speaks emotionally about the evil that Wafa al-Biss came close to doing. Men like him and the Israelis at Soroka, and other hospitals where Palestinians receive the most advanced treatment in the world, offer a way forward. It might have been the Christian thing to invite men and women without hatred to speak at St. James. But to build a wall and use it to condemn the one side that has made the most efforts for peace and partnership is a dereliction of your Christian duty. I wish I could see something positive, but I can't.
I do think I understand your motivation, and with that I have no argument. Like so many, you have bought the narrative that portrays Palestinians as suffering victims and Israelis as people without conscience, aggressors, bloated by pride and prejudice. My conscience pricks me to say that my experience has been quite the opposite. It would take too long to explain that, though I'd be happy to try if any of you were willing to enter into correspondence on the subject. In lieu of that, there are some very fine books I would be happy to recommend that could take you a long way into a better understanding of the wider situation.
I hope my criticisms have not seemed excessive. This is a field where emotions do run fast. And it is also a debate on which human lives may depend. The final outcome of the Israel/Palestine issue brings with it a bright or dark future for the region, for the rest of the world, and for the continuity or destruction of the Jewish people. It is my fear that your "wall" may contribute to that destruction that I write to you so forcefully. I hope you understand that.
Dr. Denis MacEoin
Newcastle upon Tyne