The Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center is an arguably anti-Semitic and supersessionist organization that has recently been criticized by several Anglican clergy. Sabeel was founded in 1989 by an Anglican priest, Naim Ateek, former Canon of St. George's Cathedral in Jerusalem. Still based in Jerusalem, it has eleven chapters in Western countries. In Ateek's theology, Jesus is no longer a Jew living under Roman rule, but "a Palestinian living under an occupation." Ateek has spoken without irony while preaching that
"it seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him. It only takes people of insight to see the hundreds of thousands of crosses throughout the land, Palestinian men, women, and children being crucified. Palestine has become one huge Golgotha. The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily. Palestine has become the place of the skull."
Here, he is drawing on the familiar canard of Jews as Christ-killers, a trope rejected by most mainstream Christian churches. The concept has, as we know, been the basis for all earlier Christian persecution and murder of Jews.
Sabeel's theology distorts the Old Testament by denying Jews any ongoing connection with the land of their origin, and treating them as a people abandoned by God. There is also repeated disparagement of Judaism as "tribal," "primitive," and "exclusionary." Judaism has also been unjustly described as a "theology of contempt".
Where most modern churches have left the anti-Semitism of the past behind and recognize that the Romans, not the Jews, crucified Jesus, the exponents of this cult of what has been called "Christian Palestinianism" deny any historical or theological connection between the biblical Israel, the Jewish people, and the modern State of Israel. In doing this in a period that has seen a massive upsurge in anti-Semitism throughout Europe, North America, and the Islamic world, Sabeel openly states that history's most persecuted community, the Jews, has no right whatsoever to a land in which it can defend itself from assaults and the current open threat, this time from Iran, of another genocide. Sabeel seems to have turned its back on all the work done by organizations such as the Council of Christians and Jews, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, or the World Congress of Faiths. (For a list of other statements by Ateek, see here.)
Sabeel has been widely criticized by both Christians and Jews. Anglican Friends of Israel has listed several Christian critics. Dexter Van Zile from the United Church of Christ is convinced that Ateek is dangerous:
"He's able to wrap up Palestinian nationalism in the language of Christian Witness and essentially that agenda then gets legitimized by Churches in the U.S., Europe, Canada and Australia. He gives legitimacy to a dishonest historical narrative."
Sister Ruth Laut, a lawyer and Dominican nun, of Churches United for Just Peace in the Middle East and Rev. William Harter of Presbyterians Concerned for Jewish Relations and the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel, have spoken against the Sabeel's agenda.
Charles McVety, the president of Canada Christian College and an evangelical Christian leader, has said that
"These groups do not speak on behalf of Christians in any way. They are a radical fringe indulging their anti-Semitic, anti-Israel bias under the guise of neutrality."
Nor are these individuals alone. Anglican Friends of Israel reported in 2005:
"Deeply concerned about the programs and message that Sabeel is bringing to North America, a body called The Coalition for Responsible Peace in the Middle East has been formed. It includes the United Church of Christ. The Coalition has stated that "They (Sabeel) undermine hopes for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, for greater understanding about the conflict and for the spread of religious tolerance."
The journalist Jeff Jacoby has stated that "Sabeel and Ateek's denunciations of Israel have included imagery explicitly linking the modern Jewish state to the terrible charge that for centuries fueled so much anti-Jewish hatred and bloodshed," and that "In Ateek's metaphorical telling, in other words, Israel is guilty of trying to murder Jesus as an infant, of killing Jesus on the cross, and of seeking to prevent his resurrection."
Jacoby quotes Adam Gregerman, Assistant Director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Relations at Saint Joseph's University (a Jesuit institution in Philadelphia). Writing in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies in 2004, Gregerman observed that "liberation theologians" such as Ateek "perpetuate some of the most unsavory and vicious images of the Jews as malevolent, antisocial, hostile to non-Jews. ... As such, liberation theology impedes rather than fosters any serious attempt at understanding or ending the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians."
In the UK, the leading representative of Sabeel is the notorious Rev. Dr. Stephen Sizer, the incumbent of the Anglican parish of Christchurch, Virginia Water, in Surrey. I say "notorious" because of the trouble he has brought on himself within the church. On January 20, 2015, Sizer posted a link on his Facebook page to a lengthy 9/11 conspiracy theory article entitled "9/11 Israel did it." The article included claims which, among others, seek to connect wealthy American Jews to the attacks, through their ownership of buildings, political affiliations or links to Israel. Sizer asked: "Is this anti-Semitic? If so no doubt I'll be asked to remove it. It raises so many questions."
Later, he removed the post, not necessarily because he no longer thought it was true, but because Britain's leading Jewish organization, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, had asked for it to be taken down. In correspondence with Jewish News Online, he asked that evidence be provided to refute the conspiracy theory.
Church of England Rev. Dr. Stephen Sizer meets Nabil Kaouk, a commander of the Hezbollah terrorist organization, in Lebanon. Rev. Sizer is a leading representative of Sabeel in the UK. (Image source: Daily Mail)
On January 29, 2015, the Church of England stated that the comments made by Sizer were unacceptable and that the Diocese of Guildford would launch an investigation. The following day, Sizer issued a statement of apology and announced that the diocese had suspended him from all social media and blogs. The Board of Deputies of British Jews also published a statement condemning Sizer's behavior. On February 9, it emerged that he had been banned from social media by the new Bishop of Guildford, the Rt. Revd. Andrew Watson, for at least six months, for his allegation of Israeli responsibility for the 9/11 atrocities. Sizer has also been banned from commenting on issues relating to the Middle East and will not attend further conferences on this subject. In his letter to the bishop, Sizer accepted that if he were to break the undertaking he has made not to use social media for that period, he would have to resign his ministry.
The Bishop of Manchester, Nigel McCulloch, who chairs the Council of Christians and Jews, has said that
"The content and the delay in removing the link from Mr Sizer's Facebook page was disgraceful and unbecoming for a clergyman of the Church of England to promote. Members of the CCJ have described the website as 'obscenely antisemitic.'"
Simon McIlwaine, known as a man of integrity, is the founder of Anglican Friends of Israel. He has called for Sizer to be defrocked.
We have to ask why, in the light of what we know of Sabeel, Naim Ateek and Stephen Sizer, an Anglican church in Newcastle chose to display and distribute literature from this organization, containing quotations from Ateek. This is not a light matter. It raises profound questions. Perhaps the gravest error made by Kairos, Sabeel, and other Christian groups who pursue a one-sided campaign is that they take away from the Palestinians any form of agency or self-reliance. If the Israelis are to blame for all that is wrong and the Palestinians are only victims, then Palestinians must be treated as children, without the will and power to act on their own behalf. Or who can act only through violence and hate.
This infantilization of a people who have taken thousands of innocent lives, committed grave sins, and openly rejected offers of peace makes them, instead, passive recipients of suffering rather than the actors that, in fact, they are. By disengaging Palestinians from responsibility for their own hatred and actions, anti-Israel churchmen and lay members trap the very people for whom they evince the greatest love inside thoughts and policies, many of them inspired by Islamic teachings, that call for the oppression of Jews and Christians as dhimmi peoples (tolerated, second-class citizens) that render them more powerless. They permit the Palestinians to persist within an atmosphere of hatred, rather than calling them to love. There is no place, in our opinion, for the support of hatred within a Christian church, just as no hatred is ever expressed within a synagogue.
Or, as many people increasingly suspect, are these campaigns, replete with fraudulent charges, as in the Inquisition, really not about Palestinians at all, but just the latest incarnation of the old racist and religious hatred of Jews, and a clear expression of the "New Anti-Semitism"?
In conclusion, let us present the Shalom Declaration, a statement that has been presented to Christians of many denominations and signed by them as a token of their trust of Israel and the Jewish people. It speaks for itself.
The Shalom Declaration:
We deeply appreciate that Israel is the only country in the Middle East which extends freedom of worship to all its citizens and where the Christian community is growing. We grieve and stand with families in Israel and the wider Middle East, who have lost loved ones and with all who are persecuted by the rise of violent extremism and intolerance in the region. We pray that those inciting trouble and disharmony in the Middle East and who threaten the existence of Israel will be thwarted. We further pray that the peacemakers will see their patience and vision rewarded so that Isaiah's prophecy of "swords beaten into pruning forks" and the declaration of Jesus that "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God," will soon become a reality. We draw succour from the vibrancy of the State of Israel, from its democratic political system, its academic and cultural creativity and its remarkable contribution to humanity in terms of science and technology. And we call upon the spiritual leaders and elected representatives of our nation to work tirelessly to combat anti-Semitism and violent extremism across the world and to strengthen understanding and co-operation between the peoples of our nation and of Israel.
We call upon the Anglican Church to consider this report and to examine the Wall Will Fall event and the false claims of Kairos, Sabeel and like organizations in the light of Christ's message of love and forgiveness. It must be the Church's judgement whether there is need for a call to repentance. But if there is no coming alive to the injustice and deceit of Christian anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism, then this ungodly bigotry and confusion within the churches will continue to fester.
Unfortunately, the structure of the workshops at the "Walls Will Fall" event, held in St Thomas The Martyr Church in Newcastle upon Tyne, meant that one could only attend two out of the four available workshops and not the film.
The first workshop was on "Palestinian-Israeli collaboration," and focused on the Villages Group, an NGO involving some Israelis with rural Palestinians in two villages near Nablus. This project seems in many ways commendable, and I can understand why some Christians support it. But the group's own website and Facebook page are avowedly anti-Israeli, taking on causes for the Palestinian side only. This became clear during the workshop, which condemned Israeli security checkpoints, the Israeli security barrier, and related topics. Although I had not intended to say anything during the day, these accusations grew so vicious that it felt necessary to address some of the points made.
An attempt was made to explain that the "Wall" is only a tiny fraction of the Israeli security barrier, well over 90% of which is a wire fence some 430 miles in length. There is no doubt that the barrier and checkpoints make life difficult for the Palestinians, but in the workshop I pointed out that it was built in response to the huge toll in lives taken by suicide bombers and other terrorists; since its construction many hundreds of lives have been saved, as illustrated in the chart below:
Two other matters seemed relevant. When there were checkpoints during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, most people (including the present writer and his family) were grateful for their presence to prevent terrorist attacks. Then, back in the Middle East, we meet a Gazan woman, Wafa Samir Ibrahim al-Biss, who was arrested at a checkpoint on June 20, 2005, while wearing a massive bomb strapped to her thigh. She planned to go as an outpatient to the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheva, Israel, where her life had been saved after she suffered burns in a domestic accident. Her orders, given by Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, were to explode the bomb among the doctors and nurses, killing as many children as possible. At that time, Palestinians trying to smuggle bombs and other weapons through checkpoints were arrested almost every day.
The only response to this information was a statement that "this is all nonsense" or words to that effect. Given the Christian context of the workshop, one could only be at a loss to understand such a very clear indifference to the concept of saving human life. No-one present (in a packed room) voiced any objection to that callous remark.
There is no space here for a full discussion of the many leaflets, pamphlets and booklets that were made available on the dozen or more bookstalls at the event. With a couple of exceptions (such as information on some girls' schools in the West Bank), none of the material contained even a brief mention of the Jewish, moderate Christian, or Israeli side of events and policies. Much seemed heavily and sometimes viciously expressive of hatred for the State of Israel; placed one hundred percent of the blame for any conflict on Israel or Jewish settlers. Much also discounted, excused, covered up or ignored decades of Arab and Palestinian violence and PLO and Hamas calls for the eradication of Israel because it is a Jewish state and therefore unacceptable in Islamic law. Some of what was there was gross, much of it was subtle. For anyone with a limited knowledge of the history and ideological underpinnings of this dispute, the glosses and mis-statements were persuasive and, unsurprisingly, designed to draw readers into the Palestinian narrative.
Dr. Denis MacEoin has lectured and written about the Middle East since the 1980s.
 See Jules Isaac "The Teaching of Contempt: The Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., New York, 1964.