Amid widespread and ongoing Islamist attacks against Christians in the Middle East, Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, co-founder of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, informed an audience at Georgetown University that “the government of Israel” and Israeli “settlers” pose the greatest threat to Palestinian Christians.
A Palestinian Anglican priest now living in the U.S, Ateek’s claims are typical of Sabeel, an organization that advocates “resistance to the Israeli occupation” by blaming the plight of Palestinian Christians on Jews rather than Islamic supremacism in Palestinian society.
The recent lecture sponsored by Georgetown’s Saudi-funded Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU) was titled “Christians in the Holy Land” and included Jonathan Kuttab, co-founder of the Mandela Institute for Palestinian Prisoners. About fifteen students, faculty members, and activists, including School of Foreign Service Professor Yvonne Haddad and Kathy Aquilina, program director of the non-profit organization Initiatives of Change, attended the discussion.
In keeping with ACMCU events, Ateek and Kuttab were in agreement on almost all of the issues and no alternate point of view was represented.
The news is terrible when you’re looking at what the settlers are doing, what the government of Israel is doing. . . . It’s very extreme. I think people need to know and the news does not reflect the reality of the situation back at home. . . . If they [Americans] would see what’s happening there, I think they would begin to change but they are not able to see.
Pointing to Israel’s demographics, Kuttab, a human rights attorney, argued that the government is not pluralistic:
Israel thinks if they become less than 51 percent they would be totally squashed, and as long as they have the 51 percent majority, they can squash the non-Jews. The problem is with the basic premise that Israel is and was intended to be a Jewish state for Jews rather than a state for Jews and Arabs who happen to be indigenous.
To the contrary, Israel’s Knesset, or parliament, currently has thirteen Arab members, while the country is one of the few in the region where Arabs, including women, have the right to vote. Moreover, according to the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2014, Israel’s Supreme Court has “repeatedly held that the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty protects freedom to practice religious beliefs.”
Yet, to hear Ateek tell it:
Almost at every level of life, almost every level of life, the situation is getting bad. If we’re looking at Israel, not the occupied Palestine, Israel itself, the question of the Christian schools – they are having a hard time now. Israel is cutting off the funding which the government gives to the private schools.
In fact, Israel recently began funding private Christian schools following a month-long strike. Public schools, regardless of religious affiliation, have always received full government funding.
Ateek then used one incident to paint a picture of widespread anti-Christian persecution:
They see some of these right-wing settlers or extremist Jews targeting Christians. For example, the church in Tiberias near the Sea of Galilee is burned because it is a Christian Church and Israel has not done much about it. They’re now trying to pay for it, but in the beginning they said they were not going to pay for it, so things are worse than what people think.
Israeli authorities indicted two Jewish suspects in connection with the June, 2015 arson attack on the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in Tabgha, while Israel’s Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein overruled the tax authority’s denial of payment of damages. In addition to the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee donating funds to help rebuild the church, thousands of people attended a June 21 solidarity rally and church officials have reported an upsurge in support from Israelis of all faiths.
Undeterred by the facts, Ateek continued:
You’re really dealing with people who are very extremist Jews who do not want to see Christians – that’s it’s a Jewish country and it’s only for Jews. It’s against democracy, which means everyone has a place, and I think that’s becoming less and less back home.
From such statements, one would never know that “extremist Jews” make up a tiny portion of the population and that their acts have been condemned by both Israeli authorities and American Jewish groups. This is in marked contrast to the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, both of whom employ genocidal language, incite violence against Jews as a matter of course, and have never apologized for doing so.
Attempting to portray Christians and Muslims as victims of Jewish aggression, Ateek concluded, “They don’t differentiate between a Christian and a Muslim. We are in the same boat together in this.”
Kuttab told the audience too much time and energy has been wasted trying to figure out if a one- or two-state solution would end the Arab-Israeli conflict:
I personally have decided several years ago not to even engage in that debate. What we can address are specific issues. We can talk about human rights, we can talk about equality, we can talk about violence and non-violence, we can talk about sending less rather than more weapons to either party.
Yet a one-state solution would guarantee the end of Israel as a Jewish state—a draconian outcome unacceptable to most Israelis and unaddressed by the panel.
Ateek argued that Israel does not want peace, claiming it is comfortable controlling the Palestinian people. He maintained that the U.S. has “never” been able to take a “neutral or objective” position toward the situation and therefore the conflict remains unresolved.
The panel’s lack of balance allowed such statements to go unchallenged, as for example by pointing out that the Arab states have repeatedly waged war in the hopes of destroying Israel, that the Oslo Accords—turned down by then-PLO chairman Yasser Arafat—would have given the Palestinians virtually everything they requested, and that Hamas, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization, launches frequent attacks against Israeli civilians.
In presenting only one side of the conflict, ACMCU failed in its obligation to offer scholarly, rigorous, and balanced commentary on a complex and ongoing problem. Its bias reflects that of Middle East studies on the whole: a discipline in dire need of reform with less concern for genuine debate than with ensuring the domination of anti-Israel, anti-American views. Prince Alwaleed is getting precisely what he paid for.