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.
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: 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.
Supersessionism, 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 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.