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Carters crusade

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Turning Christians against Israel

by Mark Tooley

In May, the Carter Center in Atlanta, with patron Jimmy Carter presiding, hosted liberal religious officials to talk about the Middle East, releasing a statement effectively calling for a more neutral U.S. stance towards Israel. In June, in between meeting with Hamas officials, Carter met with Palestinian church prelates in Jerusalem. One of his hosts was Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Anglican clergy who heads Sabeel, an advocate of Palestinian Liberation Theology, and a chief voice for anti-Israel organizing among Western churches.

The Rev. Ateek is a frequent visitor to the U.S. and, after attending the early July Episcopal Church General Convention in Anaheim, is doing a speaking tour of churches and radio stations in the Pacific Northwest, mostly touting his latest book, "A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation." On July 20 he was interviewed on KUOW Puget Sound Public Radio, broadcasting his themes of Israel’s similarity to South African Apartheid, the injustice of Israel’s security barrier, and his insistence that Palestinian Christians are dwindling in numbers because of Israel and not because of Hamas or radical Islam.

Ateek recalled, as a child, that his family fled from the Israelis in 1948, with his father warning "if we don't leave they'll kill us." The Christians were "dumped" near Nazareth, with Muslims ostensibly sent into Jordan. Naturally Ateek wants a full "right of return" for all Palestinians, and their descendants, who lived in pre-1948 Israel. "I'm not saying that all Palestinians will be returning," he opined. "I'd get probably some compensation like Jews got from Germany."

Portraying the Mid-East conflict as strictly between persecutor and victim, Ateek declared that "today the Jewish people are not suffering, they're the oppressors and they can be relieved from their suffering if they do justice." But unfortunately, he declared, Israel "doesn't want peace, Israel wants to get rid of the Palestinians." Decrying "extremists on both sides," Ateek insisted that the Israeli security barrier had not reduced Palestinian suicide bombers but the "Palestinians themselves saw the futility and said we're not going to do it anymore."

Ateek denounced Israeli "racism" towards Palestinians as likelier worse than Apartheid South Africa, probably to degenerate even further under the current "right-wing" Israeli government. He hailed the first intifada as mainly "nonviolent," and regretted the second uprising was less so. But he faulted "Israeli oppression," exacerbated by "Christian Zionists" in America, with their"primitive" theology, and "using the Bible against the Palestinians." Ateek explained his mission is to counteract the notion of a "very narrow exclusivist bigoted kind of God" with Sabeel's message that God is not "concerned about a piece of land but is a god of justice, compassion."

Palestinian Christians are now a very small minority, Ateek admitted, but he faulted Israeli "oppression" and the economic situation. That Hamas or other Islamists have caused Christian emigration is "propaganda" from Israelis, he insisted. He lamented that the recent Episcopal Church General Convention had not approved strong anti-Israel resolutions because "many of these people value their relations with their Jewish friends rather than justice." Ateek pointed to Episcopal bishops who "wanted to keep their friendships with local rabbis."

Jimmy Carter, whom Ateek hosted in Jerusalem on June 13, likely would not substantively disagree with his host's perspective. Rather, Carter's rhetoric during his recent Mid-East visit was more hyperbolic, calling the partial Israeli blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza an "atrocity," as "citizens of Gaza are being treated more like animals than human beings." Speaking in Cairo, Carter claimed Palestinians in Gaza are being "starved to death" with less food than poorest Africa, which he denounced as a "crime" and an "abomination." Later, in his report for the Carter Center, he was "appalled" by Israeli Premier Netanyahu's speech offering a two state solution. Although Carter met with Hamas officials, and with Syria's dictator, he had no similar harsh words about them.

The Ateek-hosted gathering for Carter in Jerusalem included the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican prelates. According to a news release from the Anglican bishop, Ateek, after thanking Carter for observing the recent Lebanese elections, told him: "In this process of democratization in governance, there needs to be a built-in shared respect for both the political aspirations as well as the religious convictions of minorities in the electorate. This is especially needed where Christians find themselves in sensitive minority placement among the three faiths."

Carter's summit with bishops in Jerusalem was an outgrowth of his May Carter Center event for liberal churchmen called "Towards a New Christian Consensus: Peace with Justice in the Holy Land," which featured Evangelical Left activists Jim Wallis and Ron Sider, some Mainline Protestant officials, and the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem. With the promise that Carter would deliver it to Barak Obama, they collectively implored the president to push Israel on a two state solution, effectively halt Israeli settlements, and open the borders with Gaza. There were no equivalent demand upon Palestinians or Arab states.

Whether Carter, with help from Palestinian activists like Ateek, can diminish American Christian, especially evangelical, support for Israel seems dubious. But for them, and for others, exploiting the shrinking Palestinian Christian community for anti-Israel talking points, is almost certainly a strategy that will not soon go away.

-Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church.