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Updating the Ancient Infrastructure of Christian Contempt: Sabeel

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, Hamas, International Law, Iraq, Israel, Israeli Security, Jerusalem, Palestinians, Peace Process, Terrorism, The Middle East, World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 23:1-2 (Spring 2011)

Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, headquartered in Jerusalem, has been a persistent source of anti-Zionist agitation in mainline Protestant churches in the United States since its founding in 1994. The organization subjects Israel, Jews, and Judaism to intense scrutiny while remaining nearly silent about Arab and Muslim extremism in the Middle East. In addition to publicizing the writings of its founder, Anglican priest Naim Ateek, Sabeel broadcasts its message via regional conferences in the United States and regular study missions to Israel. Far-Left American and Israeli Jews are given prominent display at Sabeel conferences, where Israel is held up to a strict biblical standard of conduct while its adversaries are held to no standard at all. By giving its followers the sense that they are engaging in a showdown with the forces of evil embodied by Israel and its U.S supporters, Sabeel reenacts the church-synagogue rivalry documented in early Christian writings.

Rolling Out the Anti-Zionist Catechism

In December 2009, a group of Christians and Jews from South Africa, the United States, Europe, and Asia met in Bethlehem to give their blessing to a document written by Palestinian Christian leaders from Jerusalem and the West Bank. The text of the document – which has come to be called the Kairos Palestine Document (KPD) – calls on Christians throughout the world to target Israel with boycotts, divestments, and economic sanctions.[1]

The document’s stated goal is to bring a word of truth about the Arab-Israeli conflict to the world, but a close reading of the text reveals many of the tropes Arab Christians often use to indict Israel. The conflict is all Israel’s fault; the Palestinians are innocent. Israelis sin; Palestinians make mistakes. Palestinian violence is justified; Israeli self-defense is not. Palestinian attacks targeting Israeli civilians are not terrorism motivated by a desire to destroy Israel, but “legal resistance” motivated by a desire to liberate themselves from oppression. The document also affirms a fantasy that Christian peacemakers have long embraced – that the fighting will miraculously come to an end once Israel ends the occupation. It states, “if there were no occupation, there would be no resistance, no fear and no insecurity.”[2]

Being good guests, the visitors responded with some well-worn tropes of their own. One leader dishonestly equated the security barrier – which he called the “Apartheid Wall” – with the Berlin Wall used by East German leaders to keep their own people imprisoned, apparently forgetting that the security barrier was built to stop suicide attacks. Another flattered Palestinian Christians, who have little influence in Palestinian society, as offering a credible witness for peace to their fellow countrymen and to the world. A third lauded the willingness of the document’s authors to risk accusations of anti-Semitism. And if the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) coverage of the event is to be trusted, no one offered a word of criticism about Muslim and Arab hostility toward Christians, Jews, and Israel in the region.[3]

Four days later the heads of Christian churches, who, with the exception of Lutheran bishop Munib Younan, had nothing to do with writing the KPD, issued a statement of their own that damns the text with faint praise. As scholar Malcom Lowe notes, the heads of churches remained silent about the more polemical aspects of the text and instead of casting blame or calling for worldwide campaigns against Israel, they merely stated that they heard the “cry of hope” offered by their flocks. Lowe writes, “Indeed, the statement can be read as a mild rebuke to the authors of the document: Palestinian Christians should put their main effort into strengthening their own community rather than engaging in worldwide political agitation.”[4]

Nevertheless, on 21 December 2009, WCC general secretary Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia depicted the statement from the heads of churches as a ringing endorsement and asserted that the KPD provided a “fresh basis and reference point in this renewed struggle for justice.”[5]

A few months later, officials from Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ endorsed the KPD in an effusive pastoral letter that called on Christians to boycott Israeli products manufactured in the West Bank.[6] And in July 2010, Sojourners, a magazine that caters to the religious Left in the United States, published a long excerpt from the document. The magazine, edited by prominent evangelical activist Jim Wallis, acknowledged that the text could have provided “a more explicit denouncement of terrorist violence” but nevertheless described the KPD as a “prophetic milestone toward peace” in the Middle East.[7]

Similar fanfare was evident at the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly in July 2010. Activists tried to convince the body to approve an overture that affirmed the KPD as an advocacy tool[8] over the objections of Jewish groups such as the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), which had declared the statement “supersessionist and anti-Semitic.”[9] This resolution failed to pass, but the push to extract an affirmation of the document from the General Assembly continued because yet another document before the body – a 172-page report issued by the Middle East Study Committee – also included an affirmation of the Palestinian text.[10] The end result was a qualified endorsement that remained silent about boycotts, but praised the KPD “in its emphases on hope for liberation, non-violence, love of enemy and reconciliation.” It also lifted “the document up for study and discussion by Presbyterians” and called for the creation of a study guide to be distributed to the denomination.[11]

Proponents of the KPD were able to elicit this attenuated endorsement from the PC(USA)’s General Assembly by engaging in the moral blackmail that has become the hallmark of “pro-Palestinian” activism in mainline churches for much of the past decade. The message offered by defenders of the text was that failing to endorse it would be tantamount to abandoning the Palestinian Christians in their suffering. On the other hand, affirming the KPD – despite its indifference to Arab and Muslim violence and the Israeli suffering it causes – was the best way Christians could express solidarity with the living stones[12]  in the Holy Land who were suffering oppression under the Jewish state.

An Old Pattern

The Kabuki dance between the authors of the KPD and their allies in Europe and North America is part of a process that has taken place in one form or another for decades.

In the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967, a group of Arab Christians issued a memorandum[13] about the Arab-Israeli conflict that invoked a trope dating back to St. Augustine: the Jews are not entitled to a sovereign state but have a unique calling to be stateless as a witness to the sovereignty of God – not man. The memorandum remains silent about whether Israel’s Arab adversaries had a similar calling. Apparently for the memorandum’s authors, Israeli Jews betrayed their calling by refusing to be overrun by enemies who promised their destruction before the Six Day War.

Nevertheless, Rosemary Radford Ruether and her husband, Herman J. Ruether, lionized the text thirty-five years later in The Wrath of Jonah.[14] The Ruethers’ support for the document is ironic given that it could very well have been used as an example of anti-Judaism in Rosemary Radford’s Ruether’s 1974 book Faith and Fratricide.

Since the Six Day War, similar polemics have been offered by a number of Arab Christians who to one degree or another have downplayed Muslim and Arab hostility toward Jews and depicted Israel as a colonialist outpost in the Middle East. These polemicists include the gunrunning Melkite archbishop Hilarion Capucci, Edward Said, Latin patriarch Michel Sabbah, and Anglican bishop Riah Hanna Abu El-Assal – all of whom have their admirers and acolytes in the West.

With the exception of Said, none of these figures, however, have exhibited the tenacity or achieved the prominence of Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, founder of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. Although the dishonest charade between Arab Christians and their supporters in the West was initiated a long time ago, Ateek has perfected it. An Anglican priest and an Israeli citizen, he has portrayed the Palestinians as Christ-like sufferers being crucified by Israel, which stubbornly insists on reenacting the sins of the ancient Israelites as detailed in the Old Testament.[15] Ateek and the group he founded say very little, however, about Hamas and Hizballah and about the mistreatment of religious and ethnic minorities by Muslim majorities in Islamic countries throughout the Middle East. Sabeel’s prophetic voice, strident and articulate when talking about Judaism, Jews, and Israel, becomes an incomprehensible whisper when talking about Arabs and Muslims in the region.

Anti-Zionist Infrastructure

With the founding of Sabeel in Jerusalem in early 1994, Ateek completed the establishment of an anti-Zionist infrastructure that, in some instances, has been capable of influencing churchwide assemblies in the United States. As a result of Sabeel’s efforts, anti-Zionism has become a persistent strand of thought – even in those churches where activists have been unable to achieve legislative victories at national assemblies.[16]

This infrastructure does not reach into every mainline church in the United States, but is formidable nonetheless. In addition to publishing a quarterly newsletter, Cornerstone, Sabeel activists – some of whom are on the payroll of U.S. mainline churches – host annual international conferences in Jerusalem and lead regular witness trips to the Holy Land where mainline pastors are recruited to the cause of anti-Zionism. According to Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), Sabeel has hosted twenty-five witness trips to Israel and the disputed territories. The webpage listing these trips uses the language of a travel agent to encourage Christians to participate and learn about the evils of the Zionist regime:

“Sabeel also invites you to come and see the realities of life under military occupation…. See checkpoints, house demolitions and the Apartheid wall, visit Palestinian homes, schools, refugee camps and live for a few days under the reality of oppression. Come and see with us, pray with us, and go home transformed, energized with the truth of your own eye witness. The following trip descriptions will give you a sense of the experiences in store for you. Come and see!” [17] (emphasis in original)”

These pilgrimages have been codified into a liturgy that has been broadcast to U.S churches in the form of a forty-page booklet titled “The Contemporary Way of the Cross: A Liturgical Journey along the Palestinian Via Dolorosa.”[18] The text, published in 2005, equates the suffering in the Gaza Strip with Christ being nailed to the cross, and the construction of the West Bank security barrier with Christ’s death on the cross.[19]

Sabeel also distributes, via email, a “Wave of Prayer” that periodically draws attention to the latest alleged outrage by Israel. For example, in early November 2007, the prayer included a petition for one of its interns – supported by the Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ – who was refused entry into Israel. The email called on recipients to pray for the intern and “many others around the world who are active in International Friends of Sabeel who have experienced the cost of solidarity that often comes when one speaks truth to power.”[20]

Periodically, Sabeel issues position papers and statements from its headquarters in Jerusalem that have been used to frame the discussion about the Arab-Israeli conflict at the national gatherings of mainline denominations – and local churches – in the same manner as the KPD.[21]

Sabeel’s infrastructure also includes national and local chapters that host conferences in both the United States and Canada where speakers portray Israel as an apartheid state and as the modern-day equivalent of the Nazi regime in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s.[22] Such activism has not been limited to North America. In addition to its chapters there, International Friends of Sabeel has groups in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Ireland, Australia, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden).[23]

Prominent Sabeel activists have also spread the message of anti-Zionism on publicity tours in support of their books, such as Jean Zaru’s Occupied with Nonviolence: A Palestinian Woman Speaks[24] and Naim Ateek’s A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation.[25]

Through these efforts, Ateek and his fellow Sabeel activists have become the most effective anti-Zionist evangelists in the American mainline churches today. Instead of bringing people into fuller expression of their Christian faith, Ateek and his allies recruit mainline Protestants into the fold of anti-Zionism, which in recent years has become a competing religious practice in American mainline churches. Under Ateek’s leadership, Sabeel established the model for Christian anti-Zionism, a movement with its own apostles, theology, eschatology, and liturgical calendar, all of which vie with orthodox Christianity for the energies and loyalty of church members.

The apostles of Christian anti-Zionism are Palestinian Christians, Jewish anti-Israeli activists, and liberal Protestant “peace” activists who offer a message not of salvation through the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation, but of resentment and demonization. The movement’s theology is a medieval Judeo-centrism that places Israel at the center of history in the Middle East; its eschatology is that of Jewish repentance, conversion, and abandonment of sovereignty leading to peace in the Middle East. The movement’s liturgical calendar does not center on reviewing and contemplating the drama of Christ’s incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection, culminating in Holy Week, but on the process of submitting and approving anti-Israeli resolutions at denominational national assemblies where the Jewish state is held up for scrutiny and judgment.

Ateek’s Dissertation


Ateek formulated the ideas that led to Sabeel’s founding while studying for his Doctor of Ministry at San Francisco Theological Seminary in the early 1980s. In his doctoral dissertation, submitted in 1982,[26] Ateek called for the establishment of a Christian peacemaking center in Israel that would allow Palestinian Christians and their supporters outside the region, the United States especially, to fulfill their obligation to pursue two ministries of prophecy and peacemaking.

Ateek wrote that the prophetic aspect of the church’s ministry is to “analyze and interpret events theologically.” The church’s call to prophecy is rooted in its conviction that “the active promotion of justice” is “within the purview and competence of the church.”[27] The church’s role as a peacemaker is rooted in the recognition that “it is called by God to be a catalyst of peace and reconciliation.” As will be seen below, Ateek’s prophecy is marred by a tendency to interpret events with a decidedly anti-Jewish theology that undermines his ability to act as a catalyst for peace and reconciliation.

The purpose of the center, Ateek wrote, would be to “translate the dual-imperative [of prophecy and peacemaking] into the concrete organizational, operational, and programmatic ministry of the church.”[28] The “major thrust” of the center’s ministry, he asserted, would be to emphasize justice, offer a theological contextualization of the issues, invoke the United Nations “as the best forum” for adjudicating justice and resolving conflict, “provide a forum for communication,” “monitor the development or deterioration of events,” champion human rights, and to denounce the arms race and “the abhorrent madness of nuclear arms.”[29]

Ateek stated that the center should begin its work among Christians in Israel and then work to “reach Muslims, and Jews, religious and secular people, educated and uneducated, young and old.” He continued:

The work of the center should be included in people’s worship…. The center should go beyond the immediate area of conflict to reach Christians abroad, especially the West. This outreach should aim at de-stereotyping Western images of Eastern people, de-Zionizing the Bible, and de-mythologizing the State of Israel. The support of Western Christians is invaluable in the struggle for justice and peace. They can exert the right pressure on their governments to act evenhandedly in the pursuit of peace which should be based on justice.[30]

Here Ateek laid out his plan, which he followed with great energy in the ensuing years: to organize Palestinian Christians into an interdenominational organization, formulate an anti-Zionist message, embed it into people’s religious practices (prayer and worship), and then broadcast this message to Christians in the West with the goal of affecting government policy – all under the rubric of peacemaking.

Ateek’s Problem with Jewish Sovereignty


In his dissertation, Ateek deploys a number of arguments that undermine the legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty. The message of Ateek’s dissertation and first book is that the Jewish people are not entitled to a sovereign state of their own.

Tellingly, his critique of Israel begins with an extended quotation from the historian Arnold J. Toynbee, a well-known anti-Zionist. In the passage quoted by Ateek, Toynbee rails against the way in which the modern state of Israel has supplanted the image of Israel as representing God’s people, in which membership “was conditional on our obeying God’s commands and following His precepts as these had been declared by Him through the mouths of His Prophets.” Toynbee continues:

This traditional spiritual connotation of the name “Israel” has been supplanted today by a political and military connotation. Today, if I go to a church and try to join in the singing of the Psalms, I am pulled up short, with a jar, when the name “Israel” comes on to my lips…. The present-day political Israel, has for all of us, obliterated, or at least adumbrated, the spiritual Israel of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. This is surely a tragedy….[31]

This passage comes from an introduction Toynbee wrote for a pamphlet titled “Prophecy, Zionism and the State of Israel,” which is based on a speech by Rabbi Elmer Berger at the University of Leyden in the Netherlands in the late 1960s and published by American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism.[32] During the 1940s, Berger served as executive director of the American Council for Judaism, an anti-Zionist organization that lobbied the White House, the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, and the U.S. State Department against the creation of a Jewish state.[33] Ateek’s citation from a book written by an anti-Zionist Jew to buttress his own anti-Israeli polemics presages Sabeel’s reliance on anti-Israeli commentary from American and Israeli Jews decades later.

Ateek’s reliance on Toynbee is also telling given the historian’s status as a prominent anti-Zionist who compared Zionists to Nazis and, in another famous instance, declared that “Zionist Jews are a fragment of a fossil of alien origin.”[34] Nathan Rotenstreich noted that Toynbee’s anti-Zionism is expressed as a larger critique of nationalism, but is clearly motivated by a particular animus toward the Jewish state.[35] The same can be said of Ateek’s anti-Zionism.

Jewish Sovereignty an Affront to Christian Beliefs

After invoking Toynbee’s complaint about the impact of Israel’s creation on his religious practices, Ateek reports that the same thing has happened to a greater degree to Palestinians for whom “the establishment of the state of Israel has been a seismic tremor of enormous magnitude that has shaken the very foundation of their beliefs.”[36] For Ateek and the Palestinian Christians he claims to speak for, Jewish sovereignty itself is a threat because the Old Testament that described the God who saves and liberates is, in light of Israel’s creation, now seen as “partial and discriminating.” Ateek elaborates:

“After the creation of the State, and largely due to some Jewish and Christian interpretations, the Old Testament’s Jewish (Zionist) character became so visible that it has become repugnant to Palestinian Christians. It, therefore, generally has fallen into disuse by both clergy and laity because the church is unable to come to terms with the ambiguities, questions, and paradoxes of the Old Testament, and especially with its similarities with the twentieth century events in Palestine. The fundamental question of many Christians, whether verbalized or not, is how can the Old Testament be the word of God in light of the Palestinian Christians’ experience with Zionism?[37]”

In response to this problem Ateek calls on Christians to embrace a theology that challenges nationalism by exploring the tension between two concepts of God – exclusive and universal – espoused in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Under Ateek’s hermeneutic, the Old Testament is inhabited by three different understandings of God. These streams, Ateek reports, are “nationalistic, Torah-oriented, and prophetic in their emphasis.”[38]

The nationalistic tradition that Ateek assails is evident in the Books of Joshua, Judges 1 and 2, First and Second Samuel, and First and Second Kings. Ateek reports that the “proponents of this tradition believed that the Jews [were] in a special privileged position with God” and that this worldview made it impossible for Jews living in the Roman Empire to “accept the realism of their relatively small strength vis-à-vis the growing power of the day, Rome.” Operating under this worldview, Ateek asserts, the Zealots “led their nation into destruction and plunged themselves into the abyss of oblivion after A.D. 135.”[39]

Ateek writes more approvingly of the Torah-oriented tradition as created by the Pharisees in the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction in 135 CE; it allowed Jewish society to be “held [together] by religious belief rather than political power.” This stream of Rabbinic Judaism is codified in the Mishnah and the Talmud, which offered a maturing concept of God; but Ateek reports that he still is not fully satisfied because “Rabbinic Judaism remained legalistic, isolated, and ingrown.”[40]

The prophetic tradition of Judaism that earns Ateek’s effusive praise is based on the latter prophets of the Old Testament who offer a “deeper, more profound, and more mature understanding of God.” Invoking Isaiah, Jonah, and Amos, Ateek suggests that in this stream of Judaism, “God is no longer concerned about one people but all people.”[41]

Ateek then affirms a mainstream Christian belief that Jesus Christ represents a link to this prophetic tradition that was intensified in the New Testament.[42] He then acknowledges that most Jews would not accept the validity of the Christian tradition.[43] He goes on to assert, however, that “from a Palestinian Christian point of view…the emergence of the Zionist movement in the twentieth century is a retrogression of the Jewish community into the history of its very distant past – the most elementary and primitive concepts of God.”[44] He continues: “Zionism has succeeded in resurrecting the nationalistic tradition. Its inspiration has not been drawn from the profound thoughts of the Hebrew Scriptures but stems from those portions that betray a narrow and exclusive concept of a tribal God.”[45]

Ateek goes on to reiterate his claim that Jewish sovereignty violates the higher principles of Judaism:

“From my perspective as a Palestinian Christian, Zionism is a step backward in the development of Judaism. What the Jewish community had finally and unequivocally rejected in the second century A.D. with the collapse of the Zealots, most Jews have accepted again eighteen hundred years later. This was done at the expense and even the dilution of the higher tenets and demands of the Jewish religion. Ethical Judaism with its universalistic outlook has been swamped by the resurgence of a racially exclusive concept of a people and their God.[46]”

Ateek laments the fact that since 1948 the Jewish people have no longer embraced the role of the suffering servant and are no longer willing to serve as witnesses to the value of suffering as a means of changing the world. He writes:

“The Jews, whose prophetic tradition as well as their long history of suffering qualify them to play a peacemaking role, have acquired a new image since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. By espousing the nationalistic tradition of Zionism, they have relegated to themselves the role of oppressors and war makers. By so doing they have voluntarily relinquished the role of the servant which for centuries they had claimed for themselves. This has been a revolutionary change from the long held belief that Jews have a vocation to suffering. Many rabbis had taught that Jews should accept suffering rather than inflict it as a means of changing the world. One of the great rabbinic dictums was “Be of the persecuted rather than that of the persecutors.” Sholem Asch cried, “God be thanked, that the nations have not given my people the opportunity to commit against others the crimes which have been committed against it.” This has been dramatically changed by the creation of the State of Israel.[47]”

The intellectual starting point for Ateek’s anti-Zionism is different than that of Israel’s Muslim adversaries in the Middle East, but his conclusion is virtually the same: the Jews are not a nation entitled to a sovereign state of their own, but religious apostates who must accept their status as a subject people. In Ateek’s writing Christian supersessionism merges with Islamic supersessionism in the Middle East to form a united front of contempt toward Jewish sovereignty.

Ateek’s opposition to Jewish sovereignty is evident in “The Jerusalem Sabeel Document: Principles for a Just Peace in Palestine-Israel.” In this document, Sabeel asserts that its vision for the future is “One state for two nations and three religions.”[48] In such a state, Jews would by definition be a minority, and a beleaguered one at that. Ateek knows this, but does not say so explicitly.

In his 1982 dissertation, Ateek revealed an intimate understanding of the problems facing religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East when describing strategies Christians have used to survive in the region. He noted that one of the major difficulties facing them is their minority status:

“They have survived without usually enjoying all the rights which the majority around them possessed…. Their resultant inferiority complex has placed them many times on the receiving and following end rather than on the giving and leading end. They have been careful not to become overly involved lest they antagonize their neighbors and rulers and bring undue suffering to themselves.[49]”

Thus Ateek obliquely acknowledges the oppression Christian minorities have suffered in the Middle East at the hands of the Muslim majority – for centuries – without stating explicitly who is responsible for perpetrating the oppression.

This is telling. When it is Zionist Jews who are allegedly responsible for the suffering he laments, Ateek writes forcefully and names names; when Muslims are responsible, they go virtually unmentioned. Apparently, Ateek’s prophetic call requires him to speak truth to Jewish – not Muslim – power. Ateek has no response other than silence to the circumstances that have caused Christians in the Middle East to be afraid of antagonizing their neighbors and rulers. In this worldview, Jews have a call to suffer, but Christians understandably keep quiet to avoid “undue suffering” at the hands of an unnamed Muslim majority.[50]

Justice and Only Justice

In 1989 Orbis Press published Ateek’s dissertation under the title Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation. Jewish theologian Marc Ellis, who was an editor at Orbis, “facilitated” its publication.[51] Orbis packaged Ateek’s text as part of the liberation-theology movement founded in the 1970s by Peruvian theologian Gustav Gutierrez, who invoked the Exodus experience as a paradigm to describe how God works in history to end humanity’s suffering.

One of the most salient aspects of liberation theology is a “preferential option for the poor,” but most of its supporters are careful not to allow this concern for the poor or oppressed to be used to justify the demonization of those in power. For example, in her text on liberation theology,[52] Rosemary Radford Ruether warns that liberation “cannot be divorced from a sense of self-judgement and identification with the community which is judged. It cannot be merely a movement of revolt against and judgment of an ‘alien community’ for which one takes no responsibility.”[53] The problem with projecting all the evil on the oppressors is that it causes people to “forfeit their capacity for self-criticism.” She continues: “Their revolt, then, if successful, tends to rush forward to murder and self-aggrandizement, and the institution of a new regime where all internal self-criticism is squelched.”[54]

Although this is a pretty good description of what has happened to the Palestinian cause over the past several decades, Ateek does not acknowledge this reality. Apparently his view of liberation ends with Exodus and does not include the rest of the Pentateuch, which details how God starts holding ancient Israelites accountable – even during their time in the wilderness. Dennis T. Olson highlights this issue in his commentary on Numbers:

“Before Sinai, Israel was like a newly adopted child who did not yet know the rules of the household. God, the divine Parent, bent over backwards to satisfy the legitimate needs of an Israel immediately out of Egypt. But by the time we reach Numbers, the people of Israel know their responsibilities in the law and the commandments. Israel must take responsibility and is answerable for its relationship to God.[55]”

Nowhere in Justice and Only Justice does Ateek level any expectations at the Palestinian people. Instead he directs his condemnations at Israel and Jews, falling into the trap described by Ruether.

Despite the problems with this text, its publication helped propel Ateek onto the world stage. In 1990 he and his allies organized a conference of theologians and activists from overseas with the help of the Mennonite Central Committee. After this conference, which led to the publication of Faith and the Intifada (edited by Ateek along with Marc Ellis and Rosemary Radford Ruether) in 1991,[56] Ateek and his followers held workshops that led to Sabeel’s official founding in 1994. The organization had an international conference in 1996 that led to the creation of Friends of Sabeel. Sabeel held another international conference two years later.[57]

Intifada Incitement

It took close to two decades after he submitted his dissertation, but with the publication of his book and conference organizing, Ateek was able to achieve his goal of establishing a so-called peace center that was well positioned to influence how Christians in the West responded to the Second Intifada in 2000. Ateek did not respond to the outbreak of violence with words of peace, but with polemics that portrayed Israel in a manner similar to how Christians had spoken about Jews in medieval Europe: an obstacle to God’s purposes for humanity and a singular hindrance to peace in the Middle East.

Emblematic of this message was a sermon he gave at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Jerusalem on 22 February 2001, a few months after the start of the intifada. In the sermon, titled “The Zionist Ideology of Domination versus the Reign of God: The Ultimate Triumph of Justice and Love,”[58] Ateek chided Jewish religious leaders in pre-Holocaust Europe who “passively accepted their people’s predicament,” apparently having forgotten that a few years earlier he had insisted that the Jewish people had a vocation to suffer.

Interestingly enough, Ateek went on to state that the Zionist leaders got it right, because they were not “apathetic to the agony and misery of their brethren.” But the problem with the Zionists, he states, is that they pursued Jewish self-determination instead of relying on the advance of history and democracy’s victory in Europe to provide for their safety: “Democracy was the right answer to the problem, a true democracy with equality for all. They did not anticipate the day when Europe would have democratic systems of government that attract many people to its shores as we see happening today. The Zionists could not foresee this. They decided to opt out of Europe”[59] (emphasis added.)

In Ateek’s version of history, Zionism is a miscalculation, an overreaction to a bad patch of history and not a legitimate response to hundreds of years of persecution and the ultimate destruction of Jewish life in Europe. The murder of most of Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust is only a bump in the road toward the inevitable process of democratization. If only European Jews had hung in there a little longer, things would have turned out much better for them.

Ateek fails to take into account the enduring hostility toward Jews in Europe even after the Holocaust. Jews who returned to their homes in Poland after World War II were murdered during pogroms in a number of cities throughout the country in 1946. As Richard Rubenstein notes: “In 1946, on the basis of a false rumor that Jews had kidnapped a Christian boy and killed him in a ritual murder, Poles murdered seventy Holocaust survivors in Kielce.”[60] Ultimately the Jews did not “opt out of Europe” as Ateek puts it; they were murdered and driven out, just as they were driven out of Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East after Israel’s creation in 1948.

Two days later Ateek gave another sermon[61] in which he said regarding the occupation: “It is similar to the stone placed on the entrance of Jesus’ tomb, which Mark the evangelist describes as being ‘very large.’… Unless this boulder of OCCUPATION is removed, there will be no justice and no freedom.”

Like the title of the sermon he gave previously, such language depicts Israel as the singular obstacle to peace and the sole cause of Palestinian suffering. At no point in this sermon does Ateek address Palestinian violence or the ideologies that motivate it, indicating that it is Israeli Jews, and no one else, who can bring about an end to the conflict.

Ateek’s 2001 Easter message was even nastier. In a now notorious passage, he stated that “Palestine has become one huge Golgotha. The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily. Palestine has become the place of the skull.”[62]

Amy-Jill Levine calls this and other passages a “recycled anti-Judaism that depicts Israel as a country of Christ killers.”[63]

Saluting His Brethren

Also troubling are two letters that Ateek wrote, one in English and the other in Arabic,[64] soon after the Second Intifada began. Ateek fueled hostilities by placing the blame for the eruption of violence solely on Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount – even though Palestinian leaders had been preparing for the uprising months before Sharon’s visit. In Arabic, he wrote that “We salute our Palestinian Muslim brethren for their defense of their holiest place.” In English, he asserted that “it was right for our Palestinian Muslim brothers and sisters to stand up in defense of their holiest place al-Haram al-Sharif [the Arabic name for the Temple Mount], when it was being threatened and desecrated.”

As documented elsewhere, claims that Jews are desecrating or undermining Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount have been used to incite violence against Jews at various points throughout the one-hundred-year Arab-Israeli conflict. Accusations that Jews had designs on the Temple Mount, fomented by Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini, played a role in provoking the riots of 1929.[65] Similar accusations were heard at rallies held by Israeli Arabs for several years before the Second Intifada.[66]

In light of this history, Ateek’s description of al-Haram al-Sharif as “threatened and desecrated” is inexcusable. Such language raises tensions, increases the probability of violence, and encourages Palestinians to think they have religious sanction – from a Christian leader, no less – to continue battling Israel. This from a man who in 1982 lamented the absence of “machinery for peacemaking” in the Arab-Israeli conflict.[67]

Suicide Bombers

Eventually, the violence of the Second Intifada forced Ateek to address the issue of Palestinian terrorism. In 2002 he authored an essay on suicide bombings that condemned such attacks as a “crime against God.” He went on, however, to portray the bombings as an understandable response to the Israeli use of force in the disputed territories. Ateek portrayed suicide bombings as motivated by a nationalist, liberationist impulse even though groups that perpetrated these attacks, such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, openly seek Israel’s destruction and invoke the Qur’an to justify their agenda.

In one troubling passage, Ateek drew a false equivalence between suicide bombings and Israeli efforts to stop these attacks: “When the Israeli army incarcerates whole towns for long periods of time or a suicide bomber blows himself up in a market place and indiscriminate killing ensues, both are collective punishment directed at largely innocent people.”[68] Although Israeli security measures during the Second Intifada had undeniably onerous impacts on Palestinians, for Ateek to equate closures with the murder of Israeli civilians in bus stations, pizza shops, movie theaters, and hotels is simply abhorrent.

Ateek’s inability to address the issue of suicide bombings in a responsible manner is part of a larger problem – his failure to address the negative impact of Muslim teachings regarding the Jewish people and the land. While it is true that Muslims have, unlike Christians, not perpetrated a genocide against the Jewish people, Islam does, like Christianity, exhibit a supersessionist impulse toward Jews and Judaism. In other words, both religions have a tendency to assert that they have superseded or replaced Judaism and as a result, the Jewish people no longer have any reason to exist, much less have the right to exercise self-determination. Efforts to constrain this impulse have been one of the great tasks of Christian theologians since the Holocaust. Muslim theologians, in the main, have not addressed these issues with the same vigor.[69]

Neither Ateek nor any other Sabeel commentators have addressed this crucial issue in a comprehensive manner. Sabeel did publish an essay about the millennial impulse in early Islam in a collection condemning Christian Zionism;[70] but this essay does not address any of the contemporary issues relevant to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

There is a certain genius in the way in which Sabeel interrogates Judaism, Jewishness, Zionism, and Christian Zionism while remaining silent about Muslim theological issues relevant to the Arab-Israeli conflict. This strategy forces Sabeel’s critics to raise these issues, repeatedly asking in effect, “What about Islam? What about Muslim anti-Semitism?”

After a few iterations of this cycle in which Sabeel’s intense interrogation of all things Jewish prompts legitimate questions about Islam, the people who raise the issue of Muslim teachings regarding the Jews and the land risk being accused of Islamophobia. There is, however, a simple response. Just as Sabeel and others rightly assert that not every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, not every effort to raise issues related to Muslim theology and Islamic practices is Islamophobic.

Jewish Supporters

Despite Sabeel’s reliance on anti-Jewish rhetoric and its refusal to address Muslim hostility toward Jews, the organization and its founder do not lack for Jewish support. One of the great ironies about Sabeel, which displays banners at its events declaring itself “the voice of Palestinian Christians,” is that much of the harshest rhetoric at these events comes from Jews such as Jeff Halper, founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. At a 2007 Sabeel conference in Boston, Halper declared that Israeli officials were preparing Israeli public opinion for a “final solution” against the Palestinians.[71] And at a Sabeel conference in Seattle in early 2010, Halper accused Israel of digging under the Silwan neighborhood in Jerusalem to create geological instability under the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock so that when an earthquake comes, the structures will collapse.[72]

Marc Ellis has also been a regular participant at Sabeel conferences, where he has likened Israeli policies to those of the Nazi regime before Christian audiences.[73] He has also mocked his fellow Jews. During his Powerpoint presentation at the Sabeel conference in Denver in 2005, Ellis displayed images from a 1989 book by Jerome Segal,[74] a Jewish philosopher who supports the creation of a Palestinian state.

Ellis showed an image from the book depicting the coinage that could be used by the citizens of the proposed state. Exhibiting a comedian’s sense of timing, Ellis took note of Segal’s concern about Palestinian coinage and said, “It’s a very interesting Jewish thing,” eliciting guffaws from the largely Christian audience. Previously in his talk, he told the audience, “You can’t be Jewish without a therapist and I have three or four.”

In recent years, American Jew Mark Braverman has been a prominent speaker at Sabeel conferences. Braverman appears to have internalized Ateek’s critique of Judaism. Stand With Us researcher Roberta Seid describes his presentation at a 2010 Sabeel conference in Seattle:

“Braverman, a clinical psychologist with a long Jewish and Zionist pedigree, claimed that Rev. Ateek “saved” him when he was in spiritual crisis. Braverman announced that the Jews’ great mistake dates back to the first century. They should have followed Jesus and his message of universal love instead of fighting against the Roman Empire. He informed this Christian audience that the Jews’ mistake remains the same. They believe in their “chosenness” and “exceptionalism,” and that this is why they are justifiably hated and why Israel refuses to make peace.[75]”

The overall message conveyed by Sabeel’s Jewish supporters is that Arab and Muslim hostility is rooted entirely in Israeli policies, Muslim anti-Semitism does not matter, and Israeli Jews are too damaged by the Holocaust or too committed to literal interpretations of scripture to make peace with the Palestinians. In the story told by these and other commentators, it is the Jewish insistence that Israel be a Jewish state that is the obstacle to peace. This message dovetails closely with the anti-Zionism that Ateek formulated in his 1982 dissertation.

Hitting the Jackpot

The payoff of Sabeel’s activism during the Second Intifada came in 2004 and 2005 when echoes of Ateek’s anti-Zionism were heard in resolutions passed by the national assemblies of U.S. mainline Protestant churches. In 2004 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) passed a divestment overture that stated the occupation had “proven to be at the root of evil acts committed against both sides of the conflict.”[76]

The language was not explicitly medieval, but the narrative was. The obstinacy of the Jewish state was the singular source and cause of violence, just as Jews were regarded as the singular cause of suffering in medieval Europe.[77] With the passage of this overture, the PC(USA)’s General Assembly promulgated a mythological – as opposed to empirical – view of history that places the Jewish state at the center of Middle Eastern events. If the General Assembly had dealt with facts and not trafficked in myth, it would have acknowledged that violence against Israel began long before Israel took possession of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the Six Day War in 1967.[78]

Sabeel activism played a crucial role in the passage of an “economic leverage” resolution passed by the United Church of Christ’s (UCC) 2005 General Synod held in Atlanta. This resolution, which closely followed the schema of shareholder activism and divestment outlined in a statement issued by Sabeel in early 2005,[79] passed in part because of the skilled politicking of Sabeel activist attorney Jonathan Kuttab, who was granted “voice without vote” at the assembly.

When the committee dealing with issues related to Israel and divestment submitted a resolution that did not include divestment to the floor of the entire synod, Kuttab approached the microphone and asked that it be voted down because it did not make a strong-enough statement on behalf of the Palestinian Christians. After Kuttab made his emotional appeal, a substitute motion, written with the blessing of UCC president and general minister Rev. John Thomas, was offered, seconded, and approved overwhelmingly. Kuttab’s plea did not make it into the minutes of the General Assembly, but it generated the emotional energy that anti-Israeli activists at the synod were able to harness in targeting Israel with the threat of divestment.

Also that summer, the legislative bodies of the UCC and the Disciples of Christ passed resolutions calling on Israel to remove the security barrier it had constructed to stop terror attacks from the West Bank – without asking the Palestinians to stop the terror attacks. The rationale for these resolutions borrowed heavily from the previously described Sabeel booklet from 2005, “Contemporary Way of the Cross.”

The way in which the Disciples of Christ’s General Assembly passed its antibarrier resolution revealed just how much influence and privilege Sabeel enjoyed in some American mainline churches. Sabeel activist Rula Shubeita, who was allowed to speak directly to the assembly, lobbied in favor of the resolution, telling the assembly that “Because of the wall, I cannot see my brother, who lives three miles away on the other side of the fence. I now must drive 14 miles to see him. The wall has prevented me from going to my church, and has affected the employment opportunities of so many people.”[80]

The General Assembly did not, however, allow Tzippy Cohen, a survivor of a September 2003 suicide bombing in Jerusalem, to speak to the audience, despite having been assured that she would be able to do so for three minutes. [81] If she had been allowed to speak, she would have told the audience of being knocked unconscious by the explosion, hit by shrapnel in her back, and having to suffer the effects of the attack for the rest of her life.[82]

As if to underscore the level of Sabeel’s U.S. support in early 2007, Friends of Sabeel North American released a list of its 2006 donors,[83] which included several hundred contributors. This list revealed that the organization had received contributions from a number of prominent U.S. churches and institutions, as well as longtime Christian Century columnist James M. Wall (who also served on FOSNA’s steering committee) and Margot Patterson, then a journalist for National Catholic Reporter. Other recognizable contributors included a number of prominent Episcopalian clergymen, such as Brian Grieves, then director of the Episcopal Church’s Peace and Justice Ministries, and Edmond Browning, former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Sabeel’s influence as a player in the Episcopal Church appeared to be further confirmed when Ateek received a peacemaking award from the Episcopal Peace Fellowship at the church’s General Convention in 2006.

The Morning After

Ironically, Sabeel’s 2005 victories and the publicity it enjoyed afterward drew attention to some of the more unsavory aspects of its rhetoric and agenda. People did not like what they saw.

Consequently, Sabeel’s ability to influence or orchestrate the passage of anti-Israeli resolutions at mainline assemblies started to decline soon after these victories. What appeared in 2005 to be the beginning of Sabeel’s quick march through mainline churches became an increasingly tough slog. The wheels started to fall off the bus during Sabeel’s conference in Toronto in October 2005 when prominent U.S. Christians participated in a press conference organized by B’nai Brith Canada.

These Christians, who included Bruce Chilton, a prominent author and Episcopal priest, Sis. Ruth Lautt, a Dominican nun and founder of Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East, and William Harter, Presbyterian minister and longtime member of the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel, offered a sustained critique of Sabeel’s rhetoric and of Ateek. Their words resonated not only in Canadian Jewish newspapers but also in the reporting of the Associated Press.[84]

AP noted the concerns raised about Ateek’s use of crucifixion imagery in reference to Israel and included a quote from Ateek’s 2001 Easter Sermon to lend credence to these concerns. According to the article, Ateek claimed his statements had been taken out of context and that Sabeel did not support divestment from Israel itself, but merely from companies that do business in the occupied territories.[85]

Such coverage had a real impact. According to Roberta Seid, who attended the conference, attendees felt “besieged and vulnerable.” In the days after the conference, Seid wrote that “They believe the press is hostile and is undermining their momentum.”[86]

In addition to bad press, the attendees at the Sabeel conference wrestled with two other concerns – terrorism and anti-Semitism. Despite their stated commitment against terrorism, they responded to a suicide attack in the Israeli town of Hadera on the conference’s opening day, and to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s announcement that Israel should be wiped off the map, “with the kind of tsk tsk embarrassment parents show when their child has misbehaved again,” Seid reported, adding, “There was no moral outrage.”[87]

The activists at the conference also understood that the charge of anti-Semitism, despite efforts to separate Jews and Judaism from Zionism, still “threatened to discredit, taint and doom all their efforts.” Seid reports that “one participant observed in a workshop, how do you counter the claim that ‘We’ve chased the Jews practically off the earth and they have a right to someplace, a state in Israel?'”[88]

Such concerns did not translate into restraint by speakers at the conference. During his keynote speech at Bloor Street Church in Toronto, Ateek called for a Third (nonviolent) Intifada and stated that, “In 20 year’s  time, Jews will find Zionism a terrible curse. In 50 years, Zionism will be gone, but Judaism will remain.” Farid Esack, a Muslim scholar from South Africa, asserted that “We are seeing the destruction of a great religion [Judaism],” and that if adherence to a Jewish identity could not be achieved without great injustice to the Palestinians, “then let’s finish it off.”[89]

Sabeel absorbed another blow a few months later during the Episcopal Church’s 2006 General Convention. Episcopal Peace Fellowship’s decision to give Ateek its peacemaking award gave Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East (led by Lautt and Chilton) an opportunity to draw attention to Ateek’s rhetoric during the Second Intifada and the group’s support for a one-state solution. The controversy forced Rev. Richard Toll, chairman of Friends of Sabeel North America, to obliquely acknowledge that Ateek’s rhetoric had been inappropriate. The Columbus Dispatch paraphrased Toll as saying Ateek had “toned down his rhetoric since the crucifixion statement.”[90]

The controversy prompted Brian Grieves to accuse Ateek’s critics of engaging in “slander and demonizing tactics.”[91] It was to no avail. Sabeel and its supporters in the Episcopal Church were unable to achieve any serious legislative victories at the denomination’s General Convention.

Disciples’ Second Thoughts

Another sign that people were starting to doubt Sabeel’s narrative on the Arab-Israeli conflict came in the September 2006 issue of Disciples World, a now-defunct magazine previously published by the Disciples of Christ. The article, written by Sherri Wood Emmons, gave Tzippy Cohen – the victim of a suicide bombing who was not allowed to speak to the denomination’s General Synod in 2005 – a chance to tell her story.

When challenged with the Sabeel narrative about the security barrier – that it “cuts through neighborhoods, dividing family members and blocking people from schools, hospitals, employment” – Cohen hearkened back to Shubeita’s testimony at the 2005 synod: “I recall someone who was allowed to address the Disciples’ Assembly, telling them that, because of the security barrier, she now has to drive 14 miles instead of three to see her brother. Does she know how many Israelis would drive 14,000 miles to see their dead brothers once more?”[92]

The Disciples of Christ’s General Assembly has passed no further resolutions on the Arab-Israeli conflict despite having met twice since 2005. While it is impossible to know if this was motivated by regret over the 2005 resolution, regret was clearly a factor in 2007 when the UCC’s General Synod effectively approved a resolution acknowledging that it had “yet to fully address other forces contributing to the ongoing violence, oppression and suffering in the region.”[93]

Desmond Tutu to the Rescue

Sabeel’s fortunes appeared to improve during the fall of 2007 when the UCC’s historic Old South Church agreed to host one of its conferences at its building in downtown Boston, despite opposition from the local Jewish community.

The conference, which included an appearance by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, initially appeared to be a great success for Sabeel, which was able to reach an audience of several hundred with particularly harsh anti-Israeli polemic. For example, Farid Esack made an invidious comparison, stating that Afrikaners at least took pride in how well they treated black Africans and never tried to recruit new people into their cultural identity in an effort to drive blacks from their land. “There was not a perpetual changing of the demography of who white South Africa was,” he said. The attendees also heard Tutu call on Israeli and American Jews to adhere to the higher callings of their faith without offering one word of admonition to Israel’s adversaries.[94]

For Old South, however, the decision to soldier-on with the conference in the face of criticism from the local Jewish community resulted in a pyrrhic victory. Before the conference, Old South’s pastor, Rev. Dr. Nancy Taylor, attempted to portray Jewish anger over the Sabeel event as a phenomenon of the community’s angry hard Right.[95] This strategy failed when Reform rabbi Ronne Friedman of Temple Israel in Boston sent the pastor a letter asking, “How should my colleagues and I, my congregation and my community, respond to the rhetorical imagery of Sabeel’s founder that revives the ancient New Testament charge of deicide and clothes it in contemporary politics?”[96]

Taylor responded with a letter of her own that invoked two statements issued by the UCC – the denomination to which Old South belonged – in the 1980s. After citing these statements, which condemned supersessionism and anti-Semitism, Taylor stated that she was no apologist for Sabeel, which she admitted had used problematic language. Sabeel, she wrote, nevertheless represented an important Palestinian voice. “These are a desperate, minority people intent on sharing their views, exchanging information and seeking to gain the public’s ear as they give voice to a very old complaint.”[97]

Despite efforts to sugarcoat Sabeel’s agenda, since 2005 the organization’s institutional influence and visibility have declined. A cursory review of denominational websites indicates that it is not profiled or mentioned on these nearly as often as it was in 2005. The Episcopal Church, one of Sabeel’s primary bases of support, did not embrace an anti-Zionist agenda at its 2009 General Assembly. And while Sabeel activists were present at the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s recent General Assembly in Minneapolis, it was not a significant player. The Israel Palestine Mission Network of the PC(USA) and Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor from Bethlehem, played more notable roles in pushing the anti-Zionist agenda at this assembly than Sabeel, whose activism was limited to sharing a display booth with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions in the exhibition hall.

In sum, Sabeel has had increasing difficulty in recruiting a new group of allies in denominational headquarters now that some of its most vocal supporters, such as Grieves and Thomas, are no longer in positions of influence. Grieves retired in 2009,[98] and Thomas’s tenure as the UCC’s president and general minister also ended that year.[99]

This does not mean the organization has lost its influence altogether. Sabeel activists were involved in passing a resolution by the Methodist Church of Great Britain that calls on Christians to boycott products of West Bank settlements.[100] And in late January 2010, Brian McLaren, a prominent evangelical minister in the United States, expressed his support for Sabeel and its founder, Ateek, “whose work and writings I have long admired from a distance.”[101]

McLaren’s praise for Sabeel is one of several indicators that anti-Zionism is making inroads in Evangelical circles, particularly among the movement’s youth. With God on Our Side, a 2010 documentary film by Rooftop Productions, is a one-sided assault on Israeli policies disguised as a discussion of Christian Zionism. This movie, which relies heavily on testimony from Evangelicals such as Gary Burge and Stephen Sizer, is another indication that efforts to promote anti-Zionism in the Evangelical community have spread beyond the pages of Sojourners.

Going Viral with a New Supercessionism

Sabeel’s enduring impact can best be seen, however, in the behavior of its followers, who have embraced anti-Zionism as the great cause of their lives. Such devotion was evident in the work of Sabeel activists in Washington, DC, who in late July 2010 organized a boycott of Israeli-made Ahava products for sale at a Maryland beauty-supply store. This effort, however, failed because supporters of Israel responded with a “buycott,” abundantly purchasing Ahava goods from the store.[102]

Nevertheless, on a propagandistic level Sabeel DC’s boycott achieved its purpose by enabling activists to broadcast its agenda to passersby. It also gave them an opportunity to engage in street theater akin to the confrontations experienced by the early Christian church after Christ’s ascension, as described in the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles.

Through such activism, Sabeel activists view themselves as confronting powerful and established theological adversaries such as Christian Zionists, the “Israel lobby,” and mainstream American Jewish groups. Just as similar confrontations between the Christian Apostles and their adversaries resulted in the conversion of many Jews to Christianity (Acts 3:37), such confrontations with these groups serve to convert people to the millennial and messianic cause of Christian (and secular) anti-Zionism.

With such initiatives, Sabeel encourages its followers to embrace anti-Zionism as a way of life. This may seem an exaggeration, but in a recent YouTube video Sabeel describes itself as a “21st century spiritual movement evolving to meld our religious traditions with modern ethics.” The video extols the virtues of embracing Sabeel as a way of life in language that echoes the Pauline letters of the New Testament. Sabeel members are portrayed as being on the cutting edge of a new spiritual movement that brings about personal and global transformation:

“Committed to peace through justice, Sabeel people know that change is possible through passionate but non-violent efforts based in compassion. Their actions are an example of the most fulfilling engagement one can experience in life. The Sabeel way, as with any deeply involving vocation or avocation allows those who value the meaning of peace through justice to live fully through the satisfaction of their own commitment and compassion. These two emotions take life to a new level of happiness, lifting each from the monotony of commonplace living. The result is life changing and world changing.[103]”

The spiritual goods that Sabeel purports to offer its followers are exactly the sort that U.S. mainline churches have been unable to provide, as indicated by their oft-cited decline. To make matters worse, this and other videos posted by Sabeel on its YouTube channel, particularly Don Wagner’s description of the 1982 Sabra and Shatilla massacre,[104] invoke images of Jews and their homeland as uniquely parochial and violent. The apparent aim is to highlight the superiority and transcendence of Sabeel’s universalistic message that supersedes Jewish identity and nationalism. By following the model Ateek laid out in his 1982 dissertation, Sabeel and its Western supporters are acting out a drama that has troubling similarities to the church-synagogue conflict that arose from Christianity’s founding two thousand years ago.


The consequences of Sabeel’s activism can be seen in the response to the massacre of Christians in Baghdad on 31 October 2010 and subsequent attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt in the first few weeks of 2011. U.S. mainline churches did acknowledge these attacks, but were muted in their depiction of who perpetrated them and why. The attacks were perpetrated by Muslim extremists motivated by a hostile theology and ideology that Naim Ateek and his followers have been loath to confront despite the role it plays in fomenting violence against Israel and Jews in the Middle East.

The muted response to the Islamist ideology that motivated these attacks indicates that, following Ateek’s example, U.S. mainline churches have put themselves in a bind. When and if mainline leaders and peace activists manage to confront the ideology that motivated the murder of their coreligionists in Iraq and Egypt, it will highlight their silence when Israel and Jews were the target of Islamist ideology. What was unremarkable when Jewish safety was at stake – Islamist ideology – has now been exposed as a central issue for Christians throughout the Middle East.

*     *     *


* The author would like to thank Ellen Kruk of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs for her research assistance.

[1] Michel Sabbah et al., “A Moment of Truth: A Word of Faith, Hope, and Love from the Heart of Palestinian Suffering,” 11 December 2009. Retrieved 20 September 2010,

[2] Ibid., para. 1.4.

[3] Ranjan Solomon, “Kairos initiative: a message of hope for a just peace in Palestine,” World Council of Churches, 16 December 2009. Retrieved 10 September 2010,

[4] For revealing information about the political maneuvering associated with the KPD, see Malcom Lowe, “The Palestinian ‘Kairos’ Document: A Behind-the-Scenes Analysis,” New English Review, April 2010. Retrieved 20 September 2010,

[5] “WCC general secretary applauds church support for the ‘Kairos Palestine’ document,” 21 December 2009. Retrieved 10 September 2010,

[6] “A pastoral response to the Palestine Kairos document: ‘A Moment of Truth,'” Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ, April 2010. Retrieved 20 September 2010,

[7] Ryan Roderick Beiler, “A Prophetic Milestone toward Peace,” Sojourners, July 2010, 26.

[8] “On Commending ‘A Moment of Truth: A Word of Faith and Hope from the Heart of Palestinian Suffering’ as an Advocacy Tool,” Item 14-05, answered with another resolution by the PC(USA)’s 219th General Assembly in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on 9 July 2010. Retrieved 20 September 2010,

[9] “CCAR Resolution on the 2009 Kairos Document,” adopted by the Board of Trustees, 15 April 2010. Retrieved 20 September 2010,

[10] “Breaking Down the Walls,” Item 14-08, approved as amended by the PC(USA)’s 219th General Assembly in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on 9 July 2010. Retrieved 20 September 2010,

[11] Ibid.

[12] The phrase “living stones” is derived from 1 Peter 2:4. This passage calls on Christians to be “living stones” from which a spiritual house can be built. Palestinian Christians often invoke this passage themselves.

[13] Fr. Jean Corbon et al., “What Is Required of the Christian Faith Concerning the Palestine Problem: A Memorandum by a Group of Middle Eastern Theologians,” reprinted in Christians, Zionism and Palestine: A Selection of Articles and Statements on the Religious and Political Aspects of the Palestine Problem (Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1970), 69-76. The memorandum was originally published in Beirut on 18 June 1967.

[14] Rosemary Radford Ruether and Herman J. Ruether The Wrath of Jonah (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002), 183-186.

[15] For an authoritative analysis of Ateek’s use of anti-Judaic polemic from the New Testament to cast Israel as a cosmological affront to God’s purposes for humanity, see Adam Gregerman, “Old Wine in New Bottles,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 41, 2 (2004).

[16] Sabeel has its supporters in every mainline church in the United States, but does not operate with equal influence in every denomination. For example, Sabeel has close ties to the Episcopal Church and, largely as a consequence of Ateek’s status as an Anglican priest, has relied on members of this church for financial support. But Sabeel has achieved its legislative victories, so to speak, in other churches – most notably the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ, neither of which  has historical ties of its own to the Holy Land.

Sabeel’s success in these churches highlights how the organization provides an emotional and logistical link to the Holy Land that they would otherwise lack. In return, the churches embrace Sabeel’s anti-Zionist agenda. Sabeel’s success in these churches also highlights the fact that all U.S. mainline Protestant churches relate to the Holy Land in a way that emphasizes politics and activism as opposed to worship and history. To these churches, the Holy Land is not the scene of Christianity’s religious drama but, rather, of an ongoing battle between good and evil in which they can take sides through peace activism.

[17] “Past Witness Trips,” Friends of Sabeel North America. Retrieved 16 September 2010,

[18] This document is not available online, but it is publicized on the website of the Global Ministries Board of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ. Retrieved 20 September 2010,

[19] “Contemporary Way of the Cross: A Liturgical Journey along the Palestinian Via Dolorosa,” Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation, Jerusalem, 2005, 26-29. For more detail, see Dexter Van Zile, “Sabeel’s Demonizing Liturgy,” CAMERA, 7 December 2007. Retrieved 20 September 2010, This unhappy innovation has been embraced by the United Methodist Church. An appendix to its “Israel-Palestine Mission Study for 2007-2008” provides discussion leaders with handouts that use the Stations of the Cross to describe Israeli misdeeds and Palestinian suffering.

[20] Sabeel Wave of Prayer for Thursday, November 8, 2007.

[21] For a list of these statements, see, but please note that the dates associated with the texts are not reliable. For example, the date offered for the document titled “Sabeel’s Call for Morally Responsible Investment” is inaccurate. The document was issued sometime before the summer gathering of the United Church of Christ, which took place in July 2004. The document was cited at this assembly by proponents of divestment.

[22] Since 2002 Sabeel has hosted thirty-two major conferences in North America, with the highest level of activity occurring in 2005 and 2008, which witnessed six conferences apiece. See “Past Conferences,” Friends of Sabeel North America. Retrieved 16 September 2010, The author has attended three of the conferences on this list, Chicago (2005), Denver (2005), Boston (2007), and two smaller events not listed: Salem, MA (2005) and Quincy, MA (2006).

[23] “International Friends of Sabeel,” Sabeel Narrative Report 2009, Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. Retrieved 20 September,

[24] Jean Zaru, Occupied with Nonviolence: A Palestinian Woman Speaks (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008).

[25] Naim Ateek, A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008).

[26] Na’em S. Ateek, “Toward a Strategy for the Episcopal Church in Israel with a Special Focus on the Political Situation: Analysis and Prospect,”  dissertation/project presented to the Committee for Advance Pastoral Studies, San Francisco Theological Seminary, 1 August 1982.

[27] Ibid., 261-262.

[28] Ibid., 274.

[29] Ibid., 276.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Quoted in Ateek, “Toward a Strategy,” 178-179.

[32] L. Humphrey Walz, “Prophecy, Zionism, and the State of Israel,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, February 1989, 41. Retrieved 24 September 2010,

[33] Berger features prominently in Thomas A. Kolsky’s Jews against Zionism: The American Council for Judaism 1942-1948 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990).

[34] Quoted in Nathan Rotenstreich, “The Revival of the Fossil Remnant: Or Toynbee and Jewish Nationalism,” Jewish Social Studies 24, 3 (July 1962): 131-143. For an example of Toynbee’s comparison of Zionists with Nazis, see 137; for the fossil quote, see 133.

[35] Ibid., 132.

[36] Ateek, “Toward a Strategy,” 179.

[37] Ibid., 180.

[38] Ibid., 190.

[39] Ibid., 191-192.

[40] Ibid., 193-194.

[41] Ibid., 194-196.

[42] Ibid., 197-198.

[43] Ibid., 202.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid., 203.

[46] Ibid., 204.

[47] Ibid., 279.

[48] “The Jerusalem Sabeel Document: Principles for a Just Peace in Palestine-Israel,” Friends of Sabeel North America, 1 May 2006, Retrieved 19 January 2011. Naim Ateek has denied that Sabeel supports a one-state solution, but the evidence indicates that the organization’s ultimate agenda is decidedly in favor of it. For example, Sabeel supporter Mark Braverman notes on page 42 of his text, Fatal Embrace: Christians, Jews, and the Search for Peace in the Holy Land (Austin, TX: Synergy Books, 2010), that the organization does support a one-state solution. Braverman reports a conversation he had with Sabeel activist Nora Carmi in which she stated that the organization supports “the ideal of one state in which Jews and Palestinians could live together as equals, even though she is not optimistic about this coming to pass.”

[49] Ateek, “Toward a Strategy,” 274.

[50] Interestingly enough, Ateek is one of the few members of his family who still lives in the Holy Land; most of his relatives have moved to the United States. Brian Grieves, “A Journey of justice, a journey of faith: An interview with Naim Ateek,” The Witness, September 2001. Retrieved 22 September 2010,

[51] Alain Epp Weaver and Sonia K. Weaver, Salt & Sign: Mennonite Central Committee in Palestine 1949-1999 (Akron, OH: Mennonite Central Committee, 1999), 87.

[52] Rosemary Radford Ruether, Liberation Theology: Human Hope Confronts Christian History and American Power (New York: Paulist Press, 1972).

[53] Ibid., 11.

[54] Ibid., 13.

[55] Dennis T. Olson, Numbers: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1996), 63.

[56] Naim S. Ateek, Marc H. Ellis, and Rosemary Radford Ruether, eds., Faith and the Intifada (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991).

[57] Brian Grieves, “A Journey of justice, a journey of faith: An interview with Naim Ateek,” The Witness, September 2001. Retrieved 22 September 2010,

[58] Naim Ateek, “The Zionist Ideology of Domination versus the Reign of God: The Ultimate Triumph of Justice and Love,” sermon given at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Jerusalem, 22 February 2001. Retrieved 14 September 2010,

[59] Ibid.

[60] Richard Rubenstein, After Auschwitz: History, Theology, and Contemporary Judaism, 2d ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 68.


[62] Naim Ateek, “An Easter Message from Sabeel,” 6 April 2001, Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. Retrieved 20 September 2010,

[63] Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 184.

[64] Naim Ateek, “Sabeel Appeals to the Conscience of the International Community to Put an End to the Massacre of the Palestinian People,” Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, 5 October 2000. Retrieved 20 September, The Arabic version of this document, which is slightly different in tone and content, is available at (retrieved 20 September 2010).

[65] Martin Gilbert, Jerusalem in the Twentieth Century (New York: Wiley, 1996), 119-123.

[66] Gil Sedan, “News Analysis: Militant Islamic Movement is radicalizing Israeli Arabs,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 19 September 2001.

[67] Ateek, “Toward a Strategy,” 1982, 277.

[68] Naim Ateek, “Suicide Bombers: What is theologically and morally wrong with suicide bombings?:

A Palestinian Christian perspective,” Cornerstone 25 (Summer 2001). Retrieved 25 September 2010,

[69] Yossi Klein Halevi, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land (New York: Harper Perennial, 2002), xv-xvi.

[70] Khalil ‘Athamina, “Eschatology and Apocalyptic Literature In Early Islam,” in Naim Ateek et al., eds., Challenging Christian Zionism: Theology, Politics and the Israel-Palestine Conflict (London: Melisende, 2005), 179-191.

[71] Dexter Van Zile, “Sabeel’s Rhetoric Questioned by Jewish Peace Activists,” CAMERA, 28 March 2008. Retrieved 25 September 2010,

[72] Roberta Seid, “Sabeel Brings Intolerance to Seattle, Next Step San Francisco,” Stand With Us, 4 March 2010. Retrieved 21 September,

[73] Van Zile, “Sabeel’s Rhetoric.”

[74] Jerome Segal, Creating the Palestinian State: A Strategy for Peace (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 1989).

[75] Seid, “Sabeel Brings Intolerance.” Seid’s account of Braverman’s talk may be regarded with disbelief by some readers, but it is well within the realm of expected behavior. For more information about Braverman’s message, see Dexter Van Zile, “Kreisky’s Children,” New English Review, January 2010. Retrieved 21 September 2010,  Braverman depicts Jews as having lost their way and Christian peace activists as being able to help them back to sanity.

[76] “On Supporting the Geneva Accord, Urging Israel and Palestine to Implement the Accord,” Item 12-01, approved by the PC(USA)’s 2004 General Assembly. Retrieved 14 July 2009,$f=templates$vid=GA216:10.1048/Enu$3.0.

[77] Gavin Langmuir notes that by 1350, the notion that the Jews were “incapable of fully rational thought [and] conspired to overthrow Christendom,…committed ritual crucifixions, ritual cannibalism, and host profanation, and…caused Black Death by poisoning wells” was widespread in northern Europe. Gavin Langmuir, ­Toward a Definition of Antisemitism (Los Angeles: University of California, 1990), 302.

[78] Ateek did not speak at the PC(USA)’s 2004 General Assembly; that honor went to Lutheran pastor Mitri Raheb. But Sabeel material was a major component of the campaign to convince Presbyterians to support divestment and in the passage of an overture condemning Christian Zionism.

[79] “A Statement for Morally Responsible Investment: A Nonviolent Response to the Occupation,” Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, April 2005. Retrieved 20 September 2010,

[80] Quoted in Wanda Bryant-Wills, “Disciples Call Upon Israel to Tear Down Barrier,” Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), 5 August 2005. Retrieved 8 September 2010,

[81] Anne K. Conway, “Another church slams ‘wall’,” Canadian Jewish News, 4 August 2005, 25.

[82] “The Speech the Disciples of Christ Wouldn’t Hear,” Solomonia (blog), 27 July 2005. Retrieved 8 September 2010,

[83] This list can be seen at (retrieved 25 September 2010).

[84] Beth Duff-Brown, “U.S. Clergy Warn about Divesting in Israel,” Associated Press, 28 October 2005.

[85] During the conference, however, Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions called for wholesale boycotts of Israeli business, including sports teams. Roberta Seid, “Friends of Sabeel Conference, Toronto Oct. 26-29 2005,” unpublished manuscript, 1 November 2005, 1.

[86] Ibid., 2.

[87] Ibid., 3.

[88] Ibid.

[89] Ibid., 4.

[90] Dennis M. Mahoney, “Peace awards will include controversial Palestinian,” Columbus Dispatch, 9 June 2006. Also see “Fair Witness Calls on Rev. Ateek to Repent,” Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East, Religion Press Release Services, 15 June 2006. Retrieved 20 September 2010,

[91] Quoted in “Sabeel’s Naim Ateek receives peace award from Episcopal Peace Fellowship,” Religion Press Release Services, 20 June 2006. Retrieved 20 September 2010,

[92] Quoted in Sherri Wood Emmons, “Is Israel’s security barrier necessary?,” Disciples World, September 2006. Retrieved 20 September 2010,

[93] “In Support of a Renewed and Balanced Study and Response to the Conflict between Palestine and Israel,” referred directly to an Implementing Body by the 26th General Synod of the United Church of Christ on 22 June 2007 (Minutes with Appendices, Twenty-Sixth General Synod, 49-52). Retrieved 20 September 2010,

[94] Dexter Van Zile, “Tutu’s Words of Philosemitism Ring Hollow,” CAMERA, 5 November, 2010. Retrieved 24 September 2010,

[95] Dexter Van Zile, “Boston’s Old South Welcomes Sabeel,” CAMERA, 10 October 2007. Retrieved,

[96] Ronne Friedman, “Sabeel: A Letter from Temple Israel,” 23 October 2007, Retrieved 24 September 2010,

[97] Taylor’s letter can be seen at “Nancy Taylor responds to Rabbi Ronne Friedman,”, 9 November 2007. Retrieved 24 September 2010,

[98] Matthew Davies, “Brian Grieves honored for decades-long peace and justice ministry,” Episcopal Life Online, 19 October 2009. Retrieved 20 September 2010,

[99] Joshua A. Goldberg, “UCC Installs Geoffrey Black as New Leader,” Christian Post, 19 April 2010. Retrieved 20 September 2010,

[100] Dexter Van Zile, “British Methodists Throw Israel under the Bus,” CAMERA, 25 June 2010. Retrieved 25 September 2010,

[101] Brian D. McLaren, “Last Day in Israel and Palestine,” brian d. mclaren, (blog), 28 January 2010. Retrieved 25 September 2010,

[102] Hilary Leila Krieger, “Pro-Israel shoppers defy Ahava products boycott call,” Jerusalem Post, 25 July, 2010. Retrieved 25 September 2010,

[103] “Sabeel Now, 2010,” Friends of Sabeel North America (YouTube channel), 2 September 2010. Retrieved 24 September 2010, The off-camera statements of a woman speaking during Bill Christian’s close-up, which begins at 5:14 in the video, are enlightening.

[104] “Sabra and Shatilla: A Testimony,” Friends of Sabeel North America (YouTube channel), 4 September 2010. Retrieved 24 September 2010,

*     *     *

DEXTER VAN ZILE is Christian media analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. His writings have appeared in numerous American Jewish newspapers as well as the Jerusalem Post, Ecumenical Trends, and the Boston Globe. He has a BA in politics and government from the University of Puget Sound and an MA in political science/environmental studies from Western Washington University. He is a Massachusetts native.