Throughout October, a largely unseen wave of anti-Semitism has been washing up across North America in a series of conferences run by a Jerusalem-based organization called the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center.
At gatherings in Chicago and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Sabeel-trained speakers have demonized Israel, with similar speeches expected later this month at their conferences in Denver and Toronto. Started by Palestinian Christians in 1989, Sabeel does not promote peace or a genuine understanding of the Middle East conflict but instead musters support for punishing Israel through divestment campaigns, part of its larger goal of dismantling Israel to make way for a Palestinian-dominated one-state solution.
I attended the two-day Sabeel conference held at Chicago’s Lutheran School of Theology, where I witnessed intolerance and prejudice against Jews and the Jewish State. I did not think I would witness this in America’s third largest city, especially at the close of yearlong celebrations of the 350th anniversary of the arrival of Jews in America and only 65 years after the Holocaust.
The Oct. 7-8 gathering in Chicago attracted about 200 people. At the conference, Palestinian activist George Rishmawi actually claimed that Israel uses a poison gas that weakens the muscles of Palestinian demonstrators so they can’t run away, and that the IDF quickly retrieves the canisters so that no one can identify the gas. This echoed of the blood libel stories that have caused Jews so much suffering in the past.
I wish people of good faith had been with me to hear the relentless litany of historical distortions and slander. Michael Tarazi, a Harvard-educated attorney and former advisor to Palestinian leaders, accused Israel of starting all the Arab-Israeli wars, saying Israel probably withdrew from Gaza because Israel has, “depleted all the usable drinking water.”
Tarazi also warned audience members, “not to be side-tracked from divestment from companies who do business in Israel by those who want to have dialogue about this.” Instead, he urged people to, “stick to your convictions because there is no point to having dialogue with people you disagree with.”
There were also a couple of Jewish presenters including professor Marc Ellis of Baylor University. Describing himself as an “outrageous Jew,” Ellis compared Israel to Nazi Germany, attacked some progressive Jews as racists, and claimed that Jews had taken the “wrong lesson from the Holocaust.”
He also showed photos of two of Judaism’s holiest objects, the Ark that holds the Torah and also a Torah scroll, both defaced by superimposed images of Apache helicopters. He said that this is what he thinks of when he looks at arks and Torahs.
Perhaps the well-meaning Christians who attended this event have not researched how the Sabeel center tries to give religious justification to, and also Christian support for, a radical Palestinian agenda. In 2001, Sabeel’s founder, the Anglican Rev. Canon Naim Ateek, wrote that, “Jesus is on the Cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him…The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily.”
In 2005, Ateek said that Palestinians suffer as Jesus did: “We had the Contemporary Way of the Cross, the Via Dolorosa for Palestinians…These are the demolished homes, destroyed villages, checkpoints. Every one of those is a station of the cross, a station of suffering.” Such anti-Semitic images of deicide were thought to have been buried with the Holocaust, after which many Christian churches repudiated such rhetoric. But at the Sabeel conference in Chicago, no one asked Ateek to retract words he has used to degrade Judaism and Jews.
Throughout the Chicago talks by Ateek and his allies, the audience simply nodded, as though agreeing with the noxious statements and attacks. No one asked searching questions. No one sought out Israel’s side of the story, about the terrorist campaign that Israel has been trying to fend off, about how there cannot be reconciliation if Palestinian leadership does not accept genuine responsibility for terrorism or even accept Israel’s right to exist, or about how moderation and peace cannot emerge from such hateful presentations at Sabeel conferences.
Sabeel’s North American backers have organized the conferences in Cedar Rapids, Denver and Toronto. I fear that other well-meaning audiences will be deceived by Sabeel’s cloak as a Palestinian Christian group seeking peace, and thus unwittingly sponsor Sabeel’s hate-filled, deceptive programs.
Many Israeli policies can be criticized. But unwarranted is to have Israel maligned with echoes of old anti-Semitic canards and also hear Israel’s humanitarian efforts and reasonable compromises either ignored or twisted.
I am saddened to see such ugly rhetoric given free rein in America. How troublesome to see Christians sit quietly as Sabeel’s misguided friends speak in their name.
But mostly, I am sad to see such hatred erupting again, as it bodes badly for us all.
Roz Rothstein is national director of the non-profit Israel advocacy group StandWithUs, which in September premiered its 50-minute documentary, “Tolerating Intolerance: Hate Speech on Campuses.” StandWithUs is also a member of The Coalition for Responsible Peace in the Middle East.