Sabeel’s Teachings of Contempt
A Judeo-Christian Alliance Report
By Dexter Van Zile
“Sabeel believes that any divestment must be done from moral obligation – the same moral obligation that obliges us to struggle against and separate ourselves from anti-Semitism.”
“A Call for Morally Responsible Investment – A Non-Violent Response to the Occupation,” Sabeel, April 2005.
“In this season of Lent, it seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him. It only takes people of insight to see the hundreds of thousands of crosses throughout the land, Palestinian men, women, and children being crucified. Palestine has become one huge [G]olgotha. The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily. Palestine has become the place of the skull.”
Sabeel Founder Naim Ateek, April 2001.
Sabeel’s Teachings of Contempt documents the hostile language and theology used by Naim Ateek to delegitimize the state of Israel. Ateek, founder of Jerusalem-based Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, has used imagery clearly reminiscent of deicide charge and directed it against the state of Israel. Additionally, Ateek asserts God’s covenant with the Jews does not apply to the state of Israel, but then asserts the nation has a higher obligation to abide by the requirements that come with this covenant. Because of Israel’s Jewishness, Ateek imposes a more exacting standard of conduct on the state than its adversaries. Despite the problems inherent in Ateek’s writings, the leaders of mainline Protestant denominations have broadcasted his political message to their members and to the general public in the U.S.
Since its founding in 1989, Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, headquartered in Jerusalem, has been a steady source of anti-Israel propaganda in both the United States and Europe. In the past year, Sabeel has stepped up its efforts to delegitimize the state of Israel on two fronts. Sabeel has orchestrated the highly visible divestment campaign in mainline Protestant Churches and is a major player in the ongoing effort to marginalize Christian Zionists in the U.S.
Evidence of Sabeel's influence in the U.S. is becoming increasingly apparent. Local chapters of Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA) hold conferences in area churches where the suffering of the Palestinians is highlighted, but the corruption of the Palestinian Authority, the subjugation of Christians by the Palestinian Muslim majority and the violence against Israel are regarded as taboo subjects. In instances where these subjects are brought up, they are quickly shouted down or dismissed as neo-conservative rhetoric. By placing these subjects out of the realm of legitimate discourse, Sabeel and its supporters have been able to disarm the conscience of mainline Protestantism in the U.S., which has long been a supporter of human rights, religious tolerance and improvements in the status of women. The consequences for both Israel and for the public square in the U.S. are ominous.
This report, one of an ongoing series published by the Judeo-Christian Alliance, is intended to illuminate Sabeel’s role in framing the discussion on the conflict in the Middle East. Specifically, it highlights the ways in which this discussion promotes an obsession with Israeli misdeeds, raises concerns about the reawakening of Christian hostility toward Judaism, and ignores those aspects of Palestinian society that undermine its ability to provide a future for its people and live in peace with Israel. In addition to providing information about its founder, Naim Ateek, and his efforts to weaponize Christian theology to delegitimize the state of Israel, this report will document the role Sabeel’s supporters in the mainline Protestant churches have played in broadcasting its message to American audiences.
Ateek’s Anti-Jewish Writings
Naim Ateek is best known to American audiences for his book, Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (New York: Orbis 1989). In addition to his writings, which also include an essay on suicide bombing, Ateek has been a regular speaker at anti-Israel events in the United States and Canada, where he asserts that the Holocaust has been used to silence criticism of unjust Israeli policies. Another source of Ateek’s prominence is his status as former Canon of St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem and president of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center (sabeel.org), also headquartered in Jerusalem.
Through his efforts, Ateek has been able to garner the support of prominent theologians and ministers outside the Middle East. In 2002, Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu agreed to serve as Sabeel’s international patron and to “assist the Palestinian Christian organization in its outreach and development work with Christian Churches around the world.” Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, has reportedly referred to Ateek as “Palestine’s Desmond Tutu.”
Ateek’s supporters, however, ignore his repeated use of biblical language in a manner clearly reminiscent of the “teachings of contempt,” which hold the Jews responsible for deicide, portray their religion as a uniquely malevolent force, and define dispersion as the consequence for Jewish sin. Ateek is not the first Palestinian Christian to invoke biblical passages to promote an obsession with Jewish misdeeds, but he is one of the most prolific, rivaled only by Lutheran Pastor Mitri Raheb of Bethlehem in his output. Sadly, both Ateek and Raheb have been presented to audiences in North America and Europe as “moderates” and “peace makers” by the leadership of mainline Protestant denominations. Moreover, Ateek has received substantial funding from supporters in the U.S. In 2001, Ateek received $18,585 from an Oregon-based group called Friends of Peace and Justice in the Holy Land (better known as Friends of Sabeel). In 1999, Ateek received $40,255 from the same group. Malcolm Lowe, an Anglican theologian living in Jerusalem, suggests that Western donations to prominent Palestinian Christians provide a clue as to why these individuals stay in areas under Muslim control, while most others with the money and contacts have already fled the oppression.
Christians are fleeing from areas under Palestinian Muslim control. That is, if they have a chance. Money, secrecy and contacts abroad are needed, all available mainly to a small number of well-to-do people. Of these most have left.
One exception is a small number of Christians in positions with highly developed intimate contacts to the PA and to Western Church leadership. They receive substantial Western donations. These Christians defend the PA regime and proclaim friendship between Christians and Muslims. Their addressee is the Western mind, which responds to notions of liberation, sympathy for underdogs and anti-colonialism.
Lowe does not mention Ateek by name, but it is clear that he fits the description, as does Raheb.
Israelis as baby-killers and Christ-killers
In the writings of Naim Ateek, biblical imagery becomes an arsenal against Israel and by extension, Jews and their religion. Probably the most egregious example appeared in his 2001 Easter Message in which he wrote:
“In this season of Lent, it seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him. It only takes people of insight to see the hundreds of thousands of crosses throughout the land, Palestinian men, women, and children being crucified. Palestine has become one huge [G]olgotha. The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily. Palestine has become the place of the skull.” (Emphasis added).
This is not the first time Ateek has used biblical imagery to denigrate the state of Israel. In his 2000 Christmas Message, Ateek writes:
At this Christmas time, when we remember the message of peace and love that came down from God to earth in the birth of Jesus Christ, our celebrations are marred by the destructive powers of the modern day "Herods" who are represented in the Israeli government.
At a February 2001 sermon, Ateek likened the Israeli occupation to the boulder sealing Christ’s tomb.
Israel has placed a large boulder, a big stone that has metaphorically shut off the Palestinians in a tomb. It is similar to the stone placed on the entrance of Jesus’ tomb, which mark the evangelist describes as being “very large”. (sic) This boulder has shut in the Palestinians within and built structures of domination over them to keep them in. We have a name for this boulder. It is the OCCUPATION. Unless this boulder of OCCUPATION is removed, there will be no justice and no freedom.
With these three images Ateek has figuratively blamed Israel for trying to kill Jesus the infant, Jesus the Prophet and blocking the resurrection of Christ the Savior, which taken together, constitute a clear attempt to invoke the deicide charge and direct its energy toward the state of Israel.
Given that Ateek figuratively accuses Israel of baby killing, Christ-killing and blocking the messiah’s return, it should come as no surprise that an important theme in his writing is the notion that God’s covenant with the Jews has been broken by their misdeeds. As a consequence, Israelis will find themselves scattered from their homes.
Those who want to live on the land, therefore, must obey the owner of the land. Disobedience to God defiles the land, violates its sacred character, and incurs the unequivocal loss of the land; it could even lead to utter destruction[.]
The implication is unavoidable. Israel is held to a higher standard of conduct and its inhabitants especially vulnerable to dispersion because of their historical connection to the Old Testament.
Exile and Powerlessness
In light of these passages, it is hardly shocking that Ateek cannot bring himself to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, though he does acknowledge the “need” for it to exist.
It has taken me years to accept the establishment of the state of Israel and its need—although not its right—to exist. I now feel that I want it to stay, because I believe that the elimination of Israel would mean greater injustice to millions of innocent people who know no home except Israel.
But even Ateek’s acknowledgement of the need for a Jewish homeland is provisional. In fact, Ateek envisions a day when the Jews of Israel might voluntarily leave their homeland for green pastures elsewhere in the West or in Middle East.
If, for any reason, the state of Israel disappears, it should not be the result of a military act, but the result of the Jews’ own decision to leave Israel. For it is quite conceivable that, fifty or one hundred years from now, life in the Middle East could, for one reason or another, become unbearable to some Jewish Israelis. They might choose to leave for the West (indeed, many have already done so) or for other countries in the Middle East where life is less taxing or more relaxed. That should be their own decision.
While offering his portrayal of Israel as some sort of tent city to be abandoned when things get tough, Ateek fails to provide even one examples of a nation that has voluntarily given up its sovereign status. Still, Ateek suggests voluntary abandonment as a possible scenario for the Jewish state, which by the time of Ateek’s writing (1989), had resisted three Arab attempts to destroy it.
Although Ateek describes his work as an attempt to create a “theology that confronts nationalism” (p. 92), it is clear from his writings that he is mainly interested in denigrating Jewish nationalism while lending credence to Palestinian nationalism. For example, he approvingly quotes Arnold J. Toynbee, who writes that the creation of the modern-day state of Israel presents a crisis for those whose understanding of Israel is rooted in devout worship and spirituality. After asserting that such an understanding has been “supplanted today by a political and military connotation” Toynbee writes:
The present-day political Israel, has for all of us, obliterated, or at least, adumbrated, the spiritual Israel of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This is surely a tragedy.
If this has been true among Western Christians, it has been more painfully true of Palestinians and other Christians in the Middle East. The establishment of the State of Israel was a seismic tremor of enormous magnitude that has shaken the very foundation of their beliefs. Since then, no Palestinian Christian theology can avoid tackling the issue of the Bible: How can the Bible, which has apparently become part of the problem in the Arab-Israeli conflict, become part of its solution? How can the Bible, which has been used to bring a course to the national aspirations of a whole people, again offer them blessings? How can the Bible, through which many have been lead to salvation, be itself and redeemed?
For Ateek, Israel’s sins against the Palestinians run the gamut of baby killing, crucifixion, blocking the resurrection and even destroying their faith in the Bible. Ateek is kind enough to offer an escape from this state of sin by invoking the image of the wandering, but blameless Jew.
The Jews, whose prophetic tradition and 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 relinquished the role of the servant that they had claimed for centuries, becoming oppressors and warmakers themselves. This has been a revolutionary change from the long-held belief that the Jews have a vocation for suffering. Many rabbis had taught that Jews should accept suffering rather than inflict it as a means of changing the world. A rabbinic dictum was, “Be of the persecuted rather than the of the persecutors.” And Scholem 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.”
The implication is clear. It is the notion of Jewish power itself that invites Ateek’s condemnation.
At this point, it is important to acknowledge the role liberation theology has played in Ateek's rhetoric. Sabeel’s application of liberation theology to the Arab/Israeli conflict has been a major factor in breathing new life into the teachings of contempt. Because the Israelis are regarded as the more powerful of the two combatants, they are judged much more harshly than the Palestinians, who by virtue of their relative weakness are accorded a “preferential option for the poor.” As a result, the Palestinians (and Arabs and Muslims in general) are judged against a much more lenient standard of conduct than the Israelis.
Moreover, through the application of liberation theology, Sabeel and its supporters in the U.S. enforce a taboo against discussing the faults of Palestinian society, faults that would compromise the security of Israel if a Palestinian state were created. The willingness to submit to this taboo undermines divestment proponents in the U.S. who assert that they acknowledge Israel's security needs though they simultaneously support a two-state solution. In order for such a solution to work, there must be a discussion of what that second state should look like if Israel’s security concerns are to be taken seriously.
Despite the undeniable hostility toward Jews and their state inherent in his writings, Ateek and the group he created, Sabeel, have found staunch allies in the leadership of mainline Protestant churches in the U.S. One good example of Ateek’s influence is the welcome he has received from the United Church of Christ.
In 2003, Ateek spoke to the General Synod of the United Church of Christ and preached at a Sunday worship service where, according to the denomination’s account, his sermon was interrupted several times by applause.
On a day when the Synod adopted a resolution calling for alternatives to Christian Zionism, he pointed out that some people try to “prove almost anything”—from polygamy to slavery to silencing women—“by selecting their evidences and linking verses from here and there.” The authentic message of the Bible, he said, “is not about a bigoted and biased God but about a loving and liberating God.” He called Christian Zionism “an elaborate system of beliefs that makes a jigsaw puzzle of the Bible.”
The article continues:
Ateek was an appropriate choice to address the Synod on the theme “Embrace Justice” because he has devoted a lifetime of scholarship and practical work to achieving justice. His book Justice and Only Justice has become a primer for those who are working for justice as the cornerstone for peace in the Holy Land.
He began his keynote address with appreciation for the long support that the United Church of Christ has given his work in Jerusalem. Two mission workers have been assigned to the liberation theology center and the Wider Ministries board presented him with an award “for such a time as this” in 1999 for his leadership of Sabeel.
The text of his keynote address to the Synod portrays Israel as the embodiment of ancient Rome, which oppressed the Jews in the time of Jesus:
At Sabeel we find great inspiration in the life of Jesus Christ. He is our model and paradigm. Most Palestinians today are born under occupation as Jesus was. In his day it was the oppressive Roman occupation. Today it is the oppressive Israeli occupation. 
The week after Ateek’s July 2003 appearance at the UCC General Synod, UCC President John Thomas visited Sabeel’s offices while on a fact-finding trip to the region. Thomas acknowledged that his trip did not include visits with Israeli victims of Palestinian terror bombing.
The website of the Common Global Ministries Board, the missionary wing of both the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) regularly posts Sabeel’s policy statements, which include condemnations of the separation barrier in the West Bank, Christian Zionism, and the Iraq War. The site also displays Sabeel’s statement on Yasser Arafat’s death which makes no mention of the violence his followers perpetrated against Israelis, the anti-Jewish incitement broadcast on Palestinian Television with his approval, nor the theft of foreign aid by his family and supporters. Clearly, the Global Ministries Board’s prophetic voice, and the voice of the two denominations it represents, has been enlisted in the propaganda war against Israel, all under the guise of peacemaking.
Another indication of Ateek’s influence are the echoes of his support for a one-state solution – along with a mournful acknowledgement that the Jews will not go along with it – from prominent supporters of divestment in the U.S.
Contrary to what some people may feel—and this will come as a shock to many others—the PLO has always proposed the ideal solution for Palestine: one united and democratic state for all Palestinians and Jews. Interestingly, the United States, which prides itself on being the champion of democracy, has never accepted this proposal.
I still believe that this solution is feasible. It is the best and easiest to implement. However, in line with the biblical injunctions above, I would have to agree, with Israel to reject it. Israel insists above all on being a Jewish state. As part of a democratic, binational Palestine, the Jews would eventually become a minority in the country. Furthermore, many Jews so distrust the Palestinians that they would not wish to consign their future to them. So in spite of all of its attractiveness, the idea of a binational state must be discarded.
Ateek then asserts that a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel in Gaza and the West Bank is the solution to the Arab/Israeli conflict.
Two other prominent supporters of divestment, within the Presbyterian Church (USA), have made similar statements. Victor Makari, the PC(USA)’s regional liaison for the Middle East and Europe, told the Jerusalem Report that “his preferred solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a shared democratic state” – a solution he admits is a non-starter because of Israeli concerns that the one-state solution is tantamount to demographic suicide.”
Marthame Sanders, a PC(USA) missionary who has taken up the Palestinian cause, writes:
I believe the only peaceful future lies in a single binational democratic state. Not too many people are willing to talk about that on either side. But it's a vision that gives me hope.
Makari’s desire for a single-state solution, modified by an acknowledgement that it is not acceptable to Israelis, is a clear restatement of Ateek’s proposal. Sanders’ suggestion that opposition to a single-state solution exists on both sides of the conflict deviates somewhat from Ateek’s agenda, but still exhibits the same utopian naiveté that afflicts Makari and Ateek.
Applying such a utopian scenario to the Arab/Israeli conflict (and in the case of Ateek and Markari, blaming its impracticability on Israelis) ignores a whole host of issues, including the religiously motivated hostility toward Jews evident throughout Palestinian society, and the support terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza have received from other countries in the Middle East. By offering a political solution to the conflict that ignores these and other fundamental issues, Ateek, Makari and Sanders undermine confidence in their stated concern for Israeli safety.
One of the most troubling aspects of the rhetoric Sabeel employs to delegitimize the state of Israel is the Christian silence that surrounds it. Given the monumental effort to reform Christian theology in light of the Holocaust, one would think Protestant scholars in the U.S. would be sensitive to the new teachings of contempt. Nevertheless, there have been little if any expressions of concern about the issue. Moreover, when concerns have been raised, they have been from Jewish voices or from interfaith organizations that include Jewish representatives. Clearly there is a need for a Christian response to the use of this language. The fact that the leadership of mainline Protestant denominations has not noticed it – or felt the need to condemn it publicly if they have – is troubling. Given the lack of response to Sabeel’s abuse of Christian theology, it has become increasingly clear that the responsibility of drawing attention and responding to this problem falls to the lay members and local pastors of Protestant churches in the U.S.
 The reported date of Sabeel’s founding varies. The Israel-Palestine Forum states the group was established in 1989 at http://www.israelpalestineforum.com/content/view/25/89/. Sabeel itself reports its year of founding as 1989 (at www.sabeel.org/old/about.html.), but the group celebrated the 10th anniversary of its founding in 2004. A backgrounder published by The National Council of Canada-Arab Relations states that Ateek has served as president of Sabeel since 1992.
 Please see “A Call for Morally Responsible Investment: A Nonviolent Response to the Occupation available at: http://www.sabeel.org/documents/A%20nonviolence%20sabeel%20second%20revision.pdf.
 In April 2004, Sabeel sponsored a conference in Jerusalem on Christian Zionism. The resulting statement
can be seen at http://www.sabeel.org/documents/5thConfStatementfinal.htm.
 Ateek, Naim, “Suicide Bombers, A Palestinian Christian Perspective,” Cornerstone, Summer 2002, Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. This essay is available at: http://www.sabeel.org/old/news/cstone25/suicidebombers.htm. For a discussion of Ateek’s essay on suicide bombers, please see “Blind Prophecy,” which can be obtained at www.judeo-christianalliance.org.
 Babych, Art, “Jews upset at remarks: controversy over use of Holocaust [Canadian Jewish Congress at First Canadian Sabeel conference]. Anglican Journal, Jan. 1999.
 See “Anti-Semitism, A Historical Survey,” by Mark Weitzman at: http://motlc.wiesenthal.com/resources/education/historicalsurvey/
 Another early contributor to the new teachings of contempt is Dr. Geries Sa’ed Khoury, a Greek Catholic layman, who in 1989 wrote a book titled The Intifada of Heaven and Earth. In his introduction, Khoury portrays the Israeli government as baby killers: “Herod is nowadays represented by the rulers of Israel who are behaving as he did and the newly born babies will never stop calling for justice, truth and peace in the manner of the babe of the grotto.”
 Ateek is described as a peacemaker at http://www.sabeel.org/old/fos-na/ateekga.htm and Raheb appeared at the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s 2004 General Assembly to convince the denomination to initiate a process of selective divestment from Israel.
 Lowe, Malcom, “Christian Misery in the Holy Land” Faith and Freedom, 2002.
 Ateek, Naim Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (New York, Orbis, 1989), 106
 Ateek, 1989, (164).
 One question Ateek leaves unanswered is where in the Middle East these Jews would be welcome.
 Quoted in Ateek, 1989, (76). Ateek’s use of this quotation is shocking in that it subsumes concerns of Jewish physical safety to the spiritual needs of those lacking room in their religious imagination for an Israeli state.
 Ateek, 1989 (76-77).
 Ateek, 1989, (160).
 Probably the best evidence of this taboo is Sabeel’s statement on the death of Yasser Arafat, discussed below. The statement can be seen at: http://sabeel.org/documents/Arafatweb.htm. If Sabeel is truly interested in promoting the welfare of Palestinians, it must offer a more robust analysis of Arafat’s legacy, which included the theft of huge amounts of foreign aid, violent terror attacks and support for and tolerance of religious incitement against Jews on Palestinian Television during his tenure as leader of the Palestinian Authority.
 Ateek, 1989 (166-167).
 Rifkin, Ira, “The Divestment Genie,” Sept. 6, 2004, page 29.
 Sanders’ quote can be found at http://www.peacewithrealism.org/antizi05.htm#article29. The links provided on the site are no longer operative, but plugging them into the search engine at www.archive.org confirms their accuracy.
 When asked if the United Church of Christ has issued any public statements criticizing Naim Ateek’s language regarding Israel, Rev. J. Bennett Guess, news director of the United Church of Christ acknowledged that Sabeel has been in a partner relationship with the Common Global Ministries Board and replied, “There has not been a statement criticizing the language of Naim Ateek.” Said Ailabouni, director for Europe and the Middle East, ELCA Division for Global Mission has said that his denomination does not monitor and does not respond to Sabeel’s messages. Victor Makari from the PC(USA) says his denomination has not commented on Ateek’s use of language, but promised to raise the issue with him in a private conversation after apprised of the passages in question. Moreover, the PC(USA) has taken a clear stance against stereotyping and the denigration of any group and came out as early as 1943 against anti-Semitism. Sabeel is responsible for its statements and Ateek can be trusted to retract his statements, Makari said. “I know Naim personally. He is one we [the PC(USA)] trust. His integrity would not allow him to continue in teachings of contempt.”
Copyright 2003-2006 : DiscoverTheNetwork.org