by Maurice Ostroff
Thanks to Sefton Bergson for calling this article to my attention.
St. James’s Church in Piccadilly, London is hosting a Christmas festival with a giant replica of the separation barrier in Israel, which it incorrectly claims surrounds Bethlehem. (While portion of the barrier is close to Bethlehem it is misleading to claim that it even approximately surrounds Bethlehem).
Dr. Denis MacEoin is a scholar and editor of the Middle East Quarterly, a journal dealing with politics, religion, and society in the region. A former lecturer in Islamic studies, his academic specializations are Shi‘ism, Shaykhism, Bábism, and the Bahá’í Faith, on all of which he has written extensively.
Below is the cogent letter he wrote to three priests serving at St. James Church.
Dear Revs. Meader, Winkett and Valentine,
The last time I was in your beautiful church was for a memorial service for my dear friend Patricia Parkin, a leading literary editor and my own editor for a great many years. The service was a thing of great beauty, with some wonderful music, as one might expect from your church. My attention was drawn by the magnificent Grinling Gibbons carvings on the font and reredos. Having recently read David Esterly’s lyrical account of his restoration of Gibbon’s carvings, my appreciation of the quality of your specimens has much increased. You are very welcome to visit my parish church, St. George’s in Jesmond, which is widely thought to be the most beautiful church in the North of England.
The welcomes you extend to LGBT people, the homeless, refugees, and innovative approaches to the liturgy and beyond (as in your Zen group) have always interested. My own background is in Persian, Arabic and Islamic Studies (especially Shi’ite Islam), on all of which I have written extensively. The bulk of my academic work has centered on the Baha’i religion and its precursors. I am very conscious of the plight of the Baha’is still living in Iran, where they have been and are being persecuted with great severity. I don’t know if you include them in your prayers, but perhaps I can ask you to.
Compassion for those who suffer is necessarily an automatic response of Christians, given the emphasis Christ placed on love for one’s fellow man.
For myself, my earliest encounter with true suffering came through a teacher at my drama school in Belfast, Helen Lewis (née Katz). I had heard that she had been imprisoned in a concentration camp, but it wasn’t till one day when she rolled her sleeve up and I saw numbers tattooed on her arm that her plight came home to me. She had spent a long time in Theresianstadt (Terezin), where she saved her life because she was a professional ballet dancer: the Nazis used Terezin as a Potemkin village with dancers, musicians, actors, painters and writers to impress the Red Cross and others with their kindly treatment of inmates (while thousands died behind the scenes). Helen’s husband died in Auschwitz.
Helen’s legacy to me, an Irish teenager baptized in the Church of Ireland, was a growing concern for the Jewish people and, from that, a deep love for the state of Israel and the enormous good it has done and does in the world. In all the Middle East and far beyond, no other country but Israel gives refuge to the Baha’is. They have built a famous world centre there, with gardens and shrines and white marble buildings for their administrative needs.
Throughout the Middle East, Christians are dwindling rapidly in numbers, mainly because extremist Islamic groups drive them out. Israel is the only country in the region where Christian numbers have been growing steadily since 1948. It goes without saying that Israel is the only country across the Islamic world where Jews can live safely, after almost a million were killed or driven out of Arab lands in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Those few Jews who live in Iran live on a knife-edge.
Why do I mention all this? Because your church has constructed a mendacious wall on its premises in order to make an ignominious political point, something I would not have believed your church capable of. It is mendacious because it pretends the entire separation is a wall, when the wall covers about 1%. It is mendacious because it does not mention the 30 or so security walls and fences that have been built by other countries, many much longer than Israel’s.
It is mendacious because it carries no message to explain why it is there, when it is explicitly there to deter violent attacks from the West Bank into Israel. It is mendacious because it carries no statement alerting onlookers to the fact that the barrier has already saved thousands of live. Or does saving lives really not matter to Christians. Or are Jewish lives not as important as the lives of suicide bombers and other terrorists? If you seek fairness and I suspect you do in a muddled way why did you not contact the Israeli embassy, who could have loaned you something apposite: a bus, on board which passengers died when a suicide bomber detonated himself?
From the moment Israel was established, the Palestinians and their neighbours tried again and again to fight wars and to inflict wounds on Israeli civilians. The Palestinians were offered a state of their own but rejected it and turned to 65 years of violence. Why is this not made clear?
Sadly, large numbers of people on the far political left, aided and abetted by a surprising and disappointing force of Christians, have become fiercely one-sided. I have attended a Christian conference where much of the discourse verged on anti-Semitism. These people will not engage in open debate, they stamp their feet and shout, to drown out pro-Israel speakers, they lumber into a controversy about which they know little or nothing.
An Anglican priest, Stephen Sizer, who was responsible for your wall, is a fanatic whom all Jews I know consider to be an anti-Semite, bringing back to modern churches a theology that we thought had been discarded. Supercessionism is just another way of saying that Christians are superior to Jews, that Jews have denied God and are destined to go to Hell. It is not a pleasant doctrine, and it shocks me that you make room for it.
In an age when anti-Semitism is growing daily, when Jews are fleeing European countries, when calls to exterminate the Jews are easily found on the Internet, what on earth are you thinking, to dice so freely with the very forces you might otherwise despise. Why do terrorists win your sympathy more readily than Jewish children murdered in their beds? The Palestinians still freely quote the words of the 1967 Khartoum Declaration, ‘No peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel (as a Jewish state)’. Doesn’t that tell you how hard it has been for Israel to make a peace agreement? Why don’t you publicize that? It is Palestinian refusal that has blocked peace, not Israeli aggression. Why don’t you say so? Surely you believe in the truth and the virtue of speaking the truth. Why should well-meaning Christians let themselves be guided by hardline communists and anti-Semites? It seems altogether confused to me.
When I recognized Helen Lewis’s suffering and saw how she had survived a terrible ordeal through great inner strength, and when I saw how well she used her talents to teach and to create her own modern dance troupe in Northern Ireland, I also understood that when it came to a real choice, then I would opt for the Jews and I would lend what little help I could to Israel. I have never been disappointed in it. There have been mistakes, but no more than for any other country I know, and a great deal less than many other nations. Why on earth do you criticize the building of a fence to keep out terrorists when you make no tableau of Syria or Egypt or South Sudan or Iran or Saudi Arabia or North Korea, all places that make Israel stand out as a cloister for human rights, decency, and tolerance?
The wall your church so wantonly displays is often called an ‘apartheid wall’. This resonates with the frequent accusation that Israel is an ‘apartheid state’. It has become commonplace to demonize the state of Israel and the seven and a half million people who llve there. But the slightest investigation will show that Israel is one of the least apartheid states in the world. It is simply a lie to say so, and it is a lie to speak of the wall as an apartheid walls. It is a security barrier, just like dozens of others round the world, none of which is ever called an ‘apartheid wall’. I should have thought that you would have carried out some kind of inquiry into this before constructing a fake wall that is so frequently characterized as apartheid-based. A short trip to Israel might have helped, a long trip even more.
We know very well that the wall and fence have saved countless lives, lives of Israeli Jews, lives of Israeli Arabs. Its purpose is to keep out terrorists, but the long barrier is not designed to keep out all Palestinians. At frequent intervals along its route, the fence has controlled openings through which Palestinians working in Israel may pass.
Let me illustrate the importance of the fence with a single example. In 2005, a young Palestinian woman called Wafa al-Biss was badly burned in a domestic fire, taken to Israel’s SorokaHospital, and treated there for months. When discharged, she was given a permit to return as an out-patient. Some time later she headed for the hospital wearing a suicide belt with the aim of exploding it among the doctors and nurses who had treated her, as well as however many children she could find. She was caught at a checkpoint and imprisoned. Earlier this year she was released as part of a prisoner release agreement. Within hours she was speaking to Palestinian children, urging them to put on suicide vests and kill as many Jews as possible. And some people wonder why the Israelis need a security barrier.
It is simply wrong, I believe and, I am sure, all Christians believe to flaunt one people’s suffering as righteous while condemning another people for simply seeking to secure themselves and their children from vicious attack. Wafa al-Biss was not a mentally disturbed lone killer manquée, but someone who had every reason to be grateful to the men and women who had saved her life. She was part of a killing system, a system that has taken the lives of thousands of Israel down the years.
The Palestinians have made hatred their raison d’être. It defines their radio and television broadcasts, the lessons they are taught in school, their mosque sermons, their political speeches, their publications, their newspapers, and the actions of terrorist outfits who truly do not care whom they kill, not even if their victims are four-month old babies in their cots. I repine against all this hatred and unnecessary death, and I wish there were no need for a barrier of any kind. I have just re-read a letter from a Palestinian doctor from Gaza, who speaks emotionally about the evil Wafa al-Biss came close to doing. Men like him and the Israelis at Soroka and other hospitals where Palestinians receive the most advanced treatment in the world offer a way forward. It might have been the Christian thing to invite men and women without hatred to speak at St. James’s. But to build a wall and use it to condemn the one side that has made the most efforts for peace and partnership is a dereliction of your Christian duty. I wish I could see something positive, but I can’t.
I do think I understand your motivation, and with that I have no argument. Like so many, you have bought the narrative that portrays Palestinians as suffering victims and Israelis as people without conscience, aggressors, bloated by pride and prejudice. My conscience pricks me to say that my experience has been quite the opposite. It would take too long to explain that, though I’d be happy to try if any of you were willing to enter into correspondence on the subject. In lieu of that, there are some very fine books that could take you a long way into a better understanding of the wider situation. I’d be happy to recommend some of those if it would help.
I hope my criticisms have not seemed excessive. This is a field where emotions do run fast. And it is also a debate on which human lives may depend. The final outcome of the Israel/Palestine issue brings with it a bright or dark future for the region, for the rest of the world, and for the continuity or destruction of the Jewish people. It is my fear that your ‘wall’ may contribute to that destruction, that I write to you so forcefully. I hope you understand that.
Dr. Denis MacEoin
Newcastle upon Tyne
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.