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Op-Ed: Sabeel Christian Anti-Zionist Organization Gains Power

Interview with Dexter Van Zile, CAMERA analyst: "Sabeel has succeeded in turning anti-Zionism into a competing religious practice in American mainstream churches and a persistent element in Protestant thought".
Published: Wednesday, April 03, 2013 10:58 PM


"In 1994, Reverend Naim Ateek established the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. This Anglican priest who holds Israeli nationality, and his associates, portray the Palestinian Arabs as victims like Jesus in his time.

 In a text published in 2005, the Sabeel Center equates the situation in the Gaza Strip with Christ being nailed to the cross. They compared the construction of the 'West Bank' security barrier with Christ’s crucifixion. Sabeel also promotes the idea that Israel insists on repeating the sins of the ancient Israelites as detailed in the Old Testament.

“Ateek has created a powerful international anti-Zionist infrastructure. On various occasions, he has influenced church-wide assemblies in the United States. Sabeel has succeeded in turning anti-Zionism into a competing religious practice in American mainstream churches and a persistent element in Protestant thought. This has even occurred in a number of churches where anti-Zionist activists have not been the majority at national assemblies.”

Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). His writings have appeared in numerous American Jewish newspapers, as well as in the Ecumenical Trends and the Boston Globe. He has been quoted extensively on Arutz Sheva.

He remarks, “In addition to publicizing the writings of its founder, Sabeel broadcasts its message via regional conferences in the United States and regular study missions to Israel. Far-left American and Israeli or Jewish anti-Zionists are given prominent display at Sabeel conferences, where Israel is held up to a strict Biblical standard of conduct.

“Israel’s Muslim enemies, including terrorists, are hardly held to any standard at all, however. Ateek and the Center speak little about Hamas and Hizbullah. Nor do they mention the abuses perpetrated against religious and ethnic minorities, including many Christians, by Muslim majorities in Islamic countries throughout the Middle East.

“Sabeel publishes a quarterly newsletter, Cornerstone. Its activists – some of whom are on the payroll of U.S. mainstream churches – host annual international conferences in Jerusalem and lead regular ‘witness trips’ to the Holy Land where pastors are recruited to the cause of anti-Zionism. According to Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), Sabeel has hosted about thirty witness trips to Israel and the disputed territories. The webpage listing them uses travel agent vernacular to encourage Christians to learn about the evils of the Zionist regime.

In 2010, Sabeel activists in Washington, D.C. also organized a failed boycott of Israeli-made Ahava products at a Maryland beauty supply store.

“These 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 Christian Apostles and their adversaries resulted in the conversion of many Jews to Christianity, such confrontations with these groups work to convert people to the millennial and messianic cause of Christian – and secular – anti-Zionism.

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

“In his dissertation, Ateek develops arguments that undermine the legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty. Its message and that of his first book is that the Jewish people are not entitled to a sovereign state of their own. His critique of Israel begins with an extended quotation from historian Arnold J. Toynbee. In it this extreme anti-Zionist harshly attacks the way in which modern Israel has supplanted the image of Israel as representing God’s people, in which membership ‘was conditional on our obeying God’s commands.’

“Toynbee also compared Zionists to Nazis. He furthermore declared that ‘Zionist Jews are a fragment of a fossil of alien origin.’ The Israeli philosopher Nathan Rotenstreich said that Toynbee’s anti-Zionism is clearly motivated by a particular animus toward the Jewish state. The same is true of Ateek’s anti-Zionism.

“The intellectual starting point for Ateek’s anti-Zionism is different from that of Israel’s Muslim adversaries. Yet his conclusion is almost the same: the Jews are not a nation entitled to their own sovereign state. They are ‘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.”

Van Zile concludes, “Sabeel and its Western supporters are enacting a theological drama. They suggest to their followers that they are engaging in a showdown with the forces of Israel embodied by Israel and its U.S. supporters. This has troubling similarities to the church-synagogue conflict which arose from Christianity’s founding two thousand years ago and has been the root cause of massive anti-Semitism over the centuries.”