This is part thirteen of Professor Paul Merkley’s series, “The Isolation of Israel.” Access to the previous installments can be found by clicking on the following links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3,Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12.
For over three decades now, I have been studying and documenting a growing anti-Israeli bias in mainline Protestantism. Over the last couple of years vilification of Israelhas sunk to new depths, as the World Council of Churches has found a way to extend its own auspices to a re-affirmation of the ancient Christ-Killer libel, long considered unacceptable in decent company.
The WCC came into the world in August 1948, just a few weeks after Israel did (May 14, 1948.) At that time, Zionists enjoyed (if that’s the word) a distinct advantage in presenting the case for a Jewish state, following from the overwhelming sympathy for the plight of the Jews in the wake of the Holocaust and the great embarrassment of about 200,000 stateless and homeless European Jews languishing in Displaced Persons camps or floating about on crowded ships waiting for the United Nations to honor the Partition decision taken in the UN General Assembly on November 29, 1947. But then, as the dust settled on Israel’s War of Independence, attitudes of the leadership of WCC and mainline churches turned abruptly hostile to Zionism. They have become more hostile with each passing decade. [I tell this story in my book, Christian Attitudes Towards the State of Israel (Mc-Gill Queen’s University Press, 2001), and have documented developments post-2001 in several articles which can be found via google.]
Today, Anti-Zionism is the preponderant note in all discourse about Israel emanating from the leaderships of most churches. At the same time, most Christian laity are preponderantly pro-Israel – a fact regularly brought out in public opinion polls. With each new public statement, the WCC becomes more shameless in its vilification of Israel. Until recently, WCC voices have largely succeeded in hiding their fundamental anti-Judaism under the cover of “Anti-Zionism” – as if there were a difference. But very recently, about the time that the “Arab Spring” began, nearly two years ago, the WCC stepped over a line and today it is actively seeking to re-instate in respectable circles the Christ-Killer motif that for centuries provided inspiration for pogroms.
Herod in Bethlehem
Dexter Van Zile is the Christian Media Analyst for CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) which has its office in Boston. He has demonstrated in several lengthy articles based on exhaustive research that the original inspiration for setting in motion this present cycle of Christ-Killer talk is Naim Ateek, formerly Canon of St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem and founder of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology, an organization which for several years has been running “Workshops” on Israel’s Apartheid regime in all the mainstream denominations in our part of the world.
Here is a brief sampler of the thoughts of Canon Ateek: (These and others are archived at http://www.sabeel.org/old.) In a sermon delivered at Easter time in 2001, Naim Ateek told a Christian congregation:
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 Golgotha. The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily. Palestine has become the place of the skull.
In his 2000 Christmas Message, Ateek said:
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”. 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.
No one with the least background in Christian Scripture can fail to see the toxic character of this image. In Chapter two of his Gospel, Matthew describes the days that followed the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and how His family fled with him to Egypt:
Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.
According to this eminent Arab-Palestinian Anglican clergyman, the mantle of Herod has been cast thrown in our time to the people of Israel and joyously claimed by them. Herod, Ateek proclaims, “is embodied in the IDF solider operating in Behtlehem today.” (For more in this vein see Giulio Meotti, “Christians who hate Jews: Church of England’s ongoing hostility to Israel and Zionism rooted in deep dislike for Jews,http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0%2c7340%2cL-4191509%2c00.html
It is out of language like this that the enemies of the Jews in the Middle East formulated the “blood libel” that led to mass murder of Jews in the last decades of the Ottoman regime and which, over many centuries, inspired pogroms in Eastern Europe.
This theme – the Jews as Herod, who killed all the innocent babes because his heart was set on killing Christ –was much beloved by Medieval organizers of pogroms. It went out of favour in our part of the world about the middle of the Nineteenth Century, when it yielded its place on the public platform to secularized and scientific versions of the same madness, operating under the label of “Anti-Semitism.” In the Middle East, however, where Canon Ateek labours at his Theology of Liberation, it never faded away. Indeed, it is as powerful today as ever. And there, in the Middle East, as the Arab Spring proceeds, it has taken up a new lease on lifeamong the churches which make up the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC).
The voice of Herod in the season of Spring.
Every day throughout the Middle East voices are raised, in and out of the mosques, calling for the swift elimination of the Jews, sons of pigs and monkeys, the Saturday people, and of Christians, the Sunday people. Given this pending threat of liquidation closing in on both Jews and Christians living in theMiddle East, solidarity of Christians with Jews everywhere ought to be advancing. Instead, the principal spokesmen for all the local churches are involved in some kind of contest to prove which is the most hostile to Jews. George Saliba, the Syrian Orthodox Bishop of Lebanon, has said, in an interview on al-Dunya TV that “the source … behind all these movements [coming out of the Arab Spring] in the Arab world is nothing other than Zionism… deeply rooted in Judaism.” For insight on this matter, the Bishop refers his audience to The Protocols of the Elders of Zionism. Melkite Greek Patriarch Gregory III Latham recalls the mob attack upon the Syrian Catholic Church of Baghdad and other terrorist attacks against the Christians of Iraq and attributes them to “a Zionist conspiracy against Islam.” In fact, he says, “all of this behavior has nothing to do with Islam… but it is actually a conspiracy planned by Zionism … and it aims at undermining and giving a bad image of Islam.”
The voices of many churchmen and many politicians in our part of the world have recently been raised in condemnation of violence against the dwindling Coptic Christian minority of Egypt– violence which has not abated but has in fact grown during the Arab Spring. It is therefore disappointing to find official spokesmen for that church trying to persuade their Egyptian neighbors that it is all the work of the Masons and the Jews. In his last days (literally) the recently deceased Coptic Pope, Shenouda III, denounced Western churches for “seeking reconciliation” with the irredeemable Jews. He reminded countrymen that the Jews were “Christ-killers … because the New Testament says they are.” [Aymenn Jawad. (“Middle East Christians and anti-Semitism.” Jerusalem Post Christian Edition, September 2011 (www.jpost.com.)
It used to be that when Christians reverted to the Christ-Killer motif they made a decent effort at disguise. Now we see that a corner has been turned: there is no longer any need for disguise. There is nothing here that is in code .There is no double entendre: “Herod” does not stand for something else. Herod is Herod. Herod is the one whose last days and hours (according to the Christian texts) were spent seeking to kill Christ. His failure to do so made him the Killer of the Innocents of Bethlehem. The IDF soldier is Herod.
Until about three years ago – that is, before the Arab Spring – one might have been tempted to dismiss the Herod-as-Christ-Killer motif as a fossil somehow still stuck in the repertoire ofMiddle East churchmen who, after all, have lived for fourteen centuries or so in dhimmitude. In the Middle East, the Christ-Killer motif never went underground. When it bubbled forth in settings where European Christians were present, the latter sat in embarrassed silence. Somewhere in the last few years, Naim Ateek and other Palestinian Arab Christians who go to ecumenical conferences and work the strains of the sad story of their dispossession of their ancestral homes in Nazareth, in Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem, etc, during the Nakva, have succeeded in making this noxious Herod-in-Bethlehem motif appealing to western Christians who want spiritual cover for vilification of Jews.
Today, Church leaders in our part of the world are themselves ringing the changes on this theme. Without anyone pausing g to point this out, they have rehabilitated the Christ-Killer motif. They do so in confidence that in world opinion it has lost its stigma of indecency. This state of affairs reflects, in turn the confidence of the WCC that Zionism has became a lost cause among decent people.
One clue to the appeal of the Christ-Killer motif (the obverse side of the Herod-in-Bethlehem motif) is that is has been found useful in “building bridges of understanding” between the ecumenical church world and the world of Islam. This goal has the highest priority within this company – not because church leaders have any ambition to convert Muslims – God forbid! – but, on the contrary, because they have concluded that Muslims are not going to budge from their zero-sum thinking, and so we must come to them. This consideration has priority over any problem attached to the building of bridges of understanding between Christians and Jews.