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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Website Watch

Recently there’s been a spate of news items on Sudan, with a stronger tone of criticism of the government. Clearly the situation Christian Aid’s workers and partners are facing on the ground is becoming too serious to ignore. It will be interesting to see if this emphasis is reflected in the next issue of Christian Aid News.

The latest item on Israel and Palestine is headed “Israeli strikes cost British taxpayers millions”. The story concerns damage by Israeli military strikes to European-funded infrastructure projects in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Clearly bad news for the people who could have benefited from these projects. But let’s take a look at the spin that’s been put on it.

The story’s already been sexed up before we get past the headline. If you read further you find that the total damage is estimated at £16 million and Britain’s share of the funding is 17%. 17% of £16 million is just under £3 million. A vague “millions” sounds a whole lot more dramatic.

Where did the Department for International Development get its information? No source is quoted. It seems to me fairly unlikely that on each occasion a civil servant was sent out, complete with briefcase and rolled umbrella, to assess the damage and collect information about how it happened from all parties concerned. The accounts of the incidents suggest that the informants are not exactly impartial. One does not get the impression that the Israelis have been given the opportunity to dispute the charges made against them. In no case is there any hint of a possibility that the IDF may have been involved in legitimate military action against armed terrorists. I wasn’t there, and I don’t know whether such a case can actually be made, but I’m not convinced that the man/woman at the DfID knows either.

I’m not surprised to find Christian Aid relaying the DfID’s information uncritically. It always amuses me how ready the most radical of people are to take “official statistics” as gospel when they confirm their own preconceptions.

Central to these preconceptions is the portrayal of the Palestinians as totally helpless victims with no responsibility whatsoever for their predicament. The Europeans are building stuff to help lift the Palestinians out of poverty, only for the nasty Israelis to come along and knock everything down. What some Palestinians may have done to provoke this reaction is a question which is simply ignored.

The DfID play their part in this airbrushing-out of terrorism: the damage has been inflicted “since the start of the second intifada”, which is a nicely euphemistic way of saying “since Palestinian militants began a systematic campaign of terrorist murder”. And note how Christian Aid mention terrorism only in a context where they can use it as an extra stick to beat the Israelis with – the destruction of “a Palestinian counter-terrorism forensic laboratory”. The question of how much political will there was under Yasser Arafat’s regime to deploy such facilities effectively is not addressed.

I’ve dwelt at some length on this short piece because I think it reveals a lot about the underlying assumptions of Christian Aid’s campaign. I certainly don’t believe that their bias is the result of deliberate dishonesty. But neither do I believe that they are trying and failing to achieve balance and fairness. It’s revealing that they have an “advocacy officer for the Palestinian Occupied Territories”, advocacy being of course a legal concept. If I hire a lawyer I don’t expect that her priority will be to make sure she is fair to both sides. I want her to put my case and win. Doubtless few Christian Aid workers would disagree with the Marxian axiom that says history is written by the powerful. That being so they see it as their job to make a case for the powerless. Relating this to the tradition of radical social criticism among the Old Testament prophets, they understand it as “prophetic witness”.

Now there some major problems here. First, who is powerful and who is powerless depends on how wide your perspective is. So taking a very narrow perspective, when a bomb goes off in a bus or a restaurant the men, women and children who die aren’t exactly being empowered. On the other hand a much broader perspective would take in the centuries during which the Jews were repeatedly persecuted strangers in other people’s countries, culminating in the ultimate powerlessness they experienced just sixty years ago in Auschwitz. But Christian Aid always takes the intermediate perspective in which Israel’s Jews appear, with a few isolated exceptions, solely as oppressors, and presents it as if it were the only one possible.

Secondly, prophetic witness in a Biblical sense is very different from contemporary “victimology”, in which victimhood, personal or political, is understood to imply powerlessness and can thus be invoked to evade moral responsibility. Biblical Israel and Judah were “victim” states through most of their history, repeatedly at the mercy of one regional superpower or another, but they were not therefore exempted from the prophetic call to repentance. This is a lesson for both sides in today’s conflict. Both have very real claims to have suffered injustice, but nonetheless are called to acknowledge their accountability before God.

A fundamentally secular and un-Christian understanding of political engagement seems to me to underlie Christian Aid’s whole campaign. We begin by deciding what the “issue” is; then we use that to divide the world into good guys and bad guys, oppressors and victims; and then it becomes our duty at every opportunity to portray the good guys in the best possible light and the bad guys in the worst. We can spin for Jesus!

This has more in common with Manichaean notions of the struggle between the powers of darkness and light than with the Christian Gospel. The Gospel is about us all being bad guys – you, me, the Israelis, the Palestinians, all fallible, sinful human beings called to repentance and acceptance of God’s healing and reconciliation. Prophetic witness does not come ultimately from our own strivings after political correctness. Christians have been terribly wrong in the past, and we must humbly and prayerfully recognize that we are no less fallible than they were. True prophetic witness is the gift of God’s grace.

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