Tuesday, May 31, 2005
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.
Also, in the Independent, news that the Sudanese government has reacted to a report by Médecins Sans Frontières documenting hundreds of rapes by militiamen in Darfur province... by arresting one of MSF's workers (read it). The BBC has also covered this, but not so far the Guardian or the Times [1 June the Times has it, but still no word from the Guardian]. Try translating this story into a Middle East context and imagine the furore there would be if Paul Foreman were being held in an Israeli jail.
Thursday, May 26, 2005
Christian Aid News No. 25 (Summer 2004)
Credit where credit is due. Two pages – an appeal advert and a news feature – devoted to Sudan, one and a bit pages to Israel and Palestine. And acknowledgement that Sudan is, in the UN’s view, home to “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”.
But when I compare the coverage of the two issues, it strikes me how very cautious Christian Aid is when it comes to politicizing the Sudan crisis. Describing the origins of the conflict in Darfur, the news feature tells us that it began with rebels taking up arms against the government. The rebels are described as “claiming that black Africans were being oppressed and Arabs favoured”, but this claim is not evaluated. The government is then said to have “responded” to rebel attacks by mobilizing the Janjaweed militia.
Where Israel and Palestine are concerned, the oppression of the Palestinians is never a “claim”, but an objective reality. Israeli security measures are repeatedly condemned without any acknowledgement that they are a response to terrorist violence.
Missing from both the appeal advert and the news feature is any mention of the death toll in Darfur – estimated by some at around 300,000. Also absent is any call for the international community to put pressure on the Sudanese government.
The Holy Land feature is a guest column by Baroness Shirley Williams. This is scarcely a counterweight to the standard Christian Aid line: lots of criticism of the occupation and Israel’s security policies, no mention of the terrorist violence which the latter are responding to. But at least she does concede that “Israel is a vibrant democracy, with a Supreme Court of remarkable independence”. These are facts which do not normally find a place in Christian Aid News. One might add in passing that the vibrant democracy is vibrant and democratic enough to enfranchise the nearly 20 per cent minority of the population who are Arabs.
Christian Aid News No. 26 (Autumn 2004)
Coverage of Israel and Palestine: the front cover; a half-page news item; a three-page feature on the “Child of Bethlehem” Christmas appeal; half of the letters page; a full-page advertisement for the Child of Bethlehem appeal on the back cover. Total six pages.
Coverage of Sudan: one news item covering a third of a page.
Coverage of Democratic Republic of the Congo: nil.
Having dealt with the bare statistics, let us examine the Child of Bethlehem Christmas Appeal.
The child is Jessica Safar, a seven-year-old Palestinian Christian living in Bethlehem. When she was four she was caught in a gunfight between Israeli soldiers and local youths, and hit by a piece of shrapnel which shattered her right eye. A shocking image of a doll with its eye gouged out brings home the violence she has suffered (see it here with another Christian blogger's comments). Plainly this is a terrible tragedy, and it is good to learn that counsellors funded by Christian Aid have helped Jessica cope with her situation. However, I believe some hard questions can and should be asked about the uses to which this tragedy is being put.
Consider the choices that have been made in designing the appeal:
1. To focus on the conflict in Israel and Palestine.
2. To focus on a Palestinian child who has suffered violence, directly or indirectly, from the Israeli state.
3. To focus on a Christian child living in Bethlehem.
At each step I want simply to ask: Why?
Why single out this conflict when others (several could be named in Africa alone) are having a far worse impact on children?
Why ignore the Israeli children who have been murdered in this conflict? Why dwell at length on the misery that the separation barrier is causing for Palestinians without even mentioning the possibility that it is saving Israeli lives – children included? Mahmoud Abbas, elected with a huge majority as President of the Palestinian Authority, has said openly that the Intifada has been a disaster for the Palestinians. Why can’t Christian Aid bring itself to say so?
Why this child? It’s pretty obvious which other “child of Bethlehem” readers are meant to identify Jessica with. One born in poverty under foreign occupation. One threatened with arbitrary state brutality. And now as then, the persecutors are Jewish. But there is one difference: the victim is no longer Jewish, but a Gentile Christian. What a Pandora’s box of associations with the dark corners of Christian history we open up when we make this conjunction of Jewish violence and a Christian child victim!
In Matthew’s Gospel the Massacre of the Innocents on the orders of the Jewish king Herod (2:16-18) prefigures the Jewish crowd’s claiming of the “blood guilt” for the crucifixion of Christ: “His blood be on us and on our children!”(27:24). In both cases, of course, God’s intervention prevails over violent Jewish intent. A further parallel is that Gentiles acknowledge Christ where Jews reject him: the Magi at the Nativity (2:1-12) and the Roman centurion who declares “Truly this man was God’s Son!” at Christ’s death (27:54).
So here we have arrived at the traditional basis of Christian anti-Semitism: the accusation that the Jews killed Christ. In the Middle Ages this developed into the “blood libel” – the belief that Jews ritually sacrificed Christian children in commemoration of the Crucifixion. This is a belief that lives on among some in the Middle East (including the Syrian defence minister).
The playing down or outright denial of Jesus’ Jewishness forms part of the same syndrome. In old paintings of the Last Supper you will often see just one obviously Jewish face – that of Judas Iscariot. The logic was carried to its conclusion in 1930s Germany, when the so-called “German Christian” movement (Deutsche Christen) sought to reconcile Christianity and Nazism by claiming that Jesus was an Aryan.
So am I accusing Christian Aid of anti-Semitism here? The answer is not so simple. They would undoubtedly protest that far from being anti-Semites they are impeccably anti-racist. And I don’t believe there is necessarily any anti-Semitism involved at a conscious level. But what I think is crucially demonstrated by this campaign is that for Christians anti-Semitism is not just one form of racism among many, but is something with deep roots in the collective historical unconscious of our faith. Looking for a hard-hitting symbol for a contemporary problem, Christian Aid draw on this poisonous heritage and “know not what they do”.
A glance at the letters page reveals what kind of attitudes are being reinforced among at least some Christian Aid supporters. One pro-Israel letter is published as a gesture towards even-handedness, but in three other letters we read that Israel is a “proud and highly armed state” which has “thrown over all the principles of justice”; that the Americans’ “inexcusable support for Israel is the main cause of our troubles in the Middle East and beyond”; that Israel is responsible for “blatant persecution and oppression of the Palestinian people”. There is not a hint from any of these correspondents that there might be wrongs on both sides, and one wonders what stronger language they would find to use about Israel if it were committing systematic genocide against the Palestinians.
Unless we bring those ancient bigotries into consciousness and confront them it is all too likely that they will determine our attitudes without us even being aware of it.
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
Christian Aid News No. 27 (Spring 2005)
This is the first of a series of postings dealing with individual issues of Christian Aid News - in reverse order until I clear the backlog!
Two points of concern raised by this issue:
First, the question of proportion…
Coverage of Israel and Palestine: two articles and a letter, taking up more than a page altogether. One of the articles deals with Christian Aid’s West Bank “roadshow”.
Coverage of Sudan: one sentence. There is no Sudan roadshow.
Coverage of Democratic Republic of the Congo: nil.
Second, the letter from Dr Afshan Butt, who describes himself as a “devout Muslim” and writes “I was inspired to see your stance on the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. I recently attended a march in protest of the current situation and was elated to see half a dozen rabbis also attend. This has given me great hope that the three major faiths can work together.”
Now, let me say upfront that I am very much in favour of inter-faith cooperation. But the notion that we can all get along just fine so long as the Jews are sufficiently self-critical is precisely the wrong basis for such cooperation. Has Dr Butt protested about Sudan recently? When did he last see an imam protesting against the human rights abuses of any Islamic regime? It is understandable, if not acceptable, that this bias is widespread in the Muslim community. That Christian Aid should appear to be endorsing it is neither acceptable nor understandable.