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Christians and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Read all my posts on this topic

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Christian Aid and Israel: some hard facts for Liberal Jews (and concerned Christians)

This post is cross-posted at Harry's Place

Who said that?

'[T]he pro-Israeli lobby has got its grips on the western world, its financial grips. I think they've probably got a grip on our party.'

Who said that? Answer: a former Trustee 0f Christian Aid, and current Patron of a Christian Aid partner charity.

'International law accepts that people living under illegal military occupation are entitled to fight against the occupiers with whatever means they have at their disposal. If the world does not like, for example, “terrorist suicide bombing” in Palestine (a weapon neither unique to the Palestinians nor invented by them), then, as one Palestinian exile said at a conference in December 2003, “Give us F-16s, Apache helicopters, missiles tanks and heavy weapons, and we’ll have a fair fight”.'

Who used these words to justify the deliberate killing of civilians? Answer: another Patron of the same Christian Aid partner charity.

Also on the roll of Patrons are a bishop who is currently a Trustee of Christian Aid; another bishop who was Chair of Christian Aid from 1998 to 2008; and his predecessor in that post. The organization claims that it 'works for a just peace for the people of Palestine and Israel' and 'promotes non-violence and reconciliation'.


I'm a Christian and a one-time Christian Aid donor who believes there's a problem here. I started this blog to make the point (in 2005, having first raised the subject in a letter to Christian Aid in 2002 - the problem is not a new one). This is an update on these concerns which I've been encouraged to write having received an e-mail from a reader who belongs to a Liberal synagogue. He and others in the Liberal Judaism movement are unhappy that the movement is linking up with Christian Aid to campaign on climate change. They're not against the link in principle, but they do think Christian Aid should clean up its Middle East campaigning act first.

Blows have been exchanged in the LJ movement's magazine (here on page 4) but so far the debate seems just a little short on facts. Naturally it's not for me to tell Jews what to think, but I do think they ought to know what they're getting into. So I offer this post as a contribution to informed debate.

The Big, Big Issue

I started off my blog with a series of posts analyzing coverage of Israel and Palestine in Christian Aid News, the charity's magazine. This is how I summed up what I found:-

'Over the last seven issues [Summer 2003 to Summer 2005] of Christian Aid News more than 17 pages were devoted to Israel and Palestine. Most of this coverage involved political criticism of Israel. The most coverage any other conflict zone got was 4.5 pages for Angola – barely a quarter as much. Sudan, scene of more than two million deaths in the civil wars of the past two decades and, in the UN’s words, “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”, got 2.5 pages. These include a full page feature about a woman who makes perfume. It tells you her recipe.'

Has anything changed over the four years since then? You can easily see for yourself. Go to the Christian Aid website. Click on the tab marked policy. Here you'll find policy papers filed under ten headings. Nine are for general and global issues - climate change, trade, and so on. One is for a specific area of the world: the Middle East. Click on this one: there are eight papers filed here, written between 2003 and 2008. One is a 2003 expose of alleged American theft of Iraqi wealth (did CA ever publish a 'hard-hitting report' on Saddam Hussein's regime?). The other seven all deal with Israel and Palestine.

You will search in vain for even one position paper on those conflicts in Sudan (and even if there was one, you could be pretty sure it would pull its punches when it came to apportioning blame; Omar Bashir's regime is touchy about what aid agencies say about it).

Sometimes slightly more subtle ways are found of justifying a preoccupation with a region slightly smaller than Belgium. During Lent this year Christian Aid led a 'virtual pilgrimage' around the Holy Land. Now the pilgrimage is of course a venerable Christian tradition, but pious tradition is not something that usually concerns Christian Aid overmuch. In this instance the pilgrimage furnished the perfect pretext for bringing sustained political criticism of Israel to a wider audience. Given a little imagination, a virtual pilgrimage could very well range across the entire world, but Christian Aid chose to do it differently, and that choice, it can scarcely be doubted, was very much a political one.

It's hard to see how this fixation with Israel and Palestine can be understood as (in the words of Liberal Judaism CEO Rabbi Danny Rich) 'seek[ing] to fulfil a humanitarian mandate'. On the contrary, its perverse consequence is that other areas of the world suffering human rights abuses on a vastly greater scale simply get ignored. You might expect that an international development agency like CA would be concerned to redress the neglect of many such places by mainstream media and political discourse in Britain. Instead it concentrates on the tiny scrap of land that's already a focus for relentless media overkill.

The sheer volume of coverage would tend to create a false impression - of Israel as a rogue state without peer - even if it were all scrupulously even-handed (it isn't). Whenever that perception is created it gives rise to undestandable anger. Not everyone is sophisticated enough to maintain a strict distinction between anger against Israel and anger against Jews (nor indeed do the sophisticated necessarily maintain it). For some the natural outlet for anger is violence and abuse. For many more it leads to a gradual desensitization to the proposition that the Jews are a people afflicted with a fundamental moral flaw.

The Tonge Connection

I've already hinted that my objections to Christian Aid's coverage of the conflict have to do with more than its sheer volume. At this point I take up the thread begun with the two quotations at the start of this post.

The name of the Liberal Democrat politician Jenny Tonge, now Baroness Tonge, will be all too familiar to many Jews. In 2004 a comment suggesting that Palestinian terrorism was an understandable reaction to the conditions of occupation led to her being sacked by party leader Charles Kennedy from the Lib Dem front bench. Two years later her statement at the party conference that "the pro-Israeli lobby has got its grips on the western world, its financial grips. I think they've probably got a grip on our party." was denounced by Kennedy's successor Menzies Campbell as having "clear anti-Semitic connotations." She is someone who has plainly moved way beyond legitimate criticism of Israel.

Earlier in 2006 Baroness Tonge had been appointed a Trustee of Christian Aid. After her conference speech the charity sought to portray it as irrelevant to her work with them. However, her position had evidently become untenable and she resigned her Trusteeship soon afterwards. I have little doubt that this was a result of pressure put on CA by responsible church leaders, but Tonge was no less certain that the pressure had come from a different quarter. As she wrote in an e-mail to a student:-

'After criticizing the lobby in a fringe meeting at conference (just after the publication of the book I mentioned [i.e. Mearsheimer and Walt, The Israel Lobby]) I had to stand down from the board of Christian Aid because they had been warned by the BOD [Board of Deputies of British Jews], that my membership would endanger projects going ahead in the West Bank and Gaza.'

So was this the end of Christian Aid's association with this deplorable conspiracy theorist? By no means. The connection is now a little less direct, but it is nevertheless alive and well. Baroness Tonge is currently a Patron of Friends of Sabeel UK, a group which promotes the nationalist liberation theology of the Palestinian Anglican Canon Naim Ateek. Its declared aim is to work for a just peace, which it may or may not be doing; what is evident from its website is that it promotes a one-sided propagandist narrative of the conflict and its origins, and that it campaigns against the Israeli security barrier without acknowledging that the barrier is a response to the deliberate killing of hundreds of civilians.

Friends of Sabeel UK declares prominently on its website that it is a partner of Christian Aid. It can be assumed that the partnership is to FoSUK's advantage financially; Charity Commission records shows it raising barely half as much as it spends. The honour of being a Patron is one that Baroness Tonge shares with, among others, Professor Michael Taylor, former director of Christian Aid, Michael Langrish, Bishop of Exeter and a Trustee of Christian Aid, and John Gladwin, Bishop of Chelmsford and Chair of Christian Aid from 1998 to 2008.

The point of establishing this connection is that by now it would take pretty high levels of anti-Israel obsessionalism - and a pretty insouciant attitude towards anti-Semitism - to make anyone want to make common cause against Israel with Baroness Tonge. Two Liberal Democrat leaders have distanced themselves from her; the top brass of Christian Aid are doing quite the reverse.

A Connection Too Far

The Friends of Sabeel website reveals another connection that is, if anything, even more disturbing than that with Baroness Tonge. For also on the list of Patrons is Ibrahim Hewitt, "coordinator of the Palestine relief organisation Interpal".

The Harry's Place blog has made something of a speciality of researching Interpal and its relationship to Hamas. Rather than duplicate HP's efforts, I invite readers to inform themselves here and here, and specifically on Ibrahim Hewitt here. Follow the link to Mr Hewitt's pamphlet "What does Islam Say?" and note, for example, his opinions on the proper punishments for apostates (death) and homosexuals (one hundred lashes, or death). That he is comfortable with the proposition that those converting from Islam to Christianity deserve to forfeit their lives is not only ironic given that he is himself a convert with an at least nominally Christian background, but also makes him, one would think, a remarkable bedfellow for a brace of bishops.

Agreed, that is not directly relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not so the second of the quotes at the beginning of this post, also from Mr Hewitt's pamphlet and quoted in a recent Harry's Place post. Here it is again:-

'International law accepts that people living under illegal military occupation are entitled to fight against the occupiers with whatever means they have at their disposal. If the world does not like, for example, “terrorist suicide bombing” in Palestine (a weapon neither unique to the Palestinians nor invented by them), then, as one Palestinian exile said at a conference in December 2003, “Give us F-16s, Apache helicopters, missiles tanks and heavy weapons, and we’ll have a fair fight”.'

Hewitt further underlines this position by quoting approvingly from "contemporary Islâmic scholar, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi", who has consistently upheld the right of Palestinians to resort to terrorism.

This is not, repeat not, about Mr Hewitt being a Muslim, nor is it about the fact that he sympathizes with the Palestinians. The issue is this: his argument that Palestinians are entitled to kill Israeli civilians is one which Christians must reject as morally intolerable. The claim that "international law" vindicates terrorism is of course preposterous; far less can it be vindicated by any credibly Christian ethic. I cannot justify deliberately murdering the unarmed and defenceless by appealing to a group identity which they share with others whose military might exceeds my own. To assert otherwise is, apart from any other consideration, inherently racist where the group identity in question is a racial one, as it plainly is in the case of Palestinian terrorism.

The principle I have just stated may or may not have been infringed by members of the Israeli forces in Gaza. If and to the extent it has been, that is deplorable. Where Palestinian terrorism is concerned no 'ifs' arise. That the infringement has occurred and that it has indeed been premeditated and deliberate is beyond question, and this infringement is precisely what Mr Hewitt seeks to vindicate in the quote above. And this presents Christian Aid and Friends of Sabeel UK with a choice. Either they can claim the moral high ground for their efforts on behalf of the Palestinians, or they can argue from political expediency that their tent should be large enough to accommodate Ibrahim Hewitt. But they cannot do both.

Christian Aid and Hamas

What, then, is Ibrahim Hewitt, a Muslim with extreme religious and political views, doing as a Patron of a Christian charity? It's just possible that the Christian Aiders are not aware quite how extreme his views actually are. On the other hand, it's not necessary to assume that they are ignorant of his and Interpal's stance towards Hamas. For Christian Aid itself seems to be by no means hostile towards Hamas.

It consistently offers no criticism of Hamas to balance its repeated criticisms of Israel. It consistently avoids use of the word "terrorism"; whilst its official statements condemn "violence" in general terms, there is never any suggestion that the deliberate killing of non-combattants deserves special condemnation. Nor is there any acknowledgement that Hamas has been one of the foremost sponsors of violence of this type, nor that it is intransigently hostile to the existence of Israel, which Christian Aid is officially committed to upholding.

There is more on this theme in my response to a Christian Aid parliamentary briefing produced in 2006 and typical of an approach which has been entirely consistent before and since.

Further evidence of Christian Aid's approach can be found on Friends of Sabeel UK's website. The FAQ page starts with the question "Is Sabeel anti-semitic?" - revealing a certain defensiveness, perhaps. The answer begins with "No" and ends with criticism of Israel. It contains no mention of the explicit anti-Semitism of Hamas.

The events page lists FoSUK as one of the supporters of the "Free Palestine!" demonstration in London on 16 May 2009. Also in the list of supporters are the Muslim Association of Britain ("the British franchise of Hamas/Muslim Brotherhood", in the words of Harry's Place) and Viva Palestina, under whose auspices George Galloway made his way to Gaza to hand over a wad of cash to Hamas. Viva Palestina is under investigation by the Charity Commission following this escapade (it is, after all, illegal to fund Hamas even if you don't have charitable status) - see this Harry's Place post which also notes the organization's close links with Ibrahim Hewitt's Interpal.

The Charity Commission seems happy to grant charities a good deal of leeway for political campaigning, and only under fairly extreme provocation does it bestir itself even to launch an investigation. Personally, I believe that this degree of politicization makes nonsense of the very concept of charity; even if the Commissioners disagree, it really is not acceptable for the churches which sponsor Christian Aid to share their indulgence.

The security barrier

'Christian Aid has expressed unequivocal support for the security of Israel and the rights of all Israeli people to live safely and securely' writes Rabbi Rich. Indeed it has. The problem is that there is a large gap between what the organization says in bland official statements (largely to keep the Charity Commission and/or the Archbishop of Canterbury off its back, I suspect) and what it actually practises. For in practice its support for the security of Israel is hedged about by the equivocations that surface whenever Israel takes action to safeguard its citizens.

The homepage of Friends of Sabeel UK features a photo of what is described elsewhere as an "armed Israeli lookout tower on the ‘Apartheid’ Wall". Another photo features "A Friends of Sabeel demonstration against the continued construction of the wall".

What has the security barrier meant for Israelis? Bearing in mind that construction began in 2003, the graph here tells its own story (I would not usually rely on an Israeli - or any other - government source, but the figures are not in dispute). To bring the picture up to date, one Israeli woman was killed by a suicide bombing in February 2008 (the bomber had come across the barrier-free border with Jordan). As I write that is the most recent suicide attack to have occurred in Israel. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have both acknowledged that their attacks have been frustrated by the presence of the barrier.

When Pope Benedict visited the Holy Land he described the security barrier as one of the saddest sights of his trip, and looked forward to a future in which it would have disappeared. But he also stated clearly that this was contingent on a renunciation of violence and aggression by all sides. That was an expression of 'unequivocal support for the security of Israel' and a model for Christians. It is sadly not the view of the Christian Aiders gathered together as Friends of Sabeel.

It might sound outrageous to suggest that the Friends of Sabeel want it made easier for Palestinians to kill Jews. But in June 2006 Baroness Tonge wrote complainingly in a letter to the Independent 'It should come as no surprise to anyone that suicide bombers in Iraq are Palestinians. Israel's security wall is forcing them to export themselves to another arena [...]' (my emphasis). Lest we forget, Baroness Tonge is a Patron of Friends of Sabeel UK and a very special friend of Christian Aid.

To be continued

This long post has been too long in the writing. For this I offer my apologies to the reader who asked me to write it, whilst leaving further thoughts for a follow-up post.

Update: the follow-up is here.

Appendix 1: selected past posts on Christian Aid

My June 2005 introduction to the blog

On the appalling 'Child of Bethlehem' Christmas appeal and its invocation of ancient tropes of Christian anti-Semitism

CA as Manichaeans

Demonizing imagery, and selective quotation from Rowan Williams

CA flies two MPs to Gaza - one of them just happens to be Jenny Tonge

A pat on the back for CA, for supporting a genuine peace initiative

On a student-oriented website which earned CA an award from the New Statesman

An open letter to the Director of Christian Aid (he didn't reply)

My reply to a comment from a Christian Aid employee

On episcopal politics and the beginning of CA's campaign against the security barrier

On Christian Aid advocacy for Hamas - with an update

On CA collaboration with War on Want and the Muslim Council of Britain

On Baroness Tonge's graduation to outright support for Hamas

Appendix 2: the charitable objectives of Friends of Sabeel UK

As lodged with the Charity Commission:-






Harry's Place said...

Hello Cyrus,

Thanks for this post. Would you like to see it cross-posted to Harry's Place?

Cyrus said...

HP: yes please!

Harry's Place said...

OK, I just saw your answer. It will go up on HP later today (Wednesday), OK?

Stuart said...

Hi, I have just discovered you (thankfully) thru Harry's Place and would also request permission to cross-post this article on our blog.

I too have become weary of the anti-Israel propoganda that so sadly weaves its way through some of the Christian world and try to offer some counter-balance and so am delighted to have discovered your blog and will now follow your updates.

Please let me know if this will be OK.

Tim (timonline2000) said...

Hi there,

Just seen your blog. I'm really happy to have read it, as I'm feeling a little like a lone voice that dares to question the political rhetoric of Christian Aid and the growing anti-Israel concensus among the Christian Church, particularly among those claiming to be "Progressive". My discussion on the PCN forum serves as an example:

PS: I am also a German speaker and have spent a lot of time in Berlin. Would be good to connect with you, so please let me know which is the best way!

Rajan Alexander said...

Climate Change Policy of Christian Aid: Nothing inherently Christian about it!

The theory of Global Warming has run its course. NGOs are now left high and dry, having to painfully re-examine their own roles in this scam. Climate Change will certainly go down as one of the darkest chapters of NGO history, when they went amok, exchanging their ideals for thirty pieces of silver. Where have they gone wrong?

Visit our new bog site: to read a critique of Christian Aid's Climate Change Policy.

Rajan Alexander
Development Consultancy Group
43, Da Costa Layout, Bangalore 560 084
Tel: 0091-80-25479457; mob: 9341322307

Unknown said...

Do you know how I can gain access to Christian Aid News issues that you refer to in your blog posts? (It seems that the CA site only allows you to access issues going back to 2007) Thanks.

Mr Grumpy said...

Adam, if you see this, apologies for leaving your comment in limbo. The short answer is that I had dead tree copies. I could send you scans of anything you're particularly interested in seeing.