Meeting October 26-27 at Old South Church in Boston, the Friends of Sabeel North America held their annual conference. Their theme, “The Apartheid Paradigm in Palestine-Israel: Issues of Justice and Equality,” reflected a strategy by pro-Palestinian activists to compare the democratic state of Israel to the white-ruled South Africa of the 1980s. (The strategy received its widest publicity in former President Jimmy Carter’s book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid a year ago.) In keeping with the apartheid theme of the Sabeel conference, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa was invited to give an address to conclude the conference.
The comparisons between apartheid South Africa and Israel had already drawn significant publicity prior to the start of the conference. Enough negative attention was generated that the Rev. Dr. Nancy Taylor, senior minister of the hosting Old South Church, issued a letter the day before the conference acknowledging the “challenging perspective” that Sabeel presented. Taylor defended the church’s invitation to Sabeel as a contribution to an important civic discourse. Her letter went on to trumpet the position of the host church’s denomination (the United Church of Christ) as balanced in its concern for the rights of both Palestinians and Israelis.
“We acknowledge that Palestinian Christians and Israelis both possess narratives that are fraught with suffering, insecurity, injustice and anguish,” wrote Taylor.
The equivalence that Taylor posited in her letter did not pervade the conference, however, as speakers repeatedly slammed Israel for adopting “apartheid policies.” Similar forceful criticisms were not directed at Palestinian groups that attack Israel and seek its destruction.
“Today the government of Israel is obsessed with domination and by a deep desire to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians and force them to leave their territory,” thundered the Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, President of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Organization in Jerusalem and one of the featured speakers at the conference.
Ateek, a former canon of St. George’s (Anglican) Cathedral, Jerusalem, provided the opening address, explaining that the apartheid term was used because “the racism of the government of Israel has become more obviously clear.”
The Anglican priest then inserted that Sabeel condemned all violence and terrorism, whether coming from the government of Israel or Palestinian extremist groups. Following this statement, he went on to rattle off a list of Israeli transgressions, with no mention of any corresponding violence instigated by Hamas, Fatah, or other Palestinian groups.
“This [Israeli] racism is a crime against God and our fellow human beings,” said Ateek, continuing to make the apartheid connection.
“I understand apartheid,” declared Imam Madhi Bray, Executive Director of the Muslim American Society’s Freedom Foundation. Bray played up the alleged racism of Israel, relaying his background of growing up in the U.S. South and having his house firebombed in 1955.
“Israel did not intend to be an apartheid state, but in de facto created one,” said author Leila Farsakh of the University of Massachusetts. Farsakh was one of several speakers that compared the current state of the Palestinian territories to that of the South African “bantustans” that placed native peoples into small, semi-independent states that were not economically viable. Farsakh said that because of the Israeli policy of breaking up the West Bank with Jewish settlements, it was no longer possible to have separate Jewish and Palestinian states. The situation could be solved only by a one-state solution, she contended.
“Everyone living on the land has a right to that land in one state,” said Farsakh. She criticized the results of the 1990s’ Oslo peace process as fragmenting the Palestinian lands and preventing the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.
Left unremarked was the near demographic certainty that a single-state solution would soon leave Jews as a minority, at the mercy of a Palestinian majority led by militant groups such as Hamas and Fatah.
Dr. Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions agreed with Farsakh, claiming that by its “settlement enterprise” Israel had effectively prevented a two-state solution. As it would never consider a single-state solution, Israel was now adopting apartheid policies, according to Halper.
Halper immediately set about opposing the “false equivalency” between the two parties.
“Israel in fact is the strong party in this occupation,” he said. “Israel is more culpable than the groups we call the terrorists.”
Others shared the same view, drawing links to colonialism and domination. “Israel is practicing apartheid in a very dishonest, concealed manner,” complained John Dugard, a Special Rapporteur to the U.N. Human Rights Council on the Human Rights Situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. “At least South Africa was honest about apartheid.”
Dugard went on to allege that the main purpose of the Israeli security barrier was to seize land. In an apparent rejection of concerns about Palestinian terrorism, he retorted that “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.”
This kind of implicit apology for Palestinian terrorism cropped up on multiple occasions during the conference, despite other statements that generically condemned all violence.
Halper deflected a written question from a conferee about the prevention of suicide bombings, dismissing the attacks as a mere “symptom” of the Israeli occupation. “There is a correlation between violence and resistance and what we call terrorism [and the policies of Israel],” he argued. “People have a right to resist oppression and occupation.”
Archbishop Tutu concluded the conference with an address that recalled his experiences opposing South African apartheid. Tutu, who noted that he was “spiritually of Hebrew descent” due to the Jewish basis of Scripture, called upon Israelis to side with “the weakest of the weak” and hear the call of a God “who took the side of a bunch of slaves against the powerful Pharaoh.”
Speaking in a measured voice that contrasted with Ateek’s fiery denunciations, Tutu still left room for condemnation in his address. It came via an unsubtle comparison of modern Israelis to past oppressors of the ancient Hebrews and to apartheid-era authorities from his own nation. Tutu made no reference to other forces besides Israel in the Middle East conflict, apparently believing that an appeal for unilateral Israeli concessions was the way to bring about peace.