February 18, 2013

Evangelical Left Voices and Israel


(Palestinian activist Sami Awad)

By James Fletcher

The rise of young leaders in the church who identify (more or less) as evangelicals, and who seem to have a bone to pick with Israel…continues apace.

This community, which loves to use buzzwords like, well, “community,” is heavily networked and social media-savvy. They are attractive, possess uncommon communication skills, and understand the culture intimately.

It seems to me that most pro Israel supporters in the church are largely unaware of a titanic challenge that has been incubating for decades.

As just one example, Margaret Feinberg is an engaging and emerging writer/speaker, based in Colorado. She speaks at events like “Catalyst” and her bio is emblematic of the fresh-faced, “world-changer” persona so prevalent among young evangelicals. Her bio reads, in part:

“Always up for an adventure, Margaret is known to drive 50 miles to chase down a food truck and snag Groupons for skydiving on a whim. She prefers watching comedies and laughing until her tummy aches over doing sit ups.”

I note the bio because it is important to understand that this generation will do everything in its power to separate itself from the fundie-meanies of the previous generation. This move away from traditional church began in earnest with writers like Philip Yancey, who lamented their experiences growing up in fundamentalist churches in the South.

Fair game; legalism was and is a problem in some circles. Yet, have the “New Evangelicals” gone too far? They are much more open to embracing the culture, to show that they are in fact cool people unencumbered by hateful dogma and conservative rhetoric.

Back to the Israel-bashing.

Feinberg (whose books appear in LifeWay Stores, along with Iranian-apologist Hank Hanegraaff’s) wrote a piece for the Catalyst website (www.catalystspace.com) in which she cleverly used what I’d call “Jesus language” to convey two ideas: Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and, Israel abuses the Palestinians.

This last point has become a rallying cause for the New Evangelicals. For decades, the Palestinian leadership—aware that head-to-head battles with the Israelis don’t end well for them—have cultivated relationships with American religious leaders. This is not unlike the Soviet efforts to enlist Western dupes during the Cold War. Often, mainline church officials were targeted, and they in turn became the mentors for new generations after them, including the New Evangelicals.

In fact, the transfer of mainline theology and ideology to the New Evangelicals is surely one of the most interesting religion stories of the new century.

In Feinberg’s Catalyst narrative, biblical “shepherd” imagery is used, as she relates the story of a Palestinian widow who ran afoul of Israeli troops one day. The Israeli soldiers rounded up a town’s collection of sheep and goats, ostensibly as punitive punishment for unpaid taxes.

(An aside: as with most of the New Evangelical charges against Israel, there is seemingly no documentation for the Feinberg story. It is akin to the stories of Palestinians who watch in horror as Jews inhabit their ancestral homes; inevitably, the title deed and actual key to the property is “somewhere in Turkey,” and so these unsubstantiated stories serve to portray the Jews in a most negative light.)

The woman asks an officer if she can pick out her sheep, since they are her sole source of income. He agrees, and his doubt at her ability to do so leaves him bemused. She calls her young son to bring his flute. The boy plays and predictably, the sheep belonging to the woman trot-out dutifully.

End of poignant, gripping story.

I mean, propaganda.

Feinberg relies on the details of this story from a Wheaton professor, Gary Burge, who has opposed Israel on political and theological grounds for a long time. It isn’t clear whether Burge witnessed this alleged event, or picked up the story from a Palestinian friend.

Burge, who chums with such Christian leaders as Hanegraaff (who spoke at a Tehran conference a year ago and afterward declared on Twitter that much of what we hear in the negative about Iran is simply not true, a whopper that perhaps would have made “New York Times” 1930s era Joseph Stalin apologist Walter Duranty blush) and recently wrote about a key priority for “Christian Palestinianists” (a term coined by British author Paul Wilkinson):

“They [Millennials] represent the great groundswell in their generation. The Zionist movement in our country is loud and scrappy. But I’m describing the young people who will be leading our churches when many of us are retired. And the prospects look good.”

When one examines the associations and networks within the New Evangelicals’ community, it is easy to see that, while many of the leaders do not have Israel on their radar, many others do. And they all cross-promote in breath-taking fashion.

For example, among the other organizations bringing in Feinberg to speak is Focus One, a mentoring project based in Rockford, Illinois. Other guest speakers include Shauna Norquist, daughter of WillowCreek co-founders Bill and Lynne Hybels. While Shauna Norquist doesn’t blog much about what the New Evangelicals call “Israel/Palestine,” her husband, Aaron, does. And of course, Lynne Hybels is a leading light in advancing the Palestinian cause and mainstreaming the Palestinian Authority in American churches.

I attended “Catalyst East” in Atlanta, in October, 2012, and was shocked by Hybels’ one-sided presentation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. One can assume that the Catalyst leadership, which has also hosted radical professor Cornel West, agrees with Hybels’ depiction of Israel.

Further, Gabe Lyons (founder of “Q” and also a frequent contributor to Catalyst) has endorsed Focus One. Lyons recently interviewed Palestinian Christian Sami Awad for Q; Awad is perhaps the point man for spreading the Palestinian narrative—with its smoothly slanted view of the Arab-Israeli conflict—throughout American churches.

The effect of this advocacy for the Palestinians is a shocking advance that cuts across denominational lines, linking arms among high-profile ministries. In short, the New Evangelicals seem comfortable with a secular left-wing agenda, and the Palestinian issue is front-and-center within that framework.

At a time when the pro Israel movement among evangelicals is aging, this new breed of cultural spokesman is ascendant. The leaders and followers alike sprinkle conversations with new social media lingo like “HootSuite,” “Tweet,” and “blog,” while the pro Israel crowd tinkers with slide projectors and typewriter ribbons.

If pro Israel advocates care about the generation that comes after them, they’d better get in the game and meet the challenges presented by the heirs to Yasser Arafat’s slick propaganda.

(Jim Fletcher is a member of the executive committee for the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel—NCLCI—and blogs extensively. He can be reached at jim1fletcher@yahoo.com)

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3 Responses to Evangelical Left Voices and Israel

  1. Mr. Fletcher: Thank you for this (and to Mark for posting it). The “New Evangelicals” whom I have known or read seem to have several things in common when it comes to Israel. 1) A boundless gullibility regarding the horror stories told them by Palestinians or passed on second-, third-, or fourth-hand by some other “Evangelical.” 2) A hopeless naivete about the motivations of their Palestinian interlocutors. 3) A shocking willingness to believe the worst about Jews, while ignoring or even justifying Palestinian terrorism. 4) An unshakable belief in their own righteousness.

    In other words, at least with regard to Israel, they are just like mainline liberals.

  2. Kevin Morrow says:

    Good evening, all.

    I’d like to take this opportunity to address a number of fallacies in this article as regards the rise of human rights activism in evangelical circles relating to the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

    First, let me sketch for you where I’m coming from, so that you have an idea of why I believe as I do.

    I have been in Israel and the West Bank three times. The first time, in 2004, I went to work with a non-denominational, Christian missionary organization from the West, during which time, I lived in Palestinian East Jerusalem (on the Mount of Olives) for a few months, Bethlehem for a month, and then I was traveling between a number of destinations in Northern Israel (Nazareth, Tel Aviv, Haifa, etc.) for a few weeks. I returned in 2010 for a few weeks, spending time in Haifa, Zichron Ya’aqov (in between Haifa and Tel Aviv), Jerusalem, Ramallah in the West Bank, as well as a number of villages in the West Bank. I returned again in 2011 for a month, and I was in Jerusalem, Haifa, a number of the Muslim and Druze villages up near the Lebanese border, Ramallah and the West Bank village of Nabi Salih.

    My opinions about the conflict underwent a change over the course of those three visits from being extremely partisan (Palestinians=good, Israelis=bad) to a different understanding of where the battle lines really lie. I learned that the conflict is not between Palestinians and Israelis: this implies that all Palestinians and all Israelis hate each other and are locked in a life and death struggle to the bitter end. Not true.

    The real combatants are the minority of foaming at the mouth extremists on both sides that keep this fight going. On the other side are all the Palestinians and Israelis who want to live unmolested to work and raise their kids in safety.

    I met a lot of Palestinians in my three times there: government officials, Muslim human rights activists, shop keepers, cab and bus drivers, random people on the street, Christian pastors, community leaders, restaurant owners, etc. Most Palestinians don’t hate Israelis in the way they are constantly portrayed in the Western press as doing. Sure, they have anger issues, as you would expect after a century of this nonsense, and all of them passionately desire their rights to be respected, but I never once personally heard any Palestinian voice homicidal anger towards the Israelis. I do know that there are out there Palestinians who DO want to kill Israelis, who are hostile against Israelis (for instance, some friends of mine were kidnapped at gunpoint in Nablus one night because they locals thought they were Israeli spies; they were just teaching English; good thing one of them had his British passport on him, because their captors let them go immediately). But they are few and far between.

    There is now a sizable number of Palestinians who have embraced non-violence as a tactic in resisting the occupation, some of whom were former combatants in the 2nd Intifada. It is generally recognized among Palestinians now that armed, violent resistance was a ghastly, counterproductive mistake that should not be repeated again. And Palestinians are tired, tired, tired of the uproar and just want it to stop.
    Only a relative few continue to embrace violence and practice it on principle (like the Hamas guys that keep shooting off them damned rockets from Gaza).

    The non-violence these people espouse is not a clever figleaf for violence waiting for a convenient moment to erupt from hiding. These guys are not Arafat II. I’ve talked to these people at length. I’ve visited them in their villages. I’ve walked in their shoes a little (I got tear-gassed by the Israeli border police in a West Village and detained and interrogated for two hours at Ben Gurion Airport). They’re quite for real. I know Israelis who know them well, much better than I, and they say the same.

    Those who have embraced peaceful protest as the way forward do this despite the fact that they must still endure institutionalized violence and oppression from the occupation regime, reports of which you seem to dismiss as propaganda, but which are really quite real and happen every day in many places in the Occupied Territories: arbitrary arrests (often conducted at midnight) and coerced, false confessions that lead to more arbitrary arrests; an almost 100% conviction rate by an Israeli court system that almost never prosecutes those settlers who flagrantly break the law on a constant basis; economic blockade tactics (such as giant concrete blocks dropped at the end of village roads just before they connect with the larger roads heading to the larger towns and cities); vandalism and destruction of property in raids by settlers; house demolitions by the army; physical assaults by checkpoint personnel, soldiers, police and settlers; de facto imprisonment behind walls that are built not only around Gaza and the West Bank, but around towns and cities inside the West Bank, the ingress and egress of which are controlled by check points; and so on and so on.

    And by the way, since you are so rightly concerned about documentations of these abuses, you may want to talk with Israeli human rights organizations like B’tselem, which has documented these things exhaustively through documentary research, interviews, the use of still and video cameras in conflict zones, etc. You may also want to look at an Israeli organization called Breaking the Silence, a group composed of former Israeli soldiers who have all witnessed or participated in criminal activities in the Occupied Territories while on military duty, and who are now telling their stories in public.

    Unless you want to label all these people liars and are willing to furnish proof of it, I’d be really careful of contemptuously dismissing such stories, if I were you.

    Israelis, while they have suffered tremendously as well, do not have to deal with this daily barrage of assaults to their legal rights, their dignity and physical safety. Life is pretty safe and quiet in Israel proper most of the time.

    Despite this, there is a small and growing body of Israeli activists who steadfastly oppose their country’s occupation policy. They have chosen to put themselves in the line of fire alongside Palestinian partners like Sami Awad whom you mentioned above, as well as Abdullah Abu Rahmah in Bil’in and Bassem Tamimi in Nabi Salih to oppose the occupation with direct action in the place where injustice occurs. They have realized something that Frederick Douglass learned over a century and a half ago: that, like slavery, the occupation gravely harms the perpetrators as well as the victims, because it forces them to behave in immorally violent and discriminatory ways in order to maintain the system from which they benefit. These people are the Martin Luther Kings and Gandhis of this generation, and like King and Gandhi, they have bravely spoken out against the evil on their own side, in the process having to endure a torrent of abuse, harassment, and for those who participate in public protests in the West Bank with Palestinian protestors, some have suffered grave wounds from rubber bullets and tear gas canisters and physical assaults from the Israeli army, the police and settlers.

    In addition, there have sprouted up civil society organizations founded jointly by Palestinians and Israelis together, like Grass Roots Jerusalem, the Israeli-Palestinian Confederation and the Bereaved Parents Family Forum Circle, who work together peacefully as colleagues, and not uncommonly, as dear friends. In effect, the human rights activists and non-profit workers on both sides have stepped around their useless governments to make peace themselves on their own terms, and the peace that they have fashioned for themselves WORKS. There is peace in the Middle East NOW…in pockets. Those on the opposite side of the political side of the divide: what have they produced? Not peace, but perpetual war and conflict and pain and suffering and hatred and endless controversy.

    Those who have gone over there to help this process are not dupes or useful idiots as you unfairly claim them as being. They are realists helping bring actual peace about, building it from the grass roots up.

    Personally, I think that a 2-state solution is not a good idea. It just would formalize the apartheid, and unjustly exclude Palestinians from living and settling in places within Israel where they once lived. A one-state solution in which all people from the Jordan to the sea have equal rights and justice is better. And I actually think it’s doable. If you’ve ever been to places like Haifa and seen Israeli Arabs and Israelis working and living together peaceably, you’ll know this is true. People have to want it to happen, though.

    There are some who do want peace and are willing to work hard for it.

    There’s a rabbi in the West Bank that an Israeli documentary filmmaker friend of mine has interviewed, a guy named Rav Menachem Froman, who often visits Palestinian villages to speak on peace issues.

    In the recent Knesset elections, there was one candidate from a small party, an Israeli Arab from Jaffa named Asma Aghbarieh-Zahalka, who really embodied this more hopeful future. Her party, the Da’am Party, is a joint Israeli-Palestinian party that casts a vision for the future where both can have a productive, peaceful future together. There’s a Youtube clip taken at a campaign stop at a café in an Israeli city (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GHjm7erXuY&feature=youtu.be) in which Asma, speaking in Hebrew, speaks to an elderly Orthodox Jew about his concerns about the enmity he feels Palestinians feel for him. She replies that this perceived mutual enmity is not inevitable, that there is another way, and she says to him, “I invite you to not see me as your enemy.” Brilliant, and revolutionary (for that country). Too bad she didn’t make it into the Knesset.

    And speaking of governments, one of THE big issues that keeps the conflict going is the failure of the Israeli and Palestinian governments.

    The Netanyahu government and the Israeli governments immediately preceding them clearly don’t want peace. They keep stepping up the pace of settlement construction on land that is one day supposed to be the state of Palestine, and they keep fighting wars with Gaza and their other neighbors. The current government gave up even pretending to try to push the peace process forward a long time ago.

    Most Israelis are now some mix of apathetic and politically disengaged (from years and years of broken promises by their useless leaders; more on this in a second) and passively accepting of the brutal occupation and constant wars that Israel fights every 3-4 years now, since they have come to believe that peace is just out of reach, so they wearily resign themselves to living in a militaristic, quasi-police state that practices apartheid on its minority populations.

    In addition, in Israel, things are now being run by the noisy, rightwing, uber-Zionist minority. They certainly consider peace immoral, judging by their public statements. The uber-religious have also become a lot more powerful too, to the chagrin of the greater majority of secular Jews there, and a lot of Israelis have begun to think that the extremists Zionists and ultra-orthodox are beginning to ruin the country.

    The Palestinian Authority government, while it is a huge improvement over the leadership of the corrupt and violent Chairman Arafat, is too indebted to the support of the Israeli government to function like it should, not to mention the fact that it is still corrupt, and is seen as the lapdog of the Israelis by its countrymen. It wants a peaceful solution, but it is too weak to make it happen. In addition, it is too authoritarian to be of much use, as political activists in the West Bank who unsuccessfully tried to bring the Arab Spring to Palestine have found out to their great frustration. The Hamas government in Gaza isn’t winning friends and influencing people there either, judging by the disgust I see expressed on Facebook by bloggers in Gaza.

    All in all, Israeli and Palestinian societies are extremely fractured and poorly-led, which is why human rights activists have taken the peace process into their own hands. And this is why help from abroad is so important. There needs to be people from outside the situation who are not surrendered to cynicism and apathy who can speak courage and strength to those who are really striving to make it happen.

    Yes, this means that Christians must step up and become more active in supporting those trying to make peace. We must stop pouring gas on the open flame by supporting those Israeli factions who love war and benefit from it. When we say that we must “support Israel,” what we really often mean is that we must support not the vast political middle who are sick of the wars and oppression perpetrated in their name, but the extremist, expansionist, Zionist wing of Israeli society, even though these are the very people on the Israeli side of the ledger who are creating the problem. We need to support Israelis who have not gone the path of extremism for a change.

    And we must not be content with doing it from afar, but we must be willing to get our hands dirty by helping Israeli and Palestinian peace makers do their work. Yes, we must be willing to working with non-Christians, and I understand that this is troubling to some. It is true that this work is not explicitly gospel-centered, and I myself have struggled with this. But Christians must not stand on the sidelines and stay silent, or worse, fan the flames of the conflict by their words and actions. Furthermore, if conservative evangelicals can work with the Israeli right wing on matters of purely political import without scruple, then why is un-Christian for us to work with those on the Israeli left? Why is that worse?

    I get the impression you believe that strong support for the nation-state of Israel is a non-negotiable biblical doctrine, the negation of which is the first step on the slippery slope towards the apostasy with which the rising generation of evangelicals is undeniably afflicted. It bothers me too that some evangelicals have begun to abandon biblical teachings on abortion, homosexuality, chastity, hell, salvation, etc. But to put such support for Israel on that level is to commit doctrinal error. The Christian Zionist view, which you plainly espouse, is controversial to say the least. No reasonable person should demand it be judged equivalent to basic Christian doctrine and practice.

    Sounds to me like your concerns are really political, not theological at all.

    So, I say, the rising generation of evangelicals is not going off the rails by supporting the anti-occupation crusaders over there. It is finally waking up to the evil which the church has supported for so many years, and that’s a good thing.

  3. When my husband and I got around to making out our wills a few years ago, we took a close look at the (formerly) evangelical college we attended and were appalled at how far left it had gone in 20 years – so, no bequests for them. I would urge other alumni of evangelical schools to do the same, since we are at the point where “evangelical” has to be taken with a grain of salt – or the whole shaker. Thanks much to IRD, as the articles here keep us apprised of how so many evangelical colleges and ministries are repeating the pattern of the mainlines, only about 20 years behind the curve. Paul’s admonition “be not conformed to this world” is the most neglected part of the whole Bible.

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