December 5, 2014

United Methodist Agencies, Activists Rally Against Israel

Glaring blind spots, highly selective omissions of inconvenient facts, disregard for faithful United Methodists outside of a narrow political faction, and singling out the world’s lone Jewish statement for demonization and mistreatment were served up in heavy doses at a recent United Methodist rally for the Palestinian cause.

The two-day conference drew nearly 300 people and was hosted at Ginghamsburg UMC near Dayton, Ohio (a megachurch pastored by Mike Slaughter), sponsored by the UMC General Board of Global Ministries, and prominently featuring the participation of other denominational officials.

Obviously any government composed of sinful human beings is worthy of constructive criticism. But this conference, representing only a (very vocal) minority of United Methodists, went far beyond that to be rather shamelessly selective in its presentation of facts and promote a political agenda already overwhelmingly rejected by our denomination’s governing General Conference of anti-Israel divestment, and even more broadly “boycotting all things Israeli.”

At times, the conference veered dangerously close to anti-Semitism.

The central theme of the August 7-8 conference was that Israel is guilty of a horrible, inexcusable evil by occupying the West Bank and Gaza, that the Palestinian people are little more than victims of a brutally and sadistically oppressive Israeli government, that burden of responsibility for corrective action lies entirely on Israel (and its allies), and that it is urgent to take non-violent but coercive actions to force the Israeli government into somehow, in some never clearly spelled out way, ending the occupation ASAP. Understandable Israeli concerns about suddenly granting full independence to a Palestinian state with leaders explicitly committed to Israel’s destruction and with ongoing rockets being fired into Israeli civilian areas were dismissively treated as unworthy of a moment’s consideration. I do not recall any speaker honestly acknowledging the circumstances of how Israel came to occupy the territories in 1967 in defending itself from ominous threats from several neighboring armies. Typical was how one speaker, Zoughbi Zoughbi, founding director of the Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center in Bethlehem, glossed over this history by simply saying, “then in 1967 the occupation happened.”

Speaker after speaker spoke at length about the hardships of Palestinian life in the West Bank and Gaza, while Israeli concerns about security were largely dismissed or even ridiculed and blame for these hardships was placed entirely on Israel.

Perhaps the most “balanced” speaker (relatively speaking) was Lynne Hybels, co-founder of the famous Willow Creek Community Church and a contributing editor for the Religious Left magazine, Sojourners. She admitted feeling discouraged by public descriptions of her as “part of a vast effort to lure evangelicals, especially young people, away from supporting Israel.” In welcome contrast to other speakers, Hybels at least briefly highlighted not only past Jewish suffering but also present Israeli suffering from terrorist violence, and also Palestinian suffering. She urged a platform of listening to different people’s perspectives, theologically affirming egalitarian social harmony between Jews and Arabs in the land, denouncing Israeli’s post-1967 “occupation” of the Palestinian territories and blockade of Hamas-led Gaza while also somewhat weakly criticizing civilian-targeting anti-Israel terrorism. She told attendees, “If you’re here to pick sides, go away.”

I do not recall a single other speaker at all acknowledging the reality of legitimate Israeli suffering from continual violence and threats thereof.


A Failure of UMC Leadership

The heavy support and participation of several UMC general agencies in this event represents a clear choice on the part of many of our denominational officials to betray the trust of the whole of the church in order to exclusively pander to the divestment and “boycotting all things Israeli” faction of a narrow political faction.

Promotional materials for this conference also plugged a “special partner event” immediately following at the same location, hosted by United Methodist Kairos Response (UMKR), an unofficial caucus for the Palestinian cause. UMKR informed me very explicitly that only supporters of their agenda were allowed at this part of the gathering. Any fair-minded United Methodist should see something wrong with the picture of official UMC agencies effectively promoting an activist event at which the vast majority of United Methodists were ideologically forbidden from being present.

GBGM has had a long history of diverting church funds for anti-Israel activism. Its CEO, Thomas Kemper, reviewed, how GBGM co-sponsors a pan-Methodist Liaison Office in Jerusalem, how GBGM helped co-found in 2001 the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, and how “[y]ou can’t control” David Wildman (the GBGM official leading the agency’s relevant advocacy) “because he has a heart for justice” – which drew enthusiastic applause.

Kemper’s opening speech was relatively toned-down, broadly urging peace, solidarity with the region’s Arab Christians, and recognition of the Other’s humanity, while denying that the event was “a rally favoring one side.” But the deep feelings of post-Holocaust guilt felt by most of Kemper’s fellow Germans appears to have had little impact on GBGM’s treatment of Israel, and its sponsorship of such events.

Kathryn Johnson, interim Executive Director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, made a point at this conference of unsmilingly confronting me about how she wished “you wouldn’t do what you do” and telling me what she thought of my character. I declined her invitation to a verbal sparring match. But something is rather wrong with UMC general agencies giving their no-strings-attached endorsement and funding to such political activists groups whose leaders have no problem being openly rude to the very United Methodists they supposedly represent.

Apparently not getting the memo about not picking sides, Bishop Ivan Abrahams of the autonomous Methodist Church of Southern Africa used his prominence as president of the World Methodist Council (WMC) to make “no apology for” the fact that he did not have “a neutral standpoint,” instead declaring, “I stand with my mothers, brothers, sisters in Palestine!” He characterized “anything less” than such a “prophetic” stand as “a moral cop-out” and even “apostasy.” The bishop, who noted his own partial Russian Jewish ancestry, displayed little nuance in likening the Israeli government to South Africa’s apartheid regime, accusing the former of seeking a “peace without justice” in which the Palestinians would continue to be victimized by “torture, home destruction, [and] daily humiliation” at the hands of their Jewish oppressors.

Just as concerning as the extreme rhetoric were the emotionally manipulative tactics shamelessly employed by conference organizers. The opening worship featured rotating slides of brief bios of children killed by Israeli firepower in the recent fighting in Gaza. In a similar vein, several testimonies and videos uncritically passed on propagandistic accounts of heart-wrenching Palestinian suffering allegedly dished out at the hands of Israeli Defense Forces, who were rather simplistically portrayed as sadistic bullies. Again, there was no attempt to explore if there might be additional facts or perspectives that did entirely fit with the conference’s pre-determined political agenda.

What about Hamas deliberately firing rockets from populated areas? What about Israelis killed by Palestinian terrorism? Or the many more Israelis of all backgrounds would have been killed by Hamas rockets were it not for the “Iron Dome” defense system (whose U.S. funding activists for the Palestinian cause reflexively oppose)? Or the equally tug-at-the-heartstrings stories that could be told of Jews whose oppression in other Middle Eastern countries drove them to seek refuge in Israel? Apparently, these truths were too inconvenient to merit a slide.

A rationale for the context-avoidant focus on Palestinian suffering was offered by Palestinian tour guide Wisam Salsaa, who said he did not wish to “talk politics” but rather simply shared about the lived realities faced by Palestinians. But this is highly disingenuous. Any intelligent person who takes a step back can see the effects of such exclusive highlighting of heart-wrenching Palestinian suffering, as long as there is not much critical thinking about the conference’s rather deliberately skewed and selective presentation. Especially when sadistic Jewish Israelis were identified as solely responsible. And especially when such care was taken to avoid any legitimization of Israeli concerns.

It is sad to see official church agencies stoop to the level of such factually unfair and emotionally manipulative propagandizing.

Other prominent UMC speakers included Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of North Carolina (who serves as GBGM’s president), the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe (General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society), United Methodist Women chief Harriet Olson (who boasted about how many had began to “think differently” about the Arab-Israeli conflict thanks to her agency’s Schools of Christian Mission). A senior General Board of Discipleship staffer was also present.


Covering For Hamas

Not one speaker even mentioned terrorist groups in the immediate region like Islamic Jihad or Hezbollah, let alone the foreign government funding of anti-Israel terrorism.

While there was occasional mention of Hamas, speakers generally took great pains to insist that this designated terrorist group not share any blame for the region’s unrest. Alex Awad, a Palestinian Baptist pastor supported by GBGM, declared that “it is not Hamas’s rockets,” and “it is not Hamas’s underground tunnels” that were responsible for “why we don’t have peace right now.” He instead insisted that the blame was entirely on Israel and the United States.

Another speaker, Zoughbi Zoughbi, somewhat awkwardly declared: “the issue is not Hamas – Israel is against the Palestinian people!”

I asked during a Q+A session if Zoughbi or his other two panelists could identify any portrayals of Israelis in the Palestinian media they found worthy of criticism. In response, he praised the Palestinian media, further criticized Israel, and flatly declared “I believe the Palestinian media are not demonizing the Israelis.” Since I was asked to repeat my question, and it was repeated yet again by a moderator, it seems unlikely that he simply misunderstood the question. In fact, Palestinian Media Watch has extensively documented absolutely virulent demonization, complete with calls to murder, of all Israelis and Jews in a wide range of Palestinian media, including children’s entertainment.

If the Bethlehem-based Mr. Zoughbi feels too intimidated by his Islamic overlords to tell the truth, why did GBGM and other organizers believe he was informationally qualified to educate conference-goers? And if he simply has no problem with training children to aspire to “shoot Jews” when they grow up, why did they think he was morally qualified?

In a similar vein to plenary speaker’s covering for Hamas, one workshop speaker, Philip Farah of the Washington Interfaith Alliance for Middle East Peace, lamented how after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Muslim Americans “were profiled, arrested, tortured, [and] charities were shut down” in the context of his decrying “Islamophobia.” He did not concede any sense that any post-9/11 arrests or actions against Islamic “charities” may have had some legitimate terrorist targets. But Farah admitted that he is “a radical” relative to the views of most other Americans.


“Walking With…” or Exploiting Palestinian Christians?

Aside from occasional, brief mention of churches being among the buildings damaged in fighting, there was no real discussion of suffering that Palestinian Christians experience particularly as Christians. No mention of the numerous reports of Islamic terrorists using church buildings as staging platforms for their deadly fire against Israelis, or of Palestinian Muslims’ oppressive treatment of Christians – which you can read about here, here, here, and here.

Apart from Ms. Hybels, who at least paid lip service to walking with everybody, there appeared to be no interest at this conference in walking with Israel’s messianic (Jesus-following) Jewish community, let alone Arab Christians with a more pro-Israel perspective.

In one workshop, some asked why the conference name focused on Palestinian Christians when they account for only 2.5 percent of the population in the West Bank and even less in Gaza. The workshop leaders admitted that this was not only because of the desire to respond to the “Kairos Palestine” manifesto of some Palestinian church leaders, but because of how such a nominal focus on Palestinian Christians would be strategically helpful for getting traction for their agenda within American churches.

One of these workshop speakers, Farah, admitted that his own involvement in working within churches for Palestinian advocacy “was less about my connection to God” but sprung from how churches offered “a safe place” for him.

Unfortunately, the nominal focus on Palestinian Christianity did not protect the conference from promoting some rather anti-Christian values. Nora Carmi of Kairos Palestine read a section from that group’s eponymous manifesto claiming that “the promise of the land” is “the prelude to complete universal salvation.” In accusing Israel of “state terrorism” (a charge not applied to Hamas’s terrorist rockets), she begged GBGM to organize a petition that would NOT be “balanced,” since “[y]ou cannot equate” the Israeli suffering to that of her people. So much for loving your enemies even to the point of acknowledging and seeking to alleviate their suffering. Mr. Zoughbi bizarrely twist Christ’s teaching to block communal self-criticism, saying that “the Palestinians have practiced 280 ways of non-violence,” but “who is without violence will cast the Palestinian with the first stone [sic].” In his workshop, Farah argued that “interfaith is really at the heart of Christianity” because of how Jesus taught “parables of inclusion” rather than focusing on “just a chosen people.”

Both Jesus Christ and Palestinian Christians were ultimately treated the same: as mines to be selectively exploited for a pre-determined political agenda. Parts of either that did not fit this agenda were conveniently ignored.

It is not clear what long-term impact such a conference may have.

But it produced at least one notable short-term effect. In an unscripted moment, host pastor Mike Slaughter reported that this event had prompted one outraged member to take his family out of Slaughter’s congregation in protest.

One Response to United Methodist Agencies, Activists Rally Against Israel

  1. Wendel Thompson says:

    Being a friend to Palestinians doesn’t mean we are enemies of Israel. Father Chacour states it rightly: You who live in the United States, if you are pro-Israel, on behalf of the Palestinian children I call unto you: give further friendship to Israel. They need your friendship. But stop interpreting that friendship as an automatic antipathy against me, the Palestinian who is paying the bill for what
    others have done against my beloved Jewish brothers and sisters in the Holocaust…

    And if you have been enlightened enough to take the side of the Palestinians — oh, bless your hearts …But if taking our side would mean to become one-sided against my Jewish brothers and sisters, back up. We do not need such friendship. We need one more common friend. We do not need one more enemy, for God’s sake.

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