Rev’d Stephen Sizer and his ‘disgraceful’ anti-Semitism
Last weekend I debated a Christian critic of Israel. I challenged his assertion that the State of Israel ‘invites’ anti-semitism by its actions. Such thinking is very dangerous, I replied. It could provide an excuse for race hatred. He did not respond.
Our discussion sprang from a statement issued on 13 March 2012 by the much-respected Council for Christians and Jews in which they took one of Israel’s fiercest Anglican critics, Rev Stephen Sizer, to task publicly. CCJ’s Chairman, the Bishop of Manchester, called Sizer’s retaining of a link on his Facebook page to an article on an anti-semitic website for over two months, 'disgraceful' and conduct ‘unbecoming for a clergyman’.
The Middle East conflict arouses strong feelings on both sides: but whatever led a clergyman to overlook the hateful nature of 'The Ugly Truth' website having allegedly been warned twice about it? Is this an isolated incident, or just the tip of a larger iceberg?
Stephen Sizer is only one of a number of Evangelical Christians whose opposition to Israel and Zionism has arguably strayed beyond the limits of legitimate debate. Many follow the ‘Palestinian narrative’ of the ‘Naqba’ (catastrophe) of Israel’s foundation in 1948, and the Palestinian misery occasioned by Israeli oppression and injustice.
As a God of love and justice – not to mention the story of David and Goliath - are part of the Christian theological furniture, it isn’t surprising that this simple paradigm of weak vs strong and good vs evil strikes a chord with Christians. But it provides an inaccurate and perilous framework for understanding a complex conflict. It was developed by veteran terrorist Yassir Arafat - which ought to alert anyone not to take it at face value.
Christian anti-Zionists rely on two theological strands to bolster the Palestinian narrative, the first being Liberation Theology. They insist that standing against Israeli injustice and oppression becomes a Christian duty in response to The Lord’s Prayer “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.
The trouble is, the Middle East today is not the Latin American of the 1960’s. Israel is not a dictatorship but a vibrant democracy and contrary to the official narrative, Palestinians are not helpless peasants stripped of all power over their lives. Of course Israel gets things wrong; but to present her actions – actually her existence – as the sole cause of Palestinian misery is absurd.
Christian anti-Zionists all but ignore the appalling security dilemmas Israel faces. Israel’s efforts to prevent or defend itself from terrorism are labelled ‘humiliation’ of Palestinians or a ‘disproportionate response’. When Palestinian children are killed or injured in clashes, Israel alone is blamed. Christian anti-Zionists rarely criticize Palestinian leaders for feeding their children a daily diet of hatred in schools and the media; nor do they hold them responsible for aiming rockets at Israeli children from behind their own human shields, or parading their dead and injured children for cameras in order to whip up hatred of the Jewish State.
The second strand in anti-Zionist thinking within the Church is Replacement Theology, which states that Jews were excised from God’s plan because they did not accept Jesus as Messiah, only to be replaced as God’s Chosen people by the Church. Replacement theology undergirded more than 1500 years of institutional Christian anti-semitism despite contempt for Jews being explicitly condemned by the Christian scriptures. Christian Anti-Zionists usually dismiss concerns about Replacement Theology, often with the canard that Israel’s supporters always claim that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.
We find the logical extension of Replacement theology in the Qur’an where we read that Jews were disobedient to God and are now subject to judgement which will eventually be carried out by Allah’s faithful servants. Thankfully, the vast majority of Muslims do not interpret these Surahs as a current religious imperative. Unfortunately for Israel, their thuggish neighbours to the north (Hezbollah) and south (Hamas) do. The Hamas Charter looks forward to Israel’s destruction and the murder of Jews on the basis of Quranic teaching. It’s not such a large step from one to the other.
Christian anti-Zionists would refute Hamas’ Charter entirely. Equally, they are clear that modern Israel cannot be a fulfilment of scriptural promises since Israel’s behaviour just isn’t up to scratch. Speaking on Iranian Press TV, Rev Sizer even opined that if Israeli Jews do not repent and find reconciliation like we did in western Europe(!) then God might expel them from the Holy Land again.
The Palestinian narrative also requires that the history of Arab rejectionism and aggression lying at the heart of the conflict be expunged. You won’t often hear anti-Zionists admitting that millions of Jews have lived all over the Middle East continuously for over 3,000 years. Instead they join with Israel’s enemies, denouncing Zionism while promoting Palestinian nationalism. Instead they adopt the language of delegitimisation. Israel is a western colonial enterprise formed on stolen land; Ashkenazi Jews are foreign interlopers, displacing the ‘indigenous Palestinians’ depriving them of land and resources. And so on.
Some anti-Zionists even extend understanding, though not approval, to anti-Semitism. The man I debated on Twitter was only echoing Ben White, author of ‘Israeli Apartheid: a Beginner’s Guide’ who wrote that whilst not anti-Semitic himself he could understand why people are. Protests that such reasoning excuses racism and could incite hatred, violence even, against Jews in Israel and beyond, seem to fall on deaf ears.
And so we come to Toulouse. Muhammed Merar had already killed 3 soldiers when he sought out Jewish children at their school, and murdered three of them. He explained to a horrified world that he was taking revenge on behalf of Palestinian children. Hateful ideas became flesh as Merar translated a distorted narrative into action.
Christians must have the courage to renounce a narrative of the Middle East conflict that demonises one party whilst absolving the other from all responsibility; they must stop using theology to underpin it, and frame their concerns within a more constructive paradigm. Otherwise there will be more outrages enacted by fanatics who hear the rationale for their visceral hate softly reflected in the media, at conferences and in Churches. For in this conflict above all, careless talk can cost lives.