In Bethlehem, the Wrong Kind of Christian Festival

Luke Moon

Luke Moon

Deputy Director, the Philos Project

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~ Also by Luke Moon ~

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The irony was apparently lost on organizers of “Christ at the Checkpoint”: holding an anti-Israel Christian-American conference in a city whose Christian population has been eviscerated by the Palestinian Authority. Photos: Aviram Valdman

 Over the past several decades, some of the most steadfast backers of Israel have been Christians, particularly in the United States. But opponents of Israel are well aware of this and, not content with working against the Jewish state in other institutions, they have changed their tactics accordingly, working overtime to poison the wellspring of belief. Evangelical support for Israel is under attack.

The biannual Christ at the Checkpoint Conference (CATC) in Bethlehem has been a rallying point for this campaign. When I attended the 2014 conference, I discovered that things have only gotten worse. In fact, the event demonstrated just how savvy and successful Palestinian anti-Israel Christian activists have become. Over the last four years, the leaders and participants of Christ at the Checkpoint have grown to be increasingly astute regarding American Evangelicals and how to persuade them of their anti-Israel narrative.

In particular, Palestinian activists have understood the necessity of suppressing blatantly extremist and potentially offensive voices. The first CATC in 2010 included activists from Sabeel, an organization dedicated to a form of far-Left “Liberation Theology,” which seeks to merge Christian faith with revolutionary Marxism. Still regarded as legitimate advocates for peace by some in the UK, Sabeel is radioactive to many in the U.S. Even some Palestinian activists are working to distance themselves from the organization. This is certainly understandable, since Sabeel’s ideology echoes some of the worst forms of Christian anti-Semitism, including the slander that the Jews killed Jesus. For example, Sabeel’s founder, Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, remarked in his Easter letter some years ago:
In this season of Lent, it seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him. It only takes people of insight to see the hundreds of thousands of crosses throughout the land; Palestinian men, women, and children being crucified. Palestine has become one huge Golgotha. The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily. Palestine has become the place of the skull.

Seeking to moderate its tone and appeal to a larger audience, CATC has since distanced itself from such extremely poisonous rhetoric. At this year’s conference, the references to Sabeel and Naim Ateek were notably sparse. Only speaker Ruth Padilla DeBorst offered brief praise of Ateek, though she also sought to cover herself in classic fashion: By evoking a Jewish opponent of Israel. She quoted extensively from theologian Mark Ellis and affirmed his belief that the Jews must reclaim their humanity, which is “bruised and alienated when their lives are built on the exploitation of others.”

This represents a major change in tactics for anti-Israel activists, and it is by means the only one. The second CATC in 2012, for example, had a notably large contingent from the relatively small Evangelical Left. Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne represented the “Red Letter Christians,” a group that calls Jesus’ teachings “radical and countercultural,” and posits that the gospel “calls us away from the consumerist values that dominate contemporary America” and toward such ideologies as pacifism, since “when Jesus tells us to love our enemies, he probably means we shouldn’t kill them.” Accordingly, the Red Letter speakers offered unwavering support for the Palestinian cause and lamented the “structural sin of occupation.”

It appears that anti-Israel activists have realized, however, that since the goal of the conference is to challenge mainstream Evangelical support for Israel, headlining the conference with leaders from the Evangelical Left is hardly the way to go about it. And they are probably right. All the major polling data on Evangelicals in the U.S. has shown that they are overwhelmingly socially conservative and not particularly sympathetic to their own homegrown radicals. The absence of the Evangelical Left from this year’s conference is thus very telling. Its organizers have clearly learned that, in order to reach the average mainstream Evangelical, they must reject both the explicit anti-Semitism of Sabeel and the social gospel offered by the Left.

The Christ at the Checkpoint conference was livestreamed to a global audience. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

The Christ at the Checkpoint conference was livestreamed to a global audience. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

They have also become much more sophisticated in their use of public relations. In particular, they have a developed a strong understanding of the culture and psychology of American Evangelicals. With help from their American allies, the anti-Israel CATC activists appear to have learned that one of the cardinal values of American Evangelicalism is “niceness.” Often confused with love, niceness is seen as evidence of genuine Christian faith. As a result, anti-Israel activists attempt to portray Israel, especially the young soldiers who man West Bank checkpoints, as “mean.” To highlight the meanness of Israel, participants of CATC are encouraged to go on an “interactive visit” to Hebron and east Jerusalem. These visits are conducted so as to portray Israel is the worst possible light.

For example, guided tours through the old city of Hebron describe the Jewish settlers there as recent immigrants from Brooklyn; and in order to protect them, the story goes, thousands of Israeli soldiers keep a tight lid on the Palestinians who have lived in the city for centuries. (Hebron actually had a substantial and ancient Jewish community until 1929, when it was slaughtered or expelled by Arab rioters.)

On three separate occasions I was told that Jewish women from the settlements routinely go to Palestinian shops brandishing rolling pins and harass the owners without fear of reprisal. Supposedly, all an Israeli soldier can do is watch. Repeating story after story of Israeli “meanness” can have a significant impact on Evangelical support.

Another important value for American Evangelicals is that they almost always support “the underdog.” As a result, the CATC activists have developed a narrative that goes like this: Following World War II, Americans were rightfully outraged at Nazi atrocities against the Jews. As a result, Americans supported the establishment of a Jewish state. Now the tide has turned and, with help from the U.S., Israel has the fourth-strongest military in the world, while the Palestinians have nothing but rocks. Israel is Goliath to the Palestinian David.

It is not very original, but it is effective.

The Christ at the Checkpoint conference was held at the Jacir Palace, Bethlehem's largest hotel. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

The Christ at the Checkpoint conference was held at the Jacir Palace, Bethlehem’s largest hotel. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

For example, during a meal with several conference participants, I remarked how much my visit to Auschwitz influenced my view of the Jews and the struggle for their homeland. I was then told by a European woman that she feared a holocaust was going to be perpetrated against the Palestinians. This reversal of roles, with no regard to how offensive it might be, is not unusual. Equally important is the idea of Israel as the bully of the Middle East, the cause of every conflict in the Holy Land, which is repeated ad nauseam.

One of the defining characteristics of Evangelicalism is its belief in determining belief and practice according to biblical authority. Non-Evangelical denominations—largely representing the Christian Left—do not feel the need to base their opposition to Israel on scripture, but rather on perceived issues of social justice. Evangelicals, on the other hand, need to be persuaded to accept theologies that declare that the land of Israel has no special significance to God in the new covenant. As a friend once told me, “Evangelicals need to be taught to be anti-Zionist.” It is not a coincidence that academics and theologians have done much of the heavy lifting in undermining Evangelical support for Israel. God’s love for the Jews and the People of Israel — and the biblical literalism that underpins it — must be redefined.

It should not be surprising, then, that the bulk of the CATC sessions, both this year and last, have been just as hostile to Christian Zionism as they have been to Israel itself. Put simply, the conference speakers accused Christian Zionists of every imaginable evil. For example, in his lecture titled “Their Theology, Our Nightmare,” Alex Awad claimed,

Christians are involved with the suffering of the Palestinian people. Even Evangelical Christians, intentionally or unintentionally, they are involved in the suffering of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian church.… As early as 1880, when most Palestinians were asleep, we were not aware that Christian Zionists and secular Zionists were plotting to take over our country.”

To the uninformed Evangelical who knows nothing of the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate, or the Jordanian occupation, this claim that there was once a Palestinian state in the Holy Land (there never was) might actually seem believable.

Indeed, Awad went further than this, essentially arguing that Christian Zionists are collaborators in alleged Israeli crimes. “When Palestinians have been killed, expelled, and made miserable as a direct result of Israeli actions,” he said. “Christian Zionist attitudes have been that this is deserved on the basis of the Palestinians being out of sync with God’s plan for his chosen people.”

Where such anti-historical sentiments eventually lead was illustrated by Dr. Gary Burge, who has written extensively on God’s promise to give the Land of Israel to Abraham. To Burge, the promise of the land has been fulfilled by the death and resurrection of Jesus. He repeatedly stated that the old covenant with the Jews was tribal and local, while the new covenant was and is universal and global. Because of Jesus, the Land of Israel and by extension the Jewish people are no longer important to God’s redemptive plan for humanity. Additionally, any promise to restore Israel will only occur in the end times.

According himself the right to speak for one of Christianity’s most important founders, Dr. Burge proclaimed, “I can’t imagine Paul, were he alive today, would look at the secular state of Israel, read the writing of Theodor Herzl, Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and say, ‘This is what I meant the restoration of Israel should look like.’”

That Burge’s statements smack of the most retrograde kind of supersessionism—the false claim that the Christian revelation invalidates God’s covenant with the Jews—appears to have escaped him, and those enraptured by his delusional and fringe perspective.

Salim Munayer speaks on Israeli and Palestinian narratives. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

Salim Munayer speaks on Israeli and Palestinian narratives. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

In all fairness, it should be noted that the supersessionism advocated by Burge and others at the CATC conference was repudiated by at least one speaker, Dr. Dan Juster, who reminded the participants that even the Roman Catholic Church, not historically friendly to the Jews, has renounced such distortions of scripture.

Burge is also involved in one of the most disturbing aspects of the CATC conference: The deliberate indoctrination of students from Evangelical colleges and universities in the U.S. These students come as part of organized delegations, and knowingly or unknowingly participate in what is commonly known as a “protest tour.” They are shepherded around Israel and the West Bank while being simultaneously bombarded with anti-Israel propaganda. Often, the students are encouraged to attend by their college diversity director and have little or no idea what they are signing up for.

One of the largest delegations of students comes from Wheaton College in Illinois, and has the special privilege of being guided by Dr. Burge himself. At the 2012 CATC, I challenged Burge’s method of bringing students to the Holy Land and deliberately exposing them to the best of the Palestinians and the worst of the Israelis. He admitted that it was probably inadequate, but showed little interest in changing his approach. After speaking to one of the students at this year’s conference, it became clear that he hasn’t.

I spoke to another student, Jason, who told me that he came on the tour because, “growing up in an Evangelical church, I had heard the Israeli narrative; but I wanted to come and learn the Palestinian side of the story.” Perhaps he went to one of the few churches in the U.S. that actually does talk about the modern history of Israel and Zionism, but I doubt it. He also mentioned that his tour group had only met two Israelis. One was a conscientious objector who spent five months in jail for refusing to serve in the IDF and the other was the bus driver. Hardly the well-rounded educational tour worthy of a prestigious school like Wheaton.

Again to be fair, the 2014 conference did somewhat improve on its stance regarding radical Islam. At the 2012 conference, Colin Chapman’s lecture, “A Christian Response to Radical Islam,” encouraged participants to empathize with Islamists. He claimed that, “If Israel had complied with the famous UN Resolution 242 in 1967, Hamas might never have come into existence. And if Israel had not invaded Lebanon in 1982, there might be no Hezbollah today.”

This year, however, Chapman offered a more thoughtful lecture, “Can Christianity Survive in the Middle East?” In what was largely an overview of the history of Islam in regard to Christianity and Judaism, Chapman recognized that the Arab Spring had not gone well, and had led to the rise of Islamist parties hostile to Christian minorities. Though he still argued that Islamists are more pragmatic than we give them credit for, he nonetheless made a telling admission concerning the dhimmitude—second-class status—faced by Christians in the Middle East.

I understand the legacy of 1400 years of difficult relationships living as dhimmis under Islam, I understand that. But I also think that we Christians in this part of the world have got to reach out to Muslims as human beings, as friends, as neighbors and find new ways of relating to them.

This acknowledgement of dhimmi status was confirmed by a Palestinian Christian student, who told the student delegations from the U.S. that the local Christians in Bethlehem are “treated as second-class people.”

Such statements indicate at least the possibility that pro-Palestinian Christians might begin to concentrate on issues more responsible for the plight of Bethlehem’s Christians and more important than hating Israel.

Unfortunately, it was clear from the Christ at the Checkpoint conference that pro-Palestinian Christians have serious political and institutional momentum. Indeed, several activists commented privately that they are concerned Evangelicals will become not just pro-Palestinian, but actively anti-Semitic.

This cannot be rejected out of hand. At less than a few hundred years old, Christian Zionism is a fairly recent phenomenon. What really makes the new anti-Israel activism so dangerous, however, is how quickly support for Israel can be eroded and how fast the poison of anti-Semitism can spread.

Arresting this threat will be a challenge. It is simply not enough to warn Evangelical churches of the danger. They need to be equipped with the knowledge necessary to combat the lies with facts and understand the modern state of Israel; and why its existence is evidence of God’s faithfulness and mercy not only toward the Jews, but toward us Evangelicals as well.

Banner Photo: Aviram Valdman /The Tower