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Mainstream Church Pro-Israel Lobbies Fired Up

(expanded 11 April 2006; edited June 2006 due to legal threat)

The Religion News Service posts a press release detailing the latest volley in the Israel divestment wars:

CHRISTIANS FOR FAIR WITNESS ON THE MIDDLE EAST and a coalition of Christian groups will appear at the National Press Club on the morning of Feb. 17, 2006 to warn churches not to embrace the anti-Israel message promoted by the Palestine Solidarity Movement (PSM). The PSM is hosting a Divestment Conference at Georgetown University this weekend.

“The Palestinian Solidarity Movement is not working toward a just peace in the Middle East; it seeks to delegitimize the State of Israel,” says Sr. Ruth Lautt, O.P., Esq.” “We want to warn Christians about PSM’s efforts to portray the Arab/Israeli conflict in a manner that blames the Jewish State as the sole source of the conflict. Our goal is not to stifle debate, but to insist that it be based on facts, not anti-Jewish rhetoric.”

“Christians for a Fair Witness on the Middle East” was founded in October last year to counter efforts by Palestinian Christians to seek support from mainstream churches. A previous press release gives some details (link added):

Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East (Fair Witness), has gathered mainline Protestant and Catholic clergy and lay leaders to counter the ill-informed criticism and one-sided condemnation of Israel by some American churches. According to Sr.Ruth Lautt, O.P., Esq., National Director of Fair Witness, a radical Jerusalem-based Palestinian Christian group known as Sabeel has become a driving force behind the anti-Israel orientation growing in some American churches.

“Naim Ateek, Sabeel’s founder, has said that the creation of Israel constituted a ‘grievous injustice’ and has repeatedly pointed to Israel as the sole cause of the conflict – while failing to hold the Palestinian leadership accountable for their history of violence against Israelis and their role in creating the conflict that exists today,” she said. “There is an agenda here that is neither just nor Christian.”

Of course, this is breathtakingly hypocritical – Lautt finds Christian support for Palestinian aspirations “anti-Jewish” and unbalanced, but she has apparently has absolutely no problem with the millions of Christian Zionists who believe that Palestinian dispossession is actually the will of God, and that the Israeli right should enjoy unquestioning and unconditional support in all circumstances. However, her own group is not Christian Zionist, and her supporters are willing to make token statements about Palestinian rights (link added):

“Our goal is to help churches find a constructive voice that reflects the Christian obligation to justice, embracing both Palestinians and Israelis in their respective fears, hopes, and aspirations,” said Rev. James Loughran, SA, Director of the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute in New York City. “Israel’s right to exist within secure borders and to defend itself from attack are as fundamental as the dignity of Palestinian life and the need for Palestinian national self-expression.”

I look forward to seeing some evidence that the two are equally important, or that Fair Witness is actually willing to do anything to support “the dignity of Palestinian life”.

Meanwhile, the General Synod of the Church of England (backed by Archbishop Rowan Williams) has recently called for divestment from Caterpiller, the bulldozer company that supplies the Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank (one of Caterpiller’s bulldozers, it should be recalled, was used to kill the American protestor Rachel Corrie in 2003, although it’s not known if that was mentioned in the Synod debate). This has provoked a backlash, with former Archbishop George Carey condemning the move. Ruth Gledhill adds in The Times:

No time was made to debate an amending motion put forward by Anglicans for Israel, the new and influential pro-Israel lobby group.

Gledhill doesn’t explain why Anglicans for Israel should be called “influential”, but she is herself highly supportive, which explains her angle on the subject. In her blog she adds:

As an Anglican myself, this decision provokes anger and shock in me, allied with shame and embarrassment. Have 2000 years of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and the horrific death toll of suicide bombings in Israel taught us nothing?

Fortunately, Anglicans such as myself who are unashamedly, although decidedly not blindly, pro-Israeli have a new organisation, Anglicans for Israel, to fight Israel’s corner, and this synod decision shows just how small and tight that corner is.

Clearly, the purported religion correspondent Gledhill has never met a Christian Zionist if she thinks Israel is in a “tight corner” thanks to the Synod. And is she seriously arguing that someone like Rowan Williams knows nothing of the horrors she enumerates?

Anglicans for Israel is run by Simon McIlwaine, a Tory libertarian. Back in the 1980s he headed up Peace Now in Southern Africa, about which details are scarce; however, a 1986 Guardian report found by David Bloom at World War 4 Report gives some indication of its likely perspective (link added):

A compassionate thought this morning for exminister Patrick Jenkin, who will spend the day chairing the AGM of the Greater London Young Conservatives. A clutch of tumultuous rightwingers, some with their roots in the notorious Federation of Conservative Students, is making a bid for power under its banners of support for Ulster, Nicaragua, South Africa, the Association for a Free Russia etc etc. Geoff Winnard, a Monday Clubber, is their candidate for chairman, with Simon McIlwaine for vice-chairman and Huw Shooter (he of the CND submarine incident) for treasurer.

There is no evidence that McIlwaine was ever himself a member of the Federation of Conservative Students (famous for its “Hang Nelson Mandela” badges), and some of his various Conservative associations are given on his high-school alumni profile. However, that profile neglects to mention that he was once himself a member of the very right-wing Monday Club; a report in the Times from 1984 relates that he resigned from the Club over its extremism, but that this was after he had been “suspended for behaviour deemed unacceptable by the executive committee” (1). His alumni profile does, though, tell us that he was at one time chaplain of the William Alexander Memorial L.O.L. – the acronym here meaning “Loyal Orange Lodge”. This lodge is part of the Grand Orange Lodge of England. The “Orange Orders” blend Freemasonry and Protestant fundamentalism, and the Orange Order of Ireland expresses the traditions (and, some would say, sense of sectarian superiority) of the Unionist (Protestant) majority community in Northern Ireland.

Huw Shooter, meanwhile, is now Anglicans for Israel’s “Campaign Director”; the “CND submarine incident” took place during the 1984 Conservative Party conference in Brighton, when Shooter (then aged 24) was part of a mob of forty Young Conservatives who attacked and damaged a model Trident that CND had placed opposite the venue. The Times described Shooter as “very right-wing”, and as a member of the Young Conservatives and Young Monday Club (he declined to give other memberships “to save them embarrassment”). Despite comparing his actions to anti-nuclear protestors cutting fences at the air-base at Greenham Common, he was expelled from Lewisham Conservative Association (2).

UPDATE: I’ve also just noticed that Anglicans For Israel’s patrons include Prof. David Marsland, a man who favours summary executions and imprisoning journalists as the means to winning the “War on Terror”. He gave his thoughts at the Springbok Club, a network for disaffected white South Africans and Rhodesians living in the UK. A fuller account is given in my blog entry for today.

(Hat tip to Jews Sans Frontieres for Gledhill links. Back in 2004 the Institute on Religion and Democracy produced a report critical of mainstream churches’ support for the Palestinians; I critiqued that here.)

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(1) See The Times 19/July/1984 page 12A

(2) See The Times 10/Oct/1984 pages 4C and 14A; 26/Oct/1984 page 16A