Faith Groups Under Attack: Hilary Wise

The Israeli government and a variety of Zionist organisations have long been pouring huge resources into “hasbara,” meaning “advocacy” or “propaganda” in Hebrew. This involves both promoting a positive image of Israel and hounding and intimidating those they say are guilty of the “new anti-Semitism,” which amounts in practice to any criticism of Israeli policies and actions.

The bodies involved in this hasbara campaign range from the immensely powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to internet-based organisations such as Honest Reporting, BBC Watch and the Jewish Internet Defence Force, and poisonous personal blogs.

Christian churches, having by definition a special interest in the Holy Land and what is happening there, are increasingly coming under fire from such sources for noting and deploring Israel’s policies of oppression and dispossession, which affect Christians and Muslims alike.

Methodists in the US and the UK have for years been outspoken in their concern over the plight of the Palestinian people. The report Justice for Palestine and Israel, presented to the 2010 Methodist conference, was harshly criticised by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Chief Rabbi and the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ).

Despite these groups demanding that the report be withdrawn, it was welcomed and endorsed by the conference delegates, including its proposal for the boycott of illegal Israeli settlements. The Methodists were rewarded with headlines such as the Jerusalem Post’s “The banality of Methodist evil” – a clear reference to Nazi persecution of the Jews.

In 2012 the Methodist conference joined with Christian Aid and the Quakers in calling for a complete ban on settlement goods. However, later that year the “Methodist Friends of Judaism” (MFJ) was formed, part of its remit being to “combat anti-Semitism in all its guises” (our italics).

It appears to have been effective in that part of a motion put to the 2013 conference expressing “concern over the deteriorating situation in the West Bank making a ‘two state solution’ more and more difficult” was removed after the Chair of the MFJ, the Rev Bruce Thompson, claimed the Church could find itself in legal trouble if it made what he claimed were “false accusations” against Israel. But the pressure did not stop the call for a debate within the Methodist Church on BDS-a debate that is ongoing.

The Methodists are not the only targets. The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) is well known for its work in providing protection for people under threat from the IDF and settlers in the OPTs, through mediation and by their very presence. It is an initiative of the World Council of Churches, administered in the UK by Quaker Peace and Social Witness. On their return, participants report on their experiences and campaign for a just peace in the region.

But now the EAPPI is under fire. At the 2012 General Synod of the Church of England a motion was tabled praising the “vital work” done by the EAPPI and “encouraging parishioners to volunteer for the programme and asking churches and synods to make use of the experience of returning participants.”

The CCJ, headed by its chairman, the Rev Nigel McCulloch, was again at the forefront of a massive lobbying campaign to remove the motion, saying it could “seriously impair” relations between Christians and Jews in the UK. In fact the motion passed by a margin of four to one, thanks in part to the then  Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who stated that the EAPPI was in no way anti-Israel.

There was also support from the Foreign Office: the FO Minister Lord Howell said that the government believed the EAPPI “provides a useful independent monitoring service in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”

Nevertheless the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews accused the Synod of “riding roughshod” over the Jewish community and called the EAPPI “an inflammatory and partisan programme” while the Jewish Chronicle ran headlines like: “Church endorses Israel hate agenda” and “Jewish stereotypes revealed in ugly Church of England debate.”

After a series of meetings with the Board of Deputies, the Quakers seem to have yielded somewhat under the strain, agreeing to “improve” the EAPPI programme by arranging for volunteers to spend more time in Haifa “to experience the suffering of Israelis.”

In May, 2013, the Church of Scotland had the temerity to publish a major report on Israel-Palestine entitled “The Inheritance of Abraham” which questioned some of Israel’s policies, especially in relation to right to the land. Under pressure from the Zionist lobby, however, the report was swiftly removed from their website and a heavily redacted version substituted. Even the simple statement: “No part of the New Testament gives any support to a political state of Israel beyond that to any other state,” was considered offensive.*

Hasbara exponents are equally ready to target individuals who dare to put their head above the parapet. The Rev Stephen Sizer is well known in Britain and in many other parts of the world as a speaker and writer on the Palestinian question, a strong advocate of interfaith dialogue and an authority on the phenomenon of Christian Zionism, especially in the US*.

Stephen has been subject to sustained Zionist attacks since 2006, mainly through blogs like notorious Zionist website, Harry’s Place. A key contributor to the website from about 2010 was Nick Howard, son of Michael Howard, the former leader of the Conservative party. Nick became an ardent convert to Christianity and studied theology but was turned down for ordination by the Church of England.

In November, 2011, Nick emailed Christopher Hill, Bishop of Guildford, demanding Stephen be suspended from his post as vicar of Christ Church, Virginia Water, in Surrey, for posting a link to a website which had allegedly contained anti-Semitic material. He also demanded Stephen be subjected to the Clergy Disciplinary Measure, an extremely serious procedure which would probably have meant the end of Stephen’s career as a minister of the Church of England.

The Bishop replied: “I see nothing which would merit disciplinary matters, not least because differing political opinions are definitely exempted from disciplinary proceedings in the Church of England according to the Clergy Disciplinary Measure.”

From then on the campaign was taken up by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Council of Christians and Jews. Michael Howard had been appointed a trustee of the CCJ in 2009 – the CEO, the Rev David Gifford, said in explanation of the appointment: “He has a lot of ideas and is very vocal… the Board’s new focus will be tackling anti-Semitism… big time.” Part of that focus, apparently, was to hound Stephen Sizer, accusing him in a press release in March, 2012, of conduct “unbecoming a clergyman” and even referring the matter to the Surrey police. In October, 2012, the Board of Deputies made a formal complaint against Stephen, alleging that he had made anti-Semitic statements and had deliberately introduced his readers to anti-Semitic websites. Stephen had in fact removed the link the previous January and offered to meet leaders of the Jewish community but the offer was turned down. When no disciplinary action was taken, Nick Howard again reported on the story in the Jewish Chronicle, under the headline “Church’s apathy on anti-Semitism.”

However an array of writers, politicians, academics and clergy from different faith groups, including many members of the CCJ, were quick to express their unqualified support for Stephen.

Clare Short, former Secretary of State for International Development, wrote to Stephen’s bishop: “Part of the evil that is being done through this complaint, and similar complaints against others, is to frighten people from speaking out against the terrible injustices being inflicted on the Palestinian people.

“These complaints help to generate fear that similar hurtful and damaging allegations will be made against anyone who seeks to expose the grave breaches of international law being justified by Christian Zionists and those Israelis who favour Israel expanding its control over the whole of historical Palestine…”

Ilan Pappé, Israeli Professor of History at Exeter University, wrote, with reference to sharing a platform with Stephen: “There was not a hint of anti-Semitism in anything Stephen wrote or spoke about. On the contrary, the message was always clear – a concern that some of Israel’s policies and ideologies can create a misguided association of Judaism with dispossession, colonisation and discrimination.

“This is why there are always many Jews, like myself, who work in close association and collaboration with Stephen for the sake of a universal goal of bringing peace and justice to Israel and Palestine. This is also why many progressive Jews read and rely on Stephen’s scholarly work and come in great numbers to attend his talks.”

For the time being the witch hunt has been suspended: the police never acted on the complaint made against him; the CCJ appears to have withdrawn from the fray, after considerable acrimonious internal debate; and the Board of Deputies has had to be content with a “conciliation process” in which Stephen Sizer reaffirmed his long-standing principles: “I care passionately about the safety of the Jewish people and the right of Israel to exist within internationally agreed borders. I have always opposed racism, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial as well as Islamophobia and the denial of the Palestinian right to self-determination and will continue to do so.”

But the blogosphere is keeping up the harassment and one can only imagine the stress caused by such remorseless attacks. Moreover Stephen has been left with hefty legal bills, despite being exonerated, much as the University and College Union was cleared last March on all ten complaints of harassment brought by a Jewish member, but still faces a legal battle over costs which could virtually bankrupt the union.

This use of what has been called “lawfare” is a major weapon in the hasbara arsenal. Facing relentless opponents requires immense courage.

‘Faith groups under attack’ by Hilary Wise in Palestine News: Winter 2014