My Journey to Palestine

My journey to Palestinian activism given at a PSC Southampton dinner in April 2024

My first memories of Palestine @ university in the mid 1970s were of Palestinian groups like the PLFP hijacking civilian aircraft in Europe and the Middle East to publicize their cause.

I became a Christian at university after a nominal upbringing. Those most influential in my nurture were American evangelicals who believed the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 and Israel’s victory against the Arab states in 1967 were the fulfilment of biblical prophecy. I lapped up best selling authors like Hal Lindsay’s, Late Great Planet Earth, which insisted we were the final generation and that the Battle of Armgeddon would occur soon – with the US and Israel on God’s side and atheistic communist Russia and China on the bad side. 

My degree was in geography as my first love has always been to explore creation and travel. When I began to train as an Anglican priest, it became a passion to visit the Holy Land – seen by many as the 5th Gospel.

My first visit – a subsidised familiarisation tour for clergy organised by a travel company to encourage clergy to lead parish pilgrimages, mostly focussed on sites mentioned in the Bible – Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Galilee – and there was little interaction with contemporary Israel or the Palestinian issue. What began as a journey of a lifetime quickly turned into an addiction and for the next 30+ years I returned to Palestine at least once a year, sometimes twice or more times. 

The first pilgrimage I organised had a Messianic Jew as the tour leader – Zvi. I couldn’t work out why he was nervous about meeting us at our hotel in Arab East Jerusalem – we picked him up in Israeli West Jerusalem. As always happens with tour groups, we were in the Old City on the Via Dolorosa and there was another group ahead of us so we had to wait. To make use of the down time we had an informal Q&A session. Someone asked Zvi about the Palestinians. On cue he pulled out a little leaflet and gave us each a copy. On it was a quote from Golda Meir denying there was such a thing as a Palestinian. They were Arabs who had infiltrated Israel. 

Late on the tour we visited Nazareth and met Canon Riah Abu El Assal, then the vicar of Christ church. He had been banned from travel by the Israeli’s because of his political involvement with Yasser Arafat and the PLO. As we sat in his church, and with Zvi standing by, Riah gave us a short talk which I am sure he gave to every pilgrimage group visiting Nazareth. In it he explained how he was an Israeli, an Arab, a Palestinian, and a Christian. In less than 5 minutes he had generated a dose of cognitive dissonance in each of us. Zvi our guide denied Palestinians existed and here was Riah claiming not only to be a Palestinian but an Israeli and a Christian as well. 

That was the turning point in my spiritual and political journey recognizing that there were two parallel, contradictory and competing narratives – often mutually exclusive.  On successive visits, I met with more Palestinian leaders and organisations such as Holy Land Trust, Wiam, BBC, Sabeel, Kairos, and incorporated visits to meet them in our pilgrimage itineraries.

I became a director of a travel company, Highway Journeys, which promoted what came to be called Living Stones tours – meeting with the living stones and not just the dead archaeological ones. 

I undertook a Masters degree part time and my thesis examined the ethnical management of pilgrimages. For example, the vast majority of Christian pilgrimages to the Holy land never met with the local Christians and followed an itinerary promoted by the Israeli ministry of tourism which would include an obligatory visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, the Western Wall, Masada, a kibbutz and diamond factory. 

Just after the first intifada, Garth Hewitt, a singer and songwriter invited me to join him on a concert tour of the West Bank. I became his wine taster, PA and sound engineer. We visited Ramallah, Zebabde and Nablus, still under curfew and experienced what it is like to live under military occupation. On my return I was held at Ben Gurion, strip searched and accused of spying.

The Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem was Samir Kafity. At the end of that tour he asked if I would host a young Palestinian clergyman – Zahi from Nazareth, in our Guildford parish to give him more experience of the Anglican Church. So for three months Zahi lived with us. In taking Zahi to events I discovered what it was like to be a Palestinian. I introduced him to the mayor of Guildford… And in a church meeting during the Q&A he was asked ‘what is a Palestinian?’

In the mid 1990’s I decided to undertake a PhD examining the historical roots, theological basis and political agenda of Christian Zionism. No one had undertaken such a study before. I also wanted to interrogate my own Christian roots and understand why Western Christians,  especially in the US supported Israel and denigrated Palestinians. A ten-year academic journey led to a PhD, two books and a lot of hot water. I discovered that Christian Zionism preceded Jewish Zionism by at least a generation and Christians were largely responsible for sponsoring the Zionist project. The other profound realisation is that at least nine out of ten Zionists in the world today are Christians. 

The Zionist Lobby tried to get my PhD revoked, set up an anonymous blog ‘seismic shock’ to try and discredit me, falsely accusing me to antisemitism, associating with holocaust deniers and terrorists. Unable to intimidate me, they tried to isolate me by intimidating anyone and everyone associated with me – so I would be invited to speak at an event and would then be disinvited when they came under pressure, then occasionally re-invited. 

Ironically, the attacks opened many other doors and I was privileged to help set up the Balfour Project, speak at PSC conferences, helped organise several conferences in Palestine  – Christ at the Checkpoint, Sabeel and Kairos, as well as two international conferences for the League of Arab States. 

When my books were translated into Arabic and Farsi,  I received invitations to lecture in universities and colleges in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Jordon, the Gulf States, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Malaysia.

I helped produce a film about Christian Zionism called ‘With God on our Side’ (YouTube for free) and made several extensive tours of universities and colleges in the USA and Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

When intimidation and isolation didn’t work they tried to incriminate me – thankfully the police told them to go away. Then the Board of Deputies brought a series of complaints against me to the Church of England, over a ten year period, alleging I had offended the Jewish community, which eventually succeeded and led to my suspension, even though I had retired a year earlier from parish ministry to direct the Peacemaker Trust. It simply means I cannot lead Anglican services until 2030…

As my barrister pointed the BoD were unable to find a single word of mine that was deemed antisemitic and could not, or would not, present a single Jewish witness to say I had offended them.  

God has a sense of humour and despite the Church of England closing the door, many others doors have opened and I now work closely with several NGO’s campaigning for Palestinian rights.

For example, I’m chair of the Convivencia Alliance, chair of ICAHD, international coordinator for the Sabeel conference on religious extremism being held in Bethlehem in November and the director of the Institute for the Study of Christian Zionism to be launched shortly. I work closely with IHRC, JNP and ODSC. I am also now on the European Coordinating Committee and Associations for Palestine (ECCP).

If you would like more information and hyperlinks to my activities see here.