Christian charities and Israel: A response
Christian NGOs should remain apolitical, and resist the strong temptation to take sides in a conflict that is so confused and controversial
Dexter Van Zile (Why are Christian charities bashing Israel? December 15th) admirably exposed a major problem in the Christian development agency universe; a problem that too often seems to focus on only one geographical area in the whole world.
Embrace the Middle East (an evolution of a long-standing agency with a history of excellent work on behalf of the poor of the Middle East), Christian Aid, World Vision, The Amos Trust, and many others do provide aid to the poor and they do engage in commendable development projects in the cultural and religious turmoil we call the Middle East. Sadly, however, the majority of such charities seem to have an unacceptable political bias where this one geographical area is concerned - that narrow strip of land popularly known as “Israel-Palestine” or “Palestine-Israel” depending on your worldview.
As someone who has worked in the Christian charity sector for over 25 years and with a special concern in the Middle East, I would like to offer a four point rationale for this anomaly in the mindsets of otherwise thoroughly admirable, caring organisations.
1. As Christian organisations, these NGOs are underpinned by theological principles and beliefs. Unlike in the US, where the description “evangelical” usually means “pro-Israel”, the same word in the British church mostly means the opposite. The teaching that the Christian church has replaced the biblically “chosen” people (the descendants of Abraham through his son Isaac, known in the Bible as the Children of Israel) is prevalent in most British Christian denominations, stemming from historical theological positions going back to the earliest centuries of the Christian era.
At it’s mildest, this position sees the Jewish people as no different to any other people group in the world and therefore not requiring any special theological respect as people of the “Old Testament”. At its most extreme, adherents would still refer to the Jewish people as “Christ-killers” (and, yes, those words do still appear today).
On any one point between these two doctrinal extremes, we are looking at an outlook towards Israel that is always going to be neutral to negative at best. When this, often spiritually sub-conscious worldview, meets a loud, aggressive proclamation of injustice and rights abuse allegedly perpetrated by these same Jewish people in the guise of the state of Israel, we can easily see where an anti-Israel bias begins and grows from.
Unfortunately, these mindsets are further aggravated by a centuries-old latent anti-semitism that rears its head in the Church, academia and the British establishment.
2. Today, any NGO starting to work officially in the disputed West Bank or Gaza will have a minder or guide who is well-versed in anti-israel “occupation rhetoric” and eventually a locally-engaged staff or volunteer corps who will have grown up immersed in official hate education and incitement against Israel as a state and the Jewish people as individuals.
Since Israeli citizens are not permitted to travel without special permission in the disputed territories, these are the only people an NGO can work with in that area if they want to help poor and disadvantaged Palestinian Arabs. And of course, if an NGO displayed a pro-Israel or even a neutral attitude towards Israel, their ability to operate would be curtailed pretty swiftly.
Any contact with Israeli pro-Palestinian groups will also introduce the influence of left-wing organisations who sometimes seem as much against their own state as they are for a future state of Palestine
3. As Dexter Van Zile points out, it is a good fund-raiser to support the downtrodden Palestinians suffering under nasty Israeli “occupation”; especially since most people being appealed to will never have been to the region themselves to see and hear from those living there.
Many, many Westerners - celebrities, politicians and ordinary travellers - have had negative predispositions concerning Israel and the Palestinian Arabs turned on their head when they see the realities on the ground and speak to real Israelis and Arabs. Financial appeals that are “pro-Palestinian”, flavoured with a good dose of the aforesaid occupation rhetoric against Israel, bring in a lot of dollars, pounds, and Euros (I believe at the expense of potential aid to the genuinely persecuted minorities of the West Bank and Gaza).
4. The final major point is where the spark really becomes a raging fire. That is in the relationship between Christian NGOs and Western political groups espousing boycotts, divestment, and sanctions of Israel. Their claims to be fighting for a two state solution are shallow. What they really want is the destruction of Israel and its replacement by a “one state solution”; Palestine on all Israel’s territory.
A cursory glance at, for example, the logo of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign illustrates this. Christian NGOs should not be in bed with these often vitriolic people, with whom rational debate is impossible concerning issues around Israel and the Palestinian Arabs.
Unfortunately the above rationale for the attitudes of many NGOs means that good, well-intentioned Christians, their supporters and donors, are playing right into the hands of a Palestinian leadership that cynically exploits both its own people and easily-influenced NGO leaderships, whose theological mindsets predispose them to be pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel.
Sadly, even local Christians working with outside NGOs often hold to a twisted form of Liberation Theology espoused by the traditional denominations and crystalised in the joint Palestinian churches’ 2009 Kairos document.
Even worse, while I would be the last to wish for good existing aid projects to be curtailed, vital issues of human rights abuse and religious persecution are being sacrificed at the altar of maintaining favour with Palestinian officials and being allowed the freedom to do “permitted work” in the territories. I am referring chiefly to the persecution of Christians in the PA and Hamas controlled areas.
Testimonies coming out of both the West Bank and Gaza reveal some horrendous anti-Christian incidents, from a Christian allegedly being singled out for beheading by a gang in the West Bank to accusations of forced conversions to Islam among the shrinking and fragile Christian community in Gaza.
For an NGO to adapt its modus operandi, literature and appeals to local political pressures is understandable - not necessarily morally perfect, but understandable in human terms. What has happened in the Middle East, however, is the politicisation of what many believe to be an erroneous theological position.
Exposure to PA officials and workers pushing an aggressive anti-Israel agenda stokes the embers of anti-semitism and anti-zionism that exude sub-consciously from Christian replacement theology, turning some NGO chiefs into a propaganda extension of the oppressive and Israel-hating PA leadership.
Christian NGOs should resist these pressures, remain apolitical, and resist the strong temptation to take sides in a conflict that is so confused and controversial.
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