An Open Letter From Friends of Sabeel To Our Supporters and to Internet Media
By The Rev. Canon Dr. Richard K. Toll
December 12, 2005

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As the chair of Friends of Sabeel—North America I am aware that Sabeel and its director, The Rev. Canon Naim Ateek, have received heightened press coverage in recent months, mainly on the internet but also in major newspapers. While allowing us to get our message out, regrettably some of the coverage has willfully distorted and twisted the message of Sabeel. At the Sabeel conference in Toronto, Canada, in October 2005, Canon Ateek made an appeal for the articulation of truth with respect to Sabeel’s position as a reflection of the need for justice.

The media interest seems to have been spawned by the document Sabeel published at Easter 2005 entitled Morally Responsible Investment: A Nonviolent Response to the Occupation in response to the global movement, particularly among the churches, to divest from corporations profiting from the state of Israel’s illegal occupation.

In its document, Sabeel makes the point that churches and individuals need to look at their investments to determine if they support corporations profiting from occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It states that those companies need to be challenged. That challenge may include positive engagement with the companies at stockholder meetings and at annual corporate meetings to demand accountability. It can include withdrawing investments if companies fail to comply with investors’ sense of moral responsibility.

The Sabeel document does not call for divestment from the state of Israel or for a blanket disinvestment from companies doing business inside Israel. It specifically targets the occupation and addresses the fact that after 38 years of various failed attempts by the churches toward ending the occupation that the churches themselves must enact their own moral responsibility, demonstrate accountability to the Palestinian people and not add to their burden by supporting the occupation through their investments.

For example, Caterpillar has become a target of some churches and other organizations because that company provides bulldozers to Israel that are weaponized and used for demolishing Palestinian homes and for building the separation wall around and within the West Bank.

It is important that the only actions which Sabeel supports are non-violent, with the goal of ending the continuing illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Using economic leverage is a form of nonviolent resistance to the occupation.

In violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel’s occupation is violating the human rights of Palestinians by systematically confiscating their land, water resources and olive groves in the illegal process of settlement expansion.

Many pro-Israel apologists deny that the state of Israel is doing wrong, even though for the last 55 years it continues to violate international law and UN resolutions and even ignores the strong criticism of Israeli human rights groups like B’tselem.

Many pro state of Israel apologists claim that Sabeel either supports terrorism or fails to condemn violent acts against Israeli citizens. They seem not to have read-- or have misread—our publications. In all our defining documents we clearly condemn all forms of violence. The Jerusalem Sabeel Document: Principles for a Just Peace in Palestine-Israel explains the theology of Sabeel, and our booklet on Suicide Bombers provides a Christian perspective on what is theologically and morally wrong with violence.

I have known Naim Ateek for 40 years and have always admired his interpretation of nonviolence as a solution to the problems of the Middle East. One of my own learnings is that the cause of the violence in the region is the violence of the occupation. Israel is the powerful party. Israel has overwhelming military power, it is the fourth largest military in the world protecting a nation only the size of New Jersey and its small population of only 8 million. The US is Israel’s primary arms supplier. The claim that Israel is threatened with extinction by Palestinian violence is spurious.

End the occupation and the violence will end.

Sabeel and Canon Ateek have been accused of being anti-Semitic even though Sabeel consistently condemns anti-Semitism in all its ugly forms. Sabeel is accused of being anti-Semitic because we dare to criticize the policies of the state of Israel. The Episcopal Church made clear the difference between the two in its 1990 General Convention, which states: “Resolved that the 70th General Convention of the Episcopal Church recognizes that a distinction exists between the propriety of legitimate criticism of Israeli governmental policy and action, and the impropriety of anti-Jewish prejudice. And be it further resolved that the 70th General Convention of the Episcopal Church deplores the expression of anti-Jewish prejudices, sometimes referred to as the imprecise word anti-Semitism in whatever form and whatever occasion and urge its total elimination from the deliberations of the Episcopal Church members and its various units.”

Naim Ateek, an Episcopal priest, and many others who criticize the policies of the state of Israel, are falsely accused of being anti-Semitic. The state of Israel is not above criticism and needs to be challenged when its policies are wrong. And its policy of occupation is wrong.

Sabeel uses the language of liberation theology. That theology speaks with words such as oppressed and oppressor; it speaks of suffering and crucifixion—biblical images that relate to the experience of brutality and the misuse of power. Those who do not want the state of Israel to be criticized deny these accusations and label liberation theology as anti-Semitic. They deny the violence of the occupation and all of its ugly ramifications—settlements, land confiscations, demolition of homes, state violence against civilians.

In Denver at our Sabeel conference in October, the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado published a letter of accusations against Sabeel mailed to 40 co-sponsors of the Sabeel conference, asking them to withdraw their co-sponsorship. To their credit, not one withdrew. It has been a fact that many supporters of the state of Israel think anyone who disagrees with them must be painted with a brush of anti-Semitism. This is especially true of Israel’s supporters in the United States. But by trying to silence people, supporters of Israel are only hurting the Jewish state and the Jewish people by allowing it to continue with policies that are increasingly seen by the peoples of the world to be in conflict with traditional Jewish values of justice.

Our work with Palestinian Christians reflects their long-standing perception of being abandoned by Christians and their churches around the world. Fundamentalist Christians, and particularly a subset referred to as Christian Zionists, who interpret scripture literally and support the state of Israel unconditionally, have preferred friendship with the Israeli government while totally ignoring the indigenous Christians of the land—the Palestinian Christians. These are the living stones who have carried the faith in the Holy Land for two millennia. These are the descendants of Christians who lived in first-century Palestine, who partook of bread and salt with the apostles, and who have been faithful stewards of the land where Jesus lived and the holy places where he walked, taught, and died. They are a small minority whose presence is threatened by the hardships of occupation. From 1948 to 2005 the percentage of Christians in the Holy Land has declined from 15% to less than 2%. Yet, many Christian supporters of Israel have done nothing to support these brothers and sisters in Christ.

On the subject of Christian Zionism and its support of Israel I would remind everyone of the extreme anti-Semitism of Christian Zionists . They believe that by getting Jews back to Israel Armageddon can then happen and those Jews who don’t finally convert to Christianity will be killed in that final conflict.

We have a strong statement against Christian Zionism on our website. We see it as a distortion of biblical theology and an aberration—a very dangerous and false theology.

The birthplace of Jesus is under siege right now with the separation wall. Not only does this wall separate Palestinians from their land but also leads to the destruction of homes, separation of families from each other, from their jobs, children from schools, patients in nursing homes from their families and from getting medical help in general.

The Bible can be such a dangerous book when interpreted literally and according to an extremist ideology. I fear it is being misused in this way by fundamentalist Christians as well as well as by Jewish fundamentalists. And of course we know there are those within Islam who have hijacked the Islamic faith with their vision of violence and this has added to the burdens of the region.

I would encourage our members and others who are not familiar with our publications to visit our website I also request that you please forward this open letter to your respective lists.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Richard K. Toll