Correspondence in the Methodist Recorder on Palestine
In August 2017, the Revd Warren Bardsley published in the Methodist Recorder in support of the National Coalition of Christian Organisations in Palestine’s (NCCOP) letter to the World Council of Churches. His letter followed a motion proposed at Methodist Conference this year put by Dr Stephen Leah, proposing that the Open Letter should be read and shared. The Board of Deputies of British Jews circulated a document at the Conference attacking the Open Letter. Dr Leah’s motion was neither accepted nor rejected by the Conference; it was “Not Put”, which meant that no agreement was reached.
Mr Bardsley’s letter was attacked both by the Board of Deputies and by the Rev. Bruce Thompson, Chair of Methodist Friends of Judaism. But Mr Bardsley was given a right of reply and was defended by five other letters, including letters from Dr Stephen Leah, from the Rev. Peter Barber, the Chair of Chester and Stoke-on-Trent District (who said he had read the Board of Deputies letter “with great sadness and a sense of despair”), from JfJfP signatory Diana Neslen and – with the last word – the JfJfP Executive. Last Friday’s Methodist Recorder (September 8) expanded its usual two pages for letters to three, in order to accommodate five letters defending the Rev. Warren Bardsley and the Open Letter.
Jews for Justice for Palestinians have helpfully collated all the letters and correspondence. Here are the nine letters.
A: Letter from the Rev. Warren Bardsley: August 4, 2017
VOICE OF PALESTINIAN CHRISTIANS
At the Birmingham Conference Dr Stephen Leah brought a Notice of Motion commending [note: the motion did not commend the letter; it only proposed reading it] the recent letter from the National Coalition of Christian Organizations in Palestine (NCCOP) regarding the present desperate plight of the Palestinian people. The debate had hardly started when a resolution that ‘the motion be not put’ was carried.
However, prior to this vote a member of the Connexional Team stated that the letter “denies the right of Israel to exist”, a statement which was not contradicted and is plainly untrue. Having read the letter carefully I can find no place where this serious allegation is made. Either the speaker had misunderstood the letter, or was simply quoting verbatim from a document issued by the Board of Jewish Deputies circulating at Conference. (Both the letter and the document were available to Conference members).
The letter is addressed to the World Council of Churches and the ecumenical movement, therefore by implication to the British churches. If the Sabeel-Kairos Palestine document (2009) was a cry from the heart of Palestinian suffering, this letter is an equally intense cry, from a situation described by Latin Patriarch Emeritus Michael Sabbah as “this impossible moment, which is beyond urgent”. That is the context and nature of the letter, signed by no less than 30 Palestinian Christian organisations.
The paragraph which was presumably the source of the allegation says: “we need to stand against religious extremism and any attempt to create a religious state in our land or region”. The context makes it clear that this is a reference to the Occupation of Palestinian land by economic and ultra-orthodox Jewish settlers.
There are now half a million settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, in some one hundred and fifty settlements, built largely on land set aside by the UN for the creation of a Palestinian state 70 years ago. This contravenes the 4th Geneva Convention, which states clearly that “the Occupying Power shall not transfer any part of its population into the territory of the Occupied”. So is not this Israel denying the Palestinian people the right to exist in a state of their own and doing so illegally?
It is noteworthy that there is no reference in the BoD statement to the 50-year long Occupation or to the word justice. The NCCOP letter says: “we are disturbed by the fact that States and Churches are dealing with Israel as if the situation were normal – ignoring the reality of Occupation. As churches united to end apartheid in South Africa the WCC played a pivotal, prophetic and leadership role and we call on you now to do the same….we ask you to defend our right to resist the Occupation creatively and non-violently….that you speak in support of economic measures to end the Occupation”.
There is much more in this epistle which deserves to be read, studied and acted on even by local circuits and congregations. At this critical moment it is imperative that we listen more carefully to the voices of our Palestinian Christian sisters and brothers; to what they say from the heart of their struggle for justice – and less to those who “cry peace, peace, when there is no peace”(Jeremiah 6:14)
Warren Bardsley (Rev)
B: Letter from Marie van der Zyl, Vice-President, Board of Deputies of British Jews: August 18, 2017
INVESTING IN PEACE TOGETHER
In recent weeks, some correspondents in the Methodist Recorder have sought to defend an “open letter” which sets back the prospects for Middle East peace and rejects the value of inter-faith relations.
The letter, from the misleadingly titled “National Coalition of Christian Organisations in Palestine (NCCOP)” – a body which only came into existence for the letter and encompasses none of the major Palestinian denominations on an official level – denies Israel’s right to exist and calls on Christians to withdraw from dialogue with Jews.
The letter calls for the denial of the Jewish right to self-determination in our biblical homeland. But in its invective against Israel, it is strangely silent about the fact that Hamas, a terrorist organisation which targets Israeli civilians with suicide bombs, car-rammings and knife attacks like the attacks in London and Manchester, is seeking to establish an Islamist-controlled state across all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
We can only begin to imagine the results of this for Christians and other minorities, already beleaguered in so many of the surrounding countries, when by contrast Israel is the only country in the region with a growing Christian population.
Meanwhile, rather than seeking peace, the NCCOP letter actually calls for more division between communities, asking that Christians “revisit and challenge your religious dialogue partners, and that you are willing to even withdraw from the partnership if needed” – a highly irresponsible call in favour of a rupture in relations between Christians and Jews. This is an astounding suggestion for anyone to make in the decades of Christian-Jewish reconciliation that began after the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust.
It is no surprise then that at this year’s Methodist Conference, a notice of motion commending the open letter was rejected out of hand. We can do far better than entrenching division, by working together for peace instead. As of this year, based on a resolution at the 2014 Methodist Conference, the Board of Deputies of British Jews is proud to be working with Churches Together in Britain and Ireland on a ground-breaking project called “Invest in Peace”. The project brings to the UK Palestinian and Israeli peace activists, inviting them to share their stories with audiences comprising Jews, Christians and Muslims, as well as people of no faith.
The first such series of events took place in London in May involving Methodist and United Reformed churches and Reform and Orthodox synagogues. Unlike the armchair advocates from whom we hear so often, the speakers told people about the losses they had personally suffered, but how this is not a cause for division. It is a cause for unity and the urgent pursuit of a lasting peace.
Together, these places of worship sent a message out loud and clear that British Jews and Christians will not be divided. We reject the NCCOP’s call to import conflict and will strive to export peace instead.
Marie van der Zyl, Vice-President, the Board of Deputies of British Jews
C: Letter from the Rev. Bruce Thompson, Chair of Methodist Friends of Judaism: August 25, 2017
THIS IS A ‘TROUBLING’ DOCUMENT
The Rev. Warren Bardsley’s letter (Recorder, August 4) regarding the notice of motion brought to the Conference by Dr Stephen Leah “commending the recent letter from the National Coalition of Christian Organisations in Palestine (NCCOP)” is extraordinary. He is correct is writing that a member of the Connexional Team stated in the debate that the letter “denies the right of Israel to exist”, which it does, yet Mr Bardsley claims this “is plainly untrue”.
Mr Bardsley says that he has read the letter “carefully”. Let me remind him of a few things the NCCOP letter said. “We are still suffering because of one political declaration from a Western Empire, based on a twisted theological premise”. The declaration referred to is the Balfour Declaration, which has been debated through previous letters on this page. The term “twisted theological premise” is not only a denial of the right of Israel to exist; it also debunks the prophets on which that theological view was formed; it even questions the Jewish understanding of covenant. Let us be clear, the same prophets that foretold the return of Jews to the land are the very same ones that we in the Christian Church draw on to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah; are we to now think of those prophecies as twisted too?
Let us take a look at a few more sentences contained in the NCCOP letter: “That you revisit and challenge your dialogue partners and that you are even willing to withdraw from the partnership if needed”. Should we really be supportive of ending dialogue? Is refusing to talk a way to peace? A dangerous path indeed.
Again: “We ask that you publicly and legally challenge Christian organisations that discredit our work and legitimacy”. Who is to decide which Christian organisations are to be castigated? And for what exactly? Perhaps we might also take action against those Methodists that belong to organisations whose officers circulate deeply offensive material.
The NCCOP letter requests that we embrace the boycott of Israel, something that the Methodist Church rejected after a protracted year-long consultation that cost the Church in excess of £100,000. What a shocking waste of money in a cash-strapped Church. The letter completely ignores the rise of Islamism that is, of course, a major threat to everyone in the region but the Islamists themselves.
There are many other aspects of the NCCOP letter that are troubling; for the sake of brevity, I will refer to just one more: “That you defend our right and duty to resist the occupation creatively and non-violently”. On first reading, that sounds very worthy; but note the insertion of the word “and”. What does it mean to resist both creatively and non-violently? Isn’t “non-violently” sufficient? What does “creatively” mean when it is an addition to “non-violently”? I know that some would find this very helpful in their justification of Palestinian terrorism.
I vividly recall someone, now a senior Church leader, claim that the victims of a Tel Aviv café suicide bomber were “legitimate targets” because if they weren’t serving members of the Israeli Defence Force, then they have been in the past or would be in the future.
In my opinion, the NCCOP letter falls foul of the International Definition of Antisemitism and indeed the definition adopted by the Methodist Church too. Simply because it is produced by “Christian organisations” doesn’t make it acceptable.
Instead of falling for propaganda in this tragic conflict, in which so many are hurting, it would be far better not to take sides. We are informed “this is the voice of the Palestinian people”. It isn’t. It is the voice of a certain section within the Palestinian community and a small one at that.
I will share another Palestinian voice, that of a senior Church leader with whom we are in partnership: “It breaks my heart to see Churches in conflict over Israel/Palestine. Churches need to remember that Israel/Palestine is only one of many problems in the world”.
“Rather than motions and lobbying, look for more positive responses to the situation. If you have come here to be biased, you are not welcome here”.
Rev. Bruce Thompson
D: Letter from Dr Stephen Leah: September 1 2017
‘GENUINE DIALOGUE’ IS NEEDED
It is sad when correspondents so overstate their views as to misrepresent other people and the facts. Such is the letter of the Vice-President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl (Recorder, August 18).
In attacking the Open Letter of the National Coalition of Christian Organisations in Palestine (NCCOP) to the World Council of Churches (WCC), she alleges that the organisation only formed recently to write the letter. Actually, the NCCOP has been active for several years. It has close links to the Joint Advocacy Initiative in Jerusalem, as well as the WCC, and is representative of all the major denominations.
Contrary to what the Board of Deputies claim, nowhere does the letter deny Israel’s right to exist or self-determination for Jews. Nor does it call on Christians to withdraw from dialogue with Jews. Rather, the letter is a cry for help from a people who have been living under a military occupation for 50 years and who are commemorating the anniversary of a unilateral British decision, the Balfour Declaration, to hand their country over to others. They speak of fears for the end of their Palestinian Christian community, of their yearning for freedom and what Emeritus Latin Patriarch Sabbah has described as the current “moment of impossible”.
Marie Van der Zyl also falsely suggests that the Methodist Conference rejected a Notice of Motion to commend the letter. Wrong on two counts! Firstly, the motion was not rejected, rather it was “not put”, which means it enters the record as having been discussed without a view being formed. Secondly, the Notice of Motion did not commend the letter; rather it asked us to read and share it. I know; I was the author of the Notice of Motion! The call to read and share was simply what we are encouraged to do by the World Council of Churches.
How sad it is that the Board of Deputies seeks to prevent us even reading a WCC referred letter from our fellow believers in Palestine!
The irony of the Board’s attempt to suppress this letter is that they say they want to promote dialogue between all sides! But how do you promote dialogue by lambasting any Palestinian who dares speak out of turn?
Genuine dialogue amidst conflict only comes when there is honesty and a willingness to listen. It also refuses to ignore structural facts of the conflict, such as the military Occupation, the illegal settlement building on occupied land, theft of water, the blockade of Gaza, and much more. It includes listening to the Palestinian civil society call, supported by Desmond Tutu, for a boycott of Israel until it ends the Occupation. It includes respecting international law, such as following our Conference’s call to avoid investments in illegal Israeli settlements.
Of course, readers can form their own view. I therefore encourage all to read and consider prayerfully the open letter from the NCCOP to the World Council of Churches. It is still on the WCC website; simply Google, “NCCOP letter”.
Dr Stephen Leah
E: September 8, 2017: Letters from 1) the Rev. Warren Bardsley; 2) Peter Barber, Chair, Chester and Stoke-on-Trent District; 3) Diana Neslen, JfJfP signatory; 4) John Summerwill; 5) Deborah Maccoby on behalf of the Exec, JfJfP.
The Methodist Recorder extended its usual two pages for letters to three pages to accommodate these five letters criticising the letters of Marie van der Zyl and the Rev. Bruce Thompson.
PEACE AND JUSTICE IN ISRAEL PALESTINE
1) The Rev. Bruce Thompson’s reply to my letter of Aug 4th is a classic case of taking a text out of its context. Without repeating what I said in that letter, I simply want to underline the point that the letter from the National Coalition of Christian Organisations in Palestine (NCCOP) to the World Council of Churches is not fundamentally about the right of the state of Israel to exist; it is about questioning the right of Israel to deny to its Palestinian citizens the freedoms it claims for itself, amounting to a basic denial of its own Declaration of Independence in 1948: “it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, conscience, education or culture”.
It’s about questioning the right of Israel to initiate and perpetuate a 50 year-long colonial Occupation, in defiance of international humanitarian law, which in scope and intensity becomes increasingly unjust and demoralising, thereby denying statehood to the Palestinian people. It’s about the right of the victims of this Occupation to resist with the tools of creative non-violence, the principles of which are described clearly in the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5. This creative non-violence has been practised in our own time by Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, the Christian Institute of Southern Africa and, in the present context, includes the strategy of boycott, divestment and sanctions.
If the tone of the letter’s language is desperate, it is because the situation is ‘beyond urgent’. Dialogue matters, but here is a sober recognition that, through all the years of talking, the situation has steadily worsened. No-one appears to be listening. The letter calls for honesty and focussed action towards a lasting peace built on justice.
Ironically, Mr Thompson invokes the Old Testament prophets in the context of covenant; it was the 8th century prophets, notably Amos, first Isaiah and Micah, who insisted that to practice injustice against the poor and dispossessed is to violate the covenant and incur judgement from the God whose gracious promises extend to all people. In Biblical terms, if there is bias in God it is towards restorative justice.
Finally, though neither Mr Thompson nor myself would be able to quote exact figures, his dismissive comment that “this is not the voice of the Palestinian people, but a section of the Palestinian community and a small one at that” is hard to justify. The Sabeel-Kairos document was supported by all the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem and its signatories were in the main acknowledged Church leaders. As far as the Christian community is concerned, among the 30-odd signatories to the NCCOP letter are some of the most highly respected Church-based organisations in Palestine/Israel, including Sabeel, the Holy Land Trust, Bethlehem Bible College, Wi’am and Sabeel-Kairos Palestine.
Incidentally, does Mr Thompson know of any Palestinian organisation which supports the Occupation? As for the wider Palestinian community , I wonder what the five million plus Palestinian refugees still living in camps within or on the borders of historic Palestine — including the hell that is Gaza — would have to say? It is not without significance that over 130 Palestinian organisations have declared support for the burgeoning BDS movement.
I continue to maintain that this is a document which, together with “A moment of Truth” (the Sabeel-Kairos Palestine Document), deserves to be read and studied by any church group wanting to engage in meaningful dialogue with the present struggle for a just peace in Palestine/Israel.
Rev. Warren Bardsley
2) It was with great sadness and a sense of despair that I read the letter from the vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl (Recorder, August 18). Sadly, the letter, its tone, its inaccuracy, its false presentation of the Methodist Conference and the disparaging characterisation of those who support the United Nations resolutions and the Palestinian people as “armchair advocates” only serves to create further injustice and division while purporting to work for peace.
The National Coalition of Christian Organisations in Palestine (NCCOP) letter does not, as Marie van der Zyl claims, deny Israel’s right to exist and neither does the Amman Call of 2007, referred to in the NCCOP open letter. The claim made for Christians to withdraw from dialogue appears to have been deliberately taken out of context to make it say what it doesn’t say.
If we are truly to invest in peace, then the perpetuation of injustice and violence, from wherever it comes, needs to be challenged and confronted – that I would suggest is a Gospel imperative.
The NCCOP Open Letter, the Amman Call and the Sabeel-Kairos Palestine document all specifically call for non-violent action to challenge the injustice inflicted upon the Palestinian people. The call to Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) is a powerful non-violent tool that seeks to put pressure on the Israeli Government to engage in seeking a just and permanent solution and comply by the United Nations resolutions. Regrettably it is the letter from the vice-president of the Board of Deputies that imports and perpetuates conflict and division and denies the longed-for justice and peace.
I shall continue to pray and work for peace, including the use of non-violent direct action, for my Christian, Jewish and Muslims sisters and brothers in Palestine-Israel and elsewhere in our deeply troubled world.
Peter Barber, Chair, Chester and Stoke-on-Trent District.
3) It was with a degree of dismay that I read the letter from the Board of Deputies to the Methodist Recorder. Since the Board presumes to speak for all Jews, I feel duty bound as a Jew, to dissent.
I have read the letter from NCOOP and find it deeply moving and indeed distressing in the itemisation it gives of long term oppression and discrimination against the indigenous Christians in Palestine, whose position under Israeli occupation is nothing short of catastrophic.
In view of the nature of the oppression they suffer, their demands seem eminently reasonable. They ask only that the reality of Israel as an apartheid state is recognised, a reality that I who grew up in apartheid South Africa, can vouch for, that the Balfour declaration be condemned, and that a clear theological stand be taken against groups who justify the occupation and privileges granted to one people over the other based on ethnicity and covenant.
Ms Van Zyl’s misleading response seems to show that she and the Board have no answer to the charge. So since the Board cannot defend Israel’s actions, it falls back on distraction and on nationalistic demands, namely Jewish self-determination. Many Jews regard ourselves not as privileged Middle Easterners but as citizens of the country in which we live. And believe that we should not be privileged at the expense of the indigenous people of the land of Israel/Palestine. The Israeli defence mirrors that of white South Africa and when Ms Van Zyl talks about denying Israel’s existence, she really means denying Israel the right to privilege international Jewry against the indigenous residents of the territory.
The fact that there is a growing Christian population in Israel is something of a diversion. There is a simple reason for this growth, namely the Christians who emigrated from Russia, people with no ties to the land, but accepted because of their European heritage. Most found some vague Jewish connection and that was enough for the state. Like South Africa, Israel is keen on European migration.
The mind-set that can dismiss the indigenous Palestinians without addressing their concerns is embedded in the Board’s letter. It should be noted that Ms van der Zyl does not once mention the belligerent occupation or the right of indigenous Palestinians to self-determination. The absence of any scrap of concern for the oppressed tells us more than her whole letter about the world view of the Board and its servants.
The Board suggests that “dialogue” between Christians and Jews is the answer. Dialogue which is conditional on supporting ethnic privilege is not worth the investment. And it certainly will not lead to any sort of “peace”, predicated as it is on injustice and oppression. Until the Board and its servants stop acting as advocates for Israel, dialogue will lead nowhere.
It is time for the Christian churches to respond with courage and commitment to the trauma of the Palestinian Christians and to dismiss the special pleadings of those with the power to change the situation but who refuse to countenance equality and justice to those over whom Israel holds dominion.
4) There is much “fake news” in the letter from the Board of Deputies of British Jews (Recorder , August 18). Writing about the National Coalition of Christian Organisations in Palestine, Marie van der Zyl says that it came into existence only to publish the Open Letter it recently sent to the World Council of Churches and “encompasses none of the major Palestinian denominations at an official level”. In fact, as a Google search shows, it has been around for at least three years and the letter is endorsed by the Sabeel-Kairos Palestine movement, which is supported by the Latin Archbishop and Orthodox Patriarchs.
Implying that the letter does not represent Palestinian Christian views is a deliberate distraction from the substance of the letter – its hard-hitting criticism of Israel’s continued illegal and oppressive occupation of Palestinian lands.
It is unfair to claim that the letter “calls for Christians to withdraw from dialogue with Jews” without setting this in context. What the letter wants is for inter-faith dialogue to include a serious challenge to Jewish people to recognise the plight of Palestinians and for Christians to withdraw “if the occupation and injustices in Palestine and Israel are not challenged”.
Ms van der Zyl’s claim that “the letter calls for the denial of the Jewish right to self-determination in our biblical homeland” takes some teasing out. “Our biblical homeland” implies that Jews alone have a claim to it, ignoring the rights of Christians and Muslims, especially those born there. The Holy Land is their and our biblical homeland too. Israel is not, as the Board of Deputies often claims, the only Jewish state in the world; it is not a Jewish state at all, but, from its inception, a secular one with a Jewish majority and significant non-Jewish minorities.
“Armchair advocates” of a Jewish State, like the Board of Deputies, fly in the face of majority Israeli opinion, which has repeatedly opposed the efforts of right-wingers like Netanyahu to legislate for constitutional change. Liberal Israelis and secular ones, along with Israeli Arabs, would agree with the Palestinian demand “that you take a stand against religious extremism and against any attempt to create a religious state in our land and region”.
5) The Rev. Bruce Thompson (Recorder, August 25), criticising the Rev. Warren Bardsley for defending the Open Letter from the National Coalition of Christian Organisations in Palestine (NCCOP) to the World Council of Churches, writes: “Instead of falling for propaganda in this tragic conflict, in which so many are hurting, it would be far better not to take sides”. His letter bears out the truth of the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”.
Mr Thompson takes this sentence from the NCCOP Open Letter – “We are still suffering because of one political declaration from a Western Empire, based on a twisted theological premise” — and interprets it thus:
“The term ‘twisted theological premise’ is not only a denial of the right of Israel to exist, it also debunks the prophets on which that theological view was formed; it even questions the Jewish understanding of covenant. Let us be clear, the same prophets that foretold the return of Jews to the land are the very same ones that we in the Christian Church draw on to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah”.
We would remind Mr Thompson of Lord Balfour’s words in 1919:
“In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country….Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit this ancient land”.
In saying that the Balfour Declaration was “based on a twisted theological premise”, the Open Letter simply criticises Lord Balfour’s Christian Zionist belief that a mass return of Jews to the Land of Israel was necessary in order to bring about the Second Coming of Christ. The Open Letter does not refuse to accept Israel’s existence at the present time. And it certainly does not debunk the Hebrew Prophets or question the Jewish understanding of covenant. Indeed, as many Christian Zionists believe that, after Christ’s Second Coming, Jews will either convert to Christianity or go to Hell, it is the Christian Zionist beliefs that are anti-Jewish.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the Prophets interpreted the covenant to mean that Israelite/Jewish self-determination and residence in the land were conditional on actions that accorded with truth and justice. The Open Letter is simply asking that the just and legitimate rights of Palestinians — entirely dismissed by Lord Balfour and disregarded to this day by the State of Israel and its apologists — should be recognised.
Mr Thompson also brings his idiosyncratic interpretative skills to bear on the Open Letter’s request “that you defend our right and duty to resist the occupation creatively and non-violently”. He writes:
“note the insertion of the word ‘and’. What does it mean to resist both creatively and non-violently? Isn’t ‘non-violently’ sufficient? What does ‘creatively’ mean when it is an addition to ‘non-violently’? I know that some would find this very helpful in their justification of Palestinian terrorism”.
Since when has “creative” meant “violent”? Has Mr Thompson never heard of the Palestinian term “Beautiful Resistance”, which means creative cultural resistance? It seems that Mr Thompson’s own highly creative imagination has run away with him here.
Deborah Maccoby on behalf of the Executive, Jews for Justice for Palestinians