A week ago, we reported on our blog that university and academic department sponsorship of anti-Israel programs has risen dramatically in the last few years. In further evidence of this trend, two universities in Michigan plan to host Naim Ateek, the founder and director of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, in the next few days.
On Saturday, March 16, Ateek is scheduled to speak on the “Requirements for a Just Peace in Palestine-Israel” at Western Michigan University. Two academic departments, the Institute of Government and Politics and the Department of Political Science are listed as sponsors. No student group appears to be involved in bringing Ateek to campus. Two days later, Ateek will speak at Grand Valley State University, a talk sponsored by the Middle East Studies and Religious Studies Programs of the university, as well as several student groups.
Sabeel, which has several chapters in the U.S., espouses what it calls “Palestinian liberation theology.” This “theology” reinterprets the Hebrew Bible in an attempt to bolster the legitimacy of the Palestinian position and disavow Zionism. In his frequent speaking appearances at Sabeel conferences and other gatherings, Ateek has said that claims that the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people is “bad theology.” He asserts that the establishment of Israel is a “relapse to the most primitive concepts of an exclusive, tribal God.” He also has accused Israel and its supporters of abandoning God, saying that Israel “has no fear” of God and that Israel has instead adopted “security” as a new God.
On several occasions in the past, Ateek has used Christian imagery to demonize Israel by comparing modern-day Palestinians to Jesus and their suffering to his crucifixion. He has referred to the Israeli occupation as the “original sin” that must cease before Palestinian violence will end. In a 2001 Easter message, Ateek explicitly said: “Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him…The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily.”
More recently, Ateek has employed Holocaust-related language to condemn Israel, an oft-used rhetorical device for the anti-Israel movement. In a 2009 article in Cornerstone, Sabeel’s publication, Ateek viciously claimed that the murder of Jewish children during the Holocaust is “comparable to what the government of Israel has done to the people of Gaza today.” Other articles published in Cornerstone have similarly tried to exploit the horrors of the Holocaust by analogizing it to Israeli policy. In last spring’s edition, for example, there was a poem that included the following lines: “But what O Israel/Have you become?/The Nazis made me fearful to be a Jew/but you [Israel] have made me ashamed…Time to confront the darkness we have become/With the Holocaust it is Never Forget/but with Deir Yassin it is Never Mind.”
Sabeel’s American counterpart, Friends of Sabeel-North America, organizes several anti-Israel conferences a year that feature speakers who accuse Israel of racism, oppression, and human rights violations. Speakers often promote Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions efforts as punishment for what they see as Israel’s apartheid-like policies. Some speakers at Sabeel conferences have also described the pro-Israel lobby as excessively powerful and argue that Israeli interests control the U.S. government’s foreign policy. The group has been the driving force behind Christian divestment initiatives against Israel since 2004.