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Rev. Ateek was recently in the Washington, D.C. area to address anti-Israel church activists for Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), a group founded by former Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Edmund Browning. “We believe we [Palestinians] are living under empire today and it is important to understand how empire operates and resist it,” a steely Ateek declared, according to a report from my colleague Jeff Walton, who attended the event. (Here’s Walton’s account.) “Due to the impact of pro-Israel forces, justice is hindered,” he ominously complained. “Some people have become captives in Congress – they need liberation from these forces.” He claimed: “Israel today is moving towards a racist state,” requiring anti-apartheid style boycotts and divestment. “This is the future,” Ateek confidently predicted of increasing numbers of U.S. Christians turning against Israel.
The D.C. area Sabeel event also featured Jewish author Mark Braverman, whose 2010 book Fatal Embrace outlines how the intransigence of Jews and pro-Israel Christians hinders Mid-East peace. Accustomed to old-time Religious Left support for anti-Israel causes, he was excited about emerging anti-Israel evangelicals. “This politically is extremely important and it’s making a difference,” he exuded. “There are several huge mega churches whose pastors are ready to come on board – we’re talking critical mass, access to the White House.” As examples of evangelical activism, Braverman pointed to Tom Getman in the audience and also praised Wheaton professor Gary Burge. “Talk about power – bridging the gap between evangelicals and the mainline,” Braverman rejoiced.
Of course, the old Religious Left is continuing its long-time anti-Israel emphasis. Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts-Schori and Evangelical Lutheran Church Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson this week led a “Churches for Middle East Peace” delegation to the White House to urge U.S. support for dividing Jerusalem between Israel and a Palestinian nation. But such Mainline prelates rarely speak politically even for their own declining constituencies and are not so much taken seriously.
Pro- and anti-Israel forces recognize that a vital key to U.S. policy towards Israel is evangelicals, who are America’s largest religious demographic. Will films like “Little Town of Bethlehem” and groups like “Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding” successfully neutralize historic pro-Israel sentiment? A certain subset of evangelical elites who are embarrassed by many of their brethren is certainly jumping aboard with a thump. But most are likely to understand that bifurcating a successful, pro-American democracy in favor of an undemocratic, territorially ambitious and resentful “Palestine” is not a magic formula for sustainable peace.
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