Church scheme only shows one side of Middle East debate

By Jon Benjamin, June 21, 2012
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It’s a wet night in February. The local parish church is hosting a speaker, and as the clink of cups and saucers subsides and the last Hobnob is dunked, the audience is taken of a tour of the Holy Land.

What they won’t be seeing is a slide-show of the sights and wonders of Israel, the places of pilgrimage visited by thousands of Christians every year or even the images of the culturally and religiously diverse country that we all know Israel to be.

What they will instead get is a crash course in the brutality of Israelis, the suffering of the Palestinians and no context or deeper explanation of why things are as they are. The speaker is, after all, from the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme for Palestine and Israel, or EAPPI, a pressure group with a particular agenda to focus on all the perceived iniquities of Israel.

Next month in York sees the last meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England under the current Archbishop of Canterbury. With the world in economic crisis, the murder of thousands still unchecked in Syria and the continuing issues of gay marriage and women bishops occupying the Anglican church in this country, there is no shortage of topics for debate — but that hasn’t stopped one member of Synod, Dr John Dinnen, tabling a Private Member’s Motion in support of the EAPPI programme.

This is the same Dr Dinnen who campaigned for Synod to support divestment from Caterpillar, due to their alleged complicity in Israeli “crimes”. While that motion was passed by Synod, the campaign failed when the Church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group rejected the call as unwarranted, after the intervention of the Board of Deputies and others.

But the current motion is far more insidious. If Synod formally endorses EAPPI, it effectively hands its speakers an open invitation to peddle their skewed viewpoint in Anglican churches the length and breadth of the country, while having little or no control over the content of such events.

And therein lies the problem, because the EAPPI narrative is based on the experiences of volunteers who spend several months living alongside Palestinians in the Territories, but less than a day in Israel, and then return to address audiences who know little or nothing about the reality of everyday life for those on both sides of the conflict.

In these circumstances, even the most open-minded and even-handed observer could not fail to develop a one-sided view of a situation which demands context and perspective to appreciate the fears, aspirations and motivations of both Palestinians and Israelis.

This lack of balance is no mere oversight. The stated purpose of the EAPPI programme is to bear witness to hardships faced by Palestinians at checkpoints or caused by the security barrier, and such hardships clearly do exist and should be understood.

But to hear only those voices, and to compound these views further by meeting only Israelis on the political fringes, no effort is made to engage with ordinary Israelis or to appreciate their own aspirations for peace. Instead, they become inclined to a view that there can be no dialogue with Israel, except through boycott, divestment and sanctions.

For some years now, the EAPPI programme has been run by the Quakers, effectively outsourced by the umbrella body for the various Christian denominations, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.

The Quakers themselves currently support a boycott of settlement goods, but when challenged in our discussions with them that such a policy simply supports rejectionists and extremists while actually worsening the economic position of thousands of Palestinians, the reaction was that something, even the wrong thing, has to be done to bring Israel to heel.

Of course the Church of England is, to coin a phrase, a broad church, and the fact that an individual member of Synod decides to introduce such a motion would not in itself suggest an institutional bias against Israel. Except that to get on the agenda for Synod, the motion had to attract 100 signatures, and in the event received more than 150.

Many of the signatories will be equally uninformed about the true nature of EAPPI, accepting at face value that it is the gold standard in dispassionate and fair reporting from the Holy Land. That is the danger; that the Church of England will stumble into a policy, led by those with an agenda, that will cast Israel and its supporters (you and me) in an increasingly unsympathetic light.

But we do also have Christian friends of Israel and the Jewish people, who want to defeat these efforts and restore fairness and balance to the debate. There are many groups that promote engagement and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis, and to give precedence to one that does the opposite is deeply misconceived.

Our challenge between now and the vote at Synod on July 10 is to galvanise our friends, strengthen their efforts and make sure that those who genuinely want peace and justice for Israelis and Palestinians have the last and the loudest word.

For information on how you can help, please visit www.bod.org.uk

Jon Benjamin is the chief executive of the Board of Deputies

Last updated: 11:48am, June 21 2012