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February 08, 2009



Watching the Church Times – Is there a ‘Partner for Dialogue’ there?

In last week’s Church Times Dr Tony Bayfield (Head of the Movement for Reform Judaism and President of the Council for Christians and Jews) issues a challenge to readers to dialogue with Jews about Israel.

His call is timely. The conflict in Gaza – aided and abetted by the tone of most media coverage – has elicited the most disturbing upsurge in violence against UK Jews in years.

Youths rampage through Jewish areas of London; synagogues are defaced; pro-Hamas demonstrators chant anti-semitic slogans; a Jewish schoolchildren are bullied by classmates. It seems that organizations like Oxfam and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign have succeeded their aim of bringing Middle East affairs to the high streets of Britain. This is not an easy time to be British and Jewish.

Events in the Holy Land have been visited on Britain’s Jews who, whether they like it or not, are associated in the minds of many with Israel and the actions of her government. There has never been a more urgent need for the Church of England to understand Jewish perspectives on Israel.

I started from Bayfield’s (blindingly obvious) position that Jews have a geographical history as well as a religious one, and that the theology of Israel is ‘a significant feature of the new agenda’. But even signs of writers accepting Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state were few and far between.

Church Times favourite Canon Paul Oestreicher’s (Letters 23 January) warm commendation of veteran Yassir Arafat supporter Uri Avnery, reveals the agenda of his ‘theology of Israel’ all too clearly for consideration. For Avnery and Oestreicher, it seems that any attempt by Israel to defend her citizens from Arab aggression constitutes oppression of Palestinians – and it’s unsettling that Oestreicher often uses his relatives’ suffering under the Nazis to deflect criticism as he compares Jewish Israeli attitudes towards Palestinians with Nazi hatred of Jews.

For Ben White, author of ‘Israeli Apartheid: a Beginner’s Guide’ Jewish desire for self-governance in their ancient homeland (Zionism) is a manifestation of European colonialism. His article ‘This Is Not A Balanced Conflict’ (16 January) sets out his position that Israel is an oppressive, European colonial project. His recommendation that Christians take sides against Israel and his delegitimisation of the Jewish state make him an unlikely candidate for dialogue with Dr Bayfield. It looks like White’s view resonates with the Editorial team at the CT; they chose to publish a letter in which (referencing Churchill) he implied that Israel’s supporters perceive Jews as superior to other races.

CT Editors’ choice of letters is most revealing. As well as choosing White’s poisonous missive, a Rev Richard Eyre (Letters 6 February) is allowed to describe the attack by five Arab armies upon tiny Israel in 1948 as ‘Israel established … by force of arms against the Palestinian population.’ and recommend a book entitled ‘Zionism: the real enemy of the Jews’ on the letters page.

And I’m not sure how Dr Bayfield might receive Chair of Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, Mary Roe’s outrageous suggestion that the maxim ‘One Jewish life must be paid for by 100 Palestinians, including many children.’ is currency amongst Israelis. (Letters 23 January) It sounds uncomfortably close to medieval Christian blood libels to me.

Heaping responsibility for the destruction and death in Gaza (and all the other problems in the Middle East) upon Israel underlies Paul Handley’s editorials of 16 and 23 January and his commissioning of op-ed pieces from the deeply hostile White and from Christian Aid’s Andrew Hogg - who portrays IDF soldiers as marauders who maliciously damaged innocent Palestinian homes in his piece ‘Palestinians accuse Israelis of wanton destruction’. After Hogg’s article I was unsurprised that Christian Aid had been accused of anti-Israel bias. (Church Times 30 January)

Handley and his commissionees’ silence about Hamas’ role in causing civilian casualties, and their violence towards their own population, make it hard to see how he could understand anything Tony Bayfield might wish to communicate about Israel.

So is the search totally hopeless? I think not. Gerald Butt’s hard-hitting yet balanced reports of the conflict suggest that he doesn’t have an agenda which precludes a theology of Israel as a physical as well as a spiritual nation.

Alongside the reports of Palestinian suffering and grief, he was honest enough to report outrageously unbalanced Arab media coverage which made no attempt at balance and Hamas’ disregard of the welfare of its citizens in pursuing its aim to destroy Israel. These are encouraging signs. Perhaps Dr Bayfield could do worse that begin his dialogue here.

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