Palestinian NGO Sabeel, along with its Dutch partners and funders ICCO (a major recipient of government support for humanitarian aid) and Kerk in Actie, organized the Uur van de Waarheid conference in Amsterdam on September 15-16, 2011. The event’s aim was to promote the Kairos Palestine document, ostensibly addressed to “our religious and political leaders, to our Palestinian society and to the Israeli society, to the international community, and to our Christian brothers and sisters in the Churches around the world.”
The Kairos Palestine document calls for BDS (boycotts, divestment, and sanctions) against Israel and denies the Jewish historical connection to Israel. It also ignores the extreme harassment and violence committed by Palestinians against Christians. The conference also provided a platform to anti-Israel activists, such as Naim Ateek and Rifat Odeh Qassis. The Kairos Palestine document and the activities of Sabeel and its leaders have been shown to be inconsistent with efforts to reach a two-state peace agreement.
However, instead of galvanizing support for the Kairos Palestine agenda, the conference highlighted divergent approaches within the Protestant Churches of the Netherlands (PKN). One group within the PKN called for an end to the partnership with Sabeel, and for more cooperation with Israel; leading voices in the Church also criticized the Kairos document. According to Dutch media, this opposition was further debated intensely at a meeting after the conference.
Furthermore, in a public response to Sabeel’s call for supporting the Palestinian unilateral initiatives in the UN, P. Verhoeff of the General Synod of PKN and A.J. Plaisier, General Secretary of the PKN, wrote that the anti-Israel bias of Sabeel’s position “makes it impossible for us to endorse it.”
The conference also generated publicity for a campaign to end PKN’s financial support for Sabeel (via Kerk in Actie).
The public criticism of Sabeel and the NGO’s failure to receive wider support for the Kairos Palestine document within the PKN reflect an understanding that its activities are counterproductive. By highlighting Sabeel’s negative role in promoting BDS and other political attacks, rather than supporting positive, pro-Palestinian and pro-peace initiatives, a different dynamic was created in the Netherlands. (NGO Monitor’s research reports and fact sheets were made available to individuals and groups involved in this criticism.)
Sabeel, whose claims are often accepted at face value in many church settings, was in this case challenged. This demonstrates the importance of exposing the bias and confronting organizations and institutions that are allied with Sabeel, as well as criticizing the Kairos Palestine approach that fuels the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Sabeel claims that Palestinians represent a modern-day version of Jesus’ suffering, using “liberation theology,” and the concepts of deicide and supersessionism (Christianity replaced Biblical Judaism) to demonize Israel. According to the European Union’s working definition, this represents a modern, politicized version of historical theological antisemitism.
For example, Naim Ateek, the head of Sabeel, has written, “As we approach Holy Week and Easter, the suffering of Jesus Christ at the hands of evil political and religious powers two thousand years ago, is lived out again in Palestine…In this season of Lent, it seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him. It only takes people of insight to see the hundreds of thousands of crosses throughout the land, Palestinian men, women, and children being crucified. Palestine has become one huge golgotha. The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily. Palestine has become the place of the skull…” [sic] (emphasis added).
Sabeel also advocates for a “one-state solution,” meaning the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state, and employs inflammatory rhetoric such as referring to Israeli “apartheid that is much worse than what was practiced in South Africa.”
NGO Monitor’s factsheet on Sabeel, which contains additional examples of problematic rhetoric and activities, is available here.
 “Using the symbols and images associated with classical anti-Semitism (e.g. claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis” is seen by the European Union as a way in which “antisemitism manifests itself with regard to the State of Israel.”