This NGO Monitor report focuses on the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, a Jerusalem-based non-governmental organization (NGO). As a Palestinian Christian group, Sabeel plays a central theological and ideological role for pro-Palestinian campaigners active primarily in non-evangelical Protestant churches in North America, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere. The organization also is a major actor in the effort to convince Christian churchsd to support BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) against Israel.
Sabeel’s influence is widespread having successfully deployed Palestinian liberation theology in churches worldwide. This theology fuses historic Christian “teachings of contempt”1 with Palestinian nationalist ideology. This theological paradigm interprets Christian texts to depict Palestinian nationalist ideology. This theological paradigm interprets Christian texts to depict Palestinians as the wholly innocent victimes of Israeli aggression and attempts to establish a religious obligation to promote a pro-Palestinian nationalist agenda.
In parallel, Sabeel condemns Jewish nationalism (i.e. Zionism) as a “narrow” reading o Scripture and censures Jewish territorial claims and sovereignty as a “tribal” interpretation of the Biblical message. Paradoxically, Sabeel uses its own brand of theology to endorse Palestinian nationalist aspirations.
Sabeel’s program is designed to maximize exposure of “Palestinian liberation theology” in churches worldwide. The strategy is to build a critical mass of influential church leaders who will amplify the message that Israel is solely culpable for the origin and perpetuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict and pressure must be applied only on Israel- including through the instrument of BDS- to end the conflict.
Promoters of Palestinian liberation theology, including Sabeel’s founder and head Naim Ateek, frequently incorporate overtly antisemitic language such as deicide imagery, replacement or supercessionist theology, and repeated disparagement of Judaism as “tribal,” “primitive,” and “exclusionary.”
Sabeel’s funding is non-transparent. NGO Monitor has been able to ascertain that European taxpayer funds are channeled to Sabeel via a number of European-based Christian aid societies that receive subsidies from European governments. Sabeel’s high level of hostility toward Israel and its promotion of religious teachings often based on theological antisemitism raise serious questions about the abuse of taxpayer funds to enflame conflict, encourage religious intolerance, dehumanize Israelis and Jews, and delegitimize Israel.
- Sabeel supports a “one state” framework (meaning the elimination of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state) and promotes the “ideal and best solution” is “ultimately a bi-national state in Palestine- Israel… One state for two nations and three religions.” In pursuit of this goal, Sabeel supports BDS (boycotts, divestments and sanctions) against Israel.
- Sabeel expressed inflammatory and offensive rhetoric that rationalizes terrorism against Israeli civilians and promotes classical anti-Jewish theological teachings.
- Sabeel is a primary source of the theological and ideological undergirding of much, if not most, of the anti-Israel political efforts in churches globally, including church divestment campaigns. Sabeel works with pro-Palestinian activists within different denominations (mainly liberal Protestant) in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Europe, Australia, and South Africa.
- Sabeel is based in Jerusalem, Israel and is registered with the Israeli Registrar of Non-Profits (#580312197). As such, they are mandated to report foreign government financing to Israel’s Registrar of Non-Profit Organizations. However, Sabeel does not appear in the Registrar’s foreign funding database, reflecting a lack of financial transparency and accountability.
- Sabeel is the recipient of taxpayer money primarily from a number of European governments: Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway. These taxpayer funds are channeled through a number of Christian aid charities: Diakonia- Sweden; Kerk in Actie, ICCO- Netherlands; Act Alliance; Norwegian Church Aid (NCA).
- Research by NGO Monitor has shown that, despite receiving subsidies from various governments, many of these Christian aid societies do not report the amounts of grants to Sabeel or other NGOs active in the Israeli-Palestinian region. The amount of taxpayer money used to support Sabeel’s program is not available from these sources. Further, the governments making these grants to the Christian aid charities do not report the amounts granted to Sabeel for use in the Israeli-Palestinian region, and are thus non-transparent.
- Sabeel often partners with Jeff Halper, director of the fringe NGO Israeli Committee against House Demolitions (ICAHD).
Conclusions and Recommendations
Sabeel is a major contributor to the international delegitimization network of NGOs that implement the Durban Strategy. Sabeel’s target audiences are churches in dozens of countries. Disturbingly, Sabeel’s anti-Israel message is often intertwined with theological antisemitism. In the current climate of increasing antisemitism in Europe and elsewhere, Sabeel’s message can be potentially dangerous to the safety and well-being of Jews everywhere.
European governments are in effect funding Sabeel through the offices of various Christian aid charities. This makes these governments and the Christian aid agencies morally culpable for the spread of anti-Jewish theology.
Churches have a fundamental choice to make: to act as peacemakers in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or to become participants in the dispute. Sabeel’s welcome by many denominations has turned these churches into parties to the conflict, and participating in an agenda that contributes to demonizing, dehumanizing, and delegitimizing Israel. Sabeel’s vision of a “bi-national state in Palestine-Israel… One state for two nations and three religions” denies the right of the Jewish people to sovereign equality among the nations.
Peacemakers must avoid adding fuel to conflict. In contrast, Sabeel’s Palestinian nationalist agenda has been injected into the theological bloodstream of a number of churches as a “liberation theology” undermines these denominations’ mission as peacemakers, failing both Palestinians and Israelis alike.
In the interest of furthering the prospects of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and of lessening interfaith enmity, NGO Monitor makes the following recommendations.
- Christian aid agencies: Christian aid agencies (Kerk in Actie, ICCO, Diakonia, Catholic Organization for Development and Peace) should end all funding to and cooperation with Sabeel.
- Governments: Those governments (Netherlands, Sweden, Canada) that provide funds to these Christian aid agencies have a responsibility to ensure that taxpayer money is not used to encourage religious and ethnic conflict. These governments must undertake detailed and independent evaluations of the Christian aid agencies’ funding activities before grant allocation and during implementation.
- Israel: Sabeel is registered with the Israeli Registrar of Non-Profits, and as such is mandated by Israeli law to register its foreign government financing to the Registrar of Non-Profit Organizations.2 Sabeel does not appear in the Registrar’s foreign funding database. It is unknown whether Sabeel received foreign government funding during the examined reporting period, whether it received funds but failed to act in accordance with the law, and/or whether it did not report due to technical issues in the reporting system. NGO Monitor urges the Ministry of Justice and the Registrar of Non-Profits to exercise stronger overwight and pursue enforcement of the law as it pertains to Sabeel and all non-complying NGOs.
- Jewish Communities: The leadership of Jewish communities in North America and Europe need a significantly expanded strategic approach to combating efforts to delegitimize Israel in the churches. Such strategies may include:
- systematically create synagogue-church relationships (clergy to clergy; laity to laity);
- create a variety of materials for wide distribution to Christians; easy-to-digest pieces on Israel written by Christians for Christian audiences;
- developing fact-finding missions to Israel geared specifically for Christians, to counter Sabeel’s Witness Visit Tours and International Conferences;
- developing a free course on Israel for Christian clergy to fulfill their cross=cultural, interfaith, etc. continuing education requirements.
- See “The Taching of Contempt: The Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism,” by Jules Isaac. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., New York, 1964
- The Israeli “Law on Disclosure Requirements For [Groups] Supported by a Foreign Governmental Body” (NGO Transparency Law- February 2011) provides an appropriate and timely framework to inform the Israeli public about foreign government involvement in Israeli political issues. As implemented by the Israeli Ministry of Justice, the law is an international model for transparency.