To most Israelis and most of the world’s Jews, Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek wields a theological cudgel that threatens their very existence.
Ateek is the Anglican founder of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre in Jerusalem and a leading exponent of campaigns of boycott, divestment and sanctions aimed at Israel. He has called the establishment of Israel in 1948 “a relapse to the most primitive concepts of an exclusive, tribal God.” He has accused the Israeli government of crucifying Palestinians in the occupied territories, writing that “the Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily.” He has compared Israel to the Nazis and accused Israel of committing a Holocaust against Palestinians. He sent out a Christmas message that likened Israel to Herod and the occupation to the slaughter of the innocents.
Using a Christmas message to accuse Israel of a Herod-like slaughter was the right thing to do at the time, he said.
“When I said those words, at that time, at that very time, Israelis were doing some very bad, nasty things against the Palestinians. It was during the Christmas season and it came naturally, reading the Christmas story about what Herod did to the Bethlehem babies. Anyone would have made that comparison, anyone,” he told The Catholic Register on a recent stop in Toronto.
Ateek claims his Palestinian version of liberation theology comes out of a desire for peace — peace for both Israelis and Palestinians.
“When we talk about our liberation we never talk about the destruction of the state of Israel,” he said. “We say we want to be liberated and we want Israel to continue to live, although historically speaking what the Zionists have done is wrong. But we want Israel to live securely as a state. It has to do justice and it needs to be active in the liberation of the Palestinians. If it doesn’t, then we have to seek liberation through non-violent ways. Sabeel stands for non-violence. That’s why we speak of BDS, boycott, divestment and sanctions, as a non-violent way to seek liberation.”
It’s a strategy that relies heavily on the internationalization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the Sabeel centre exists in Israel, its presence in Friends of Sabeel organizations scattered throughout Western democracies is far greater. The Friends of Sabeel have supported and helped organize Israel Apartheid Week events on university campuses in Canada and the United States.
Ateek’s reading of the Bible denies that there ever was a Jewish state of Israel.