An Open Letter to Those who Heard Naim Ateek

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An Open Letter to Those who Heard Naim Ateek on Wednesday, April 25, 2018 at the Canadian Mennonite University

The physical context for Naim Ateek’s very well-attended lecture at the Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) was outstanding. Marpeck Common at the CMU is a stunning setting, with its high ceilings and massive windows, and was filled with sunshine on this particular evening. But the presentation itself was just as stunningly lacking in fairness because information was presented with so little of the relevant historical and other contexts.

Was there even a hint of a mention of Arab aggression, violence and terrorism throughout the 20th century and continuing in the 21st? No. Was there a mention of the centuries’ long Jewish presence and sovereignty in the land? Or the fact that Jews have felt unsafe in many places and required a homeland that would be their safe haven. No. Or that the Jews were granted the right to this homeland by the international community following World War I, in the Charter of the League of Nations, an international law which has never been superseded.

This lack of context did not surprise me. The last presentation I attended at CMU was an hour-long litany of how Israel built its security barrier to steal Palestinian land. There was not even a mention of suicide bombers or other forms of terrorism – the obvious context for the barrier. A Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) representative was the messenger in this case.

Our evening began with the announcement of an apparently appalling act by the IDF – destroying a Palestinian school. No mention of the fact the school was without a permit, in an illegal Bedouin encampment, and part of a much larger movement funded by EU countries to create “facts on the ground,” a pejorative usually reserved for Jewish settlements. The modular school buildings had been dropped there days before, and the supposedly heartbroken students had never set foot in them.

Next, we mourned the deaths of Gazans at the hands of the IDF – Gazans who were encouraged by Hamas to test and penetrate the Israeli border, many of whom were known Hamas members.

On to Resolution 194 from the UN General Assembly, Dec. 10, 1948. Israel is here excoriated for having agreed to the resolution to become a UN member and then reneged on its apparent commitments to refugee repatriation. Three contexts missing here. First, General Assembly resolutions are not binding. Second, the entire refugee situation was caused by Arab aggression against the one-day-old Jewish state, including the encouragement of many by Arab leaders to make way for the Jews and then to return to their homes in a few weeks after they were exterminated. Third, Israel received 900,000 Jewish refugees from Arab states and incorporated them all speedily. The Arab states which caused the Palestinian refugee problem have sought to perpetuate it and to blame Israel for it.

Through a quote from Theodore Herzl’s diary, Ateek presented us next with a view into the Jewish heart – determined to rid the land of Palestinians, albeit it gently. In reality, the quality of the Jewish heart can be seen in the fact that the 160,000 Palestinians who did not flee or get forcibly moved in the 1948 Arab war on Israel have grown to become 1,500,000 souls today, living in Israel with full legal rights, quite likely the happiest and most prosperous Arabs in the world, outside of sheik’s palaces.

Ateek posed the question, “Who are the Palestinians?” and then answers that they are descendants from ancient peoples like the Canaanites. No mention of the large percentage of Palestinians who immigrated to Israel from neighbouring countries in the 20th century, after the Jews began to restore the land and create infrastructure and employment. (See “From Time Immemorial” by Joan Peters for statistics).

Illegal occupation was a big theme, of course. No coming close to the fact you can’t illegally occupy land that was given to you by the League of Nations after WWI, along with the creation of dozens of new nations in Europe and elsewhere by similar treaties. And no mention of the wars of aggression against Israel that resulted in the occupation of the West Bank by Jordan after the 1948 War, and then in the occupation of the same land by Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967. Nor was there mention of the three NOs of Khartoum – no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiation with Israel. What was Israel to do? They probably would have (foolishly) given the land to them, but the Arabs wouldn’t ask for it. Nor would they accept any of the five offers – in 1937, 1947, 2000, 2001, and 2008 – made by Israel, Britain, and the UN, that would have resulted in a Palestinian state.

Finally, we come to the context of Scripture. Here, Ateek is forthright that he has a limited context – because “only some of the Old Testament is palatable” to his spirituality. He went on to add that some is “detrimental,” like Deuteronomy 7:1-7 where Israel is told by God to destroy the inhabitants of the land. In all Ateek’s concern for justice, there is no understanding that the God of justice has the prerogative to impose serious consequences for sin. Israel, herself, has been subject to enormous consequences for her sin, in the form of thousands of years of exile and much death.

The entire prophetic corpus of the Old Testament referring to the restoration of Israel to her land is passed over without a mention. The enormity of this omission is breathtaking, but so much of the Christian world manages it. God made a covenant with Abraham and his children, but those promises – including a land forever – have supposedly flowed into Gentile genes. What a tragedy of blindness, for a generation that has witnessed the return of the Jews to Israel after 2,000 years of exile, its remarkable preservation from attacking armies with far larger human resources, the blooming of the desert, cutting-edge medical advances that are shared freely with enemies (Share a Child’s Heart, as an example, which has treated thousands of Syrian victims). The prophetic fulfillments go on and on. The mighty acts of God in our generation are awesome, for those who have eyes to see.

The question period produced some questions that attempted to restore balance. All were parried by the skilled and authoritative Ateek. The first question raised the question of whether what had been presented could be seen as antisemitic. But, Ateek assured us, it was simply the truth. So we are left with the question of where this remarkably unbalanced singling-out of the only Jewish state comes from, if not from a view of the Jews as evil. I hope that all who attended, and our CMU sponsors, in particular, will take an honest look inward, with the help of God’s Spirit. This is important for our spiritual health and more than that. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is still God today, and He continues to bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse her.

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