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By BERNIE BELLAN On Wednesday, April 25th, the Canadian Mennonite University played host to a speaker by the name of Rev. Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Anglican priest who has been in Canada as part of a cross-country tour. Rev. Ateek promotes something he describes as “Palestinian Liberation Theology”. “

Rev. Ateek was also one of the earliest proponents of the BDS movement (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions).

In his talk on April 25th, Rev. Ateek described the bases for many of the Palestinian claims that Israel is an oppressor state. But, as one might have expected, his presentation was one-sided, giving the Palestinian side of what has been a longstanding conflict without attempting to offer an Israeli perspective.

That Rev. Ateek was so partisan in his presentation should not come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with his background. What is disappointing, however, is the continued pattern of certain Mennonite organizations to hold forums in which Israel is denounced unremittingly, yet no one who might offer a rebuttal is ever asked to present an alternative perspective.

In truth though, Rev. Ateek did seem somewhat restrained in his remarks. He made only passing reference to the BDS movement, for instance, and he did suggest that a two-state solution could be arrived at, even though his preference is for a one-state solution.

Much of his presentation though was given over to Biblical quotations which he cited to show, for instance, how the Old Testament offers contradictory passages that can be used in defense of various arguments. It wasn’t quite clear what point he was trying to make by referencing those quotations. Often, rather than explaining what his purpose was, he would simply say, “Buy the book” (A Palestinian Theology of Liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel Conflict).

What follows are some excerpts from Rev. Ateek’s lengthy talk (which we filmed, in order not to be accused of misrepresenting any of his statements.) At the same time, we are also offering some rebuttals to the remarks Rev. Ateek made that one might have heard if this had been a presentation intended to offer a balance of viewpoints – not just one more in a long series of events demonizing Israel that certain Mennonite groups seem so fond of holding.

Early on Rev Ateek stated: “Our conflict could have been resolved years ago had it not been for the Israeli government’s disregard for international law.”

Rebuttal: A statement such as this ignores the entire history of the Arab-Israel conflict. Without launching into a book-length analysis of that conflict, suffice to say that the ongoing conflict has many sources, among which has been the refusal of Arab states to accept Israel’s legitimacy.

Rev. Ateek stated: “At the same time it is important to know that Israel would not have committed all those violations were it not for the financial, political and military backing of the United States.”

Rebuttal: The United States was not fully supportive of Israel until recent years. In its earliest years Israel looked to other allies, including France, for support. It is true that the United States has become much more supportive of Israel in recent years, but much of the sympathy directed toward Israel is as a result of terrorist attacks that have been mounted against Israel.

Speaking about Trump recognizing Jerusalem as capital of Israel, Rev. Ateek said: “Consequently hundreds of Palestinians have been killed or wounded in defense of their city… We still suffer as a result of what he said.”

Rebuttal: It need hardly be noted that this a gross overstatement of what has happened. If any Palestinians were killed or wounded following Trump’s announcement, it was as a result of their participating in riots. To construe that as being “in defense of their city” is hardly an honest depiction of what has taken place.

Rev. Ateek asked:“ Who are the Palestinians?” His answer was that “They are the offspring of many ethnic and racial groups who at one time or another lived in the land of Canaan - later named Palestine.”

Before Zionists started coming in, Rev. Ateek said, “everyone was Palestinian”.

Rebuttal: When it comes to demographics, historical evidence is that a great many of the Arab inhabitants of what became British mandate Palestine actually came from Egypt in the 18th and 19th centuries. Further, the Arab population of Palestine doubled from 529,000 in 1922 to 1,181,000 in 1947. While there is no consensus as to why the Arab population doubled, there are only two possible reasons: natural increase and immigration into Palestine. A large number of immigrants from neighbouring areas came to Palestine as a result of booming economic activity spurred by the increase in Jewish population, from 84,000 in 1922 to 630,000 in 1947. Thus, the oft-heard argument that Palestinians had been living in Palestine for generations could only be true of some Palestinians.

Rev. Ateek stated: “In the partition of Palestine they gave the minority – the Zionist Jews who were coming into the country – 55% of the land, and the majority of the country – the Palestinians, they gave them 45%...Once the Zionists got this foothold they immediately started pushing the Palestinians out. They were so successful they didn’t stop until they had taken 78% of the land."

Rebuttal: Rev. Ateek did not note that the vast portion of the 1947 UN partition of Palestine which was given to Israel was made up of desert; therefore, it is highly misleading to refer only to geographic area when it comes to discussing whether the partition was fair or not. As for Rev. Ateek’s contention that the Zionists “immediately started pushing the Palestinians out”, he conveniently ignores the history of the 1948 war between Israel and seven Arab countries which sent forces to the area. There were various stages in the fighting and early on Israel’s very survival was at stake. It is true that many Palestinians were forced to leave their homes though. It is also true that many Jews were forced to leave their homes in Arab countries following the creation of the State of Israel. Does one wrong cancel out another? Hardly. But wouldn’t it be something if we were ever to hear a pro-Palestinian speaker acknowledge the injustices that were perpetrated on hundreds of thousands of Jews living in Arab lands, as well as the injustices perpetrated on Palestinians?

Speaking of his own personal history, Rev. Ateek said, “When the United States, the United Nations plan to partition Palestine took place, that’s when the Zionists militias came to my home town, Bisan,” which had a population around 6,000. , and expelled them.

Rebuttal: According to the website “History of Palestine”, Bisan had a population of 1941 in 1922, which means that the population tripled in size in 26 years. Again, as noted earlier, the question whether a significant number of Palestinians had recently immigrated to the area from adjoining lands is problematic. Thus, while one can maintain some sympathy for the inhabitants of Bisan, it would seem that the majority of Bisan’s inhabitants in 1947 had moved there some time in the preceding 30 years. Further, as Rev. Ateek noted, he and his family were only forced to move to Nazareth, just 10 kilometres away.

Rev. Ateek said: “In 1967 the government of Israel, the Israeli army, occupied the remaining part of Palestine.”

Rebuttal: Rev. Ateek did not mention the Six-Day War as the reason for Israel’s having occupied the remaining part of Palestine. Israel had, in fact, warned King Hussein of Jordan not to enter into the war. Had Hussein remained on the sidelines Israel would never have taken over the West Bank. Even as the war was being waged, Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan had no intention of taking the West Bank. Here is how one historian describes what happened: “First, the Israeli government had no intention of capturing the West Bank. On the contrary, it was opposed to it. Second, there was not any provocation on the part of the IDF. Third, the rein was only loosened when a real threat to Jerusalem's security emerged. This is truly how things happened on June 5, although it is difficult to believe. The end result was something that no one had planned.” (The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, by Avi Shlaim)


At one point in his presentation, Rev. Ateek showed a number of quotes on a screen in successive order. Some were highly contentious, including:

“According to Halakha, the killing by a Jew of a non-Jew under any circumstances is not regarded as murder.”

(Ateek didn’t give a reference for this quote . We did some research to see whether there was any basis to that quote. We came up with the following observation from The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, 2016:“Unfortunately in Israel an extremely serious situation has arisen in recent times because of the publication of radical books such as Baruch HaGever and Torat HaMelekh, 2 books lauded by a small number of well-known extremist rabbis in which non-Jews are depicted as being of a lesser species than Jews and in which slaying Arabs, including young children, is deemed permissible and even commanded. The so-called Halakhic positions of these rabbis have influenced fanatical groups of extremists and have led to acts of destruction, injury and death.”

To refer to parts of books that were written by ultra-extremists without defining the source was a deliberate attempt to mislead audience members into thinking that Jews condone murder. (In fact, Rev. Ateek’s use of that particular quote led B’nai Brith Canada to describe him as an antisemite in a press release titled “Canadian Charity Promotes Antisemitic Book Tour”.)

Finally, this quote was projected on the screen: “Non-Jews who are permitted to reside in the land of Israel must accept to pay a tax and suffer the humiliation of servitude.” (Again – no explanation from Rev. Ateek as to where this quote came from nor why he was showing it to the audience.)

One might expect though that anyone seeing the two quotes just cited would be angered over such discriminatory attitudes on the part of Jews.

Later in his slide presentation, Rev. Ateek had the following statements projected on the screen:

What does Israel want?

1 One sovereign Israeli state over the whole land.

Main Obstacles to Peace

1.The U. S. has used its veto over 43 times to protect Israel from being condemned and censured by the UN Security Council for its violations of international law

2. The U.S. Congress in both houses and in both parties gives blind support to Israel

3. The pro-Israel lobby is powerful in using intimidation and financial resources to affect change for Israel’s benefit

4. American Christian Zionists & neo-cons give blind support to Israel

Following his prepared remarks, Rev. Ateek responded to questions from the audience; however, audience members had been told beforehand that they would have to write questions down on index cards which had been given to everyone prior to Rev. Ateek’s presentaton. Later, I asked the person reading the questions to Rev. Ateek, Esther Epp-Tiessen, whether she screened the questions carefully to avoid posing any that might have been embarrassing for Rev. Ateek to answer.

For instance, my question had asked Rev. Ateek whether he still stood by a remark he had made several years ago in which he said: “Jesus is on the cross again with thou­sands of cru­ci­fied Pales­tini­ans around him…The Israeli gov­ern­ment cru­ci­fix­ion sys­tem is oper­at­ing daily.” Ms. Epp-Tiessen simply said there wasn’t enough time to pose all the questions that had been given to her to ask.

I was also told by Ran Ukashi, B’nai Brith Canada Midwest representative, that his question was not asked as well.

During the question and answer session though Rev. Ateek spent a considerable amount of time referring to Resolution 194 of the United Nations General Assembly, passed in December 1948. That resolution does say that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”

What Rev. Ateek did not explain, however, is that, since “General Assembly resolutions are not binding, and only serve as advisory statements, there can be no obligation or enforcement of Resolution 194.” Further, he did not mention that there were other aspects to Resolution 194, including a call to designate Jerusalem an international city, which led the six Arab countries that were members of the UN at that time, to vote against the resolution as well.

Rev. Ateek said that Israel was told that, “in order for you to become a member of the United Nations you have to get the refugees back.” In fact, a careful reading of history would suggest that there was no such condition imposed upon Israel. Further, Israel’s representative to the UN at the time that Resolution 194 was passed (Abba Eban) delivered a statement to the General Assembly, which stated, in part that "The Government of Israel believed that a solution of the (refugee) problem was inseparably linked with a solution of the outstanding issues between it and the Arab States and that no satisfactory solution was possible except by the restoration of peace in the Middle East. A solution could be found only within a final settlement creating conditions of co-operation between Israel and its neighbours”.

The ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians does not appear to have any likelihood of being resolved any time soon. Yet, as someone who does have a great deal of sympathy for Palestinians, I find it difficult to accept the notion, as Rev. Ateek would have us believe, that only one side is at fault in the conflict. By quoting from his remarks directly – and offering possible rebuttals to his claims, I have been attempting to offer a balance of perspectives on what has become an intractable situation.

Again, I challenge the Mennonite Central Committee and Canadian Mennonite University to hold a forum which would at least attempt to offer a more balanced presentation of the issues revolving around the Israel- Palestine conflict. But, if the agenda of those two groups is to do nothing more than demonize Israel, then one would hardly expect those two groups to aim for fairness.

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#1 National Director, Bridges for PeaceEric Malloy 2018-04-30 22:30
Thank you Bernie for this excellent summary. Esther read my question concerning the charge of apartheid in relation to neighbouring Arab Islamic nations; I'm still waiting for an answer. What Naim 'answered' was not an answer. I share the hope that CMU, MCC and like-minded organizations have a major change of heart. I do not recognize their toxic position on the Israel-Palestin ian situation as anything that resembles the Christian faith or the Bible.