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The American Prospect

Naim Ateek: A History of Nonviolence

Palestinian leader Naim Ateek has long advocated nonviolence as the only way to secure peace between Israel and Palestine. So why is he so despised by hard-line Israel supporters?

Matthew Duss

"The Palestinians need to become really conscious of and sensitive to the horror of the Holocaust. ...We must understand the importance and significance of the Holocaust to the Jews, while insisting that the Jews understand the tragedy of Palestine for the Palestinians." - Rev. Canon Naim Ateek, founder of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem

* * * Naim Ateek had just turned 11 when forces of the Haganah, the pre-Israel Zionist paramilitary organization, occupied his village of Beisan in Palestine. Days later, the villagers were informed that they were to be "evacuated," forcibly moved off land that Palestine's Jewish minority now claimed for its own state. Ordered to gather in the village center, the Ateeks took what they could carry, and joined the other frightened families, all clutching heirlooms, photographs, jewelry, and awaiting an uncertain future, away from the homes in and lands on which their families had lived for generations.

It is perhaps surprising then, that even after this experience of forcible dispossession, and even after the shock of the 1967 war, in which thousands more Palestinians were displaced and the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem came under military occupation, even after years of witnessing and enduring brutality at the hands of Israeli soldiers and settlers, Ateek has been a constant advocate of nonviolence as the only course for Palestinian independence. A parish minister to Palestine's small Christian community since 1966, Ateek founded the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in 1989 for the purpose of developing a theology to help Palestinians cope with and overcome the daily oppression and injustice they continue to endure as a subject population under military occupation.

Though he advocates nonviolence as "the only option, and the only strategy," Ateek does not shrink from making extremely trenchant criticisms of Israel's policies. Which is why a late October conference at Boston's Old South Church, featuring Ateek, was provocatively titled, "The Apartheid Paradigm in Palestine-Israel." Underscoring the apartheid parallel, the keynote speaker for the conference was Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop of Cape Town and one of the guiding spirits of the anti-apartheid movement in the 1970s and 1980s.

While Tutu was lauded universally for his moral and prophetic voice against the South African government's policies, he has been denigrated for suggesting a similarity between South African apartheid and the Israeli occupation and colonization of the West Bank. Similarly, despite Ateek's commitment to nonviolence and reconciliation, he has been denounced as an anti-Semite and a terrorist-sympathizer for insisting that Palestinians have a right to reject and resist a system that severely proscribes all aspects of Palestinian life, while at the same time privileging the rights of Israeli settlers and facilitating their takeover of Palestinian lands, a system which Ateek and the organizers of the North American Friends of Sabeel conference hold is very much like apartheid.Many scholars, including many Israeli scholars, have for years been using the apartheid framework to understand Israel's policies toward Palestinians in the occupied territories. As UCLA professor Saree Makdisi points out, there are, in fact, "two separate legal and administrative systems, maintained by the regular use of military force, for two populations -- settlers and natives -- unequally inhabiting the same piece of land." Furthermore, when people like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu insist that the apartheid comparison is appropriate, one listens.

But from the moment the event was announced, Old South Church was attacked by pro-Israel voices for promoting anti-Israel views. In various op-eds, Web sites, and letters to editors, Sabeel was characterized as a hate group, and Ateek as a terrorist sympathizer. Upon closer inspection, however, none of these accusations squares with this organization or this man, who has for decades advocated for a two-state solution with exclusively nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation.

The conference itself, as with Ateek's extensive writings, had a very simple message: The occupation must end. In most other countries in the world, this is not a particularly controversial idea, but to read some of the local news coverage leading up to the Sabeel Conference, you'd have thought the Inquisition were in town. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, apparently taking cues from the right-wing CAMERA Web site, accused Ateek of using anti-Semitic "deicide" imagery to "demonize" Israel, and decried Ateek's use of crucifixion imagery comparing the suffering of the Palestinians to the suffering of Jesus Christ. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) accused Sabeel of "generating hostility toward Israel."

"This is so dishonest," Ateek responds. "They take these words out of context, to use for character assassination, because they don't have the integrity to address the issue, which is the occupation."


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Conference organizers and participants, including keynote speaker Tutu, repeatedly made clear, both from the podium and in conference materials, that the use of the term "apartheid" referred to Israel's military-occupation regime, not to Israel itself, a distinction which critics, like Nancy Kaufman, the executive director of the Boston-area Jewish Community Relations Council, don't acknowledge."

Anyone who uses apartheid as an accusation is really employing old anti-Zionist arguments -- that's really what it is -- and is really applying a double standard of judgment to Israel which can be traced to historic anti-Semitic rhetoric, that all things Jews do are evil, including their nationalism," Kaufman told The Boston Globe.

This charge of "echoing" anti-Semitism or, in Kaufman's formulation, using rhetoric that "can be traced to historic anti-Semitic rhetoric," is an increasingly common way that hard-line Israel supporters characterize criticism of their views. Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer (authors of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy) and Jimmy Carter, among others, have all recently been charged with some variant of this. It's a deeply dishonest tactic, a way to stain someone with the taint of anti-Semitism without having to do all the heavy lifting of actually proving that they've ever said or written anything anti-Semitic.

Ateek's writings clearly recognize and condemn anti-Semitism, as well as terrorism, but the reactions to the Sabeel conference indicate that, for some, no criticism of Israel, no matter how exhaustively documented, is permissible, if for no other reason than that criticism might be seized upon by actual anti-Semites. This is unfortunate, as Ateek is precisely the kind of leader who should be supported by those seeking an end to the violence between the Israelis and Palestinians. He is one of a number of Palestinian leaders, along with Sari Nusseibeh and Mubarak Awad, who continue to advocate non-violence. Unfortunately, years of occupation, the constantly expanding settlements, and collective punishment by Israeli authorities in response to terrorist attacks have greatly expanded the appeal of extremist violence and their promises of redemptive vengeance.

Ateek understands this, and asserts that an organized nonviolent resistance to Israeli occupation is the last thing Israelis want. "They know we are working for peace," he says, "and that we are a greater threat to them than Hamas. Hamas allows them a pretext to continue the occupation. We do not."

Several years ago, Israeli Defense Force's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, declared his intent to "sear deep into the consciousness of Palestinians that they are a defeated people." Ateek refuses to accept this. Despite the unending violence of the occupation, and despite the attempts of Israel's partisans to obscure the reality of the occupation and demonize anyone who undertakes to expose its brutality, Ateek continues to exhort his fellow Palestinians to nonviolence, and stands both as a definitive retort to Ya'alon's demand that Palestinians submit, and a refutation of the myth of "no partner for peace" among the Palestinian people.

Matthew Duss is an editorial intern at the Prospect.

© 2007 by The American Prospect, Inc.

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