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by Dexter Van Zile



The Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, headquartered in Jerusalem, portrays itself as a peace organization that respects Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. A close examination of the writings and speeches from Sabeel's leaders and supporters demonstrates that its statements acknowledging Israel's right to exist are not a matter of principle, but of tactics and strategy. Sabeel's statements about Israel's legitimacy are merely offered to obtain access to Christian leaders and activists whose churches acknowledge the necessity of a Jewish state as a matter of policy.

Sabeel's true agenda is the creation of a single state in which Jews would be, by definition, a minority vulnerable to mistreatment by an Arab and Muslim majority. While its supporters do not seek the oppression of Jews, it must be acknowledged that such oppression would be an unavoidable byproduct of a single state solution as proposed by Sabeel.

In the one-state solution supported by Sabeel, the Jews of Israel would be subject to the same harassment and intimidation currently suffered by Palestinian Christians in areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority and by Christians throughout the Middle East. In response to these concerns, Sabeel argues that this one state should be democratic and governed by the principle of religious tolerance.

Belying this commitment to democracy and religious tolerance is Sabeel's failure to draw attention to the suffering of Christians under Muslim rule in both the disputed territories and the Middle East.

Israel's Right to Exist

Sabeel's founder, Anglican priest Naim Ateek, has offered mixed messages about Israel's existence. For example, in 1989, he wrote that he accepted the need for Israel, but not its right to exist.[1]

When challenged about this statement by Jewish leaders at a meeting in Jerusalem in September 2005, Ateek "affirmed that he continues to support the notion that if Israel had a right to exist, it should have been created somewhere else, but not on the Holy Land."[2]

During a Sabeel conference in Denver held on Oct. 21, 2005, Ateek responded to accusations that he denied Israel's right to exist with an affirmation that one of the requirements of an enduring peace is that Arab states must recognize Israel, after the occupation ends. Even Ateek's conditional support for the recognition of Israel is undermined by his subsequent insistence that Palestinian refugees have the right of return. To mollify concerns of Jewish safety, Ateek asserts that not every refugee will actually go back to Israel, but he did not offer any specifics.[3]

Sabeel's Indifference to the Jewish State

Despite efforts to suggest the contrary, the single state solution figures prominently in Sabeel's agenda. For example, in his 1989 book Justice and Only Justice, Ateek writes:

Contrary to what some people may feel-and this will come as a shock to many others-the PLO has always proposed the ideal solution for Palestine: one united and democratic state for all Palestinians and Jews. Interestingly, the United States, which prides itself on being the champion of democracy, has never accepted this proposal.

I still believe that this solution is feasible. It is the best and easiest to implement. However, in line with the biblical injunctions above, I would have to agree, with Israel to reject it. Israel insists above all on being a Jewish state. As part of a democratic, binational Palestine, the Jews would eventually become a minority in the country. Furthermore, many Jews so distrust the Palestinians that they would not wish to consign their future to them. So in spite of all of its attractiveness, the idea of a binational state must be discarded.[4]

Here, the formula is to express support for a one-state solution and then regretfully acknowledge that because of Jewish parochialism and mistrust (themes prevalent in Ateek's writings), the idea must be discarded.

This formula, however, is reversed in the Jerusalem Sabeel Document issued in 2004.[5]

On page 15, this document offers "vision for the future" which starts off with support for two states, then careens into a reference to a democratic bi-national state and finally comes to a crashing halt in an explicit call for a single state.

Our vision involves two sovereign states, Palestine and Israel, who will enter into a confederation or even a federation, possibly with other neighboring countries and where Jerusalem becomes the federal capital. Indeed, the ideal and best solution has always been to envisage ultimately a bi-national state where people are free and equal, living under a constitutional democracy that protects and guarantees all their rights, responsibilities, and duties without racism or discrimination. One state for two nations and three religions. (Emphasis added.)[6]

Reporter Manya Brachear detected Sabeel's provisional support for a two-state solution when covering the group's October conference at The Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago in October, 2005. Writing for the Chicago Tribune, Brachear reported: "Ateek said that for the time being Sabeel promotes a two-state solution -- a Palestinian state alongside Israel."[7] (Emphasis added).

The conclusion is inescapable. Sabeel's support for a two-state solution and its acknowledgement of Israel's right to exist is provisional and temporary and its ultimate agenda, as discerned from its own documents, is a single state, where Jews, by definition, would be a minority.

Jewish Safety in a Single State

Even Sabeel's supporters have acknowledged that under this state, the Jews would not be safe. For example, Jeff Halper, Coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, ICAHD said at Sabeel's Denver Conference on Oct. 22, "The history of bi-national states is not a happy one."[8]

More to the point, Edward Said, who spoke at Sabeel's International Conference in Bethlehem in February 1998, admitted that he worries about the fate of Jews in a single state in which they will invariably become a minority. This admission came in an Aug. 18, 2000 interview with Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit, who asked Said if he thought a Jewish minority would be treated fairly in a single state. Said's response:

"I worry about that. The history of minorities in the Middle East has not been as bad as in Europe, but I wonder what would happen. It worries me a great deal. The question of what is going to be the fate of the Jews is a very difficult for me. I really don't know. It worries me."[9]

Sabeel's Failure to Promote Democracy and Tolerance

To mollify concerns for Jewish safety in what would be, by definition, an Arab- and Muslim-majority state, Sabeel asserts that this single state should be democratic and governed by notions of tolerance. Belying this commitment to democracy and pluralism is a troubling silence about violence against Christians at the hands of Muslim extremists in areas under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.[10]

For example, Sabeel expressed little, if any condemnation about a spree of violence against Christians in Taybeh in the first week of Sept. 2005, when several homes were torched by Muslim extremists in response to an illicit affair between a Christian man and a Muslim woman. The woman was allegedly killed by her family upon learning she was pregnant.[11]

After the attacks, Samir Quimsieh, a Palestinian Christian stated: "Many cases like this are happening and the time has come for Abu Mazen (PA President Mahmoud Abbas) to take a decisive stand."

According to this report, the rioters were released hours after their arrest, "To cool things down, we were told," Qumsieh said.

In response to the distribution of information about the Muslim mistreatment of Christians at Sabeel Conferences in Chicago and Cedar Rapids by the Coalition for Responsible Peace in the Middle East (, Ateek accused Israel's supporters of "demonizing Islam."[12]

"They don't know Islam, so the demonization continues," he said.

Ateek's effort to place the mistreatment of Christians by Muslims in the disputed territories outside the realm of legitimate discussion raises troubling questions about his willingness and ability to speak the truth about Palestinian society.


Sabeel's ultimate agenda is the creation of a single state where, by definition, Jews would be an oppressed minority, suffering the same intimidation and violence experienced by Christians throughout the Middle East, especially in the disputed territories. Christians in the U.S. who assist Sabeel in its effort to broadcast this agenda exhibit a troubling lack of concern for human rights and Jewish safety in the Middle East.


1. Ateek, Naim, Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (New York, Orbis, 1989), 164

2. "Interfaith Mission to Israel Leads to 'New Trust' Between Jewish and Protestant Leaders; Jews Hope for End to Divestment Campaign," Anti-Defamation League, Sept. 26, 2005. Available at:

3. Author's notes of Naim Ateek's speech Oct. 21, 2005 at the Montview Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado

4. Ateek, 1989 (165-166).

5. "Principles for a Just Peace in Palestine-Israel," published in 2004

6. Despite the dizzying, contradictory, and ultimately nonsensical nature of this paragraph, Ateek invoked it as proof of Sabeel's commitment to a two-state solution at an Oct. 22, 2005 meeting with the author also attended by Catherine Nichols, a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a Sabeel volunteer. At this meeting, Ateek asserted there was no terrorism against Israel before the Six Day War in 1967 and that reports that Arab leaders encouraged Palestinians to leave before the 1948 War were a "Zionist Myth." This contradicts many statements by Arab commentators who state unequivocally that Arab leaders encouraged Palestinians to leave the area to make way for Israel's destruction. In any event, Ateek's invocation of this document at the Oct. 27 meeting confirms that Sabeel's current policy is the pursuit of a one-state solution

7. Brachear, Manya, "Event at Seminary Draws Fire," Chicago Tribune, Oct. 9, 2005

8. Author's notes of Halper's Oct. 22, 2005 speech at the Sabeel conference in Denver

9. Shavit, Ari "My Right of Return," Haaretz, Aug. 18, 2000

10. For a detailed description of the oppression experienced by Palestinian Christians please see, Weiner, Justus Reid, "Human Rights of Christians in Palestinian Society," Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Jerusalem, 2005, available at:

11. "Palestinians: Houses Torched as Muslim-Christian Tensions Flare," ADN 10. Kronos International, Sept. 6, 2005, available at:

12. Ateek leveled this charge at his Oct. 27, 2005 speech in Toronto, which was attended by the author


Dexter Van Zile is the Christian Outreach Director of the David Project Center for Jewish Leadership. He can be reached at

This is a David Project Backgrounder and was submitted in December 2005.


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