Friday 27 August 2010

Greenbelt: from Bible-bashing to Israel-bashing

A tweet this morning from Simon Mayo, announcing that he and Mark Kermode would be broadcasting from the Greenbelt Festival, caused my hackles to rise. Greenbelt? Wasn’t that some kind of evangelical Christian event? What was 5 Live doing associating itself with religious propaganda?

On taking a peek at the Greenbelt website, I realised that my perceptions of the festival were hopelessly out of date, and that this annual gathering has moved on a bit since I last took notice of it. With mainstream acts like Courtney Pine and Gil Scott Heron appearing, and speakers such as Peter Tatchell and Clare Short, Greenbelt has clearly broadened its appeal somewhat. According to the website:

Our 37-year history is firmly rooted within a Christian tradition which is world-affirming, politically and culturally engaged. Ours is a belief that embraces instead of excludes. And, as such, the Festival is family-friendly celebration, inclusive and accepting of all, regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, background or belief.

All very commendable. So, I wondered, what exactly do they mean by ‘politically and culturally engaged’? Curious, I clicked on the ‘Campaigning’ link and my hackles, which had all but subsided, began to rise again.

Under the banner heading ‘Greenbelt: standing for a just peace’, were ten links to other web pages. No fewer than seven of these were explicitly about Israel/Palestine. And it was pretty clear where the site’s sympathies lay. One of the links was to ‘Tutu on divestment’ and another to a page headed ‘If Greenbelt was Gaza’, where I found the following information:

If Greenbelt was Gaza is part of our onsite campaigning this year at Greenbelt – forcing festivalgoers to confront the stark contrast between life for our festival community over the four days of our long weekend together with the day-to-day life experienced by Palestinians in the Gaza strip.

Be prepared for checkpoints that will bring you up short. Be shocked at how hard everyday life can be. Be moved and motivated to act for change. To campaign for a Just Peace.

A general ‘Campaign link’ was illustrated with a photo of demonstrators in terrorist-chic keffiyehs and provided ‘links to other like-minded organisations working in the Middle East’, most of them pro-Palestinian and only one Israel-based. There was also a blog feed on the home page, and all of the posts it linked to were about Palestine.

In other words, the political and cultural ‘engagement’ of which the Greenbelt organisers are so proud is an engagement with just one issue. There is literally no mention anywhere on the website, under the campaign links or elsewhere, of any other cause or issue that might invite the urgent concern of ‘engaged’ Christians. Nothing about the appalling human rights abuses and extreme suffering of the peoples of Sudan, Burma or North Korea, for example. And despite the organisation’s hand-wringing over the plight of Palestinian Christians, its site shows no awareness of the infinitely worse oppression and violence inflicted on Christians in other countries, particularly in the Arab and Muslim world.

No, Greenbelt is obviously concerned – obsessed would not be too strong a word for it, on the evidence of its website – with one issue and one issue alone. Not only are the organisers monomaniacally fixated on Palestine, and Gaza in particular, but they are ruthless in their determination to present only one side of the argument and to exclude all other viewpoints. To be sure, Christians should have compassion for the plight of the Palestinians and work constructively to improve their lives. But surely they might have some sympathy left over for the people of Israel, living in fear of rocket attacks from Gaza or bus bombs in downtown Tel Aviv, sponsored or tolerated by the organisations with which Greenbelt invites us to show solidarity?

You’d search in vain on the Greenbelt website for any suggestion that there might be other causes for the sufferings of the Palestinian people, besides the perfidious actions of the despised state of Israel. You’ll find no reference to the failure of Arab states to provide homes for Palestinian refugees or to support the development of a Palestinian state, or to the Islamist takeover of Gaza by Hamas and its increasingly repressive restrictions on the lives of the local population, not to mention its refusal to allow supplies to cross from Israel, even from the Islamist-infiltrated flotilla. Nor will you find any mention of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and uprooting of thousands of its settlers, which has produced not an iota of compromise from Hamas, but instead has been followed by deadly rockets targeted at civilians in towns such as Sderot.

The single-minded obsession of supposedly ‘progressive’ Christians with the Palestinian issue and their resolutely one-sided view of the issue makes me both angry and sad. In the days when I was a practising Christian, I was a member of the Christian Socialist Movement and an ardent supporter of liberation theology. Although no longer a believer, I still hold out hope for the revival of a thoughtful, progressive Christian Left.

But if Greenbelt is anything to go by (not to mention the many similar examples collected by the admirable Seismic Shock), then a significant section of the Christian Left has chosen to align itself with some of the worst elements of the secular pseudo-left and has uncritically hitched itself to the skewed anti-Israel anti-Western agenda of the Stop the War Coalition and the SWP.

One hesitates to talk of antisemitism. But given the record of the Christian church throughout history, this singleminded focus on the supposed sins of the Jews, to the exclusion of all other injustices, combined with what Tony Blair the other day called the 'conscious or often unconscious resistance, sometimes bordering on refusal, to accept Israel has a legitimate point of view', should certainly give one pause for thought.

'Ours is a belief that embraces instead of excludes...inclusive and accepting of all': unless you happen to be Israeli, that is. As the Greenbelt festival-goers encounter their fake Gazan checkpoints this weekend, perhaps they'll pause for just a moment to wonder what it would be like, and how they would feel, if Greenbelt were Sderot.


Eve Garrard said...

Very nice post, Martin, right on the button; thanks for writing it. This is a peculiarly unpleasant strain in current Christianity, with horrible historical resonances. Of course, the more I see such skewed and one-sided approaches to the I/P conflict, the more I'm convinced of the need for a Jewish state. I'd love to know, though, what makes some people (like yourself) able to see what's wrong with this kind of thing, and others not so able; indeed they're clearly convinced that their selective hostility to Israel redounds in some way to their moral credit.

Wesley said...

Martin, I found your blog interesting to read, but as a long time Greenbelt goer, this is how I see what the festival is doing.
The Palestine/Israel conflict has been picked out as a single issue that the Greenbelt Festival feels it must speak out on and raise awareness of amongst the people that attend. As you can read on the website, the campaign was born out of trip where a group of people involved in running Greenbelt went to the Holy Land and heard from both Palestinians and Israelis and were so shocked by what was going on that they decided the issue needed to be raised at the festival as part of a 3 year campaign.
If you had attended the festival, you would have seen that the biggest Marquee by far (the G-Source) was a place where dozens of charities and NGOs, supporting people in every corner of the globe, got to reach out to a wider audience. The issue of peace in the Holy Land, for Palestinians and Israelis, is the festivals main focus for campaigning, but by no means the only cause which has a voice at the Festival.
If you have a look at the line-up for the festival you would also see that as well as Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian and other voices talking about Palestine and Israel, there were people from all around the world talking about other situations.

I think it is commendable that Greenbelt would align itself so strongly with such a cause, something that is not easy to do, because as soon as you speak out for a peace in which Israel must make some concessions, you are branded an anti-Semite. At no point during any of the seminars and panel debates that I went to at this years Greenbelt Festival did I hear anyone say that Israel doesn’t have a right to exist, or a right to security, merely that at the moment, it is not even close to being an even struggle, and we must strive to give the Palestinian people a voice in the international community so that peace is brought sooner.

I won’t go through all of your points, but I don’t think you are taking a very balanced view of things either.
Under international law it is Israel’s responsibility either to let the Palestinian refugees return to their homes in Israel, or to compensate them, so as much as it would be good if the neighbouring Arab nations were more accommodating, the responsibility lies with Israel to sort out the refugees.
Also, as I understand it, when the 9,000 settlers were evicted from Gaza, the same year, some 12,000 Israeli settlers moved into the West Bank. Of course Hamas shouldn’t fire rockets towards Sderot, but is shows how desperate the people are that they voted in an extremist party (their ‘take-over’ of Gaza was of course after they had been democratically elected into government).

Anyway, this isn’t the place to go through each and every argument, but I would like to invite you to come to Greenbelt next year so you can experience, and judge, the festival as a whole, not just the impression you have gained from the website.

Martin said...

Dear Wesley

Thank your for your comment on my blog. I’m no great expert on the history and politics of the Middle East, and I’ll let those who are to respond to some of your detailed arguments, if they so wish.

I’m certainly not denying the right of Greenbelt, or any other campaigning organisation, to focus on the plight of the Palestinians. What I was trying to understand in my post, and what had struck me so forcefully when browsing their website (and I admit, I only have the website to go on) was 1) the almost obsessive focus on this one issue, to the exclusion of all others, despite the myriad injustices and conflicts in the world and 2) the zeal with which one side of the argument was repeatedly presented, to the exclusion of all others. I could have mentioned that all the speakers and commentators linked to by the website are of one shade of opinion and some of them, such as the Rev Stephen Sizer, have made some pretty dubious statements in the past. And the terrorist-chic of the demo photo was worrying: progressive Christians, like secular leftists, should be careful about the company they keep.

I do think that faith-based groups involved with this issue have a tendency to simplify it into a matter of ‘bad Israeli oppressors’ on the one hand and ‘poor Palestinian victims’ on the other. There are probably theological and historical reasons for this. Even talking repeatedly about ‘Palestine-Israel’ and ‘the Holy Land’ seems to me to subtly undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel. The Greenbelt campaign seems to shy away from any understanding that the suffering of the Palestinians might be the product of a complex historical situation in which mistakes have been made, and wrongs committed, by a whole range of political actors.

As I say, I’m no expert, but just a few points to explain what I mean. Since its inception, Israel has been surrounded by neighbours who have denied its right to exist and have worked for its destruction, often waging wars with the aim of annihilating the Jewish state. The rhetoric of Israel’s enemies (and I don’t just mean Hamas) has frequently been infused with anti-Semitism and Islamist supremacism. Today, Israel is threatened by terror and incursions from fundamentalists militias, backed by powerful allies like Iran and Syria. It’s unlikely that giving up the occupied territories would bring this to a halt.

Despite having to turn itself into a military power in order to survive, Israel has remained a beacon of democracy, openness and human rights in a region marked by dictatorship, terror and repression. Ask yourself: in which country in the Middle East would I rather be a woman, gay, an opposition politician – or a Christian? It would be nice if, once in a while, some of these points in Israel’s favour were recognised by pro-Palestinian campaigners.

There's probably a lot more that could be said - and I hope to return to this issue of Israel and the Christian Left in another post. But that will do for now.

Wesley said...

Thanks for your response Martin. I'm afraid I just can't see Israel as a 'beacon of democracy' while it continues the occupation of the palestinian people, stripping from them some of the most fundamental human rights.
Israel is accountable not just for the way it runs the State of Israel, but also for how it controls the land which it occupies. From spending time there and hearing Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints, I can tell you that the majority of the Israeli strategy in the Palestinian territories is doesn't benefit the security of the Israeli people, it merely oppresses the Palestinians (to the point where they don't resist when some new peace agreement signs away more land to Israel).

Also for your info the Saudi Peace Initiative of 2002 saw a unanimous vote from all Arab nations in favour of normalising relations and peace with Israel in return for Israeli withdrawl to the 1967 borders. As I understand this has largely been ignored by Israel.

Fran said...


You stick to your guns. What 'Wesley' fails to mention is that any organisation that has attempted to present any alternative to the Palestinian narrative has been steadily refused space at Greenbelt over the past years.

Greenbelt's organisers have no intention of listening to any other than the Palestinian narrative.

Wesley, for example, ignores the fact that Arab aggression against Israel existed long before 1967 and that in Gaza, Israel's 2005withdrawal of 7000 Jewish settlers by force resulted not in an attempt by Gaza's leaders to work towards statehood alongside its neighbour, but in Gaza becoming a launchpad for terrorist attacks into Israel.

Far from preparing its people for peace, both Fatah and Hamas teach their children to hate Jews and aspire to die in order to destroy Israel as a Jewish homeland.

Why should Israel trust any offer of peace made by the Arab nations? Since 2000 Israel has made three offers to Palestinian leaders in which the vast majority of Palestinian land demands have been ceded. All have been rejected.

The problem for Israel's neighbours, you see, is not so much Israel's actions - it is Israel's existence.

Meanwhile Israel's security strategy has reduced the number of suicide bombings to almost zero and Israelis can now visit restaurants, markets and stand at bus stops with far less chance of being blown up by Arab terrorists.

Greenbelt's organisers have lined up alongside those who would like to see that changed. Their contributors champion the right of Palestinians to a state of their own - a state without Jews, of course - whilst aligning with organisations that would like to see the same right of self-determination taken away from Jewish people.

Their hypocrisy needs to be challenged.

'Christians' who demonise Israel, including Greenbelt's organisers, need to be reminded that nearly 2000 years of institutionalised Christian Jew hatred need to be acknowledged. In the opinion of many observers the obsession of parts of the Church with delegitimising Israel is a modern expression of the ancient Christian propaganda against Jews by Augustine of Hippo, John Chrysostom et al.

Happily large parts of the Christian Church are waking up to the appalling stance taken by Greenbelt et al. Christian Friends of Israel, Anglican Friends of Israel and most recently, Methodist Friends of Israel are just three examples.

Keep up the great work, Martin!

Martin said...

Wesley - Thank you for your latest comment. I won't respond in detail to your criticisms of Israeli policy - I refer you to Fran's comment above. Except to say, once more, that I never said that Israel was perfect or should be immune to criticism. Undoubtedly it has made mistakes, like any other nation.

But to repeat my original point: what makes me angry and sad is the way anti-Israel campaigners on the secular and Christian left (and right) focus exclusively on the 'sins' of Israel, ignoring those of their aggressors (see Fran), and holding the country to a different standard to other nations, and indeed their own.

Melo Gardener said...

Glad of the Educated comment Martin. What is absurd is the left Greenbelt Respondent per usual knows no history let alone scripture. Except for a few Jews and Berbers Jerusalem and the land of Israel lay dormant and empty until its hardworking Jews returned in G-ds' calling from the four corners of the earth in the 1800's! They rebuilt and planted Israel while trespassing Arabs moved in to fight just as Islam has done 1400 years. All the Jewish and Christian peoples kicked out of if not slaughtered in Islamic lands are never touted by the likes of Greenbelt Replacement Theology Left Christians who like the Vatican are only too pleased to bash Israel into anhialation! Now Islamic lands are empty of Jews and almost totally empty of Christians and the Byzantine peoples finally really gone! Yesterdays slaughter of 42 bombed Christians in Iraq and the thousands ordered out of Turkey a year ago never raised a blimp on the radar screen of the left I note (or Greenbelt)! So The Middle East/Sauds/Iraq is empty of Jews and now soon all Christians. Thank G-d that this will not be the case for the land of Israel because when G-d says He will restore all things and gather the Jews from the four corners of the earth and will not only replant/rebuild ALL their lands full of Jewish family of Yeshua He means it, but, He will also rebuke the unrepented slaughter by Islam Vatican and any other pro-terrorist fascist or replacement theology dabblers using His little people Israel as Witness to the world. So much for touting Arab Pa/Hamas and their deathly peace initiatives at the cost of Israel and all non-muslims! Of course it is absurd to suggest that Greenbelt Christians read history and scriptures (Ezekiel) Which declare that when Israel is gathered bone to bone God's fury will come up in His face and He will rebuke Islam before they blow it all to pieces with their preaching ofIslamo/fascist revisionist wars, lies and replacement theology! Looks like the saying if you preach lies long enough people will believe them has once again been proven to be absolutely true! Left Wing and Islamic ignorance once again shows it's deathly colors and it is getting harder and harder to read of so many foolish and willing slaves to it's propaganda! This is what it must of felt like when vile Hitler preached and enacted his hate and now we listen to pc lefties, many uneducated left Christians and Jews and Islamists doing the same. Well some of us have not forgotten the road this scenario will take and it is not going be pretty! Pity men refuse to learn because their hatred of Jews is too great to overcome! Glad to see your comments Fran!

Martin said...

Melo, I tend to agree with your historical analysis, but I'm not sure using theology to justify either 'side' in the conflict is helpful. In fact, I think the recourse to theological understandings of history is part of the problem. I'm planning to publish a post about this fairly soon.