Saturday, 14 February 2015

The turbulent Priest and the arrogant Board - Reflections on the Stephen Sizer affair

This has been a difficult post to write.

Like many readers of my blog, I've been a supporter of Revd. Dr. Stephen Sizer, the Anglican priest who has written extensively on the misconceptions and dangers of Christian Zionism. In the past Stephen Sizer has been kind enough to share some of my own writing on his website. His work deconstructing Christian Zionist theology has been a helpful contribution to many Christians, pointing out the pitfalls of interpreting a biblical love of Zion to justify the actions of the modern day State of Israel. He's also emphasised that the Christian call for love and justice cannot exclude the Palestinians whether Christian or Muslim.

But this week he found himself in very hot water after sharing a link on his Facebook page to an article blaming the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001 on an Israeli/Jewish conspiracy. As a consequence, his Diocesan boss, the Bishop of Guildford, has silenced his work on all things Middle-East and instructed him to keep to his parish responsibilities if he wants to keep his job.

Stephen Sizer did not endorse the article he linked to but he did comment on the piece asking his Facebook friends: "Is this anti-Semitic? If so no doubt I’ll be asked to remove it. It raises so many questions." Here's my link to "9-11/Israel did it" if you want to see for yourself what's caused the fuss.

There's been a great deal of support for Stephen Sizer this week from pro-Palestinian activists accusing the Board of Deputies of British Jews of hounding him by referring his actions to his Church superiors. Sizer's supporters fear another example of Israel's advocates trying to blur distinctions between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism.

So did Stephen Sizer cross a line?

I'm not a great fan of conspiracy theories as a rule. Human frailty rather than human conniving usually looks like a more likely cause when tragedy strikes. As with all good conspiracy theories, the evidence "9-11/Israel did it" is presented as comprehensive and overwhelming. It is also deeply anti-Semitic.

Stephen Sizer should have been smart enough to spot this immediately.

It's not just Israel that the authors of the piece are attempting to stitch-up. That in itself is pretty far-fetched. The motives don't stack up and implications of the conspiracy being discovered would surely outweigh any possible benefit. But the accusations go far wider. Apart from blaming the Israeli State and its security services, the authors have assembled an extensive cast list of American and Israeli Jewish businessmen, politicians, lawyers, judges and speechwriters and accused them of working together to create a new 'Pearl Harbor' one that will galvanise American public opinion to support wars on Israel's enemies.

Claiming a Jewish cabal is operating as a shady Zionist network bent on destabilising the world for Jewish advantage, is straight out of the classic play book of anti-Semitism. Stephen Sizer was right that it raises so many questions. The problem is that most of them relate to his personal judgement.

After the link was spotted by The Jewish News, Sizer emailed the newspaper saying: "Encouraging research and debate on all aspects of [9/11] is not anti-Semitic… Suppressing discussion on such grounds will fuel suspicion, not remove it.”

I don't agree. The article is not worthy of being described as contributing research or debate on 9/11. It's hardcore racism dressed up as anti-Zionism and a trained academic like Stephen Sizer should have realised what he was reading. So too should anyone looking to defend him for sharing the piece without clearly condemning it.

If you want to criticise Israel there is no shortage of uncontested material to draw on. You don't need to make it up. For a start there is a nearly fifty year occupation of Palestinian land going on that both the British and American governments (and most of the rest of the world) consistently agree is illegal.

Then there is on-going land theft, collective punishment, child arrests, imprisonment without charge, shoot to kill policing, parallel and discriminatory jurisdictions, and, in Israel itself, a gaping democratic deficit both constitutional and cultural if you happen to be Palestinian Israeli citizen. Shall I go on?

By sharing the 9-11 article Stephen Sizer has caused offence (especially to those of his critics who are eager to be offended). But that's not the only cause of my disappointment.

What's really frustrating is that Stephen has pulled attention away from the issue of civil, political and national rights for the Palestinian people and shifted the debate to anti-Semitism and crack-pot conspiracy theories. It's a situation that allows his critics, and other defenders of Israel's behaviour, to associate all support for the Palestinian people with an anti-Semitic agenda "There, look, we told you so! Anti-Zionism is just a mutation of anti-Semitism."

Stephen Sizer has now publicly accepted his mistake. At least in terms of promoting an anti-Semitic agenda via his Facebook page. His Bishop, Rt. Revd. Andrew Watson, is quoted in this week's Church Times saying: "[Stephen] is certainly hugely remorseful, and embarrassed and ashamed by it. He has been shocked by his own stupidity". That makes two of us.

However, like Bishop Watson, I don't believe that Stephen Sizer is motivated by anti-Semitism. 

Passions ride high on both sides of this conflict. And one consequence of that is that supporters on each side are willing to believe the absolute worst about their opponents. It's a situation that does not bode well for eventual reconciliation.

Stephen Sizer's views on Christian Zionism deserved to be heard and understood and I hope after a suitable period of remorse and silence he can continue to make this contribution to the debate.

As for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which referred the incident to the Diocese of Guildford, on this occasion it was fully appropriate for them to do so and to expect the Church authorities to take disciplinary action.

I'm sure the Board couldn't care less about what I think of them. But just in case they are getting carried away by my new found support, let me make this observation.

I would have a great deal more time for the Board's watchdog role on anti-Semitism if it could spread its concerns for respect and the protection of an oppressed people to the situation in Israel itself. 

As I've highlighted, there is no shortage of internationally accepted facts that demonstrate a human rights scandal happening every hour of the day in the Jewish State that claims to speak for me and every single member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Instead, we get at best silence and more usually tacit support of Israel's actions . If the Board could be courageous enough to point out, just occasionally, that all is not well in the Jewish homeland, its credibility on issues of discrimination and racism against Jews would be greatly enhanced.

As a well-known Jewish teacher from Judea is quoting as saying: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"