Flat White

Canberra’s bolshy bishop wrong on Israel

30 May 2017

1:06 PM

30 May 2017

1:06 PM

A Measured Response By Denis MacEoin

In his recent article, ‘Capitalism, Anti-Semitism & The Judaeo-Christian Ethic’ the former Anglican bishop of Canberra-Goulburn and Australia Palestine Advocacy Network head George Browning presents what he describes as a “reflection into the heart of the modern State of Israel”.

When I finished reading the article, I had to take several deep breaths before I could muster my thoughts in order to challenge almost every word of this biased and profoundly inaccurate piece of misdirection. May I start here?

Towards the end, Browning denies that his article is anti-Semitic: “Rather … I believe it to be supportive of the essential value upon which the culture of Judaism is founded – the practice of universal justice.”

Is Browning aware of the leading modern definition of anti-Semitism written by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and recognised by some 32 countries? This definition, like others before it, includes several clauses that identify unfair, incorrect criticism of Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, or the setting of double standards for it as anti-Semitic. Browning’s article, as we shall see, falls without reserve into that definition. It is hard to understand how a man of his intelligence and deep involvement in Israeli-Palestinian matters should not know of or respect the IHRA definition or earlier, almost identical ones such as the original European EUMC and US State Department definitions. In order to make this clear, here are two clauses from the IHRA definition:

Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.

Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

Now, let me turn to several statements made by Browning in the course of his article:

Universal justice appears to have become an unwelcome stranger in the land of Israel. Zionism’s compulsive identification with land, has replaced justice as its core value.

What on earth can he mean? Countries all round the world have high regard for their land. Patriotism is a common position for the Irish, the Scottish, the English, the French, the Italians, and dozens more. The Palestinians, to whom Browning is intensely loyal, talk about little else but their right to the land. But according to Browning, Jewish love of their ancestral land, a place to which Jews prayed to return for over two millennia, overturns the ancient Jewish love for justice in a way other nation’s love for their land and their self-determination within it, does not.

Just after that statement, Browning makes another:

The having, holding and conquering of land has seemingly become the arbiter of nationhood…

Does Browning know so little about history? Jews did not conquer the land of Israel: they were given it first through the League of Nations Mandate system, then the United Nations Partition resolution, and reinforced by UN resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973), all through internationally-recognized and binding agreements. In 1947, the Palestinian Arabs rejected the offer of a second Palestinian state, and five Arab countries launched an offensive war to drive the Jews out. Although this war failed, the Palestinians lost Gaza to Egypt and the West Bank to Jordan. In 1967, fighting another defensive war, Israel forced Egypt and Jordan out, later made peace treaties with both countries, and in 2005 moved out of Gaza completely. Settlements within the West Bank, (originally the Jewish territories of Judea and Samaria) are legal under international law despite claims to the contrary and will be negotiated in exchanges of land, when and if the Palestinian leadership agrees to a peaceful resolution. Such offers were made in 1947, 1967, 2000, 2001, and 2008, but turned down by the Palestinians and their Arab allies every time.

Browning might do better to talk about the way Muslim Arabs originally took the Holy Land – by military conquest, alongside a series of worldwide conquests by Muslim forces in the seventh and later centuries. The only reason the Arabs insist on holding land is because of a ruling in jihad law that refuses to relinquish land once conquered. Is Browning actually aware of any of this, or is he just making things up as he goes along?

The bishop next takes issue with three statements commonly made about Israel, summarily dismissing them one by one. First, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East:

Hang on, no it is not. First of all, on who’s (sic) definition of democracy?  Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are afforded no rights while Arabs in Israel have differing and reduced rights to their Jewish counterparts.

What unmitigated guff. What other democracies does Bishop Browning know of in the Middle East? Syria? Lebanon, under the control of the Iranian terrorist organisation Hizbullah? Turkey, under the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Erdogan? Egypt? Iraq? Saudi Arabia? Qatar? Yemen? Iran?

But Israel is a true democracy in which every adult citizen has the right to vote, to form or join a political party, and be elected to parliament. Arabs in Israel have exactly the same rights as citizens as Jews: they have political parties, they serve in the parliament (the Knesset), they serve as judges in Israeli courts, including the Supreme Court, they serve as diplomats, they are free to worship (whether they be Muslims or Christians), their places of worship are protected under the Law for the Protection of Holy Places. Unlike all other countries in the Middle East, women in Israel (Arabs or Jews) have the same right as men. Women in Saudi Arabia aren’t allowed to drive cars or go out without male escorts. In Israel, many women are fighter pilots. Not a true democracy?

As for the West Bank, Palestinians certainly have rights. Under the Oslo Accords, the region is divided in three: Area A (where there are no Israeli settlements) is under the full civil and security control of the Palestinian Authority (whose president, Mahmoud Abbas, is now in the undemocratic twelfth year of a 4-year term of office). Area B (also without Israeli settlements) is under joint Palestinian and Israeli control, and only Area C is under full Israeli control. The Israel security presence is there to defend Israeli civilians from the thousands of terrorist attacks that have been and are still being launched by Palestinians.

Israel is not a perfect democracy. Nor is Australia. Nor is the UK. Nor is the US. And so on. So why does Browning both lie about Israel and single it out above other democracies as not being a democracy? A majority of Israeli Arabs say they would rather live in Israel than elsewhere because they flourish well there.

The second statement Browning turns to is this: Israel is the only country in the Middle East that enables freedom of religion:

Well, no.  Israel claims to be a Jewish State.  By definition the statement excludes those who are not Jews. The idea of Jerusalem as an historical centre for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike is being constantly eroded.

This is an egregious lie. The fact that Israel is a Jewish state (or the Jewish state) no more impinges on freedom of religion there than being a Christian nation deters freedom of religion in the UK, Australia and elsewhere. All the countries around Israel and beyond define themselves as Muslim, and there is no religious freedom in any of them, in fact, minorities are routinely persecuted or worse: Baha’is in Iran, Copts in Egypt, Christians in the West Bank and Gaza suffer fierce discrimination and often murder.

Let me take the Baha’is as an example. They are the largest religious minority in Iran, yet they are persecuted, executed, imprisoned and more by the state. In Israel, they have their two holiest shrines, the seat of their international governing body, their international archives and other bodies. These and their world-famous gardens have won them status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Israel allows them complete freedom. They are as much loved by the Jewish state as they are hated in their homeland. Elsewhere in the Middle East, Christian populations are being slaughtered and expelled in the hundreds of thousands. Israel is the only country in the region where the Christian population has increased year on year since the state’s foundation in 1948. Ahmadi Muslims, persecuted in Pakistan and other Islamic countries, live and worship freely in Israel. All the mosques and holy places of Israel’s Muslim communities are kept safe and secure by the country’s Law for the Protection of Holy Places. The Palestinians, whom Bishop Browning so adores – he is the President of the Palestine Advocacy Network – kill and persecute Christians, murder apostates from Islam, and teach their children in schools to hate Jews and aspire to kill them. The evidence for this is overwhelming. Has Bishop Browning ever set eyes on it?

Browning then says: Israel is the only country in the Middle East that lives by the rule of law:

Well, no, it does not.

Actually, it does. Certainly, it imprisons many Palestinians, but only Palestinians who have gone out to stab, shoot, ram, or bomb Israeli citizens (whether Jews or Arabs).

Back in Northern Ireland, we used to imprison people for crimes like that too. No one was ever imprisoned or interned without due process. Israel never executes its prisoners, even multiple murderers, and its jails are of a high standard in international terms. No one is imprisoned without an open and fair trial. In 1999, Israel’s Supreme Court banned even the use of moderate physical pressure on terrorist suspects. Israeli law is based on a series of Basic Laws that act as a constitution, and Israeli justice is open, transparent, and witnessed by international observers, journalists and international human rights bodies.

Here is a single example of Israeli openness. In 2010, Moshe Katsav, who was president of Israel from 2000 to 2007, was sentenced to seven years in prison on rape and sexual harassment charges. The presiding judge at the Supreme Court was one George Karra, a Christian Arab. But I forget, George Browning insists that Israeli Arabs have few rights.

Problems can indeed arise within the Israeli legal system. But the same applies to all other democracies with equal force. Why does Browning single Israel out and deny its basic lawfulness? There are remedies for miscarriages of justice, and parliament is empowered to reform specific pieces of legislation should they prove in need of it. In countries like Saudi Arabia that are ruled under sharia law, heads are lopped off, limbs amputated, adulterers and homosexuals stoned to death. Saudi Arabia now chairs the UN Human Rights Council’s section on women’s rights. Why doesn’t Bishop Browning focus on genuine cases of the abuse of law that harm innocent people? Why doesn’t he take his Arab friends to task for their blatant disregard for human rights?

And that mention of homosexuals reminds me that there are no laws in Israel against the rights of LGBT persons. In fact, Tel Aviv has a reputation as the friendliest city for male and female gay people in the world. Not a single Arab or Muslim country – including the PA territory and Gaza under Hamas – affords such rights even to the most limited degree. Come out as gay in Israel and you may be shown the way to the nearest gay bar. Do that in any Muslim state and you will be taken to the nearest high building and thrown from the roof.

In his response to that third statement, Browning also writes:

The occupying force protects the illegal settlers and not the Palestinian civil population. Essential services are provided to the illegal settlers and restricted or denied the Palestinians.

Here again, this is without context or explanation. Browning only knows one side of the story. Israel has handed a large swathe of the West Bank to Palestinian control. As for denial of essential services to the Palestinians, how does Browning explain the fact that Gaza, under viciously anti-Israel rule by terrorist group Hamas, has for many years received many thousands of truckloads of essential goods via the Kerem Shalom crossing with Israel: humanitarian aid continued to be sent in even while Hamas was firing thousands of rockets into Israel civilian centres in 2014 & 2015. The amount of water sent to Palestinian territories has increased from 5 million cubic meters per year to 10 million in an effort to combat the water crisis in the region. The Israel Electric Corporation has for years been supplying electricity to Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinians often avoid paying, and currently owe the corporation about NIS 2 billion in debt.

Every year thousands of Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank are treated free of charge in Israeli hospitals, including the families of Hamas and Fatah members. Likewise, children from Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq (many of them Kurdish), receive free heart surgery performed by Jewish surgeons from Israeli NGO ‘Save A Childs Heart’. Children from the latter countries are facilitated into Israel by ‘Shevet Achim’ a Christian NGO. Currently, hundreds of injured Syrians are treated in Israeli field hospitals. Internationally, the World Health Organization has named Israel the top country in the world for the field hospitals it builds in disaster zones, where Israel is a major player in providing aid. Special treatment for Jews alone? Really?

And here is something Bishop Browning might like to think hard about. In 2005, a young woman from Gaza, Wafa al-Biss, was taken to Israel’s Sokota Hospital, where she received over several months treatment for severe burns suffered in a domestic fire. When released, she was given permission to return regularly for outpatient treatment. Not long after, she arrived at the Eretz Crossing carrying a bomb strapped to her leg, which had been given to her by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. She had been told to explode it in the hospital in the same unit that had saved her life, with instructions to kill as many children as possible.

Al-Biss is only one among hundreds if not thousands of Palestinians who have tried to smuggle guns, knives, suicide vests and bombs into Israel. Should anyone be surprised if Israel uses checkpoints and other security measures to save both Israeli and Arab lives? In the wave of terror that has continued for the past two years, Palestinians, including children, have used knives, scissors, and machetes to stab Jews and cars to ram and kill pedestrians or police. Palestinians suffer from the security this demands, by having to wait in queues at checkpoints or searches. That is regrettable, but hardly a reason to condemn Israel. Or would the good bishop prefer to see all this security abandoned so that killers could come onto Israeli streets and take an ever-growing toll of innocent Israeli lives?

What Browning fails to realise is that the Palestinian narrative, and the wider Arab and Muslim demand that Israel must be wiped out, is not a Christian narrative. It is an Islamic narrative based on the ruling that any territory once conquered by jihad (such as Syria, then a Christian country, invaded in 634-35) may never be allowed to pass out of Muslim hands. That is what drives the Palestinian and wider Islamic demand for the creation of a vast Palestinian state that will replace Israel (even though there is already one Palestinian state: Jordan). Why does a Christian cleric prefer a Muslim understanding of affairs to an understanding of why, from Old Testament times on, Jews have linked their worship of God to the land they believe God gave them? For a Christian, Islamic law should have no standing whatever. But Jesus was a Jew who worshipped in the Temple in Jerusalem and would be, if he returned, dismayed to learn that the Temple Mount is occupied by two Islamic buildings and that Jews are forbidden to go there or to pray there.

George Browning appears to be interested in neither justice nor peace. He wants to deny the Jewish people the right to live on the only land they have ever possessed, their sole refuge from another Holocaust (a Holocaust that Browning’s Palestinian friends daily threaten to repeat), the sole haven of democracy and Judeo-Christian values in a troubled and disintegrating Middle East.

As Christianity declines across the globe and the forces of Islam gain strength, the day may yet come when Browning and his followers turn their eyes to Israel as a model of human achievement and a promise for the future. And perhaps as a refuge for their co-religionists in a region of death and destruction.

Dr Denis MacEoin is a British analyst and writer, former senior lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies, specialising in Shi’ism, Shaykhism, Babism and Baha’i, a former senior editor and Fellow at Middle East Quarterly and currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow at New York’s Gatestone Institute.

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