One of the more bizarre and intriguing events in Australian Christian Jewish relations took place last month when the Australian, Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) took a group of church leaders on an all expenses tour of Israel. The group included the senior staff of the National Council of Churches, the councils of churches in Queensland, South Australia and Victoria, as well as the Dean of St Paul's Anglican Cathedral in Melbourne. In the words of the AIJAC leader of the group, they were chosen because they were “all people of promise”!
While there are many organisations within the Jewish community that work co-operatively with churches on issues of interfaith dialogue, AIJAC is not one of them. It is better known as an aggressive, no holds barred, privately funded, political lobby group. It is variously described as “the only effective organisation that lobbies for Israel”, a “Melbourne based pro-Zionist think-tank”, “Zionist propagandists”, “contentious”, but not a body, according to the President of the New South Wales Board of Deputies, “that is in any elected or democratic sense representative of the community”. In fact, its relations with churches have generally been antagonistic and vitriolic.
It has vigorously attacked Palestinian churches and their leaders, various Anglican bishops, and targeted over the years, the councils of churches and aid agencies such as World Vision. For AIJAC, the Anglican church in Jerusalem is regarded as a “hot bed of some of the most extreme anti-Israel sentiments”. Their “shrill and aggressive” targeting of Dr Hanan Ashrawi, a devout Anglican whose grandfather was an Anglican priest, being awarded the Sydney Peace Prize, was so excessive that other sections of the Jewish community strongly expressed their opposition to such tactics and language.
Why then an AIJAC delegation and how come some of the most significant church leaders had no hesitation in accepting an all expenses paid tour of Israel?
Currently around the world, churches continue to despair, along with the people of Israel and the Occupied Territories, of the continued violence and suffering in “the holy land”. In a recent statement, the World Council of Churches (WCC) condemned “attacks perpetuated by Palestinian groups against innocent citizens within the State of Israel and by the State of Israel and its defence forces inside the Occupied Palestinian Territories”. Member churches of the WCC are being encouraged to work for peace, to expand the engagement between the Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities, and to consider disinvesting from companies, such as Caterpillar, that are used as tools of collective punishment, including the destruction of Palestinian orchards and house demolitions.
It is this latter proposition that is galvanising the Israeli Government and Jewish organisations such as AIJAC to mount their offensive on churches, including free trips to Israel. Carefully guided and controlled itineraries, and crowded lecture schedules with little spare time, are characteristic of such tours. There are meetings with the Israeli Government, but not with the Israeli Centre for Human Rights; plenty of time for archaeological digs, but not with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions; time for visits to disabled centres, but not for the Palestinian church; and time for discussions with reporters from Jerusalem Post, but not with Haaretz.
AIJAC has every right to organise all expenses paid tours with whom ever they want and to provide them with any itinerary they choose. In the case of the church leaders, these were “people of promise” and worth the time and effort of AIJAC just in case there was a move in Australia to begin to respond to the WCC campaign.
For leaders of the church its a different issue. Their naivety and insensitivity and ignorance is breathtaking. No questions were asked about who or what or where AIJAC was coming from. No attempts were made to consult with the council of churches in Palestine and no meetings took place with Palestinian theologians. Both the councils of churches and the Anglican Church have significant aid programs in the Occupied Territories, but no attempt was made to visit them. And equally disturbing, none of the councils of churches or the Cathedral appear to have policies about accepting funding from partisan lobby groups.
The Palestinian church and its leaders have for decades, in despair and frustration, warned Western church leaders against accepting such funding and control. They know that those who organise such visits will ensure that the Palestinian church story will not be told. Just how right they are in their judgment can be seen in the reports of some of the participants. For example, the Anglican Dean of Melbourne noted in his report to the Cathedral that “he was surprised at the tiny size of Israel”, that “Israel is one great archaeological dig”, and expressed his amazement with “the diversity of the landscape”. No mention of the Palestinian church. Another Anglican waxed lyrically about archaeological digs, but admitted in a public meeting he couldn't recall meeting any “Arab Christians”!
Interestingly, at the same time the Australian delegation were in Israel, another delegation made up of some 50 church representatives from around the world were visiting churches and Christian leaders in both Israel and the Occupied Territories. AIJAC organisers ensured that the two delegations did not meet, and disturbingly, this did not appear to be of much concern to the Australian delegation.
Were the church leaders taken for a ride - certainly. From all accounts it was a most enjoyable trip! But did they hear the voice of the Palestinian church? Were they confronted with the day to day reality of the congregations of these churches? Not likely. This was a ride that ensured that the voice of the Palestinian church was silenced.
Currently, the councils of churches have not responded to the WCC campaign. While dialogue between the church and Jewish communities is increasing, organisations such as AIJAC will take every step, even if it means more free trips to Israel, to ensure that issues such as disinvestment remain off the agenda of the churches.