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PR perils of occupation

20 July 2012


Israel is a nation at war, which treats neutrals with a wary contempt because they don't share Israel's risks. Neutrals dislike this treatment. What is worse is that Israel is also engaged in a propaganda war. The brutal necessities of military occupation are constantly glossed over, or lied about; so they come as a shock when first encountered.

But it is not enough, in a propaganda war, to maintain the horrors of the other side. You need also to convert people to the merits of your own cause, and this is a whole lot harder in the case of Israel. You will certainly have to try a bit harder than Melanie Phillips, in the Daily Mail:

"Decent Christians are extremely upset, and rightly so, about the resolution passed at the General Synod a few days ago endorsing the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel." Nice start - anyone not upset is therefore an indecent Christian. "The EAPPI is a one-sided organisation which presents Israel entirely falsely as the regional aggressor, and the Palestinians as its victims, whereas the opposite is the case."

Do we really want to take that sentence literally? The Palestinians are the aggressors, and Israel the victim? If Melanie Phillips were (which God forbid) a taxi-driver, she would have to grumble about "Bloody Palestinians, stay over there, living in their own country . . . "

But this was nothing to the poisonous dishonesty of the Jewish Chronicle's report: "In his speech, the Archbishop of Canterbury drew a parallel between the Holocaust and Israeli checkpoints: 'Half an hour at Yad Vashem will persuade you, if you need persuading, why the state of Israel needs to exist securely. Half an hour at a check-point will persuade you, if you need persuading, that there are forms of security that are indefensible and unsustain-able'."

Giles Fraser, in The Guardian, was more measured. "The specific beef that many in the Jewish community have with EAPPI is that those who return from the volunteer programme can end up with a one-sided view of the conflict." This has to be right. But it is hardly a criticism of the organisation.

No doubt the other side are worse: I'd rather be an Arab civilian in Israel right now than one in Syria; I would also rather be an exploited Somali refugee in Tel Aviv than one enslaved for ransom by the Bedouin in Sinai. But what does undercut a great deal of pro-Israel propaganda is one fact on which everyone agrees: that there is no more effective means of producing pro-Palestinian activists than a few weeks spent living alongside the Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

When you think how Londoners are going to react to the mere inconvenience of our city's occupation by the Olympics for a couple of weeks, it's surprising that so few of the EAPPI volunteers come back with unbalanced views on Israel v. Palestine.

There was no other correspondingly interesting row in the British press this week, but a piece by Ross Douthat in The New York Times rehashed entertainingly the standard conservative accounts of why the Episcopal Church in the United States is failing:

"If conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination - Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian - that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the [Roman] Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves."

The unwary reader might suppose from this that there are legions of thriving conservative RC orders like - oh, I don't know - the Legion of Christ.

What is new and remarkable here is that Douthat, himself a conservative Catholic, doesn't simply crow over the death of "liberal" Christianity. He sees it as socially engaged in a way that most American consumerist Christianity is not. Conservative Christianity has lost the culture wars in America, and will continue to do so. Worse than that, it might be dawning on thoughtful conservatives that they, too, should be at war with the culture, and with sins that aren't wholly sexual. This raises the interesting question whether liberal Churches have failed because they stand too far outside the prevailing culture, with all their nonsense about justice and equality.

Enough of these trivia. I am grateful to the reader who sent in a picture of "Grilled Cheesus", a device to imprint a bearded, "soulful" face on a toasted sandwich. A portion of the profits go to charity. What is mocked here: Christianity or idolatry?


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