When Gags aren’t that Funny – a Christian view

“Those who were behind the [censorship] demands didn’t … care what I was going to say. They just wanted to stop me saying it.”  

After an Edinburgh church cancelled a Palestine solidarity meeting, Sharen Green urges Christians to stand up for their right to speak out for Palestine. 

They wanted to shut me up. I was due to give a talk at a famous public school on my time working as a human rights monitor in Palestine. It was titled “Occupation: up Close and Personal”.

Every school governor got emails – some from as far away as Australia – demanding that my talk was cancelled. The local police took notice after the organiser found a threatening message on her answerphone. Sniffer dogs searched the school grounds on the day and special branch made an appearance.

The head teacher posted a message on the school’s website, standing up to the bullying and the evening passed off without incident: a full hall, a warm and engaged audience and me on top form (though I say so myself).

Those who were behind the demands didn’t even turn up. Because they didn’t really care what I was going to say. They just wanted to stop me saying it and calling me antisemitic was a way to do that – or so they hoped. There was even a report on the front page of the Jerusalem Post. I was fascinated that I was targeted before I’d even opened my mouth.

Church failure

My church is pretty craven in these matters – trying to stand up for justice but terrified of being called antisemitic and rolling over at the merest hint of a suggestion of it. Of course Christians have a shameful record of persecuting, torturing and killing Jews which culminated an unspeakable Holocaust in the middle of the last century. It is natural perhaps that we are super-sensitive to Jewish feelings and that we do our utmost to prove that we are repentant and will never do anything like that again.

Litchfield Cathedral came under attack for hosting a meeting on Palestine
Lichfield Cathedral came under attack for hosting a meeting on Palestine

However, as Christians we are called to stand up for the oppressed in all circumstances.

At one point the Church of England had shares in Caterpillar which was busy supplying Israel with weaponised bulldozers such as killed the unarmed American activist Rachel Corrie as she tried to stop it destroying the home of a Gazan family.

Many of my fellow Anglicans jumped up and down about it and the jolly old CofE said it would consult all the interested parties. One of those interested parties turned out to be the British Board of Jewish Deputies.  (And you know what? I’m not entirely sure whether the Board of Deputies ever consults the church on any of its own internal affairs.) In the end the church divested, but it cited financial, not moral reasons.

Anglican and former Catholic that I am, certain phrases from the Hebrew prophets resonate with me:

“Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Amos 5:24

and

Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8

Then there’s that Jewish superstar Jesus of Nazareth – and I’m going with the King James version here:

For I hungered, and ye gave me to eat; I thirsted, and ye gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was ill, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came to me.”  Matthew 25 v 35.

I feel pretty relaxed about speaking truth to power in the old Quaker phrase and I’m very happy to support my Jewish colleagues who founded Free Speech On Israel to protect our right to criticise Israeli policies.

Defend human rights

It is irrelevant to me that the oppressors of Palestinians happen to be Jewish. I shall continue to speak out about it. It doesn’t matter to me that the oppressed happen to be Muslims and Christians. Although it grieves me that Christians are leaving Palestine in droves because of the occupation, I make no special plea for them. I defend them as human beings and I criticise their oppressors as human beings.

I am called to side with those under the cosh and it is my Hebrew and Jewish mentors who gave me that mindset.

Wherever human rights abuses take place in the world I try to oppose – and have opposed many times  – the oppressors. That includes governments of (nominally) Christian countries where they invade and persecute others who happen to be Muslim. And I certainly campaign against several regimes which are (nominally) Muslim when they persecute human rights activists of any religion whatsoever – Christians and Bahais in Iran, for example, and Muslims and Christians in Saudi Arabia.

I am not aware of anywhere currently where Jews are systematically being persecuted by their own government unless you count those brave souls in Israel who dare to swim against the tide but I would definitely support them too.

I was not alive during the Holocaust and I have no idea how I would have behaved then. Would I have had the courage to hide a Jewish family, to smuggle Jews out of the country, to even speak in their defence? Probably not, but I do know who were the oppressed then and I honour them and those who risked their own lives to save them.

My brush with the would-be gaggers and the public school was in 2007 but things are much worse now. I am dismayed that Zionist groups have managed to conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. Both Israel and the UK government are passing laws on that basis. So my preoccupation with campaigning for a just peace in Israel-Palestine which has been going on vaguely for decades and pretty well full-time for the last 14 years is now being interrupted.

Battles for our own freedom of speech which were won decades and centuries ago now need to be fought all over again. I so resent the time and energy needed to oppose this. I prefer to use my time supporting those Palestinians suffering from an unjust, illegal and brutal occupation and those brave Israelis standing up for justice.

A Jewish friend said to me once “If you haven’t been called antisemitic you aren’t sticking up for the Palestinians properly.”

How we laughed! I’m not laughing now.

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