This is a cross-post from Beyond the Great Divide
I have just spent a weekend at Lichfield cathedral for a conference “on the Israel/Palestine Conflict and the prospect of peace”. And what a weekend it was! A naïve Dean, antisemitism, conspiracy theories, global control, blood sucking Jews, child kidnappers, Arabs in 100ad. and of course, Jesus the Palestinian.
Lichfield Cathedral is breath-taking. A Gothic structure that dominates the local horizon, the unique fixture of the three spires can be seen long before signposts welcome you to the city. The current masterpiece was started in 1195. The work was to take over a hundred years to complete.
Just 5 years before this work began there had been brutal massacres of Jewish people in London and York in 1190. As Lichfield Cathedral grew and began to dominate its surroundings, persecution of Jews grew as a fever and swept through England. The Nave was started in 1260, just as the Jewries in places such as London, Canterbury and Winchester were looted.
Long before the last bricks were placed on the ‘Lady of the Chapel’ in 1330, the entire Jewish community had been dispossessed and expelled from England.
History is a major passion of mine. The placing of events into perspective and context. So I wonder what a cathedral such as Lichfield would have looked like to Jews in the 13th century? As they saw the cathedral grow, as they felt the persecution begin to strangle their livelihoods and freedoms, did one come to symbolise the other? How terrifying to the Jews then, a display of power such as Lichfield Cathedral must have been.
I personally grew up in a different England. We had jumped almost 700 years since the expulsion, 300 years since the return of Jews to these islands. As a young adult I visited cathedrals as places of beauty. Stunning buildings of history that were to be cherished and adored. National treasures.
The church speaks
I had not been to Lichfield before. There had recently been an unsavouryanti-Israel exhibit at Hinde St Methodist church that had drawn much anger. I understand that the Church desires to help when it sees suffering. When this suffering is being registered in the birthplace of Christianity, that urge becomes an irresistible compulsion. With this I have no quarrel. However there remains a gulf between charity and pointing a finger of blame. One requires compassion, the other reminds us of darker days in Christian history.
Following the Hinde Street incident, many voices were heard from within the church community that denounced the exhibition. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord George Carey criticised the stunt as ‘demonising and singling out Israel’ in its defensive fight against terrorism.
In light of rising Jew hatred in the UK, the current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby recently called antisemitism ‘an insidious evil’. He remarked that it “latches onto a variety of different issues” including discourse about Israel. Given what was about to occur to me personally in Lichfield, his reference to the conspiracy, “the perverted and absurd argument that a small group runs or plots against our society and manipulates international affairs” is particularly poignant.
The Lichfield Cathedral event
Encouragingly, with one eye on the event in the cathedral, the Bishop of Lichfield Michael Ipgrave also delivered a statement on antisemitism. This an extract:
“To me there seems no question that denying the right of Israel to exist, failing to take seriously the claim of its citizens to security and recognition, viewing the complex situation in the Holy Land as an unparalleled example of injustice when it is fact surrounded by egregious instances of oppression and unsettlement, adopting a one-sided view which fails to recognise the legitimate interests and real anxieties of all sides – all these can be manifestations of, or excuses for, real antisemitism.”
I had little doubt I was walking into a hate-festival. One of the ‘secrets’ of such an event is that the range of speakers is always skewed. People such as Ilan Pappe see sharing a stage with Zionists as ‘normalisation’. Jewish self determination, the right of a ‘Jewish home’, these are positions too ‘dirty’ for anti-Israel activists to accommodate. Therefore if Pappe is present, you know their views have been ideologically protected by the structure of the event itself. The building has been cleansed of all support for the Jewish national movement.
If Jewish Israelis are present, they must be those that come bearing 1000 apologies for ‘Israeli crimes’. Thus reinforcing the imagery of Israel the oppressor. (See Daphne Anson for a breakdown and analysis of the speakers).
So an event such as this has little choice. The Dean of Lichfield, Adrian Dorber, an anti-Israel activist, was only ever going to set up this event one way. Charity, assisting in education or health or infrastructure, these can be titled as ‘pro-Palestinian’ actions. Instead we are faced with a carefully constructed PR campaign designed to delegitimise Israel. When you seek to PUNISH Israel then you are an anti-Israel activist and nothing more. You are wasting your resources, not on benefiting a people that need help, but in trying to tear down a wall that protects another nations children.
I got to the cathedral at 09:30am. About 30 minutes before the first talk was due to begin. This gave me time to walk around and view the exhibits. I made my way to the café and had to walk passed another exhibition. On display was pro boycott material. I saw more leaflets on display. I picked up a magazine from the group ‘Friends of Al Aqsa’. This is a group that has recently had its bank account closed because of possible funding of “illegal or other proscribed activities”.
This set the theme of the weekend. Every single stall, every part of the exhibit, was designed or delivered by activists supporting the boycott. There was a book stall. Every single book was one that castigates Israel and Zionism. Not a single opposition voice was on display. These are some of the images of the leaflets, the displays, the books.
Then the speakers began and what followed was appalling, disgraceful and in some places truly sickening. It is difficult to know even where to begin.
Rewriting Jewish history
The first event was to give voice to Hosam Naoum, Dean of Jerusalem. As Hosam is a Christian in Jerusalem, an Israeli Arab, I entirely accept the complex identity that directs his vision. Yet the political application of the religion as a tool with which to perpetuate and intensify the conflict needs to be spurned and rejected by the church. In the simple comment that ‘Jesus was a Palestinian’, is an absolute denial of Jewish history.
Hosam began to stretch history back to conform with the false Palestinian narrative. No this does not help peace. The Exodus astonishingly became a story representing alien Jews massacring indigenous Palestinians. There were even attempts to rewrite attendees at very early Christian events as being ‘Arab’ rather than Jewish.
Let me quote from Matthew 2:
 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
Not much ambiguity there.
From bad to worse
The first short break gave me time to read some of the material I had picked up from the stand. The first was the booklet on the Kairos Palestine document. The Simon Wiesenthal Center calls Kairos “a revisionist document of hatred for Israel and contempt of Jews”. Like most statements of the type, they mention the need to bring the ‘occupation to an end’ without clearly stating just what land they consider occupied.
We then heard from a dutiful liberal Zionist. And what a talk it was. Professor Yossi Meckleberg presented to the audience a very accommodating position. A man anyone could make peace with. Like most liberal Zionists he is talking to himself. *if only* such voices could be heard from the other side. Another break. More pamphlets to read. All about a fictional place called Israel/Palestine. Or Palestine/Israel for those who want to belittle Israel’s legitimacy more thoroughly. A group called ‘Lichfield Concern for Palestine’. All talk was about Israeli brutality. No mention of Arab violence anywhere. Another talk was about to start. Then came the storm.
Next up was Professor Kamel Hawwash, Vice-Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. For every hand that Meckleberg had extended in friendship, Hawwash pushed one away. I am always thankful for people like Hawwash because they expose why there is no current chance for peace. There is no room in Kamel’s world for the Israelis, a group of people he describes as randomly deciding to invade the region. These two speakers presented the entire conflict in a microcosm. The Israeli Jew, ‘let’s make peace, let’s find a way, let’s accommodate’, the Palestinian Arab, NO, NO, NO. I have no doubt that people failed to see what had just occurred. But in truth, it was 70 years of Israeli peace attempts wrapped up into two short hours.
Hawwash is crystal clear in his vision. There will be no starting point for peace until Israelis get down on their knees and beg for forgiveness. Total submission. He presented an entire distortion of historical events. He touched on an issue of a negotiated settlement. There will not be one. Hawwash speaks a truth that I am sure the naive ears in the church do not even hear. If peace were made between Israel and Palestine that saw sacrifices by both sides, the external ‘eternal’ Palestinian would reject it. Whichever Palestinian group had signed on the deal would be overthrown, and another more radical group would take its place. This is the vision of ‘peace’ that the church invited to talk.
When a Jew cannot speak
Talk over, question time again. Several hands go up. One of the first questions is to ask how Israel gets away with it, what ‘unseen’ power is there? This same question was asked in a different way on four separate occasions during the day. One mentions a conspiracy directly, another the conspiratorial secrets of a Le Carre novel, another talks of unseen power. But all carry the same underlying message. The Archbishop had only just referred to “the perverted and absurd’ conspiracy argument and here we are in Lichfield Cathedral just weeks later and not one, but four, people point the classic antisemitic finger.
At this point sitting next to me with her hand raised is Mandy Blumenthal. Zionist to the core, Mandy had asked a question of Yossi Meckleberg earlier in the day. She had wanted to know why Yossi had seemed to imply settlements, rather than Arab rejectionism and violence was a (the?) major stumbling block. This time, with the knowledge that Mandy was a Zionist, the Chair was visibly ignoring Mandy’s raised hand.The Chair was desperately seeking questions from elsewhere in the audience. The questions had dried up. It was a stand-off. Mandy became vocal:
‘why won’t you let me speak?’
‘Because you spoke earlier’ came the reply.
As an answer it did not suffice. Several people had asked more than one question. The situation was absurd. There were no more questions. Only Mandy’s hand remained aloft. There were still 10 minutes left till the end of this session.
Several people became visibly agitated. A member of the audience asked why the chair was ignoring Mandy’s question. Mandy spoke up again:
“Isn’t this a conference, why is only one side allowed to be heard?”
Open confrontation. This was not what the Dean had wanted, he stepped in to soothe the situation and offered Mandy Blumenthal the microphone. Yet as he did this and as Mandy stepped up, the Chair led Kamel Hawwash off the stage. The ‘Jew’ question need not be answered. An awful, vile slur. In the end, Hawwash did return but only to claim that Blumenthal had lied.
It was break time again. There were several cries of “shame on you”, but I am not sure to who it was directed. Someone came straight up to Mandy to apologise. ‘This is my town and I am Christian but that was unacceptable’. ‘I do not know why it happened’. Others started to get involved, some suggested they had not expected this conference to be so one sided. This time as I mingled I was approached by a young activist. He identified himself quite quickly as a ‘BDS supporter’, he did not understand why anyone was upset. I wanted to tell him.
Sending the Jews home
The guy I spoke to is tragically typical of the BDS crowd. He fully believes in the ethical position of his argument. He is someone who I believe would be genuinely appalled at the idea that antisemitism was alive in the room. Indeed, so visibly disturbed was he by the confrontation, he later sought reassurance from Pappe by asking a direct question on antisemitism (and was told it didn’t exist). We were joined by another, someone who identified as Palestinian.
I explained as I always do, about the obscure language that BDS employs. That its founders simply do not believe in Israel’s right to exist. My favourite analogy is that of a lynch mob, which once empowered is driven by those with the most sinister goals. He was taken aback, “you cannot really claim we are a lynch mob”? I responded quite simply, ‘what else’, I said ‘would you call a crowd that seeks to inflict a punishment without having a fair trial’. As talk turned to the aims of the movement, the Palestinian spoke up in support of the return of the refugees. Not to the new Palestine of course, but to Israel. What about all the Arab Jewish refugees who went to Israel I asked. They ‘need to leave’, ‘they all have to go home’ was his reply. Sinister goals. Point made I thought.
Another approached me, and asked me why some people were upset. After listening to Israel being demonised? After not letting the Israeli voice be heard? After talk of conspiracy theories? After denying Jewish history? After talk of Jews stealing babies? (Yes, the Israelis were accused of stealing babies). After telling me the Jews had to leave Israel? I think there is an issue here with antisemitism. “I haven’t seen it” she responded. “That’s the problem” was my reply.
We still hadn’t reached a peak. Ilan Pappe was about to take to the floor.
Jew hatred becomes legitimised
If you really want to have a party that drowns in antisemitism, there is no better guest to invite than Ilan Pappe. Pappe thinks Israel is an abomination. Pappe is Israeli, he is Jewish, he is an academic. People suggest that Pappe receives so many invites because what he says is legitimate. In truth Pappe receives so many invites because he legitimises what the antisemites believe.
I have seen Ilan Pappe now more times than I can count. He is charismatic antisemitism personified. Pappe wastes no time. ‘There is no such thing as modern antisemitism’. The Archbishop warned about rising antisemitism. A former Archbishop did the same. So did the Bishop of the cathedral in which he speaks, but Pappe simply discards it. He claims it doesn’t exist. It is no more than a tactic.
He then moves on to Israel, to its ‘racist history’, its ‘colonial nature’, the fact it expelled a million (yes he said a million) Arabs in 1948. Once he frees people of the shackles of antisemitism, Pappe can say what he likes, get his followers to think what they like, because no condemnation of Israel, no lie, no level of demonisation, can possibly be driven by antisemitic poison. A truly absurd and vile position.
Pappe has on several occasions admitted he tells his tales for a cause rather than to relay the truth. He does so again. and again. and again. Pappe simply does not stop with distortion. His first attack is to smokescreen opposition to Zionism in 2016 by describing Jewish opposition to Zionism 100 years ago.
I do not understand why it is difficult for people to grasp this basic principle. Zionism since 1948 isn’t a theoretical construct. You cannot draw on someone’s thoughts on Zionism in the 1920’s and use it to argue against Israel. It is like suggesting opposition to pre-marital sex or an early stage abortion is the same as killing a child. The entire anti-Israel narrative is a mix and match of these sentiments.
This another comment from Pappe:
‘You cannot talk to the rest of the Middle East about ethnic cleansing and genocide when there is one state that does not come up for any criticism when it has committed *the same crimes* as have been committed by regimes and opposition alike’…’Israel does not need to do what the Assad regime in Syria is doing, because they already did it in 1948’
There are no words to describe that comment above. No excuse for the church to have given this man a microphone.
He then spent some time suggesting Zionist control of the media (movies) created the pro-Zionist narrative in the US psyche. Before moving onto the issue of West Germany. In explaining how Zionists gained support in Europe for Israel he said:
“It is not surprising that one of the first states to have full diplomatic relations with West Germany was Israel”
The truth is that the two only established full diplomatic relations on May 12, 1965. I am not sure what Pappe gains from such a comment. What is the implication here? That Zionism is so corrupt it would do a deal with the devil for money? That to legitimise Israel, Zionists would do a deal with those that committed a genocide against the Jews? The entire position is morally bankrupt, historically fraudulent and physically sickening.
Pappe also mentioned the proverbial ‘death’ of the Israeli left wing in 2000. He talks of its passing as if it were an unexplained event. Peaceful Jews irrationally just stop believing in peace perhaps. How anyone can bring up the collapse of the peace camp without mentioning the outbreak of the intifada in 2000 that Israel’s peace camp took as a betrayal of their trust is once again morally bankrupt.
In the end there were several incidents at Lichfield I had to leave out simply to keep the word count down, there are also still several hours of recordings to analyse. There are just three more exchanges I wish to revisit:
Zionist Jews are like Dracula
Pappe was approached with a question about why security outside Jewish schools is required. “Because of support for Israel” was the response. It’s the Jews fault they need security. But it was during his speech, that perhaps the most brutally explicit demonisation of Israel occurred. When talking about the Israeli relationship with Europe, he touched on Europe asking for Israeli expertise in internal security, in identifying home grown terrorists. This is how Ilan Pappe described seeking Israel’s help on this matter:
“It is like inviting Dracula to help manage its blood bank”
And finally, to sum up the event at Lichfield, I will use another example from a question directed to Pappe. Rabbi David Goldberg, (yet another Jew who coincidentally hates Israel AND who had been invited to talk at the event), stepped up to the microphone and said this:
“When it comes to the Middle East, we Jews have enough to feel guilty about”
It is true, this was part of a comment to suggest Pappe was wrong to discard antisemitism completely, but it is difficult to overstate the implication of that statement. Pappe used it of course, along with Goldberg’s comment that the holocaust is trivialised by Israel for its own ends, to reaffirm that somehow, someway, the Jews are responsible for what befalls them. When schools identify with Israel, when synagogues identify with Israel, well….it’s the fault of the Jews what then happens. The standard argument of the ages. Heard inside church halls for 2000 years. It seems nothing has changed.
Something did happen on day two at Lichfield. The Bishop of Lichfield was there for the Choral Eucharist. A pro-Zionist was called into the evening panel, a Zionist poster was placed alongside one of the exhibits. They switched one of the chairs for an afternoon event. It was all far more balanced. Even David Goldberg, for whatever reason, changed the central theme of his talk away from the context of the conflict. Whether something was said, whether it became clear they had overstepped the mark, I cannot be sure. But something visibly changed.
A final note on the Dean of Lichfield, Adrian Dorber. This is not a personal attack. I truly feel , as I did with Katherine Fox from Hinde St, that we are dealing with naivety and good intentions that are overridden by the hatred that enters the discussion. The problem with the conflict is that those who wish to assist the Palestinians are *always* utilised by those that seek to perpetuate the conflict. If amidst the Palestinians, there was a Yossi Meckleberg to reciprocate the peaceful offerings, we would achieve peace in 30 minutes. Unfortunately, there isn’t. Yes, there is hardship, yes, there is oppression, but the existence of such a situation does not automatically make Israel a guilty party that needs to be punished. That is the central error in their judgement.
If all they can bring to a conference at Lichfield seeking peace are people who want the Jews to kneel, those that throw antisemitic slurs, those that demonise, those that wish Jews to disappear, then Israel needs to make the wall larger and stronger, not to bring it down. Whoever arranged the conference should really ask themselves why we cannot find Arabs who are willing to make a serious compromise for peace and what is the deeper meaning of this problem?
I left Lichfield Cathedral battered and bruised, there are many exchanges not listed here and even for someone as experienced as I have become, this was an emotionally disturbing weekend. I must also add, that as I left and looked at the cathedral one last time, it had lost some of its shine. It wasn’t a beautiful building any more, there were shadows everywhere, and there was something else, something rather sinister about how that Cathedral towered over me.