On Naim Ateek and the Sabeel Institute: A Conversation Between a Rabbi and Congregant


Rev, Naim Ateek, Sabeel Institute

I’ve posted below an email exchange between myself and a congregant regarding my participation in the upcoming Friends of Sabeel – North American conference in Chicago.  My congregant has given me permission to post it as one small but hopeful example of how the Jewish community might debate such a painful religious/political issue with respect and honesty.

Dear Brant,

As I hope you know, I am a pretty skeptical guy in general, and I do not assume that others’ reporting of their adversaries’ statements is accurate.  But this statement comes right from Sabeel’s own website.  Has Naim Ateek since disavowed it?  If not, please explain how you can allow yourself, very publicly, to be seen as supporting his work?

L’shalom (literally), XXX

Dear XXX,

Obviously this is a long and complex issue – and I’m happy talk with you directly about it if you like. But for now I’ll just say I fully understand how and why some find his rhetoric hateful. I do not. Through my own study of his work and my personal dialogue with Naim, I have come to understand that as a Christian he refracts his personal experience among other things, through the crucifixion narrative.  And as a Palestinian, it has very real relevance to his peoples’ experience in Israel/Palestine. I do not believe he invokes this narrative in order to make an accusation of deicide/blood libel against the Jews. He is using it in a genuinely faithful way, as part of a theology of liberation, to understand/frame a very real oppression against his people.

Again, I know he treads on very tender theological and political issues when he does this – but I do believe the proper way to respond is to engage him in dialogue on these tension points.  It grieves me deeply that members of the Jewish establishment only seem to want to respond by publicly tarring him as an anti-Semite and to pressure/threaten all Christians or Jews who associate with him.

I have learned a great deal from Naim – from his many books and essays and from my own personal relationship with him. I consider him to be a decent and honorable man who challenges us in important if often painful ways. As far as “disavowing” this particular statement, I don’t believe he needs to, quite frankly.  I think it is important that people read his work thoroughly and give it its due before jumping to conclusions from cherry-picked statements.

While it is not a disavowal per se, you might find this piece helpful, in which he responds to many of the accusations that have been historically leveled at him – and addresses an excerpt from statement you cited.

Again, I’m happy to talk with you further about Naim, Sabeel, and my work with them if you like.

In Shalom as well,


Dear Brant,

I just read the Huffington Post piece you sent (thanks) and thought it was well written.  (Did Jewish Voice for Peace help write it? — you don’t need to answer that question.)

One problem I have (and perhaps you are not minimizing it) is that, precisely on the assumption that Naim Ateek has something important to teach me, and other open-minded Jews like me, he will never succeed unless he changes his rhetorical approach.

Dear XXX,

I understand what you say. I imagine Naim feels his first priority is to respond faithfully to his experience of his people’s oppression – and not necessarily to frame his remarks to be acceptable to liberal Jews. Having said that, I do think that as a result of his increasing dialogue with Jews (ie JVP), he is becoming more sensitive in his rhetoric.

Anyhow – thank you for engaging with me so thoughtfully on this. It means a great deal to me.



13 thoughts on “On Naim Ateek and the Sabeel Institute: A Conversation Between a Rabbi and Congregant

  1. Jordy

    This is one very interesting and important posting. It goes to the heart of a few questions. Just how far can one go with punishing rhethoric and still be considered within the scope of reasonable revalence….and how can a holy man overlook the horrible treatment of others in the world, the litany of violence put open thousands of thousands of innocent folks by Muslim govs and extremetes ,while uttering blood libel accusations open the Israeli people escapes me…however if you and others have the amount of good will in your souls to try and join with him in search of some kind of ..?…maybe progress toward some type of movement toward the lessening of tensions..it’s ok…go ahead…although to just agree with him , and push his agenda maybe that’s a bridge to far

    1. Lisa K

      Thank you, Rabbi Brant, and thank you to your anonymous congregant, for sharing your exchange. It is an example for us all. I would like to respond to Jordy starting with a quote from your previous blog post on why you were participating in the Sabeel conference:

      “Alas, much to my sadness and dismay, many in the Jewish establishment world continues to vilify Rev. Dr. Ateek and the Sabeel Institute. While I certainly understand that many are challenged – often profoundly – by Palestinian liberation theology, it grieves me that the “official” Jewish communal response to this movement has been to publicly excoriate its leaders as anti-Semitic rather than to engage them in real and honest dialogue.

      I do believe this kind of posturing has everything to do with politics and very little to do with actual interfaith dialogue. True dialogue occurs when respective communities agree to explore the hard places – the tension points – no matter how painful. In my own dialogue with Palestinian Christians (and those in the Protestant church who stand in solidarity with them), my own sensibilities have been challenged and broadened – but I’ve also found that my participation allows me to have a similar kind of impact on my Christian partners. And while we might not agree on every issue, we ultimately emerge from our encounter strengthened by our common commitment to universal prophetic values of justice.”

      I don’t know why there seems to be this unspoken consensus that resolving conflict in order to achieve peace should be “easy” compared to the alternatives (i.e., war, armed conflict, occupations). I DO know that perpetual conflict is the inevitable result of stubbornly adhering to a belief that “we” are right and just and “they” are brutal, evil, anti-Semitic savages. That Jordy only spoke about the brutal regimes in some Muslim nations (never mind that Naim Ateek is Christian), without acknowledging the brutality of the Nakba and the ongoing Israeli Occupation, is case-in-point.

      Achieving a just and lasting peace is HARD and it involves real sacrifice. That’s on a systemic, political, as well as individual basis. It involves humbling yourself: being willing to admit that are facts that are hard to look at, that don’t support your long-held beliefs and that are emotionally difficult to grapple with. Once your mind is open to these possibilities, you then have to open yourself up to the fact that other people have had experiences that you know nothing about, or have had similar experiences but viewed through a different lens, and that these differences don’t have to be right or wrong, but they are equally legitimate. Once you are have opened your mind to these things, then you have to be willing to both listen and hear someone else’s story and perspective. You have to internalize it and avoid knee-jerk defensive reactions. Once you have done that, you may find that your own view has just altered a bit, or you’re not sure what your opinion is at that point, and you need to think about it some more, challenge yourself a little further by reading and learning some more. And that’s OK. Or, you may find that your opinion is still the same, but you can share it in a way that is not threatening, sarcastic, intimidating, or condescending. That’s when a true exchange can happen.

      And when two people can share these things, and possibly agree to disagree, but it is way more likely you will discover some common ground. And as you do that, you build trust. And as you build trust, a relationship begins to develop that can evolve into friendship. And as that happens, you have a foundation for identifying and working toward common goals. Because EVERYONE wants the same things: to live in peace and equality, to ensure the safety of themselves and their families, to be able to provide education and healthcare to their children, etc. Jews and Palestinians lived together in Palestine for hundreds of years – as neighbors, friends, co-workers. The generation of people who remember life living side by side as neighbors is dying off. We need to knock down and transcend the Wall and the walls that have been erected to divide us, because even if a political solution is reached in our lifetimes, we have to think about life beyond that.

      Governments and people with the attitude that you displayed in your comment, Jordy, is why this conflict continues to go on and on. People have to be ready to change the discourse. People like Rabbi Brant and Reverend Ateek are doing that. You can be part of it if you choose. If not, they at least deserve your respect and support – not your condescension.

      1. Jordy

        Lisa k….wow…what can I say?…except to point out some simple facts that you have overlooked….the Arab nations including the palestinians have waged a shooting and propaganda war against the Jews since at least the 1920s…they refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state..also I have never seen any Arab either Muslim or Christian publicly take any position on understanding the angst and fears of israelis…you point out that because rev at eek,is a Christian he need not criticize the actions of Muslims…which is a stretch of reasoning…..also your point that Jews and Arabs have lived peacefully in Palestine for hundreds of years is also suspect…the facts are that ,sure if Jews lived under the thumbs of Muslim rulers and under their rules and their numbers were kept low,they would be allowed to live and contribute …of course when the Jews tried to form a country…riots killings came about…not to even mention the expulsion and the theft of property of 850.000 Jews from Muslim lands…..however your well reasoned post,has important insights into the thinking of the progressive liberal thinkers regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict…maybe if one really were able to turn the other cheek, offer the other side agreement of their views of reality..and gave into their demands of justice as they deem it to be. A peace could be achieved….however ,I ask you and with all respect,if you ,yes ,you had the power to do exactly that…would you?..really honesty.? .or would you ask for moderation of their teaching of hate in school…how about de.militarization…access to the Jordan valley…dis arming of terrorist groups..and of course some real honest good will from the other side……hopefully the hopes of the whole of Israel/Palestine of peace and security for all can come about someday,when it does it will because of the good people like yourself were able to help bridge the deep valleys of distrust of folks such as myself…we really are on the same side

  2. Heidi

    Thank you, Rabbi Brant, for one more example of open-heartedness and open-mindedness. You model for us the ability to “be with” those who might be thought our adversaries — the indispensible act that will eventually bring peace. I hope that my own small work for peace in Israel/Palestine can come from that same, sacred place in all of us.

    Heidi Wilson
    Orford, NH

  3. R.L.

    Perhaps the reverend is softening his words on Jews and Israel because of dying support within the Jewish community, or elsewhere. I still think he, and others, expect all the hard sacrifices to come solely from the Jews, be they in Israel or elsewhere, and nothing from the suffering Palestinians, as if they are exclusive in their suffering. Brant, and you others, to pretend the 48 war,”Nakba” was a one-sided attack by Jews on Palestinians, without the context of being invaded simultaneously by five (or six)arab countries, bent on destroying the nascent Israel and murdering all its Jews, is disingenuous and dangerous. You bet the Jews/zionists fought hard to keep their state, and lives, and so yes, a fair number of Palestinian arabs (until then the Jews were also considered Palestinians) were expelled, and certainly some died in the war. Ateek is one-sided, and the Jews are the ones to repent for their “sins”? I’m not buying into him, or your humane upgrade of him, until he has done much more to apologize for his many ugly remarks on Jews, whether he uses the crucifix imagery or otherwise.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      Your description of the events of 1948 are factually incorrect. They have long been disproved by Israeli historians and Israeli military records themselves. For decades now, we have known that Jewish military forces were already attacking and depopulating Arab villages and population centers as early as the fall of 1947. We also know that surrounding Arab nations did not enjoin militarily until as late as the spring of 1948 – at which time the ethnic cleansing of Palestine of 700,000 of its indigenous inhabitants was virtually complete and Jewish military forces had already gained the upper hand. We also know that the armies of Arab nations were ill-armed and poorly trained and never constituted an existential threat to the “nascent Israel.”

      I can cite numerous primary sources to back up these claims. If you have any similar sources for yours’ I’d be very interested to read them.

      I encourage you to read Naim Ateek’s description of his own family’s forced expulsion from their town of Beisan in his book “Justice and Only Justice.” It is reminiscent of countless other first-hand accounts of the Nakba – in which Palestinians endured mass expulsions from their homes at the hands of Jewish military forces and not allowed to return. I think it is critical, in fact, that Jews become familiar with such testimonies. Only then will we realize the depth of the injustice that was committed against them – and how deeply problematic it is, under such circumstances, to expect Palestinians be “sensitive” to Jewish feelings.

  4. i_like_ike52

    Brant, your support for Sabeel and its propaganda shows a real myopia on your part and those of other “progressives” like yourself who have become obsessed with the whole Palestinian fight against Israel. You have come to emotionally identify so totally with the Palestinians that you overlook their antisemitism and advocacy of violence against Jews, thinking that is is somehow “justified” because of supposed “israeli crimes against the Palestinian. Do you think most Jews have forgotten the long history of violence against us that so that Jews will hear things like Sabeel’s claiming the Palestinians have been crucified just like we did to Jesus and somehow dismiss it all as being “understandable in light of the Palestinian situaiton”, particulary considering that thousands of Israeli were killed or wounded in the Palestininian suicide bombing campaign? Are you that disconnected from your brother and sister Jews.

    My observations of the “progressive” Jewish Left as represented by people like yourself has shown an increasing radicalization and progressive alienation from the rest of the Jewish community. “Progressives”, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have always viewed themselves ans some sort of “chosen people” who feel they have the truth, even if they are are small minority, and thus have the right to shove this “truth” into everyone elses faces, no matter how offensive this may be to the majority.

    There is no doubt a major split hovering over the American Jewish community in the near future as a result of this radicalization of the Jewish “progressive” Left. Some commentators here are predicting that, as in the past, the current “peace negotiations” will inevitably lead to a large outbreak of violence here, (odd how a “peace process” leads to INCREASED violence-but I pray they are wrong this time time!). Once against the “progressive” Left will blame Israel no matter who is really responsible and who initiates the violence, and the Jews of America (or at least those who care about Israel) will have to choose sides in this and this will lead to ugly divisions in the Jewish community. I would really hope that you, as a leader of the Jewish community will step back and look at the possible consequences of these dangerous ideas and associations you are advocating.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      My essential problem with your point of view comes from your statement “supposed Israeli crimes against the Palestinians.” You consider them “supposed.” I do not. I believe that Israeli oppression of Palestinians is in fact very real, that it dates back to 1948 and earlier, and that it continues in fact to this very day. To deny this is to cut yourself off from a very real reality on the ground (one that is described quite eloquently by Vicky, below). To say this does not presuppose a disconnect from my fellow Jews – it only means that I differ from you in my understanding of the situation.

      I’m not sure where you get your claim that your view represents the “majority” in the Jewish community. But even if your claim is accurate, it does not necessarily follow that the “majority” view is the correct or just one. Not long ago in the American South, a majority of American whites supported Jim Crow laws against African Americans citizens. Until recently, a majority of South African whites supported the oppressive apartheid regime. In other words, sometimes the “majority” is wrong. In the meantime, as long as this oppression is allowed to continue unaddressed, I’m afraid you will increasingly have to endure Jewish points of view such as mine, no matter how “offensive” you may find them.

      I have no doubt that white Southerners and South Africans warned of a similar kind of “split” in the ranks in their day as well. I am heartened that in both cases, these desperate attempts to circle the wagons ultimately failed. In both cases, an oppressive system was replaced by one that ensured equality for all. I do believe that this will be the case in Israel/Palestine as well. Like you, I don’t believe it will happen through the current “peace process” (I am as cynical about it as you, but for very different reasons) and I do fear that there will be more violence in the immediate future – but I do believe that the arc of history in Israel/Palestine will eventually bend toward justice.

  5. Vicky

    Sabeel can only be considered an anti-Semitic organisation if you consider Christianity to be an anti-Semitic religion. Christians are encouraged to see Christ in all people who are suffering, and to recognise the crucifixion in all pain inflicted on others. This originates in Jesus’ own identification of himself with prisoners, the sick, the starving, the naked, and so on. As a result, similar language to Naim’s can be found in prayer services and Ways of the Cross written for all these vulnerable groups and many others. (I have on my table right now a prayer book written by three Lithuanian Catholic girls imprisoned in the Gulags that is a good example of this kind of liturgy.) Unfortunately this theological insight has been clouded by the anti-Semitic ‘Jews killed Jesus’ trope (which theologically has never made sense given the Christian belief that Jesus died for the sins of each person). Sabeel is not endorsing that trope and never has.

    Sabeel members tend to make people uncomfortable because they don’t play the part that has been assigned to Palestinian Christians. According to the popular script, Palestinian Christians don’t even exist – this is a religious conflict between Muslims and Jews. When their existence is acknowledged, they are usually painted as victims of Muslim persecution and reliant on Israeli protection – and when they do say something, as with the Kairos document, their opinions are dismissed as those of ‘extremists’. I have come across plenty of people in Israel who use the term ‘Palestinian’ for Muslims and ‘Christian Arabs’ for Palestinian Christians. It’s a shorthand for ‘good Arab’ or at least ‘neutral Arab’. When someone like Naim Ateek stands up and talks about what he and his family went through, it spoils the script. When the Sabeel youth group go up to the ruins of the destroyed village of al-Bassa to clean the churchyard and to pray before what remains of the sanctuary, it spoils the script. So they are written out of the script as extremists or anti-Semites.

    Sabeel members are trying to talk about their experiences as Palestinian Christians in Christian theological terms, which always put Jesus among suffering people. As a consequence of the Holocaust and earlier persecution of Jews that was explicitly driven by religion (the Easter pogroms, etc.) it seems that some Jews are unable to hear that. I understand that. I think Naim can too. But it is vitally important that people come to understand that Palestinian Christians are not speaking with these anti-Semitic images in mind, but some rather different images of their own. Recently I have been working with some young women who were bereaved as children during the Second Intifada. One of them is a Christian girl whose twelve-year-old sister was shot dead by the army. She herself was wounded. It happened outside a grocery store. The army said that it was an accident, they were targeting terrorists. Marianne had to get to a checkpoint to reach an ambulance; once she got there, soldiers put her in the same ambulance as her sister’s body. Marianne started screaming and couldn’t stop. There has been no public investigation. There has been no apology. Nothing. Think about what that does to a family. People need to at least try and understand that when Palestinian Christians talk about Golgotha, they are trying to use their own theological language to articulate experiences like these. They would be using the same religious imagery no matter who the perpetrators were and no matter what their ethnic or religious background. As challenging as it might be, I think Jewish critics of Naim Ateek need to realise that what he writes is not about them or their history, but about Marianne and hers – and this can’t happen until they at least recognise that people like Marianne exist. The nuns and monks who are losing their land at Cremisan exist. My landlady exists and she’s sick with worry over possible home demolition. The wall already took her business. Her house too? We pray together in the evenings and whenever I hug her goodnight I have to worry about how much weight she’s lost since this came to hang over her head. Right now the general assumption seems to be that Palestinian Christians haven’t faced anything bad at the hands of successive Israeli governments, which means that people only can view Naim’s words in the light of Easter pogroms. This isn’t the position he’s speaking from.

  6. i_like_ike52

    First of all, a correction of a mistaken statement you made,….while it is true that the Israel War of Independence started before the invasion by the Arab states on 15 May 1948, the violence was started immediately after the UN Partition vote of 29 November 1947 by the ARABS initating attacks on the Jewish yishuv all around the country inflicting many casualties. Thank heaven, the Jews fought back, unlike in the 1930’s.. You also ignored all the statements made by Arab leaders about how their war was to be a war of extermination. If you want a source, read Benny Morris’ excellent book “1948”. He reads and speaks Arabic and disproves the contentions you made. It is incorrect to say that historians and “the record” back your statements above.

    Secondly, I finally have come to understand what you are really saying. In effect, you deny the existence of a Jewish people with any rights of a nation, especially in Eretz Israel. I realize that the new religion of “political liberalism” or “social justice” abohors any distincitions between people, so Jews, in the eyes of the adherents of this new “religion” are supposed to take the lead in shedding their “parochial” or “particularist” or “nationalist” beliefs. In effect, these people are saying “I am not a Jew, I am a human committed so Social Justice of the Mosaic tradition” (why it is permitted or needed or desirable to continue the Mosaic tradition is also a question to me as well). You may feel comfortable with this, just as the old time anti-Zionists like the Bundists and Communists did, but compare where they are today with the successes of Zionism which has created a thriving Jewish state? The fact is that almost half of world Jewry lives in Israel today and the vast majority support the Zionist values the state was founded on. No only that, but the vast majority of the world (outsie of the Muslim countires) recognizes the national peoplehood of the Jewish people and their right to self-determination in Eretz Israel.
    So regardless of what you may think and preach, the Jewish people will go on and anti-Zionist “progressive Jews” can continue to make themselves an irrelevancy in the long history of the Jewish people.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      Violence between Palestinian Arabs and Jews certainly did not begin in November 1947. The tensions between Zionists and Palestinians date much further back than this. The attacks in Dec.1947 did not occur in a vacuum and this was certainly not an existential war of survival for the Jewish Yishuv. Your comparison of it to the Nazi onslaught against European Jewry is incorrect and prejudicial in the extreme.

      From Benny Morris’ book “1948” on the balance of power during this period:

      The Yishuv enjoyed basic advantages over the Palestine Arabs in major indexes of strength: “national” organization and preparation for war, trained military manpower, weaponry, weapons production, economic power, morale and motivation, and, above all, command and control. Moreover, despite the general demographic tilt, the Yishuv had a disproportionate number of army-age males (twenty to forty-four year-olds) as, during the 1930s and 1940s, the Zionist leadership had taken care, as a matter of policy, to ship to Palestine, legally and illegally, young, fit males – deemed “good pioneering material.” (p. 81)

      What Morris’ book does not spell out, but other Israeli historians have documented, is that prior to this period the Yishuv had drawn up plans to ethnically cleanse Palestine of its Arab population and had even created a “Transfer Committee” to oversee it’s planning and implementation. Again, these facts are now a matter of historical record – not debate.

      Re “Jewish rights:” we’ve had this conversation many times over the years, but I’ll say it yet again: no one people has any inalienable “right” to control any piece of land. When it comes to nation-statism, might makes “right.” I am certainly not denying Jewish people the right to live in this particular land – I am only saying that civil rights and human rights must be extended to all who live there, Jew and non-Jew alike. The “vast majority of the world” may well recognize the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in Eretz Yisrael (although you don’t cite any particular poll to back up this claim), but I daresay if you polled them, the vast majority of the world would not add that this right should come at the expense of the rights of residents there who happen not to be Jewish.

      Ike, you are the third most frequent commenter on this blog. I can’t help but wonder why, if you believe my point of view reflects such a small and irrelevant percentage of the Jewish people, that you bother to respond so faithfully to me over the years. If my views are so irrelevant, why have you have felt compelled to comment so passionately on this blog for so long? Surely my ideas cannot possibly pose a threat to the “vast majority” of the Jewish community?

      I can’t help but think that you have engaged me for this long because you’re somehow worried that my views may well be gaining traction in the Jewish world. (If this is the case, we are certainly in agreement on this one issue at least.) At any rate, I do appreciate your frequent comments as I believe this is a very critical dialogue for our community to be having.

  7. Pingback: To whom do we listen: a reflection on interfaith dialogue | Palestine Israel Network

  8. Jordy

    Rabbi….if I may?…the likely reason Ike and and a few others including myself post onto your site…is that unlike other pro Palestinian sites you do,to your credit allow fair and pertinent arguments to your positions.it can only be healthy to have an exchange of views,as through honest discourse ,can solutions ever be found to this vexing and searingly divisive problem


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