Publicly supporting equal rights for Palestinians alongside Israelis has always been a risky venture in the United States, as an American professor who heads the only Middle Eastern studies center at an evangelical American university is discovering these days. The Reverend Donald Wagner, professor and director of the Center of Middle Eastern Studies at North Park University in Chicago for the past 10 years, has had his tenure appointment blocked and, with two other prominent Palestinian clergymen, is being subjected to a campaign of criticism and vilification in the American and Israeli press.
I have known Reverend Wagner and his work for justice, peace and security for all in the Middle East for over 25 years. I have always known him to be a man of deep compassion, and of moral depth and equity toward all human beings. So I visited him in his office in Chicago last week to enquire about the nature of the attacks against him, and the reasons for them.
He thought that concern was growing among pro-Israeli groups about the impact of the Presbyterian Church's campaign to study selective divestment of investments in American and multinational companies that do business with the Israeli armed forces. Consequently, he charged, a public campaign had been launched to silence the voices of Christians demanding justice, peace and security for Palestinians alongside Israelis.
"There seem to be two levels of the current campaign. One in general is directed against professors and Middle East studies programs by Campus Watch and similar groups, using internal and external pressure on funders to reduce any kind of pro-Palestinian or justice-oriented program calling for a two-state solution and a full Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab lands," he said. "We felt this at our university, by local cones that copied Campus Watch, but Columbia University has been the major target of this campaign." l
Part of this thrust, he feels, was the blocking of his own tenure two years ago by a handful of very conservative evangelicals representing a fringe element in the university, but in powerful positions, despite faculty support for his tenure. He feels this was due to his "controversial advocacy of justice for Palestinians, my opposition to the war in Iraq, and my theology."
The second level of opposition to Wagner then emerged around the Presbyterian Church's position to divest and his opposition to Christian Zionism and rightwing Christian fundamentalism advocacy of pro-Israel positions based on Armageddon theology, which he has done much writing on. He became very outspoken on those issues, wrote articles in the press, and did many radio and television appearances, speaking on behalf of the divestment question.
"We call for phased, targeted and selective divestment, or financial engagement, on a moral basis, reflecting 35 years of asking the U.S. government to have a consistent policy on human rights and international law," he explains.
This is not a totally new or unique church position. The Presbyterian Church for 35 years has had resolutions and a clear position, calling for a full Israeli withdrawal, the end of occupation and settlements, and a two-state solution.
"We finally said we need to take a bold act as a denomination and stand with our sisters and brothers who are suffering, and take a nonviolent, symbolic act on behalf of a just peace," he says. "This is where divestment from U.S. and multinational corporations doing business with the Israeli armed forces or any Arab terrorist group comes in. We will divest from any such firms, and as Presbyterian American clergy we will not benefit from another people's suffering. We see this as a consistent, ethical and moral position, though it's also very symbolic in view of the relatively small financial amounts involved."
The church has taken equally activist positions on South Africa, Sudan and other situations. A church committee continues to study the matter and is now engaging U.S. industries like Caterpillar, Motorola and others about their involvements with the Israeli Army, as well as some large American banks which may have been involved in dealings with Arab groups accused of terrorism, like Hamas.
He says that others who have been targeted along with him include the leading Jerusalem-based Christian Liberation Theology group Sabeel, headed by Canon Naeem Ateek, and the Reverend Mitri Raheb of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem and director of an international Christian center in Bethlehem.
Wagner says that a campaign of misinformation has been launched "based on a paper written by a Rabbi Poupko, who is a rabbinic adviser to the Jewish Federation in the Midwest. It accuses the three of us of being advocates of the theological argument about the Jews being the Christ killers and a whole history of anti-Semitism. What he's done is twisted a lot of our writings with a number of illogical analyses, trying to paint us into the corner of being anti-Semitic."
The attacks have spread into respectable newspapers in Israel and the United States, with the aim, Wagner says, of "trying to delegitimize us as spokesmen and make us look like extremists, and also to bait us into the anti-Semitic argument, so as to switch us away from the legitimate justice and anti-occupation arguments we're raising."
He says that "many Zionist and pro-Israeli Christian groups are frightened by the church's phased divestment idea because it exposes the immorality of the occupation, and raises the justice issues. They see South Africa in the background, and they're afraid. More and more denominations are studying this issue now, so these groups are targeting us to try and nip this movement in the bud and taint those who advance this argument as extremists."
The significance of the case of Reverend Wagner and North Park University stems partly from the fact that this is the only Christian evangelical university in the United States with a Middle East studies center.
Wagner believes he and his colleagues are "raising legitimate issues about Israel-Palestine, critiquing Christian Zionism and end time theology, and trying to reach out to evangelicals and progressive forces in the Christian community. We're also saying that Christianity is disappearing in the Holy Land, especially in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem, largely due to the results of the Israeli occupation and a lack of peace and justice. Christianity will vanish in the Holy Land if this trend persists, and it's interesting that our critics never even attempt to answer my argument about the consequences of occupation or the fate of Palestinian Christians. These pro-Israel and Christian Zionist groups try to shift the focus of the debate to accusing us of anti-Semitism, and saying that Christians are leaving because of Islam. We reject and resist that argument, and one result is this smear campaign we are being subjected to."
Wagner is worried that such campaigns, especially against Christian groups in Palestine, aim to "silence the prophetic voices of Palestinian Christians, like Sabeel, Cannon Ateek and Rev. Raheb, so they can say that our friends in the Christian community are the Christian right and those who support the Sharon policies."
Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for The Daily Star.