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Lullabies and Blood Libels

There was only one problem with the Episcopal bishop’s shocking firsthand testimony about human-rights abuses she witnessed in Israel—she never actually witnessed them.

Jacob Siegel
August 14, 2018
Image by Johann Baptist M.
Image by Johann Baptist M.

A riddle for the ages: If no Jews are involved in the commission of a criminal act, can it still be called a Jewish crime? Here’s one better: What if no crime at all occurred; is the specter of Jewish culpability enough to make a guilty party appear in the absence of an actual transgression?

Sure it is, but only when it comes to Israel, the world’s fount of magical thinking. In the ongoing public trial over Israel’s existence, the prosecution need only imagine the sorts of crimes the Jewish state could be committing given what it’s capable of, to submit them as evidence. At least, that’s how it often goes. From time to time the approach stumbles over reality.

Last month, at its 2018 General Convention, the Episcopal Church held a resolution described by the watchdog group CAMERA as condemning Israel for “alleged human-rights abuses against Palestinian children.” Stepping forward to offer her firsthand testimony in the matter was the second most powerful clergyperson in the Massachusetts Episcopal Diocese, Bishop Suffragen Gayle Harris.

In a statement to the House of Bishops that’s been preserved for posterity, Harris details the unconscionable atrocities she personally witnessed on a trip to Israel. There was the young Palestinian boy on the Temple Mount. A 3-year-old child innocently bouncing a ball until it happens to roll down towards the Western Wall and invites the wrath of the IDF. “And immediately,” Harris tells the assembled Bishops, “Israeli soldiers came up to the Temple Mount and attempted to put handcuffs on a 3-year-old little boy—for bouncing a rubber ball.”

On a short trip to Israel, during a visit to one of the most publicly monitored sites in the entire obsessively monitored country, Harris witnesses a child arrested for the crime of playing with a ball. So imagine what the Israelis are doing when she is not there. But it gets worse.

Harris goes on to relate, in a brief matter-of-fact anecdote, the story of a cold blooded murder. The bishop not only saw the IDF swarm a toddler for the crime of playing with a ball, she witnessed a war crime committed in plain sight.

I have been there when a teenager, I think he was 15, was walking down the street and asked a military vehicle, the Israeli government, a question and because that question was not one of the liking of those soldiers, he began to run as they threatened him and they shot him in the back four times, he fell on the ground and they shot him another six.

It’s the sort of crime you’d imagine might attract the attention of the Palestinian political authority, Israeli human-rights groups, international watchdogs and NGOs—and yet, the only person to have witnessed it was Bishop Harris. Why? Because it appears that it never happened.

In response to complaints from CAMERA and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Massachusetts Episcopal Diocese put out a statement last week that recants Harris’ original claim. In place of her original testimony with its stunning moral authority of “I was there,” the bishop now says that she was relaying accounts described to her during several visits to Israel.

Why would the good bishop have made these stories up? After all, she’s no hardened enemy of the Jewish state and even ended her IDF war-crime apocrypha with the balanced and laudatory sentiment: “Violence on both sides is deplorable.” The bishop, certainly, is far too modern and humane to be conjuring anything as ugly and atavistic as a blood libel against the Jews.

But to make Israel guilty of the crimes worthy of the church’s resolution, to justify the unusual reproach directed at Israel among the many states of the world, evidence of unusual guilt is required. The evidence in this case being, not the basis for judgment, but the means of justifying a pre-ordained conclusion. In this worldview, which is basically religious even when it’s held outside of a church, Israel’s guilt exists independent of any particular actions it takes. Where no crimes are on hand they must be fabricated to serve what is taken on faith as a greater truth. These are children’s stories for adults. Great crimes—even brutality against children and cold-blooded murders—rather than shocking the conscience, provide the comforts of reassurance in a live-action morality tale.

Jacob Siegel is Senior Editor of News and The Scroll, Tablet’s daily afternoon news digest, which you can subscribe to here.