An Encouraging Story About Falsehood

(AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Jerusalem's Old City

Like too many stories about the Middle East debate in the United States, this one starts off badly, with untruths. The conclusion, however, is almost uniquely positive and encouraging. The story begins on July 13, when the General Convention of the Episcopal Church considered a resolution criticizing Israel for violating the rights of Palestinian children. One of the most stirring moments in the debate occurred when Suffragan Bishop Gayle Harris of Massachusetts stepped up to the microphone and testified to her firsthand observation of Israeli mistreatment of young Palestinians. 

“I was there, a couple of years ago on the Temple Mount,” she said. “A three-year-old little boy, a Palestinian with his mother, was bouncing a rubber ball. The ball happened to sort of roll away from him and go over the side down to the Western Wall, otherwise known as the Wailing Wall. And immediately, Israeli soldiers camp up to the Temple Mount and attempted to put handcuffs on a three-year-old little boy—for bouncing a rubber ball.”

But that was far from the worst of it. Bishop Harris also told of witnessing an even greater atrocity. “I have been there,” she continued, “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.”

Harris visibly choked up as she delivered her emotional report, and with powerful effect. Who could fail to be moved by such a heartfelt eyewitness account of brutal soldiers abusing helpless children? Following Harris’s address, the resolution, which refers to “torture and ill-treatment of detained children,” was adopted by the assembly.

There was just one problem. Despite repeatedly saying “I was there,” it turns out that Harris had not seen the events she described—which makes sense, because neither incident seems ever to have happened. In the first case, it is physically impossible for a rubber ball to “sort of roll” over the side of the Temple Mount, which is bordered by high stone walls, nor has any actual witness ever verified this improbable story. Likewise, there is no credible source for Harris’s second claim. The pro-Palestinian press, which dependably details every shooting by Israeli soldiers, would certainly have covered such an unprovoked killing—if it had really occurred. But, as reported by the Middle East news monitor CAMERA, there has been no such story in the media.

Harris’s unfounded accusations drew complaints from Jewish organizations, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and many reports in the Jewish press.

In response, the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania initially issued a tepid statement acknowledging that “the events described during her testimony were as reported to her by others over the course of several trips to Israel and were not witnessed by her at firsthand,” while making no apology.

Nor was there any recognition that Harris’s readiness to endorse and dramatize implausible horror stories about Israelis evoked the centuries-long history of Christian anti-Semitism in which Jews have been falsely accused of wantonly murdering non-Jewish children. Known as “blood libels,” these stories are vicious canards that have been used to justify bigotry and pogroms. It was disheartening, to say the least, to hear a Christian bishop raise a false claim of Jewish violence against non-Jewish children, given the unmistakable resonance of religious persecution.

We were set to publish a very critical op-ed lamenting this situation, when we received a second statement, dated August 17, that included sincere apologies from both Harris and her superior Bishop Alan Gates, and, more importantly, clear recognition that Harris’s unfounded charges raised the memories of ancient accusations by Christians against Jews.

Said Bishop Harris:

I now acknowledge that I reported stories which I had heard and framed them unintentionally as though I had personally witnessed the alleged events. I sincerely apologize. I now understand how the framing of my words could and did give the wrong impression. The fault is solely mine. I acknowledge also that I did not take the opportunity to verify these stories. I was speaking from my passion for justice for all people, but I was repeating what I received secondhand. I was ill-advised to repeat the stories without verification, and I apologize for doing so.

I am committed to share my concerns in ways that do not simplistically demonize others and cut off discussion, and I hope for the same in return.

Bishop Gates went further:

We recognize that for Christian leaders to relate unsubstantiated accounts of Israeli violence awakens traumatic memory of a deep history of inciting hostility and violence against Jews—a history the echoes of which are heard alarmingly in our own day.

We grieve damage done to our relationships with Jewish friends and colleagues in Massachusetts, and rededicate ourselves to those partnerships, in which we are grateful to face complexities together.

No one could ask for a more unambiguous acceptance of the harm done, nor for a more heartfelt commitment to avoid repetition in the future. In a conflict that often sees partisans dig into their positions, with no acknowledgment of the other side’s legitimacy, Harris and Gates have provided an outstanding example of probity and responsibility, for which we thank and commend them.

The Palestinians—children and adults—have suffered much deprivation and injustice under the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza blockade. Although the violence may come from both sides, Israel’s overwhelmingly greater power demands the exercise of far greater responsibility and restraint. There have been countless incidents of brutality toward Palestinian civilians that have been captured on video, or that could be easily documented by actual eyewitnesses—which is all the more reason to report honestly about the conflict, without embellishment or exaggeration.

The Episcopal Church can be well positioned to play a positive role in bringing peace to the Holy Land, having demonstrated its credibility and good faith by clearly repudiating false accusations of atrocities.

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