The Bethlehem Unwrapped event was launched last Monday with the unveiling of a life-size replica of the security barrier around Bethlehem in the courtyard of St James’s Piccadilly to allow visitors to “learn about the reality of life for those living today behind the Wall,” according to organisers.
The 12-day festival – featuring food, music and comedy sessions under the banner ‘Stand Up against the Wall’ – had already attracted concerns from the Board of Deputies before it kicked off over a perceived lack of “context or balance”.
But, having initially agreed to send press attaché Yiftah Curiel to take part in a panel discussion on the barrier this weekend, the Embassy has cancelled his participation. Saying it’s rare for the Embassy to turn down an invitation to a church event, a letter to St James’ said officials had come to the “inescapable conclusion that this is not an event which is intended to deepen understanding or promote reconciliation but rather is a transparent attempt to incite against Israel and Israelis”.
Branding the event “a one-sided affair that does nothing to bring the sides together”, it added: “One of your speakers, Jess Halper, spoke in front of the replica wall stating that it had nothing to do with security, while much of the writing on the wall, contrary to our previous understanding, is clearly political and divisive in nature.”
Focusing on a temporary security barrier designed to prevent terror at a time when Christians were facing persecution and churches burned elsewhere in the region “is to do an injustice not only to Israel but to Christian communities across our region”, the letter added, while still holding open the door to potential future collaborations.
However, BICOM’s Alan Johnson will still feature on the panel. “It is BICOM’s mission to create a better understanding of Israel in the UK and therefore engage with a wide range of audiences. It is not our job to only talk to those who agree with us – but also those who disagree,” said CEO Dermot Kehoe.
Expressing disappointment at the pullout, St James’ rector Lucy Winkett said: “We will look for a suitable replacement immediately as we are determined to have the security argument for the Barrier put fairly and strongly.”
While retaining some concerns over balance, the Board of deputies hailed “progress” following talks with the church ahead of the festival. But vice-president Jonathan Arkush said on Tuesday: “This one-sided festival seems to be proving as divisive as we warned.
“It is very sad that, as a church, St James Piccadilly has decided that this should be the the season of good-will towards all men – except Israelis. We continue to call on all at St James Piccadilly to stop importing conflict, and start exporting peace instead.”