London church’s replica Israel security barrier provokes bias claims

London church’s replica Israel security barrier provokes bias claims

Palestinians next to the West Bank security barrier that separates them from Israel
Palestinians next to the West Bank security barrier that separates them from Israel

A life-size replica of the security barrier around Bethlehem was today erected at a central London Church as part of a Christmas festival branded “highly biased” against Israel by community leaders.

The 8m high installation in the courtyard of St James’s Church Piccadilly will remain throughout the Bethlehem Unwrapped Festival to give the “public the chance to see beyond the festive stereotype of Bethlehem and learn about the reality of life for those living today behind the Wall,” according to organisers.

Visitors are invited to place messages or pictures on the ‘Wall’, which was created by a team of architects and designers led by director Justin Butcher, ahead of today’s launch of the 12-day festival of music, comedy and food. But the Board of Deputies said the event lacked “context or balance”, explaining that the decision to put up a temporary security barrier came after a devastating wave of terror attacks emanating from the territories, which has since been dramatically reduced.

Vice-president Jonathan Arkush said: “It is important to note that the Israeli Government maintains that the barrier is not a permanent structure and does not represent the final borders.” He added: “We have expressed out fears that, in using religious imagery to address the conflict around holy times of year, churches risk tapping in to anti-Jewish prejudices. We are concerned that the programme and format of “Bethlehem Unwrapped” militates against achieving balance, and risks unhelpful polemic.”

The festival – for which War on Want and Jews for Justice for Palestinians were among those involved – features comedy under the banner ‘Stand Up against the Wall’ and a screening of Jeremy Hardy vs. The Israeli Army as well as a concert by violist Nigel Kennedy.

Speakers from the Israeli Embassy and BICOM will also take part in a panel discussion on the barrier. And, after the Board were consulted late on, Arkush said: “We also understand that they will be putting up information giving the Israeli perspective and will express their support for a secure Israel within recognised borders. Furthermore, they will take a zero-tolerance approach to any anti-Semitism, should it arise”.

A Board spokesman said: “There is progress, which we welcome, but there is still concern that the programme overall lacks balance and that an information panel will not have quite the same impact as an 8m high wall. We have agreed to meet and review with St James Church after the festival, to see what lessons can be learnt.”

St James’s Church rector Lucy Winkett said: “We understand the situation is complex and are clear that the government view must be represented and discussed. We are being open about our opposition to the barrier but we do not make any assumptions about the variety of reactions that will be expressed to the replica in our courtyard.” She added: “We listen to and respect the views of our Jewish neighbours and partners and want to continue to learn from them how to express our own views clearly and creatively while taking account of unhelpful historical historic stereotypes and prejudices.”

The Zionist Federation handed out leaflets outside yesterday’s launch highlighting Israel’s protection of its Christian community and the need for a barrier. ZF chairman Paul Charney said: If churches want to be politically active during this time, then it makes no sense for them to concentrate on the one country in the Middle East that extends seasonal goodwill towards its Christian minority.”

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