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August 3, 2018 2:47 pm

An Episcopalian Blood Libel in Austin

avatar by Dexter Van Zile

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An aerial view of the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

“What was the boy’s name, William of Norwich?”

That’s the question that Suffragan Bishop Gayle E. Harris, from the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, needs to answer. At a recent meeting of the church — of which she is a prominent leader — Harris offered a narrative that can only be described as a blood libel against Israel. The goal of her narrative was to whip up her fellow Episcopalians into a hostile frenzy against Israel, so that they would be willing to conduct a theo-political lynching of the Jewish state at their church’s General Convention, which took place in Austin, Texas in July.

At a July 13, 2018 meeting of the denomination’s House of Bishops — the upper house of the General Convention — Harris testified in favor of a resolution that called on Israel to safeguard the rights of Palestinian children. Predictably, the resolution, which was approved, failed to condemn Hamas and the Palestinian Authority for teaching young Palestinians to hate Israelis and using children’s television programming to promote violence against Jews.

During the proceedings, Harris told her fellow bishops that during a recent visit to Israel “a teenager, I think he was 15, was walking down the street and asked a military vehicle … a question.” Harris didn’t say when or where this confrontation took place, but did report that the Israeli soldiers got angry at the question that was asked.

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“He began to run as they threatened him, and they shot him in the back four times,” Harris said. “He fell on the ground and they shot him again another six.” In other words, a boy was shot in the back 10 times for asking Israeli soldiers a question that they didn’t like.

And yet the first that the world heard of this atrocity was from Harris herself speaking at a church meeting a few years after the alleged incident happened. That doesn’t make any sense. Since when would Palestinian leaders fail to broadcast such an atrocity to the world?

Prior to telling this story, Harris offered her fellow Episcopal Bishops yet another narrative of Jewish villainy. In this vignette, Harris was in Israel “a couple of years ago on the Temple Mount.” While she was there “a three-year-old little boy with his mother was bouncing a rubber ball,” which happened to “sort of roll away from him and go over the side down to the Western Wall otherwise known as the Wailing Wall.”

Immediately after the ball rolled off the Temple Mount into the Western Wall Plaza, Harris said, “Israeli soldiers came up to the Temple Mount and attempted to put handcuffs on a three-year-old little boy — for bouncing a rubber ball.”

This story also stinks to high heaven.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center highlighted the absurdity of the bouncing-ball story: “There is a high stone wall on top of the Temple Mount that blocks balls and people from going over the side.” Moreover, as anyone who has been on the Temple Mount can attest, Israeli soldiers do not need to “come up” to the Temple Mount as Harris stated, because they are already stationed on the site.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center characterized Harris’ stories as “fabrications” in a statement issued on July 26, but neither Harris nor anyone else in the Diocese of Massachusetts has responded publicly to the challenge. “Bishop Harris is away from the office until later this month and has no public statement at this time,” wrote Tracy Sukraw, the communications director for the diocese in an August 2 email.

The way that she told the stories, Harris made it sound like she was an eye-witness to the events she described, but Sukraw reports that it was her understanding that the events Harris described “were as reported to her while she was in Israel over several visits.”

Bishop Harris’ lurid allegations are akin to the blood libels directed at Jews during the Middle Ages. Watching the video of her testimony is like listening to someone recounting the ritual murder of William of Norwich in the Middle Ages.

In light of the lurid nature of the accusations that Bishop Harris leveled, she has an obligation to provide confirmatory details about the events she described. If she can’t, Bishop Harris needs to retract her testimony and apologize for passing on such propagandistic and demonizing tropes in a church setting.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is tragic enough; it does not need to be made worse by unfounded and lurid stories that can’t be substantiated. Would-be peacemakers need to deal in verifiable facts, not demonizing propaganda.

Dexter Van Zile is the Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA). Van Zile’s work has appeared in a number of publications including The Jerusalem Post and The Boston Globe.

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