Zionism thesis stirs up a storm

August 6, 2004

Reverend Stephen Sizer may have expected that his controversial thesis on Christianity's role in the Middle East conflict would cause a few ripples.

But the Church of England vicar could hardly have been prepared for the bitter, personal and very public row it has sparked - with allegations from both sides that religious and political beliefs have clouded academic judgements.

Geoffrey Alderman, Middlesex University's former pro vice-chancellor for quality assurance, this week accused the university of handing a doctorate to the Anglican vicar for "little more than his own religious prejudices dressed up in academic guise".

Dr Sizer, vicar of Christ Church in Virginia Water, Surrey, and the university hit back this week. They accused Professor Alderman, an Orthodox Jew and leading historian of Judaism, of trying to undermine the credibility of the thesis because he opposes its arguments.

Dr Sizer's thesis attacks Christian fundamentalists in the US who unequivocally support the state of Israel and its policies, arguing that they are one of the "most powerful and destructive forces in America".

Professor Alderman told The Times Higher : "Middlesex has permitted its highest research degree to be awarded in respect of a work of propaganda.

If I had been examining it - and I've examined many PhDs - I would have required extensive revision, including deletion of all passages giving the author's superfluous personal views and prejudices."

Professor Alderman, a former member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, first raised his concerns last month in the Jewish Chronicle . He cited the wider issue of the Church of England's growing backlash against the rise of "Christian Zionism", a belief by some Christians that the restoration of the Jews to Palestine constitutes a divine mandate.

But the row escalated when Dr Sizer and Middlesex suggested Professor Alderman was influenced more by his personal political and religious position than concern for academic standards.

Dr Sizer is one of Britain's leading critics of Christian Zionism. His website quotes from his PhD thesis, Christian Zionism: Road Map to Armageddon : "Christian Zionism has become the most powerful and destructive force at work in America today. Influential in shaping Western foreign policy on the Middle East, they are not only inciting hatred between Jews and Muslims but are also the greatest roadblock to lasting peace in the Middle East."

This week Dr Sizer told The Times Higher that he had not seen the article in the Jewish Chronicle , but said that Professor Alderman was "an angry man who has upset a lot of people in various academic institutions".

"I'm not surprised he has gone for this approach because the simplest way of undermining criticism of Israel is to undermine the credibility of those who criticise it," he said. "If you can't disagree intellectually with someone's arguments, you try to undermine them in other ways. Those who have taken a stand against the policies of (Israeli Prime Minister) Sharon have had their credibility questioned."

The thesis was carried out at Oak Hill College, a "biblical training" college for Church of England vicars, accredited by Middlesex. Dr Sizer said he did not see himself as an academic, but had a masters with distinction from Oxford University. "I've got a PhD Middlesex was happy with - it's not Oxford or Cambridge - but Middlesex was happy and my examiners gave me a hard time at the viva."

The PhD was examined by Andrew Walker, professor of theology at King's College London, and Donald Wagner, professor of religion and Middle Eastern Studies at North Park University in Chicago and executive director of the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies.

Professor Walker said: "It is strange an academic with strong Zionist commitments should attack the thesis for its political bias. The question is not, is it pro-Palestinian, or even a brilliant thesis, but does it pass muster?

"We are in a bad way if academics attack the academic standard of a thesis they did not examine and give the impression this is an issue about standards as if addressed by a neutral observer."

A spokeswoman for Middlesex said: "The role of Middlesex, which Professor Alderman himself refers to as 'a reputable English university' was to judge the academic quality of Dr Sizer's doctoral thesis. The Quality Assurance Agency, in its 2003 institutional audit of Middlesex University, confirmed its confidence in all the university's degree-awarding processes."

Professor Alderman said: "Dr Sizer's response is pathetic. He should stop trying to personalise the issue and address the substance of my argument."

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

AN IRRECONCILABLE DIVIDE?

GEOFFREY ALDERMAN
Geoffrey Alderman is academic dean of the American Intercontinental University, London. He was pro vice-chancellor for quality assurance of Middlesex University between 1994 and 1999, and is emeritus professor at Middlesex.

In more than a decade at Royal Holloway, University of London, he held positions as professor of politics and contemporary history, chairman of the academic council and pro vice-chancellor for academic standards.

He has been an auditor for the Higher Education Quality Council and a review chairman for the earliest Teaching Quality Assessments.

Professor Alderman is a former member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and is an Orthodox Jew and leading expert on Jewish history.

He is a former student of Cecil Roth, the "founding father" of Anglo-Jewish historiography, at Lincoln College, Oxford, and the author of Modern British Jewry and The Jewish Community in British Politics .

STEPHEN SIZER
Stephen Sizer has been vicar of Christ's Church, Virginia Water, Surrey, for eight years. His website says his personal mission is to "assist people to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ".

He has served with Campus Crusade for Christ as an evangelist, and with other mission agencies on projects in Europe and the Middle East.

He is chairman of the International Bible Society UK and vice-chairman of Highway Projects, a Christian charity that sends people to "serve the indigenous Church in the Holy Land".

He has contributed to several books, including Speaking the Truth about Zionism and Israel .

Don Wagner, one of the PhD examiners, described Dr Sizer's PhD as "the most important on the subject to date and should be read by all Christians concerned about a just resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict".

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