Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Smearing Sabeel -- One Conference at a Time

I was running a little late on the second day of the Berkeley Sabeel conference several weeks ago. It had taken me a little longer to find a parking spot than I had anticipated, so I was practically running down the sidewalk when I encountered a handful of people in black on the corner in front of St. John's Presbyterian Church. The group -- a couple of men, a couple of women and a giant puppet -- were holding signs and handing out flyers. Seeing the words, "Oakland Women in Black," I took one as I hurried past. But I realized that something wasn't quite right as I skimmed the flyer (aside from the fact that I had never seen any men with Women in Black at peace vigils before). In addition to the harsh criticism of Sabeel, including charges of anti-Semitism, most of the websites it recommended that I recognized wouldn't be given much credence by any leftists or progressive Christians that I know:

Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East
Judeo-Christian Alliance
UCC Truths
Zionism and Israel Information Center
Mid-East Web
Israeli-Palestinian Crossfire
Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information
Middle East Media Research Institute
Palestinian Media Watch

MEMRI? try, selective and distorted recollections!
UCC Truths? more like, IRD Lies!

As it turns out, they weren't with Women in Black; in fact, there is no such group as Oakland Women in Black. According to Bay Area Women in Black, the vigilers were actually with San Francisco Voice for Israel -- an Affiliate of StandWithUs (from the comments):

From Bay Area in Women in Black

We would like to clear up the deliberately created confusion about Women in Black at the Sabeel Conference in Berkeley on August 18, 2007. Bay Area Women in Black held no vigil outside the conference nor did any other known or established Women in Black group. The people in the photo posted on Boston Indymedia's site on August 29, 2007 calling themselves "Oakland Women in Black" are actually members of the San Francisco Voice for Israel, who describe themselves as "a grass roots community based organization that takes to the streets to respond to enemies of Israel in the San Francisco Bay Area." They have counter-demonstrated against Bay Area Women in Black for the last four years and use tactics such as producing flyers intended to look like ours to confuse passersby and create disinformation at our weekly vigils. They also try to intimidate people participating in BAWIB vigils by aggressively taking their photo, breaking into picket lines, verbal harassment, etc.

Their intolerance of views critical of the Israeli Occupation and
their aggressive tactics are intended to confuse, misinform,
deceive, and silence others.

We do vigil weekly in Oakland, CA and would love you join us if you are in the area. Check out for more information

Bay Area Women in Black

As you can see from the photo, they had written their own Women In Black style signs rather than downloading some signs from StandWithUs Perhaps the San Francisco group thought this "vigil" was consistent with the national goals of Stand With Us on community activism:

Pro-Israel churches should be strengthened with quality materials. We offer educational resources and would be happy to guide a committee as to what materials would be appropriate.

Some churches are vulnerable to anti-Israel groups like SABEEL. This Palestinian Christian organization spreads anti-Israel propaganda to well-meaning North American church communities that invite them to speak. Keep an eye on this type of activity and offer alternative speakers.

SF Voice for Israel wasn't the only group of hardline Defenders of Israel "[Keeping] an eye on this type of activity" in Berkeley. The event was also covered by Daniel Pipes' Campus Watch beforehand and received a few reviews by Bay Area hardline bloggers afterwards (here and here) who got a few details right (Anna really is beautiful) and so many wrong (for starters, Chris Brown is African American, not South African -- as is clear from his accent even if one knows nothing else about him -- and he spoke more about nonviolence, protecting children and Black Churches than about apartheid). Like SF Voice for Israel's flyer, these also listed some of the common smears about Sabeel and Naim Ateek, its founder.

The west coast regional conference was held at St. John's Presbyterian Church, located just a few blocks from the edge of the UC Berkeley campus in a residential neighborhood. The upcoming New England Regional FOSNA conference has been attracting even more controversy. Scheduled for this coming weekend at the historic Old South Church in downtown Boston, its lineup of high-profile speakers has been drawing a lot of publicity. According to a recent article in the Boston Globe:

The conference, titled "The Apartheid Paradigm in Palestine-Israel," is rapidly becoming another source of tension between the leadership of the Jewish community and mainline Protestant denominations. Its keynote speaker is scheduled to be Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy of nonviolence in the struggle against apartheid in his native South Africa. Tutu, in a 2002 appearance at Old South Church, compared the treatment of Palestinians by Israel to that of black South Africans during the apartheid years.
The major Jewish community organizations in Boston say the use of the word apartheid in reference to Israel is inappropriate.

"We absolutely, unequivocally, do not see Israel as an apartheid state," said Nancy K. Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. Kaufman said the fact that Arabs living in Israel can serve in the Knesset, the Israeli legislature, demonstrates that the situation in the Middle East is not race-based discrimination. She also contrasted the resistance tactics of the African National Congress, which she said sought to minimize civilian casualties, with the terrorism associated with Hamas.
"Anyone who uses apartheid as an accusation is really employing old anti-Zionist arguments - that's really what it is - and is really applying a double standard of judgment to Israel which can be traced to historic anti-Semitic rhetoric, that all things Jews do are evil, including their nationalism," Kaufman said.

The apartheid conference is being sponsored by Friends of Sabeel, an organization of American Christians founded to support Sabeel, a Jerusalem-based organization of Palestinian Christians. Supporters say Sabeel is working for peace in the Middle East, but critics say it is working against the state of Israel. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a Boston-based organization that argues media coverage of the conflict is biased against Israel, describes Sabeel as "an anti-Zionist organization that traffics in anti-Judaic themes."

Interestingly, some of the most visible critiques are being offered by some of those "alternative" sources offered by the SF affiliate of StandWithUs. Prominent among those sources are ones connected to the David Project Center for Jewish Leadership. Charles Jacobs, the President of the David Project and co-founder of CAMERA, wrote one of the initial critiques for the Jewish Advocate, a Boston area paper:

In October, an anti-Jewish hate-fest rolls into the Hub, and where will it be hosted? In Boston’s Old South Church. The headliner is none other than Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Laureate (like Arafat). When last in Boston, Tutu said “Israel is like Hitler and apartheid.” He has also said Israel “… reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa …” And, “People are scared in the U.S. to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful – very powerful.” How nice.

Accompanying Tutu at “Old South” will be Naim Ateek, founder of Sabeel, a Protestant “human rights” group based in Israel that orchestrated the divestment campaign against the Jewish state in America’s mainline churches. Dexter Van Zile, Boston’s extraordinarily talented pro-Israel Christian researcher, outed Ateek as a purveyor of classic anti-Semitism. Ateek writes: “Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him … Palestinian men, women, and children being crucified … The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily.” Israelis are crucifying Palestinians – just like the Jews crucified Jesus. Now who would want this hate in their Boston church?

Conservative columnist, Jeff Jacoby, writes in his critique of Sabeel:

IN CIVILIZED circles it is considered boorish to speak of Jews as Christ-killers, or to use language evoking the venomous old teaching that Jews are forever cursed for the death of Jesus. Those circles apparently don't include the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, an anti-Israel "peace" organization based in Jerusalem, or its founder, the Anglican cleric Naim Ateek.

Sabeel and Ateek are highly regarded on the hard-line Christian left, and regularly organize American conferences at which Israel is extravagantly denounced by numerous critics. So far this year, such conferences have been held in Cleveland, Berkeley, Calif., and Birmingham, Ala.; another begins Friday at Boston's Old South Church.
In Ateek's metaphorical telling, in other words, Israel is guilty of trying to murder Jesus as an infant, of killing Jesus on the cross, and of seeking to prevent his resurrection. To use "this imagery in reference to the Jewish state is inexcusable," says Dexter Van Zile, a layman in the United Church of Christ who serves on the executive committee of Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East. Millions of Christians would doubtless agree.

Among the problems with these critiques is that Dexter Van Zile is not just "a layman in the United Church of Christ" or "Boston's extraordinarily talented pro-Israel Christian researcher", but {has been an} employee of the David Project (which reproduces Jacoby's column with an interesting graphic). Van Zile is the President {has been the Director} of the Judeo-Christian Alliance, an Initiative of the David Project, and an Executive Committee Member of Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East (a great number of whose resources are authored by him). Speaking of resources, several other backgrounders on Sabeel in the Israel Lobby, have been authored by him -- including this one in the ADL. Unsurprisingly, CAMERA (the organization co-founded by Jacobs of the David Project), has a response to this Sabeel Conference written by Van Zile ({employed for the past year by CAMERA, previously by}of the David Project,):

Sadly, rather than responding to Jewish concerns about Sabeel's hostile rhetoric in an honest and forthcoming manner, as responsible interfaith dialogue would require, Rev. Taylor has engaged in a patently obvious divide-and-conquer startegy [sic] with the Jewish community in Boston. In her Sept. 9, 2007 sermon, Rev. Taylor portrays the Jewish community in Boston as divided between two groups -- an “angry hard right side” that complains about Sabeel in “colorful and incedinary language” and another more compliant side willing to negotiate through “quiet, respectful and meaningful communications.” What Rev. Taylor does not reveal however, is that the two groups she describes as part of the reasonable Jewish establishment – the local chapter of the ADL, and the Jewish Community Relations Council – are both part of national organizations that have raised grave concerns about Sabeel's hostile rhetoric and agenda. The revulsion of the Jewish community toward Sabeel's use of deicide imagery is across-the-board and is not confined to the Jewish community's “hard right.”

Some final critiques of the Boston FOSNA Conference come from UCC Truths, the IRD front group {an IRD cheerleader}. As many here know, especially those who follow the diaries of Frederick Clarkson and the blog Talk to Action, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) is a Scaife-funded organization that undermines mainline Protestant Churches by feeding lies and distortions to some of those Churches' more conservative members and trying to split and weaken those denominations. The IRD was founded in the early 80s particularly to undermine the support mainline Churches were giving to refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador and the criticism the leaders of those Churches were directing at the Reagan Administration's support of oppressive regimes in Latin America. The IRD soon branched out from just opposing Liberation Theology to promoting the Republican agenda in mainline churches (mostly by claiming that the churches were too aligned with the Democrats and should be "non-partisan," "apolitical" and basically uninvolved in social justice). The IRD specifically targets the three largest mainline denominations (Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal), but also works to undermine other Churches and organizations like the UCC and the NCC (UCC Truths is one such {a similar} "renewal" organization).

The IRD has long been closely aligned with the ideology of hardliners in the Israel Lobby. One of the IRD’s staff members even writes a regular column for David Horowitz's Front Page. UCC Truths saves much of its ire about the Boston Sabeel conference for Rev. Taylor, the pastor of Old South Church (UCC):

Taylor's sermon only tells part of the story. If she were to be completely honest with her congregation, she would let them know that:

1. The Anti-Defamation League has spoken out strongly against Sabeel and the UCC's support for Sabeel: "While it is heartening that the United Church of Christ has come out strongly against those who advocate for Israel's destruction, it is troubling that church leaders continue to embrace the Sabeel Center while ignoring statements from its leader questioning Israel's right to exist," said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, ADL Director of Interfaith Affairs. "You can't have it both ways."

2. Criticism of the UCC by Jewish groups is not limited to the "angry hard right side of the Jewish community" - every major Jewish group representing the spectrum of political ideologies has been critical of statements against Israel by the United Church of Christ including Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements; the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and B'nai B'rith International.

3. The Simon Wiesenthal Center called the UCC's divestment resolution "functionally anti-Semitic"
By characterizing the issue in political terms, Taylor's sermon seems to indicate that she either doesn't understand the concerns of the Jewish community or she simply doesn't care

As in other cases, the pastor's explanation for hosting Sabeel has been misrepresented by taking bits from the whole out of context:

* While the UCC receives criticism from a variety of Jewish groups on many issues, Taylor's sermon addressed the particular criticism by a particular hardline columnist:
A columnist in The Jewish Advocate [Charles Jacobs of CAMERA and the David Project], a local Jewish paper, has publicly accused me and Old South of hosting, “an anti-Jewish hate fest” and has demanded that we “do the right thing” and bar Sabeel and the Archbishop from speaking here.
The columnist [Charles Jacobs] who wrote those things in The Jewish Advocate represents an extreme, angry hard right side of the Jewish community. While he is busy writing in his own style of colorful and incendiary language, I have, for months, been in quiet, respectful and meaningful communication with leaders in the Jewish community. “
“These leaders are not happy with our decision to host Sabeel and the Archbishop. They express concern, disappointment and fear. Why? Because the Archbishop and Sabeel use the language of apartheid to describe the situation of Palestinians and because they promote a program of selective investment in Israel as a means of applying pressure. Our Jewish friends experience these as a threat to the security, and as an affront to the dignity, of the state of Israel.

* Old South Church and Rev. Taylor have shown not just by words, but by deeds that they do care about the concerns of the Jewish community, especially by working with moderate Jewish leadership in Boston for an interfaith dialogue series, including a lecture by Dennis Ross, the day after the conference ends:

In addition to the presence of the Archbishop, we have designed a series of speakers and events to enable us to encounter different perspectives and to meet and hear from Jews, Muslims and Christians. As a part of this, I have invited the leaders in the Jewish community to identify a speaker of their choosing as a part of this program. They have agreed to do so.

* Old South Church is not trying to "have it both ways" but to hear both sides:
Old South has been asked to host a Sabeel conference, scheduled for late October, in which Archbishop Tutu will be the key-note speaker.
Knowing this would cause significant consternation among our Jewish friends and place Old South in the midst of a controversy, I brought this request to Council in March and briefed them on what we could expect. Having hosted Sabeel and Archbishop Tutu four years ago, many members of Council had already experienced the fallout from this sort of decision. Council members agreed to host Sabeel and to give welcome to Archbishop Tutu.
I want you to know – and I want you to hear it from me before you hear it from others – that the fallout has begun and we are right in the middle between two friends, our Jewish friends on one side and Palestinian Christians and their advocates on the other.
I regret causing a rift between Old South and our friends and allies in the Jewish community. Nevertheless, the position of our Church Council – and my position – is that, as one of a handful of great world leaders of our time, Archbishop Tutu has earned the right to express his views on this most painfully contested part of the world. ... Due in no small measure to his own spiritual genius, his humility and his love for God, he was able to achieve what others scoffed and laughed at.

The recent smears about Desmond Tutu, one of the headliners for the Boston conference, were well covered in the blogosphere last month. Indeed, that controversy at St. Thomas was oiled initially by disinformation spread by the ZOA (Zionist Organization of America), misquotes of Tutu’s remarks at a Boston Sabeel Conference from 2001. Fortunately, the pushback by Tutu's supporters may be having even greater consequences than his being reinvited to speak at St. Thomas University, if today's article in the Boston Globe is any indication.

In fact, several other conference speakers, such as Noam Chomsky, John Dugard and Jeff Halper, have been harshly criticized in the past by the Israel Lobby. But the topic of the conference and the noted speakers are not getting nearly as much attention as the founder of the organization and interpretations of his theology. If Ateek's Palestinian Liberation Theology can be branded anti-Semitic, then anyone attending one of Sabeel's conferences risks being tainted by association.

Ateek's theology is consistent with other Christian Liberation Theologies. Best known for its history in Latin America, Liberation Theology has roots in the political theologies of post-WWII Europe. The theology of a suffering and protesting God finds early expression in Political Theology of Johann Baptist Metz:

he argued for the concept of a 'suffering God' who shared the pain of his creation, writing, "Yet, faced with conditions in God's creation that cry out to heaven, how can the theology of the creator God avoid the suspicion of apathy unless it takes up the language of a suffering God?"

In addition to suffering, another political theologian, Jurgen Moltmann articulated other beliefs about God that are formative for Liberation Theology:

“Shattered and broken, the survivors of my generation were then returning from camps and hospitals to the lecture room. A theology which did not speak of God in the sight of the one who was abandoned and crucified would have had nothing to say to us then.”
Moltmann proposes instead a “crucified God” who is both a “suffering” and “protesting” God. That is, God is not detached from suffering but willingly enters into human suffering in compassion.
... in contrast both with the move of theism to justify God's actions and Atheism's move to accuse God. Moltmann's “Trinitarian theology of the cross” instead says that God is a protesting God who opposes the 'Gods of this world' of power and domination by entering into human pain and suffering on the cross and on the gallows of Auschwitz. Moltmann's “theology of the cross” was later developed into "Liberation Theologies" from suffering people under Stalinism in Eastern Europe and military dictatorships South America and South Korea.

Ateek's Liberation Theology attests that suffering for Palestinians is just as worthy of God's concern as that of Latin Americans, South Africans, African Americans and other oppressed peoples.

Liberation Theology is not just about suffering, but about protest. In contrast to moralistic interpretations of faith, which focus on personal sin or personal relationship to God, Liberation Theology focuses on corporate sin or complicity in oppressive structures, whether that structure is racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism or imperialism.

When Liberation Theologians, like Moltmann, refer to the suffering of the oppressed of any stripe saying "And Christ is Crucified," they are not accusing the oppressors of deicide. Jesus of Nazareth was crucified 2000 years ago. They are saying that the oppressed have not been abandoned by God, that God is so close to them that God shares their suffering and that God knows suffering intimately because of Christ's crucifixion.

Of course, the glowing reception with which hardliners in the Israel Lobby greet John Hagee and other leaders of CUFI make the protests about Ateek's theology seem ridiculous. See troutfishing's diaries about CUFI for real examples of anti-Semitism and supercessionism. Liberation Theology may not appeal to everyone, John Paul II had quite a few objections to it, but Sabeel's Palestinian Liberation Theology does not teach hatred any more than those which have addressed other forms of oppression.

Smear tactics and front groups can't obscure the reality forever.

Update [2007-10-31 14:12:47 by Rusty Pipes]:
In addition to Clarkson's point in the comments at TTA about UCCTruths, in light of requests for clarification in correspondence TTA received from Mr. Van Zile, I am making a few corrections to the diary (indicated by {bold brackets}). The changes are related to Van Zile's first 3 points, based on tense, title and authorship: Mr. Van Zile is a former employee of the David Project, not a current one. While in its employ, he served as Director of the Judeo-Christian Alliance, not its President. And, although when researching this piece, I recall seeing Van Zile's name on a Sabeel backgrounder, that information is not at the ADL now and I did not save a screenshot of that page; so I will withdraw that claim. However, by doing the google of "Charles Jacobs" and "co-founder of CAMERA," I got over 80 hits, some of which praised him or quoted the bio from his site in 2004. So I will not honor Van Zile's fourth request: to alter the designation of Charles Jacobs as a co-founder of CAMERA.

Update II [2007-11-16 21:22:28 by Rusty Pipes]: Three weeks after posting this diary, the website of the Judeo-Christian Alliance still lists Dexter Van Zile as its Christian Outreach Director, giving contact info for him at both JCA and The David Project. Any reasonable person would still believe from the evidence on the JCA site, that he is still not only associated with it, but responsible for it. Consequently, I am amending the diary to reflect that Mr. Van Zile claims that he is no longer associated with the Judeo-Christian Alliance or David Project. If that piece of my original diary was in error, it was based on information for which Mr. Van Zile or the David Project has been responsible (and which hasn't been changed in the three weeks since I wrote the diary).

(Crossposted at street prophets, Talk to Action and Daily Kos)

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