May 15, 2008
Through the looking glass with Friends of Sabeel
Covering a meeting of Friends of Sabeel is a strange experience. "Strange" as in walking through the looking glass and encountering a reverse universe on the other side.
While we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Israel's independence, they are mourning six decades of the nakba, the Palestinian "catastrophe" of 1948.
Where we see resolute defenders of the Jewish people, they see cruel persecutors of a downtrodden minority.
We quote the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his support of Israel and friendship for the Jewish people. They cite him as saying that the oppressed must take their rights back from the oppressor.
A recent meeting at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena was hosted by the Southern California chapter of Friends of Sabeel, which supports the work and aims of the Nazareth-based Sabeel movement and the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem.
According to the organization's brochure, "Sabeel is an Arabic word which means 'the way' and recalls the Christians of first-century Palestine, who were called 'the people of the way.'"
Founded by Palestinian Christian church leaders 18 years ago, Sabeel draws its support from predominantly Protestant churches and their congregants in the United States, Canada, Australia, Britain and Scandinavian countries.
Sabeel is hardly a mass movement. According to Darrel Meyers, a retired Van Nuys Presbyterian minister and co-chair of the Southern California chapter, there are no dues-paying members, but about 300 names on his mailing list in Los Angeles and San Diego.
About 75 people, predominantly white and middle-aged Christians, with a smattering of Jews, attended the meeting in Pasadena.
Sabeel's influence, however, seems to exceed its small number, partly through cooperation with some 50 like-minded organizations listed in its brochure, and partly through its persistent push for boycotts and divestment measures against Israel by mainline churches.
The primary speakers were two Jewish women, who addressed the audience with the passion and conviction of those who first had to throw off the shackles of ancestral beliefs before discovering the truth through long, painful struggle.
Judging from audience questions and suggestions, the speakers were preaching to the choir. As in most ideology-based groups, there seemed to be a considerable gap between the rather moderately phrased goals of the mission statement and the more militant attitudes of its followers.
Officially, Sabeel describes itself as a nonviolent "international peace movement initiated by Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land, who seek a just peace based on two states -- Palestine and Israel, as defined by international law and existing United Nations resolutions."
However, the two speakers, both self-avowed "anti-Zionists," moved well beyond the two-state solution to advocate a single "democratic" country of Arabs and Jews, which would welcome back all "Palestinian refugees" who wish to return.
Anna Baltzer, the first speaker, is an animated, 28-year old woman, author of "Witness in Palestine -- A Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories," and granddaughter of a refugee from the Holocaust.
She noted that American Christians may fear that their criticism of Israel would be labeled as anti-Semitism and urged her listeners to define themselves not as pro-Palestinian, but as pro-human rights.
In a mighty semantic leap, she told her Christian listeners that "Jesus lived under Roman occupation and now Palestinians still live under occupation."
The second speaker, Marcy Winograd, is a public school teacher and co-founder of L.A. Jews for Peace, which claims a server list of about 100 names.
She explained her advocacy for a single Arab-Jewish state by saying, "We are not talking about 'destroying' Israel, but about a transformation to a one-state solution."
Among Winograd's targets is the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance, and she urged pressure on school boards to stop transporting students there on educational trips.
She claimed that the museum's Holocaust exhibits are used for pro-Israel lobbying and demanded exhibit space for the Palestinian nakba.
The windup speaker was the Rev. Monica Styron, a Presbyterian minister from Sonoma, who announced plans for the upcoming seventh International Sabeel Conference, from Nov. 12 to 19, in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Ramle and Nazareth, with side trips to "decimated Arab villages."
The theme of the conference is "Beyond Remembrance: Facing Challenges of the Future Sixty Years After the Nakba," and Styron promised dialogues with Christians, Muslims and Jews.
Audience comments and suggestions were perhaps more revealing than the speeches, including the following sampling:
When the man was gently upbraided for his heresy, he responded plaintively, "But I like the Jewish people."
After the meeting, Baltzer, the initial speaker, sat down for a brief interview. On her business card, she lists herself as a "Teacher, Writer, Activist," and her resume includes graduation from Columbia University, linguistic research in Turkey as a Fulbright Fellow and the Web site www.AnnaintheMiddleEast.com.
An intelligent, outgoing young woman, she said she had evolved over the past five years from protesting the "occupation" to anti-Zionism, shocked by Israeli human-rights violations.
She is busy as a full-time speaker at churches and on college campuses, and her May 1-14 calendar listed 13 speaking engagements, from Sacred Heart Church in Palm Desert to UCLA. Being Jewish is a definite advantage in her line of work, Baltzer said, making her a much more credible anti-Zionist than Palestinian speakers.
She has experienced little harassment for her controversial views, she said, though plenty of "offensive" e-mail, while mainstream Jews tend to label her as "naÃ¯ve" or "brainwashed."
At least while speaking to a Jewish reporter, she allowed that she could understand the "other" point of view, such as the Israeli fear of terrorism.
For expressing such soft-hearted sentiments, she said, "I have received criticism from the left."