February 14, 2008
We just disagree
It's never fun to wake up and find yourself on the wrong side of CAMERA. That's the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting, a Boston-based media watchdog group that monitors the print and electronic press for anti-Israel bias. When the group finds what it considers anti-Israel opinion or reporting, it sinks its teeth into the offender, Boston terrier-like, and shakes until an apology spills out.
For the past couple of weeks, CAMERA and other like-minded readers have come after me for chastising the organization's attempts to block the appearance here Friday and Saturday (Feb. 15-16) of the Rev. Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Christian who espouses nonviolence but employs harsh and destructive rhetoric. Lots of letters, angry phone calls, and a threat from CAMERA that if I didn't meet their minimum standards of contrition they would send out an e-mail blast summoning their supporters to deluge the Journal with demands for an apology.
But I can't do it.
As I wrote here three weeks ago, I am a supporter of CAMERA and its mission. They do good work. But I believe they were taking the wrong tact in trying to tell a local church with a long history of support for Israel and Jewish causes whom it should and shouldn't listen to.
CAMERA and I disagree on only one thing: tactics.
As I said quite clearly in my Jan. 25 editorial, the Sabeel Center is not a friend of Israel. In fact, I used the word "enemy."
My point is not that the group, or its leader, isn't so bad; it's that CAMERA's prescription of how the Jewish community of Los Angeles should respond to Ateek's appearance at a local church is wrong. In other words, these people are dangerous, but our reaction must not make things worse. I think CAMERA, which in so many cases I find useful and correct, is in this case making things worse.
All Saints Church in Pasadena is a massive, mainstream Christian church with longstanding ties to the Jewish community. It is not some small group of liberation theology radicals hosting a vegan potluck in a rented community room. The Sabeel conference also has the backing of Bishop Jon Bruno, who has done as much or more for the Jewish and Israeli cause in this town as any Christian leader.
These men lead an educated, sophisticated flock that does not want to be told who it can or can't invite. They are not looking to CAMERA or any other Jews to kasher their lectures. In fact, attempting to do so can only build up resentment. It turns the Arab Israeli conflict into a free-speech issue, and when that happens, when Jews are perceived as being on the wrong side of free speech, we lose.
So what is the answer?
The pro-Israel center and left need to also focus their energies on these liberal Christan groups. They need to dissect the arguments of Sabeel and present the Israeli case in a much more persuasive and winning way.
I'm thrilled that this kind of dialogue already has begun. This past Monday evening, All Saints Church's the Rev. Ed Bacon met with 100 members of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center at the center's sanctuary and heard their concerns. He expressed his support for Israel, his opposition to divestment and to using rhetoric like "apartheid" when speaking of Israel; but he held firm to his decision to host his friend Ateek. He also committed, according to Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, to organizing a conference at which progressive, Zionist Jewish voices could make their case to his congregants.
"People came skeptical that the church was open to dialogue," Grater told me, "I think their minds were changed."
In a series of e-mail exchanges last week, Rabbi Ken Chasen at Leo Baeck Temple and Daniel Sokatch of Progressive Jewish Alliance said they would welcome such a conference.
And that is the correct reaction to the activities that have become a regular occurrence in our communities and on college campuses. This week California State University Northridge hosted Norman Finkelstein, the controversial Israel critic and author of "The Holocaust Industry," despite the concerns of Jewish groups. Within the central organizing bodies of the Presbyterian and Methodist churches, there is renewed call for divestment from companies doing business with Israel. It took enormous good will and intense lobbying to beat back these divestment resolutions the first time around; there is no reason to think this second round will be the last.
The model that has worked for the Jewish community for decades is building relationships with different communities, working with them on issues of shared concern, supporting them in their time of need and asking for their support in our time of need. Progressive Jewish groups and leaders, speaking much the same language as these churches and academic institutions, are in a better position to counter the anti-Israel rhetoric than more hard-line Jewish groups who do not share the same depth of relationship or wider political perspective. All Saints Church inviting Sabeel, Grater said, "might be a mistake, but when you're in a relationship, people make mistakes and you work on that and improve your partnership."
As our writers discovered in reporting this week's cover story, left-leaning Zionist groups receive less communal dollars than their more center-right counterparts. That's also a mistake. These groups are the best defense all of us have in the ongoing struggle to counter destructive voices and policies among mainstream Christians and in academia. Their communal support is in Israel's best interest.