First is the absurd suggestion that CAMERA has no jurisdictional standing to comment on the Feb. 15 Sabeel conference at a Pasadena church. Eshman rightly identifies CAMERA as headquartered in Boston, but fails to mention it is a national organization of 60,000 members with offices in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. An active L.A. Advisory Board and more than 8,000 area members, as well as professional staff in Los Angeles, also belie the notion that a national group cannot comment on local events.
For more than a decade, CAMERA has been involved in Southern California, sponsoring briefings, conferences and lectures and monitoring and interacting with the Los Angeles Times.
Literally, as Eshman was writing his strange attack, CAMERA was running ads in local newspapers in the area deploring the incidence of bias in the Los Angeles Times, citing a 19-month study of L.A. Times Op-Eds, prepared by a CAMERA analyst and highlighting a recent anti-Semitic cartoon in that publication. The CAMERA ads challenging the L.A. Times' bias appeared in the LA Weekly, Hollywood Reporter, L.A. Business Journal, Orange County Register, USA Today, Beverly Hills Courier -- and The Jewish Journal itself!
Beyond this, CAMERA has on its staff a Christian-media analyst, Dexter Van Zile, whose focus is church commentary related to the Middle East and who has done extensive research and writing on Sabeel, has attended five Sabeel conferences and has spoken personally with Naim Ateek. A key finding of Van Zile's invaluable work on the topic has been that Sabeel's many appearances in mainline American churches have helped poison attitudes toward Israel in some of those denominations.
In communication with numerous Jewish organizations, CAMERA has worked on the difficult challenges presented by events such as the Sabeel conference in Pasadena.
Finally, on this point of CAMERA's right to raise such matters, it's notable that while Eshman devotes an entire column to demanding CAMERA "butt out" of Los Angeles, he evidently has no objection to the gathering in Pasadena of Bethelem-based Sabeel and Naim Ateek, along with speakers from various nations and places, to assault Israel.
Why is that?
One answer may be head-in-the-sand avoidance of the realities, and anger at those who suggest there's a need to speak out and confront Israel's detractors. Indeed, Eshman argues that Ateek's chilling statements are just talk. In a contradictory leap of illogic he notes on the one hand that Ateek purveys classic "Christ-killer," anti-Semitic imagery, but on the other that Ateek is a man with whom one can discuss and debate issues. He quips that Ateek's anti-Semitic imagery "sure beats Hamas" and that he'll take it "over a suicide bomber any day."
This is remarkable thinking. Need it be said that spreading anti-Semitic messages in American churches is perilous in itself and must be opposed? Need it also be noted that there are dangers short of suicide bombings? Or that defaming Jews can lead to violence against them -- as it has so often?
But Eshman claims CAMERA has chosen "the wrong enemy" and that exposing the statements of Sabeel and Naim Ateek risks "unraveling longstanding local relationships."
He quotes the Rev. Ed Bacon of All Saints Church saying CAMERA "is trying to paint All Saints as an anti-Semitic organization that is against the State of Israel." He insists: "What we are trying to do is teach people to be sophisticated about how they talk about these issues," and adds he is "not sympathetic with Sabeel to the exclusion of the right of the state of Israel to exist."
The Rev. Bacon may have good intentions (CAMERA has not suggested his church is anti-Semitic). But to believe that bringing Sabeel and a roster of anti-Israel speakers to excoriate the Jewish state will benefit an audience and make them "sophisticated" in discussing Middle East issues is truly troubling.
That conference lineup includes Illan Pappe, an Israeli academic and member of Israel's tiny Communist party who has spearheaded boycott efforts against Israel in the UK and who admits to having no interest in facts. Reviewing Pappe's book, "A History of Modern Palestine," historian Benny Morris wrote that much of it was "complete fabrication" and that in Pappe's world "The Palestinians are forever victims, the Zionists are forever 'brutal colonizers.'"
Another speaker, Don Wagner, has also defamed Israel in his efforts to convince Christians in the United States to divest. In his book, "Dying in the Land of Promise," he compared "the 100-year process of Zionist occupation in Palestine" to a "killer-vine" strangling a rose bush in his back yard.
Speaker Anna Baltzer authored an article titled "Israel's Nazi Atrocities: The Dawud Story" concerning the alleged death of a child at a checkpoint. She likens Israel to apartheid South Africa.
And so it goes. Speaker after speaker.
The All Saints-Sabeel program will not be an opportunity to help fair-minded people gain greater understanding; it will be a one-sided assault that promotes prejudice and enmity. Why Eshman thinks Jews in Los Angeles and Pasadena should not be aware of such an event and what it may portend is inexplicable, and entirely irresponsible, for the editor of a Jewish newspaper.
Rob Eshman responds:
Though you wouldn't know it from the harshness of Andrea Levin's tone, she
and I actually disagree on only one issue -- tactics.
As I said quite clearly in my editorial, the Sabeel Center is not a friend of Israel. In fact, I used the word, "enemy." If Andrea doesn't think that word is strong enough, I apologize.
My point is not that the group or its leader, Naim Ateek, isn't so bad; it's that CAMERA's prescription of how the Jewish community of LA should respond to Ateek's apperance 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 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 and who it can't invite. They are not looking to CAMERA or any other Jews to kasher their lectures. In fact, doing so will only build up resentment. It will turn the Arab Israeli conflict over there into a free speech issue here, and when that happens, when Jews are perceived as being on the wrong side of free speech, we will lose.
So what is the answer?
I believe it is engagement. I believe the pro-Israel center and left need to also focus their energies on these liberal Christian groups. They need to dissect the arguments of Sabeel and present the Israeli case in what I believe will be a much more persuasive and winning way.
I don't believe this has to happen simultaneous to Sabeel's presentation. Grown-ups can hear opposing viewpoints days, weeks or even months apart and still make a fair assessment. But these Jewish groups need to build on a long history of goodwill to make sure they get numerous opportunities to present Israel's case.
Sabeel doesn't use hypnotism or special serums. It presents overblown and sometimes vicious rhetoric in the pursuit of its aims. Andrea Levin believes that to help Israel we need harangue our friends to keep Sabeel from doing that. I believe a better way is to counter their hate talk with our truth.