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WAWA/WeAreWideAwake is my Public Service to America as a muckracker who has journeyed seven times to Israel Palestine since June 2005. WAWA is dedicated to confronting media and governments that shield the whole truth.

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Home arrow Blog arrow February 2008 arrow February 11, 2008

February 11, 2008
WAWA Blog February 11, 2008: Middle East tensions in Pasadena and in the Churches, and when will our political leaders "get the wax out of their ears and the cotton out of their mouths and recognize that a different road must be taken?"

 Middle East tensions in Pasadena

Jews criticize conference's link to a Palestinian group.

By Rebecca Trounson, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
February 9, 2008

A Middle East conference scheduled to be held next week at a prominent Pasadena church has sparked tensions between local Christians and Jews. But those involved say they hope to use the episode as a chance for increased dialogue and, perhaps, a deeper understanding of the sensitive issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Several Los Angeles rabbis and others in the Jewish community have criticized a decision by All Saints Episcopal Church to allow its facilities to be used Feb. 15-16 for "From Occupation to Liberation: Voices We Need to Hear." The event is sponsored by Friends of Sabeel, an organization of American Christians that supports Sabeel, a Jerusalem-based ecumenical Christian group.

Founded in the early 1990s by a Palestinian Anglican theologian, the Rev. Naim Ateek, Sabeel espouses a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation. Speakers for the workshops planned at All Saints include Jews and Muslims, along with Palestinian and American Christians. Ateek will be among those speaking.

But in recent months, conferences sponsored by Sabeel's support group nationwide have been greeted with protests by some Jewish organizations, which say the gatherings are biased against Israel. Some also have criticized Ateek for using imagery in his sermons and writings that compares the suffering of the Palestinians under occupation to that of Jesus and the early Christians.

At All Saints, the Rev. J. Edwin Bacon Jr. said in an interview that he has known Ateek for a number of years and that the Palestinian priest has spoken several times at the Pasadena church, most recently in December. Ateek also appeared at All Saints last year in a friendly discussion with the church's rabbi-in-residence, retired Leo Baeck Temple Rabbi Leonard Beerman.

So when Friends of Sabeel asked if it could hold a conference there, Bacon said he didn't hesitate. The rector said he has no plans to cancel it. But Bacon said he also has been distressed by the negative reaction of several rabbis and other Jews who are among his church's interfaith partners. "I'm always concerned whenever our friends are concerned and upset," he said.

Among those who complained to Bacon was Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, a Conservative synagogue of about 400 families. Grater said members of his congregation were alerted to the conference at All Saints by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a Boston-based media watchdog group that is critical of Sabeel.

Grater, who said he considers Bacon a friend, said he was concerned both about the conference's slate of speakers and the group's use of crucifixion imagery to convey its message. And he said many of his congregants were even more upset.

"When Jews hear language about the crucifixion and Christ, and associating that in any way with Israel, we hear that as the same language of anti-Semitism that we have dealt with for thousands of years," Grater said. "The Christian community needs to understand that certain words and ideas are serious red flags for us."

Bacon said he has taken several steps to try to ease the tensions and plans more. Next week, he is scheduled to visit Grater's synagogue. He is also speaking with Grater and Leo Baeck Temple's senior rabbi, Kenneth Chasen, about organizing other panels and conversations about the Middle East at the church.

"We're going to turn this into an opportunity for us to learn how to be more sensitive," he said.

The rector also recently invited Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, to speak at All Saints. "I don't agree with a lot of what Sabeel has to say, and I find some of their choices of words and imagery very troubling, but they do profess to be nonviolent," Sokatch said. "And really, aren't those the kinds of people we want to be dealing with on the Palestinian side?"

Methodist Church Renews Drive For Divestment From Israel
Battle Lines Drawn Between Jewish Groups and Protestant Churches



By Nathan Guttman
Wed. Jan 30, 2008

Washington - Tensions are re-emerging between Jewish organizations and some mainline Protestant churches in the wake of a renewed drive for churches to divest from companies doing business with Israel.


The United Methodist Church opened discussions last Friday on a resolution calling for divestment from Caterpillar, the tractor manufacturer, because the company supplies Israel with bulldozers used in building the separation barrier and in demolishing Palestinian homes. The divestment resolution comes only months after the publication of a church-sponsored report referring to the creation of the State of Israel as the “original sin.”


Relations with the Presbyterian Church (USA) are also strained, following remarks by church officials criticizing Israel because of the Gaza closure. A recent study by an affiliate of the Presbyterian Church called on American Jews to “get a life” instead of focusing on defending Israeli policies.


“This reflects a very disturbing trend in these churches,” said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “These developments are a result of work of several very wicked forces that play in the church.”

The divestment campaign, thought by many in the Jewish community to be dormant, is still active among mainline Protestant churches and is re-emerging as a main issue on the agenda of Jewish groups. Attempts to block the divestment drive, which began four years ago, have proved only partially successful. Interreligious dialogue efforts and public pressure managed to mute some churchwide calls for divestment, but other initiatives are still gaining support.


The Methodist meeting, held on January 25 in Fort Worth, Texas, was an initial orientation meeting for delegation heads who will lead their groups at the church’s quadrennial conference in April. Delegation leaders were presented with speakers both supportive and opposed to the draft divestment resolution, which calls for removing all Methodist pension fund holdings from Caterpillar.


“The United Methodist Church holds $141 million of pension funds in companies that sustain the occupation,” said Susan Hoder, a member of the church’s Interfaith Peace Initiative. “This has to stop. We have to cut our ties to the occupation.”

Hoder, who strongly favors passage of divestment measures, went on to claim that American taxpayer dollars are used to fund Israeli military. “A lot of this money goes into the pockets of Israeli military leaders and politicians who get rich while the population of Israel suffers,” she said.


With 11 million members, The United Methodist Church is the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the U.S. The upcoming April general conference, the church’s main forum for making policy decisions, will first discuss the divestment resolution in a subcommittee. Afterward, the panel’s recommendations will be put to a general vote to make them official policy.


A spokesman for the United Methodist Church did not return calls from the Forward seeking comments on the divestment drive.


Arrangers of the pre-conference meeting last Friday in Fort Worth allowed a representative of the organized Jewish community to speak on the issue. Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious affairs, told the Methodist delegates that the Jewish community was concerned about the resolution. “I told them that while they may think it is not anti-Israel and not anti-Jewish, for us it feels anti-Israel and feels anti-Jewish,” Greenebaum told the Forward after the meeting.


At the same time, Greenebaum warned the Jewish community against overreacting to anti-Israel sentiments in the church. Protestant churches, he said, “care very deeply about their relations with the Jewish community.”


What prompted Jewish activists to take action was not only the renewed divestment drive but also a report from the women’s division of the Methodist church, which addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The 225-page report, compiled by the Rev. Stephen Goldstein, attempts to outline the historical and current contours of the conflict, but according to Felson, the report amounts to “the most egregious thing that has crossed my desk that was not put out by an overt hate group.”


Among the statements in the report that irked Jewish community activists are a reference to the founding of the State of Israel as “the original sin,” a passage calling Israeli founding father David Ben-Gurion an “extremist” and a passage defining Israeli actions as acts of “terror.” Discussing the impact of the Holocaust on Israeli society, the Methodist report claims it has been the cause for “hysteria” and “paranoiac sense” among Israelis.


“Are we not called to testify when oppressors use their identity as the oppressed with stories of sixty years ago but through some failure of perception cannot see what transpires now in the shadow of the Holocaust?” the report goes on to ask.

After letting four months pass without a formal response, last week four Jewish women’s groups sent a letter to heads of the Methodist church, calling the report “inflammatory, inaccurate, and polemical.” Hadassah and women’s groups affiliated with Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism and United Jewish Communities signed the letter.


Another expected step by Jewish organizations is the launching of a new Web site that will call for a “return to civility” and condemn anti-Israeli voices among Protestant churches.


The Presbyterian Church, the first to come up with resolutions calling for divestment, has so far avoided taking action on this issue, but it still supports a line seen by Jewish activists as anti-Israel. In recent weeks, a heated exchange of letters took place between Jewish community leaders and heads of the Presbyterian Church, following the church’s criticism of Israel over the situation in Gaza. In a letter to the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, head of the church’s general assembly, 12 Jewish organizational leaders complained that “the anti-Israel tone of your statement calls into serious question whether the season of mutual understanding we welcomed in July 2006 has yet arrived.”


Kirkpatrick responded with a letter asking the Jewish organizations, “Do you not share our concern that such regular violent responses by Israel, despite their intent to safeguard security, and no matter how carefully conducted to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties, only lead to continued violence in return?”


This exchange came shortly after a presentation of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, a group chartered by the Presbyterian Church though not formally speaking for it. In a slideshow presentation calling for “reframing the debate,” the group argued that the “Jewish community in the Diaspora must get a life,” referring to Jewish reactions to Christian groups’ calls for changes in policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestine Matters
By Bill Fletcher, Jr
When atrocities befall the Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli occupiers, much of the Western world remains silent.  Particularly in the USA, we await an Israeli explanation for the atrocity, often assuring ourselves that we will be offered a rational and acceptable justification for whatever has taken place.  Civilians killed, for instance, when the Israelis choose to assassinate a Palestinian leader, and we are generally told that it is tragic ‘collateral damage.’  The use of cluster bombs in the attack on Lebanon in 2006, and we are treated to stories about the brutality of Hezbollah.  The fact is that Israel is the only power in the Middle East with nuclear weapons, and we are entertained with silence.  In each case, the response is accepted as understandable, given Israel’s “fight for existence.”
Today the people of Gaza are victims of what both Israeli and Palestinian human rights activists correctly call collective punishment.  After the Hamas/Fatah mini-civil war in which Hamas took over Gaza, allegedly because they believed that Fatah was preparing to attack them, the Israelis began a blockade (as well as military incursions) with the full support of the Bush administration.  This was followed by rocket attacks on Israeli settlements near Gaza by some Palestinian military units.  The Israeli blockade never let up nor did Israeli attacks on Gaza or Palestinian rocket attacks against settlements.  Despite Hamas' repeated offers for a truce, the Israeli government has turned a deaf ear, finally locking the people of Gaza into a collective hell.
When, a few weeks ago, humanitarian organizations began voicing louder and louder concerns regarding the conditions facing the people of Gaza, the Israeli government and their apologists in the USA shrugged this off.  I was stunned, for instance, to read commentaries in the US media where it was suggested that, while conditions may not have been ideal, there was no humanitarian threat.  When Hamas blew up the walls blocking off Gaza from Egypt and hundreds of thousands of people entered Egypt in order to get badly needed supplies, some commentators in the USA suggested that the Palestinians were really just interested in obtaining more cheap cigarettes.
As a little reminder, the notion of collective punishment, that is, taking steps against an entire people due to the actions of some, is illegal according to international law.  Consider, for instance, if the USA decided to blockade and bomb Sicily due to the activities of the Sicilian Mafia (which has been responsible for the deaths of thousands through the drug trade as well as other illegal activity).  What if, in addition, the USA took military action against the Italian government because it had not taken a strong enough stand against the Mafia?  Such an approach would be considered absurd, but this is, in effect, what has been unfolding against the Palestinians, not just today, but for the length of the Occupation that began in 1967.
The suffering in Gaza specifically, and Palestine in general, has not been the subject of any substantive discussion in the 2008 Presidential campaign.  There is a code of silence that surrounds this subject and an unspoken assumption that whatever steps Israel needs to take to “ensure its survival” will receive 100% support from the US political establishment.  Additionally, as was in full view in the aftermath of former President Jimmy Carter’s best-selling book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, those who question the Israeli Occupation and the US complicity in it, are subject to vitriolic attack, and more often than not, accused of being anti-Semitic.  Thus, the conditions have been stacked in most so-called mainstream circles against a reasonable discussion of a key foreign policy matter.
The continued consequences of this approach should not need to be reiterated.  Despite the photo-op that took place in Annapolis with the Bush-orchestrated Israeli/Palestinian summit in 2007, little progress has been made.  Israeli strangulation of the Gaza makes it politically unlikely for the Palestinian National Authority, under President Abbas, to make any significant compromises, not that the Palestinians have much more to give.
The garroting of the Gaza and the destruction of the wall separating it from Egypt actually serves as a metaphor for the larger Palestinian situation.  Whether through the "apartheid" Wall created by the Israelis cutting off Palestinian territory and creating, in effect, reservations for the Palestinians; through the imprisonment of some Palestinian leaders; through the assassination of other Palestinian leaders; and through the increase in illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory, the Palestinian people are being pushed further and further to the brink.
The good news, to the extent to which there is any, is that there has been a noticeable change in the climate on the ground in the USA when it comes to discussing Palestine.  The fact that Carter’s book was a best seller, not to mention the growing attention in the USA and in Europe to the need for an immediate end to the Israeli Occupation, quite possibly portends an opening toward a just resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Yet the US political establishment does not get it.  Each time they attempt to silence discussion of Palestine, or pretend that atrocities against Palestinians are simply the figments of someone’s imagination, their credibility in the eyes of the world further diminishes.  It is the equivalent of attempting to keep a bubble under water.
With each atrocity against the Palestinian people comes another battle cry from one or another part of the planet, not only against Israel, but against their unconditional backers in Washington, DC.  And those battle cries should raise our concern.
What about this do our political leaders not understand?  When will they get the wax out of their ears and the cotton out of their mouths and recognize that a different road must be taken?
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is Executive Editor of The Black Commentator. He is also a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum. Click here to contact Mr. Fletcher.


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