Friday, October 26, 2007

More than 50 organizations plan to protest Sabeel anti-Israel conference

from The Jewish Advocate:

Pro-Israel rally to demonstrate against weekend Sabeel event
By Lorne Bell

Scores of local organizations are planning to rally outside the Old South Church in Boston this Friday in response to a weekend conference sponsored by Sabeel, the controversial Christian Palestinian human rights group.

The conference, “The Apartheid Paradigm in Palestine-Israel: Issues of Justice and Equality,” will feature Sabeel leaders and the Reverend Desmond Tutu, who, along with Sabeel, has been criticized for his portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More than 50 organizations plan to join in Friday’s demonstration.

“We respect the right of the Old South Church to have the conference because we believe in freedom of speech, but we absolutely denounce the message,” said Nancy K. Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. “The public needs to understand that [Sabeel] is anti-Israel and against Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.”
The JCRC has teamed up with religious and human rights groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the United Assembly of God of Framingham, to demonstrate against this weekend’s event.

“They have a right to demonstrate,” said Nancy S. Taylor, senior minister at Old South Church. “The people rallying outside the event have legitimate concerns, and the people speaking inside have legitimate concerns. There is more than one truth.” The central issue voiced by this weekend’s demonstrators is Sabeel’s insistence on labeling Israel an apartheid state and the incendiary language used by the organization’s founder and leader, Naim Ateek.

In a 2001 Easter message, Ateek wrote, “Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him. The Israeli crucifixion system is operating daily.” He also compared Israel’s security wall to the rock that sealed Jesus’ tomb.

“The United Church of Christ prides itself on recognizing the covenant between God and the Jewish people, yet it has tolerated the use of this despicable imagery by one of its ecumenical partners,” said Dexter Van Zile, Christian media analyst at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. “This is very troublesome.”

But Sabeel and Ateek have been unfairly targeted and demonized, according to Martin Federman, co-chair of Jewish Voice for Peace’s Boston chapter. “Ateek has tried, for the sake of Palestinian Christians, to put [the conflict] in a context of what it feels like from a Christian point of view,” said Federman. “I have read Ateek’s stuff, and I have met with him on numerous occasions, and to call him anti-Semitic is so outrageous and defamatory it would be humorous if it wasn’t so serious.” Still, Federman conceded that some of the concerns about Ateek’s language are valid from a Jewish perspective.

Taylor, who said she could not speak on behalf of Ateek, Sabeel, or the United Church of Christ, of which Old South is a member, agreed that some of Sabeel’s language could be seen as problematic. “I find the language concerning. It is not language I would use,” she said.

The Sabeel event is part of Old South Church’s “Getting religion right: beyond stereotypes and statistics” series, which runs from October through December. Several Jewish speakers had been scheduled to speak at the conference, including Dennis Ross, Rabbi Susan Harris, and Rabbi Jonah Pesner of the Union for Reform Judaism. Pesner has since cancelled his appearance, although he would not say whether the Sabeel controversy influenced his decision. Ross’ name was also recently removed from the conference’s roster of speakers.

Meanwhile, Tutu, who holds the title of International Patron of Sabeel, has also been criticized for comments he made at the Old South Church in 2002 as part of another Sabeel-sponsored conference. In his address, Tutu implied that Israeli policies were the cause of suicide attacks and also compared the “Jewish lobby” to the totalitarian regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Pinochet and Apartheid South Africa.

“We reject the apartheid language and the traditional Christian imagery that has historically been used to vilify the Jewish people and is today used to vilify the Jewish state,” said Andrew H. Tarsy, regional director of the ADL.

Still, in a recent letter to the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, the ADL objected to the university’s decision to call off an appearance by Tutu. And though the ADL will be part of this weekend’s demonstration, Tarsy affirmed Old South Church’s right to host Tutu.
“He has a right to speak and they have a right to have him,” said Tarsy. But, he added, “It is too bad that Tutu would lend his credence to [Sabeel].”

Kaufman agreed and said this weekend’s demonstration is about Sabeel, not Tutu.
“Sabeel claims to support non-violence, but it criticizes all Israeli security measures and has never denounced suicide bombing,” said Kaufman. “This isn’t about legitimate criticism of Israel; it’s about a group that goes way beyond legitimate criticism.”

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