ECUSA backing away from human and civil rights
At every level of the Episcopal Church this writer has been able to observe, the level of the local congregation, the diocesan level, and the national level, the ECUSA is backing away from vitally important human and civil rights issues, with a few notable exceptions. Despite a great deal of rhetoric, and despite positive statements and actions by Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and former Presiding Bishop Edmund Browning, despite the halting efforts of some few officials at every organizational level, and despite the advocacy and activism of individual members of the church at the grass roots level, which some church leaders have actively discouraged, opposed, and on occasion thwarted, most ECUSA officials and current official policies seem to reflect a distinct disinterest in interfaith dialog and interfaith relations. Many Episcopalians, members of the laity and church leaders, like many of their co-religionists, seem to experience great difficulty in differentiating among Judaism (a religion with sects as varied as any other), Jews (an ethnic group of origins at least as varied as any other), and Zionism (a political ideology and movement founded in 1897 that has sought and achieved the founding of a Jewish state in Palestine, and which seeks to expand the as yet officially unannounced boundaries of the Jewish state, Israel, at the expense of its Arab neighbors). This ignorance of and inability to understand the complexities of Jewish life and culture, coupled with the constantly reinforced image of European Jews as history’s most sympathetic victims, and a wholly laudable desire to prevent another unspeakable crime like the Nazi holocaust, leaves a great many Americans vulnerable to the mythology and propaganda with which ardent Zionists routinely seek to mask criminal excesses comitted in the name of Israel’s security. Similarly, many American Christians seem to be unaware or functionally incapable of internalizing the knowledge that Islam, along with Christianity and Judaism, is one of the three Abrahamic faiths, all of which worship the same God though they all refer to that God by different names (Allah, God, and Yahweh). Moreover, among many church leaders at every level, the term interfaith relations seems to be little more than a term of art signifying a long-standing commitment to Christian-Jewish relations, to the effective exclusion of other faith communities. Worse, when questioned or challenged, church leaders who are committed to a special and distinctly preferential relationship between Christians and Jews are quick to cite “the Judeo-Christian tradition” and suggest that anti-Semitic bias motivates those who hold more inclusive views, even when those views are based explicitly upon the New Testament teachings of Jesus and the norms of international law and/or U.S. laws requiring that all people, regardless of race, religion, or national origin be afforded equal treatment or basic human rights under the law. Those church leaders, like many Zionists, Christian and Jewish alike, seem to be unable to comprehend that intelligent, educated, and informed citizens might quite reasonably choose to oppose the political excesses of Zionism and criticize certain policies and actions of the government of Israel (especially those that make a mockery of the norms of international human rights law) and yet not be guilty of anti-Semitic bias or hatred of Jews.
Proponents of a wider and more vital interfaith dialog point out that “the Judeo-Christian tradition” necessarily excludes many more groups than it includes. Worse, they say, “the Judeo-Christian tradition,” a phrase once widely employed for the purpose of including Jews and countering the negative effects of centuries of anti-Jewish bias in predominantly Christian communities, is today being used by some nominally progressive Christian leaders for the purpose of excluding other religious groups, especially Muslims, and for promoting anti-Semitic bias against Arabs. While it may seem unfair to write that this kind of exclusion is what Rev. Ation intended when he wrote to criticize Palestine Unabridged and its supporters, what Bishop Scarfe intended when he killed a proposal that would have encouraged youth groups in his diocese to visit mosques and temples, and what Bishop Epting intended when he effectively gutted the ECUSA’s interfaith programming, the ECUSA’s failure to formulate new initiatives, support existing programming, or commit resources to a more genuinely inclusive interfaith dialog all suggest otherwise. Indeed, justifying the necessity of a more vital and genuinely inclusive interfaith dialog and a more substantive commitment to anti-racism programming on the basis of the New Testament teachings of Jesus and the norms and standards of international and U.S. law seems often to provoke only obfuscation or more stridently defensive reactions from church leaders who evidently perceive a challenge to both their authority and their theology.
Retaliation and reprisals begin
Palestine Unabridged proved to be a remarkable success despite the concerted and determined opposition it encountered. But Zionist organizations that opposed the film series have begun to retaliate against its organizers, sponsors, and supporters. It remains to be seen just how far the recriminations will go, just how great a price Iowa peace, social justice, and interfaith dialog advocates will be forced to pay for their activism in behalf of freedom of speech, the public information mission of the American library, and peace and justice for the oppressed and exploited Palestinian people.
The Ames Tribune was remarkably even-handed in its treatment of the film and discussion series until early December, publishing more than two dozen letters to the editor, pro and con, about the controversial film and discussion series. Then, the Trib’s editors assigned city government beat reporter Beth Anderson to write the paper’s first news story about Palestine Unabridged. Library sources reported that Millsap and APL adult outreach program director Lynn Carey were surprised at Anderson’s adversarial approach. Anderson phrased questions in a manner clearly calculated to force the library administrators to deny that they are anti-Semites. To make matters worse, Anderson misquoted Carey in print.
Tribune editors had been invited in August by the organizers and producers of Palestine Unabridged to participate by publishing several reviews of books about the conflict in the Holy Land, books that were an integral part of the library’s meticulously planned project. Though the Trib agreed to participate and did, in fact, participate actively in the project by publishing the reviews of books suggested by both supporters and opponents of the film and discussion series, editor David Kraemer, in two editorials he penned, seemed, presumably under great pressure from the ADL and that organization’s local agents, to take a position that favored those who so determinedly and vociferously opposed Palestine Unabridged, while slighting the organizers, co-sponsors, and supporters of the film and discussion series. It must be said, though, that the Trib’s letters column was as open to supporters of the film series as to its opponents. And for that the Trib deserves high praise.
The Ames Tribune won its Pulitzer several years ago for the editorials of then-editor Michael Gartner, who defended the local Muslim community’s right to purchase land and construct a new house of worship and who criticized a neighborhood group that opposed the relocation of the mosque and sued the city zoning board and the mosque in an effort to prevent the new mosque being built. This writer wonders how many Trib readers will note that the newspaper, under pressure, hedged just a bit on its commitment to the First Amendment, while the local public library, the local interfaith council, and local peace and social justice advocates have thus far kept faith with founding fathers who insisted on the Bill of Rights as a condition of approving the adoption of the Constitution. Joseph Pulitzer, remembered for endowing the prizes that bear his name and for writing that, “our republic and its press will rise or fall together,” might appreciate the irony.
The Trib’s trials are not the only sad ironies to be noted. St. John’s Episcopal Church, perhaps the only church in Ames to employ a native of the Middle East in recent years, fired Sexton (janitor) Nader Parsaei three years ago–on Christmas Eve. Church leaders cited budget problems. Parsaei, a gentle, good-natured man with a ready smile, does not speak ill of his former employers. He now gets by with two part time jobs to and from which he travels by city bus. Parsaei, who claims no religious affiliation, asks, “What is the good of religions that make men fight and kill one another?”
Only as Palestine Unabridged was nearing its completion did news of the controversy surrounding the 14-week film and discussion series finally reach a wider audience. After studiously ignoring the controversy on its doorstep for more than two months, the Des Moines Register published a story about Palestine Unabridged on December 4, 2003. Earlier in the same week, Fern Kupfer, who teaches writing in the Department of English at ISU, wrote about the controversy in her column in Newsday. According to Kupfer, who is, she says, a “secular Jew who passionately believes in free speech,” the library was wrong to sponsor the film festival because it “divided our town” and, “instead of education and enlightenment” it has led to “dissension and pain,” and caused sorely strained relationships between co-workers and friends.
Among seasoned social justice and civil and human rights advocates, Kupfer’s argument brings immediately to mind remarkably similar arguments made by White segregationists who opposed the Civil Right Movement. The problem, they said, was that outside agitators came down South to stir up trouble. There had, said segregationists, been no problems before outsiders, bringing incitement and information about voting rights to Southern Blacks (who had never voted or had any meaningful voice in government at any level), created division and dissension in the South. Its opponents say the film and discussion series divided the citizens of Ames, Iowa. But, as in the American South prior to the Civil Rights Movement, the minority perspective on long present injustice and smoldering division had been suppressed while the public discussion was heavily weighted in favor of more politically powerful, socially and culturally influential, and privileged groups. Would opponents of the film series argue that civil rights advocates and activists of the 1950s and 1960s, many Jewish Americans prominent among them, should have remained silent? That Rosa Parks should have submissively accepted a seat at the back of the bus? That Dr. King should have kept his dream to himself to avoid offending and scaring White folks? That champions of the cause of martyrs James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman should have stayed home and left African Americans to the enjoy the equality of segregated schools, the freedom to pay a poll tax on election day, and the mercies of lynch mob justice?
Kupfer, seeking to tie the Ames, Iowa film festival to a world-wide rise in anti-Jewish sentiment, wrote in her Newsday column: “In too many places, it is increasingly uncomfortable to define yourself as a Jew.” If that is true, it is more likely because so many people are increasingly uncomfortable with the realization that modern political Zionism’s excesses are at the heart of what threatens to become an unending global war pitting West against East, Jews and Christians against Muslims.
On December 2, 2003 the Ames Jewish Congregation formally “suspended” its membership the Ames Interfaith Council and withdrew its representative, this time after having been at the table for only two months.
On December 13, 2003 this writer, having videotaped the final discussion event of Palestine Unabridged on December 11, invited Prof. Kupfer and others to participate in a proposed video production about the controversy, a production designed to tell the story of the film series “in a way that takes neither one side nor the other but offers both sides opportunities to express their views and, ultimately, makes clear that dialog is, at least, a good beginning to a solution . . . We want to produce a video that reveals a community discovering that its fears are exaggerated–that our neighbors are, after all, people with whom we can talk, that even when the subject matter is difficult and we disagree, we can agree to disagree more or less amicably and keep on talking.”
In an e-mail dated December 13, 2003 Kupfer, who had attended and made a public statement at the discussion just two days previously, responded by flatly refusing to participate in the proposed video production and threatening to sue. “Cases abound in which significant legal liability attaches to people who thought they were exercising First Amendment rights but were mistaken,” wrote Kupfer. “These include defamation of character (as when a videotape is edited to change intent), false light invasion of privacy, and appropriation of name or likeness. . . . you do NOT have my permission to include me in [the proposed] video in any way whatsoever.” It was a response many might think uncharacteristic of a writer who, as she had so recently informed her Newsday readers, “passionately believes in free speech.”
The involvement of Newsday columnist Fern Kupfer and Rev. Al Aiton, Rector of Ames’s St. John’s Episcopal Church in the coordinated opposition to Palestine Unabridged underscores the effectiveness of ADL leaders’ efforts to repair the damage their organization incurred during the FBI/SFDAO investigation that culminated in the ADL spy scandal in 1993. Ten years prior to Kupfer’s column condemning the organizers, co-sponsors, and supporters of the controversial Ames film and discussion series, Newsday was in the vanguard of news organizations reporting on the ADL spy scandal.
In his May 3, 1993, Newsday report on the then-still-breaking spy scandal, Timothy M. Phelps focused on the connection of the West Coast spying operation to the East Coast, the ADL’s Washington, DC office, and “Mira Boland, the Washington ‘fact-finder’ for the Anti-Defamation League.” Phelps’ report reveals that when Boland “needed information for an article attacking the controversial black American group called the Nation of Islam, she turned to the voluminous files and resources of the ADL’s Los Angeles office. . . . ‘Fact-finders’ in Los Angeles and San Francisco responded to Boland’s inquiries by contacting their friends in local law-enforcement, who regularly supplied confidential police records. In the prominent Jewish organization’s own files, [ADL Los Angeles ‘fact-finder’ David] Gurvitz found a highly confidential 33-page FBI intelligence report on the group . . . The possibly illegal disclosure of these and other FBI and police records, including the files of the San Francisco Police Department’s Intelligence Division that had been ordered destroyed, has prompted FBI and San Francisco Police department investigations into ADL’s West Coast operations.” Both ADL undercover operative Roy Bullock “and ADL lawyer Jill Metzer said that Bullock’s files did not belong to the ADL . . . but the hundreds of pages of FBI and police interviews with Bullock and Gurvitz and documents seized from Bullock’s files paint a sometimes different picture. Bullock, in these interviews, did refer to himself as a spy, and said all of his investigations were on behalf of the ADL. While he kept his files on his home computer, he said, most of the information has also been given to the ADL. Bullock, an art dealer who according to the documents secretly was on the ADL payroll, was just one member of a network of ‘fact-finders’ working out of the ADL’s 32 nationwide offices, including New York. Bullock personally infiltrated some of the groups ADL had targeted, sometimes went through their trash, and ‘ran’ several paid informants including underworld figures to whom he gave code names.” The FBI/SFDAO investigation of the ADL revealed that Bullock had worked under false pretenses for the ADL in the offices of American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee western regional representative Alex Odeh shortly before Odeh, a 35-year-old family man, was killed when a trip-wire terror bomb tore apart his Santa Ana offices in 1985. Bullock’s partner in criminal activities on behalf of the ADL was San Francisco Police inspector Tom Gerard. Gerard, who fled the country but later returned and pled guilty to stealing confidential police files for the ADL, had been a CIA bomb expert. The FBI’s investigation revealed that Gerard was but one of many U.S. law enforcement intelligence officers who enjoyed expense-paid visits to Israel, trips that were arranged by the ADL as part of a program set up by the Israeli government. In Israel, these “official friends,” as they were known, were wined, dined, and de-briefed by intelligence officers from Israel’s intelligence and security agencies. It is difficult to imagine a more effective conduit for conveying a broad range of confidential information regarding U.S. domestic politics to Israeli intelligence chiefs, and it should come as no surprise that FBI counter intelligence officials were alarmed. Investigators were able to track about $185,000 in recorded payments by the ADL to Bullock through one California attorney, Burce Hochman, "a former federal prosecutor, former president of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles," according to a Phoenix Gazette article dated April 28, 1993.
In his Newsday article, Phelps reported that, “Together, Bullock and Gerard freelanced their information gathering skills to the South African government. In a memo discovered by the FBI, Bullock said the arrangement was instigated by the ADL. The ADL denies it, and Bullock now says the memo was a ‘fib.’ Whatever the arrangements, Bullock and Gurvitz said the ADL’s interest in the American apartheid movement and Bullock’s contact in South African intelligence overlapped sufficiently to make the extra work slight. Bullock wrote a report for the ADL and apparently the South Africans as well on a speech at a public meeting in Los Angeles by the Rev. Allan Boesak, a prominent South African opponent of apartheid. Bullock recounted the meeting, and the words of its other participants, including a local Episcopal minister, in some detail. Other [such detailed Bullock] reports covered speeches by recently assassinated African National Congress leader Chris Hani, who had been seen as a successor to Nelson Mandela at the ANC.”
Ten years after the ADL spy scandal, Newsday is no longer reporting on the excesses of the ADL (though it must be noted that the newspaper is home to columnist Jimmy Breslin as well as self-proclaimed defender of free speech Fern Kupfer). And Episcopal clergymen, at least some of whom were once themselves monitored by the ADL’s espionage operatives, are today apparently as likely to be found cooperating with the ADL’s anti-civil and -human rights campaigns, efforts clearly intended to inhibit freedom of speech, interfere with the American library’s public information mission, and stifle growing interest in a wider and more vital interfaith dialog. How many Episcopalians have asked themselves why some of their church’s leaders are conniving with the political operatives of a neoconservative ethnic special interest group known to have functioned as a front for a rigidly ultra-nationalistic and militantly expansionistic foreign government’s intelligence agencies that operate illegally on U.S. soil against U.S. interests?
Borsellino and Basu on NCCJ
On January 2, 2004 Des Moines Register columnist Rob Borsellino broke the news of a bitter dispute between leaders of the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines and the Iowa office of the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ), formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Borsellino reported that Jewish Federation director of community relations Mark Finkelstein and NCCJ program director Jesse Villalobos were at odds over what Finkelstein says are changes in NCCJ’s mission. According to Borsellino, Finkelstein says “NCCJ is giving voice to people and groups with views that are anti-Israel, threatening the existence of the Jewish state,” while “Villalobos says the group ‘is just being more inclusive,’ trying to tell all sides of the story, reaching out to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, whoever’s out there.”
The trouble started early in 2003 when NCCJ invited a Jewish writer, lecturer, and outspoken opponent of racism, Tim Wise, to speak at a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event. Wise has referred to Zionism as “ethnic chauvinism, colonial ethnocentrism and national oppression,” which angers Finkelstein and others who characterize Wise as an anti-Israeli, self-hating Jew. Jewish Federation leaders put pressure on NCCJ executive director Rudy Simms, who canceled Wise’s invitation to speak in Des Moines.
In May of 2003, NCCJ sponsored a panel discussion at First Christian Church in Des Moines, an event that was part of a Tikkun organizing campaign in central Iowa and a larger national organizing campaign. Tikkun is a progressive Jewish organization that promotes and supports a balanced approach to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Though three of the four panelists at the Tikkun event in Des Moines were Jewish, and the discussion included substantive participation by Finkelstein and other ardently pro-Israel Jewish Federation members who spoke that evening, “that forum really ticked off a lot of people in the Jewish Federation,” wrote Borsellino. “They felt they were shut out of the discussion.” Finally, “NCCJ helped advertise and promote an Ames film festival that was seen as pro-Palestinian,” wrote Borsellino.
Axiom Foundation president Betsy Mayfield later told this writer that NCCJ had participated only in the most minimal way in the promotion of Palestine Unabridged. “They put one of our posters in the window of their office,” said Mayfield, “that’s it.”
But apparently NCCJ’s show of support for Palestine Unabridged was the last straw. In September some of the most prominent and politically influential members of the Jewish community in Iowa asked “to get a look at the Iowa NCCJ’s books to see how and where the group’s money was being spent,” wrote Borsellino. Simms, noting that Iowa NCCJ’s board, which is comprised of a wide variety of members of Des Moines minority communities, enjoys ready access to the organization’s financial records, referred the request to the national NCCJ office. The national office demurred. In response, nearly 20 “major players in the Des Moines Jewish community . . . wrote a letter to the NCCJ board and announced that they’re pulling out of this year’s fundraising annual dinner,” wrote Borsellino. All of those who signed the letter are former NCCJ honorees and were supposed to chose this year’s Jewish honoree, one of four people to be honored at NCCJ’s annual award banquet. This year, there will be no Jewish honoree. The leadership of the Jewish community in Iowa is punishing a widely respected community organization, a human rights group with a proud 75-year history in Iowa. Iowa NCCJ’s May awards banquet is the organization’s major fundraising event, and the group is likely to be crippled financially as a result of the actions of the Jewish community leaders.
“Simms said, ‘We don’t want to alienate anyone, and I’ll try to pull them back in. But we can’t let one group set the agenda. We are here for everyone. That’s our mission,'” wrote Borsellino.
On the evening of January 6, 2004, at its first meeting of the new year, the Ames Interfaith Council welcomed a visitor. Martin Edelson is a former ISU adjunct associate professor of Nuclear and Mechanical Engineering and a former Hillel advisor. Edelson came to the meeting to protest the AIC nominating committee’s decision to nominate this writer to serve as vice chair of the city’s only organization devoted to interfaith dialog. Edelson expressed the opinion that some of this writer’s published work is “incompatible with a leadership position in an interfaith organization.” Before the annual election of officers took place, Edelson’s concerns were discussed at length. Then the slate of officers proposed by the nominating committee was elected with but one dissenting vote.
On January 14, 2004, Des Moines Register columnist Rehka Basu added her voice to the growing controversy surrounding the dispute between the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines and the Iowa office of the NCCJ. Basu questioned the actions of “the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines, which disapproves of two recent forums the NCCJ helped sponsor, or tried to, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The federation accuses the programs of having an anti-Israel slant.”
Basu found in the dispute an opportunity to point all the parties involved toward positive social change. According to Basu, “the dispute highlights a glaring contradiction between the organization’s mission and its method of choosing people to honor.”
“If it wants to stay credible and relevant and not be open to charges of catering to a select few at the expense of the many, NCCJ needs to rethink its awards criteria. Leaders should be identified on the basis of who’s done the most to advance NCCJ objectives, regardless of their religious beliefs or affiliations. Why not name an annual selection committee, get community input or let the diverse board choose the honorees?” asked Basu.
“The problem with redistributing power to a broad base, of course, is that it takes it away from a few groups that traditionally had it. But then, social change only comes when people are motivated to stand up for and champion not just their own group, but others. The NCCJ should lead by example on that front,” wrote Basu.
On January 28, 2004 a group of 18 Ames residents, members of the Ames Jewish community and Rev. Al Aiton, signed yet another letter to the editor of the Ames Tribune. The lengthy four-column “open letter to the Board of Trustees, Director, and Program Director of the Ames Public Library” accused the library administrators of violating the library’s policy manual and censoring and stifling the free speech rights of opponents of Palestine Unabridged. The letter’s authors misinterpreted the policy manual guidelines for displays (the library lobby includes two large display windows) and sought to apply them to the film and discussion series. The letter’s authors also addressed the matter of the second of the two petitions, falsely claiming 380 signers rather than the 80 names that appeared on the petition as submitted to the library. The group demanded that the library “provide a clear and unequivocal statement that the APL Display/Exhibit Policy and Material Selection Policy were violated in the context of Palestine Unabridged display.” The group also called on the library to “provide the Ames community an expression of regret for the pain and damage inflicted upon it as a result.”
On Sunday, February 1, Rev. Aiton announced that St. John’s Episcopal would screen an “alternative perspective” to the films shown at the Ames Public Library during Palestine Unabridged. At the behest of his neoconservative friends, Aiton is serving up for the edification of his parishioners a video titled Relentless, produced by HonestReporting. According to its website, HonestReporting was established in 2000 to “scrutinize the media for anti-Israel bias, then mobilize subscribers to respond directly to relevant news agencies.” The organization is best known for the volume of hate mail with which its 60,000 subscribers inundate news organizations and journalists deemed insufficiently subservient to the Israeli government and its official pronouncements. Aiton’s screening of Relentless, more than six weeks after the end of Palestine Unabridged, appears to be part of a campaign by the Jewish Community Relations Commission aimed at “educating the Ames community about Israel in a proactive manner.”
Controversy and a wider dialog
The controversy surrounding Palestine Unabridged serves to illustrate profound differences in public opinion regarding the crisis in the Holy Land and America’s role in the conflict between Israel and its Arab and predominantly Muslim neighbors, differences that deeply divide the Christian community and have a direct impact on church policy and programming even in nominally progressive denominations and churches. The controversy also serves to illuminate roles that some members of the American Jewish community play in support of Israel and a U.S. foreign policy with a distinctly and disturbingly pro-Israel tilt.
Perhaps most troubling is the realization that municipal government agencies, community organizations, and community leaders in the heartland of America cannot share information about and publicly discuss the crisis in the Holy Land without the fear and threat of reprisal from militant Zionist organizations with documented connections to Israeli intelligence agencies. If Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Iowa, half a world away from the bloody conflict in the Holy Land, are finding it difficult if not impossible to sit down together and discuss their differences and identify their common goals, hopes that Israelis and Palestinians will be able to arrive at a viable solution to the on-going crisis at the heart of larger armed conflicts in the Middle East and Southwest Asia may seem slim indeed.
But there is a truly encouraging development in all of this, too. These issues and differences of opinion have never before been the subject of prolonged, open public discussion and debate in Iowa or anywhere else in the USA. For decades, ardent Zionists in the American Jewish community and the pro-Israel lobby have been the inordinately if not exclusively influential arbiters of the public discussion of the crisis in the Holy Land and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Those days are past. The controversy surrounding Palestine Unabridged provides abundant evidence: Change is in the air. The crisis in the Holy Land is now open to wider public discussion here in the USA than ever before. And that debate is a necessary component of any viable process leading to long-term peace and prosperity in the Middle East and an end to the so-called war on terror.
The January/February 2004 issue of the Jewish Press of Greater Des Moines carried an article by Mark Finkelstein titled “Ames Congregants Meet with the Jewish Community Relations Commission on Film Series.” Finkelstein noted that three past presidents of the JCRC were among the commission’s representatives who met with the Ames group to discuss Palestine Unabridged. He then named the organizations that sponsored the film and discussion series and re-capped, from a distinctly Zionist perspective, the film series opponents’ unsuccessful arguments and sought to explain their failure. “The chief challenge,” wrote Finkelstein, “has been the defense of the film series by those claiming the right to freedom of speech.” Indeed.