Butt out

I’m always leery when Jewish groups ride in from out of town to try to save us from the bad guys. We have plenty of sharp-eyed Jewish defense groups locally who can tussle on our behalf. It’s just a bit condescending to think we rubes, out in America’s second-largest Jewish city, don’t know how and when to fight. Or whom.

For the past couple of weeks, the Boston-based pro-Israel media watchdog group CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) has been riling up rabbis, congregants and any Jew with an e-mail address to pressure the All-Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena to cancel the appearance of a prominent Palestinian activist, the Rev. Naim Ateek.

Ateek, an Israeli Arab who lives in Jerusalem, is scheduled to speak at the liberal church Feb. 15-16. As founder of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center and its sister organization in the United States, Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), Ateek has championed the cause of nonviolent resistance to Israel in the West Bank. His writings are numerous and explicit: Ateek wants an end to occupation according to U.N. Resolution 242, and reconciliation between Israel and a Palestinian state.

“We want Israel to live in peace and security within its pre-1967 borders,” he said in a sermon at Boston’s Old South Church last year. “At the same time we want justice for the Palestinians in accordance with international law and the creation of a Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside the state of Israel. There is no other way.”

CAMERA and other Jewish organizations vehemently protested Ateek’s appearance in Boston and elsewhere. Their critique focuses less on his vision of a future settlement than on his language and methods. In his sermons and writings, Ateek uses imagery that portrays Palestinians as suffering under Israel as Jesus and the early Christians suffered — raising disturbing images of the ancient anti-Semitic canard of deicide. He has also championed comparisons of Israel to apartheid South Africa and has promoted divestment as a nonviolent tool to bring pressure upon Israel.

These are disturbing tactics and unsettling words. But, man, it sure beats Hamas. It beats Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the armed wing of Fatah by a mile. I’ll take a man who writes that the occupation is the equivalent of the stone blocking “Christ’s tomb” and that “The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily,” over a suicide bomber any day. This is an opponent you can debate, propogandize and educate.

This is the Palestinian resistance that, had it taken root in the Palestinian body politic 45 years ago instead of that cancer called Arafat, the history of that region would have been much different, much better.

So, CAMERA, I admire you, I respect your work, but butt out. Get back on your white horse and go rescue some other Jews.

Besides choosing the wrong enemy here, you risk unraveling longstanding local relationships that have taken much time and care to knit together.

“CAMERA is trying to paint All Saints as an anti-Semitic organzation that is against the State of Israel,” the Rev. Ed Bacon, leader of All Saints, told me. “That is far from the truth. What we are trying to do is teach people to be sophisticated about how they talk about these issues. I’m not sympathetic with Sabeel to the exclusion of the right of the state of Israel to exist.”

Bacon and the local Episcopal diocese, which also supports Ateek’s efforts, have been more than open to the entreaties of the local Jewish community. In late 2004, responding to concerns of local Jewish leaders and its own wisdom, the diocese voted to bypass a resolution put forward by activists to divest church funds from companies doing business with Israel.

Los Angeles Episcopal Bishop Jon Bruno has been to Israel nine times. A former beat cop and pro-football player, he doesn’t need to be schooled by Jewish activists on Israeli geography or the importance of security. And it was Bruno who, in April 2005, stepped in and helped the Silver Lake Jewish Community Center buy its $2.1 million property when every Jewish organization said no.

But what about balance? If Ateek is allowed to criticize Israel, shouldn’t pro-Israel activists demand equal time? (Never mind that many of the most damning things Ateek often says are direct quotes from Israeli soldiers, politicians and journalists, who just haven’t learned to be as uniform in their opinions as American Jews).

Ideally, yes, there would be debate and rebuttal. But in the real world grownups hear strong opinions all the time and judge them against past and future information. That’s why most Jewish groups don’t invite Palestinians to their lectures.

Still, the Rev. Bacon has invited pro-Israel activist Daniel Sokatch of the Progressive Jewish Alliance to address his congregation this Sunday.

“The message the liberal churches get from the Jewish community on Israel is, ‘You’re either with us or against us,'” Sokatch said to me by phone. “I think there’s a third way. But we have become hypersensitive on our side.”

Now, there’s awful evidence that the Palestinian state Ateek is fighting for will be anything but hospitable to Palestinian Christians. Last October, Rami Khader Ayyad, the 32-year-old director of Gaza’s only Christian bookstore, was shot in the head and stabbed numerous times by Islamic fundamentalists. A month earlier, a masked attacker beat an 80- year-old Christian Palestinian woman in Gaza, calling her an “infidel.” Since the Palestinian Authority took over control of Bethlehem, Christians have emigrated en masse.

But that’s Ateek’s problem. If he believes in the power of nonviolence to win over a Palestinian population educated for generations in hatred and intolerance, good luck to him.

Meanwhile, I, for one, want to hear what the man has to say. I believe Israel is strong enough to withstand the rhetoric of a 70-year-old cleric dedicated to nonviolent coexistence.

If it’s not, even CAMERA can’t save us.