I was originally outraged to hear that Marcel Khalife’s concert at the Joan Kroc Theater was cancelled by the Salvation Army, which owns the facility. But I decided to call the venue administrators to hear their side of what happened. I’m glad I did because hearing the other side was instructive regarding the deep mistrust that has developed between Arab-Americans and the rest of American society.
I spoke with Capt. John VanCleef who told me that when first approached, an individual was to rent their hall for the Khalife concert. But in the course of time this changed and a group named Al Awda took the place of the individual as sponsor. The Salvation Army would have had no problem with an individual renting the hall for this concert. Nor would it have had a problem with most Arab organizations renting the hall. But as part of the vetting process, the Theater asked Al Awda to present information about its mission. After reading this information, the Army decided it could not allow this group to rent their facility:
Al-Awda unequivocally supports the fundamental, inalienable, individual and collective rights of all Palestinian refugees to return to their original towns, villages and lands anywhere in Palestine from which they were expelled…All Palestinians are entitled to the rights to self-determination, to political, economic and civil equality, and to live in a single democratic state for all its citizens in all of Palestine.
I want to pause here to say that while I do not agree with Al Awda’s one state solution and its demand to full implementation of the Right of Return of Palestinian refugees, I would not have refused them the right to rent the hall. However, given that I am not the Salvation Army and they have larger community issues to consider, I can understand why they chose not to go forward with the concert.
Because of Al Awda’s perceived sectarian agenda, the Army felt it could not open its hall to the group. I asked VanCleef whether an interfaith Jewish-Arab group working for peace between Israelis and Arabs would have been allowed to rent the hall. He said Yes.
Capt. VanCleef also made clear that Al Awda had not yet signed a contract so there was no legal breach. But one thing that distressed me was when I asked him whether he returned to the original individual and told him he could rent the hall without the concert having any affiliation with Al Awda. The Army did not give this man the opportunity to do this. I think that is unfortunate.
The Salvation Army director also told me his staff helped Al Awda find another community venue in which to hold the concert.
I have to say that before I spoke with the Captain I was prepared to be all over him about this incident. After I spoke to him, while I disagreed with a few things he said, I didn’t feel that the Army was nearly as in the wrong as they’ve been made out to be.
But one thing this incident does point out is how poisoned the well is for interfaith-interethnic dialogue about the Middle East conflict in this country. If you read the statement I quoted yesterday from Khalife’s management you can hear the hurt. You can hear the sense of grievance against the Army’s decision. And listening to the Army’s representative today I could hear his real attempt to grapple with the issues knowing whatever decision he made he would hurt someone’s feelings. Thanks to 9/11 and George Bush’s response to it religious tolerance and dialogue has been set back a decade at least.
Finally, I have to apologize to the Army for the way I characterized this incident in my two earlier posts. I still don’t believe they did everything they might have to make this work out for the best, but I think they came damn close and deserve a good deal of credit for that.