Last week, a local progressive Jewish congregation, Kadima, hosted a Shabbat talk by Canon Naim Ateek, the Christian anti-Occupation activist from Jerusalem. Ateek, supporter of a 2-state solution and advocate of non-violence has been demonized by the right-wing pro-Israel lobby for years as being “worse than Hamas.” They see him as a special danger because he represents (this is their view, not mine) a reasonable, moderate and fraudulent face for the Palestinian movement.
CAMERA was the first group that made a career out of smearing Ateek, accusing him of being anti-Israel, anti-Semitic and calling Israel “Christ-killers.” But if CAMERA’s mouthpiece, Dexter Van Zile, can be believed (and this is by no means a given), he’s gone on to hunt bigger fish and has little interest in Ateek anymore. But it is instructive how Van Zile boasts of his abilities regarding mounting the smear campaigns for which CAMERA is notorious:
Naim Ateek has kind of fallen off of my radar to a certain extent, largely because people have figured out how to respond to them and it’s no longer necessary for me to teach them how to sing. They know the song by now and don’t need me to lead them.
The local Jewish federation sent a letter to Kadima decrying its decision to host Ateek before a Jewish audience. The letter, such as I’ve been able to discern, contains the usual lies, distortions and half-truths about Ateek. It’s quite shameful that any Jewish federation would stoop to such character assassination. Among those who signed the letter are federation president Richard Fruchter, Rabbi Daniel Weiner, and Rob Jacobs, director of Stand With Us. There may be other signatories, but the problem is that neither the federation nor Kadima has been willing to allow the public to see it. Kadima’s choice is this matter is entirely baffling. Most other groups would want to defend themselves vigorously and publicly. Releasing the letter, one would think, would be a key part of a public relations/defense strategy. Yet Kadima seems to feel maintaining a low profile is the best policy. Frankly, I find the decision profoundly disappointing.
So far, JTNews is the only source which has been willing to divulge even snippets of the contents. Here is what Joel Magalnick quoted:
“Ateek does not present the facts of the Arab/Israeli conflict in a balanced or even-handed manner, nor does he promote peace and justice. His writings and speeches are filled with factual errors, misrepresentations, material omissions and distortions, and he portrays Jews and Israelis in the harshest light possible.
“To be clear, we are not arguing your own stance on Israel’s policies. We are writing because we believe that hosting this ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ goes too far.”
While the Federation said in a statement to JTNews that “We maintain our support for the core principles that our local Jewish community holds,” Ateek “stereotypes Jews and Israelis as inherently immoral, racist, violent and conspiratorial” and his appearance at a Jewish organization lends him credibility.
A Kadima letter to its community also quoted a further phrase from the letter:
The position expressed in this letter is that Ateek’s attitudes toward Israel are so objectionable that dialogue with him is only a “pretext of ‘bridge building’” and “does a disservice to members of your own organization and the community supporting Israel.”
A conversation I had with a confidential source confirmed that though the federation was the titular leader of the effort behind the letter, the primary moving force behind it lay elsehwere. Since the federation’s Israel Programming Committee acted on behalf of federation in this controversy and that Committee has an exceedingly chummy relationship with Stand With Us, I assumed that its two leaders, David Brummer and Rob Jacobs played instrumental roles behind the scenes.
Jacobs denies his and Brummer’s involvement except as a signatory. Given their past history of lying about the substance of the I-97 divestment initiative and my own political beliefs, the former’s word is not exactly credible.
But I must be forthright in noting that Magalnick’s story lays much of the blame for the letter at the footstep of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a leading Israel lobby group, one of whose main missions is to haunt the Christian divestment movement. It appears that this is what motivated JCPA to shadow Ateek’s tour and lobby local Jewish communities to inveigh against him:
…The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a national organization that in part advises Jewish organizations in promoting the…security of Israel, sent notification to communities Ateek visited with information about Sabeel and Ateek’s writings. The JCPA noted Sabeel’s work in promoting divestment campaigns as a tool for pressuring the Israeli government to end its occupation…
Background materials attacking Ateek and possibly wording of the letter itself came directly from JCPA. So while Stand With Us is an enthusiastic endorser of this smear and participates actively in the federation committee that proposed the letter, it may be that JCPA played a more instrumental role than SWU. It should be noted that this does not let SWU off the hook for reasons I’ve noted above.
Returning to the contents of the letter, it is rather extraordinary and chutzpadik to claim that Ateek is not “balanced or even-handed” in discussing the Occupation. I’d challenge Jacobs and the other signatories to affirm that Israel is balanced and even-handed in its portrayal of its own role in perpetrating the suffering of the Occupation. Was Israel balanced and even-handed when defense minister Ehud Barak and others portrayed its army as the “most moral in the world” after it killed 1,400 Gazans (1,100 civilians) during the January war? Though I concede that Ateek is a partisan, he is no more partisan than Mark Regev, Maj. Avital Leibovich or any other Israeli spokesperson. In fact, I’d contend that he is less partisan and much closer to the truth than they are.
The claim that Ateek does not “promote peace and justice” too is laughable. Peace and justice for whom? For Israeli settlers? For IDF soldiers who committed possible war crimes during the Gaza war using white phosphorus in confined urban spaces, thus burning to death numerous civilians? It’s SWU, CAMERA and JCPA’s job to promote these lost causes, not Ateek’s.
It is Ateek’s job to promote peace and justice for his own people, the Palestinians. And that is what he does. But he does even more. He presents cogently and persuasively a brief arguing that a two state solution is in Israel’s best interests too. Many (though not all) of Ateek’s views on how to resolve the conflict are even in line with the those of the majority of American Jews (though certainly not with SWU and the others). I would argue that Ateek promotes peace and justice for both sides more honestly than Rob Jacobs or Dexter Van Zile.
The letter claims the Christian cleric “portrays Israelis and Jews in the harshest possible light.” Again, more distortions. First, Ateek has no brief with Jews or Judaism at all except as a motivating force behind the settler ideology. So to claim he presents all Jews in a harsh light is entirely bogus. As for Israelis, yes, he presents those supporting the Occupation in a harsh light. But so do many Israelis themselves. So if SWU and JCPA wish to condemn Ateek for this then they better condemn hundreds of thousands of Israelis who excoriate their government’s murderous policies toward the Palestinians.
The claim that the Palestinian liberation theology advocate “stereotypes Jews and Israelis as inherently immoral, racist, violent and conspiratorial,” is similarly baseless, empty rhetoric. He says the OCCUPATION is inherently immoral, racist, and violent.” And it is. The forces of Israeli society who perpetrate the Occupation are engaged in immoral, racist acts. That includes the IDF, intelligence agencies and Israeli government. But it does not include all Jews or all Israelis and Ateek never makes such a claim.
In this letter and virtually all pro-Israel right-wing propaganda there is a fundamental confusion about criticism of Israeli policy. Hasbaraniks like Jacobs, Van Zile and JCPA confuse criticism of policy with criticism of Jews (the bogus anti-Semitism charge) and of Israel itself. They are not the same. And the unwillingness to distinguish between the two highlight the fundamental fraudulence of their position.