Rachel Tabachnick, until last month, reported on Christian Zionism twice a month as a contributor to Zeek, the Forward’s companion site. This week, she brought me the troubling news that Zeek’s editor, Jo Ellen Kaiser had forbidden her from writing on this subject or on John Hagee. This happened in the aftermath of legal threats made by Ari Morgenstern, Hagee’s chief Jewish PR flack to Sam Norich, the Forward’s publisher.
I discovered that other writers have received either resigned or faced similar cease and desist orders from Kaiser. Joel Schalit, Zeek’s online editor, who engaged many of these writers originally to write for the publication, announced his resignation due to editorial and philosophical disagreements with its direction. Originally, he was supposed to have left in July (and part, though not all of his reason for leaving involved editorial disagreement). But due to the fracas involving Tabachnick, he resigned on May 22nd.
Originally, Schalit and Kaiser came to Zeek from Tikkun Magazine. They left their jobs as editors there after a similar argument with Michael Lerner. He didn’t want Tikkun to turn into a publication that over-emphasized coverage of the Israel. He wanted to publish on subjects less confrontational, less divisive. He wanted more Diaspora, less Israel. Kaiser and Schalit left over precisely this argument. Yet here Kaiser makes almost the same choice herself, instead of Lerner. She mistakenly sees Christian Zionism and Hagee as essentially an Israel related story and not a Diaspora story. That’s what to her makes it tangential, rather than essential.
I disagree. John Hagee is one of the big stories not just for Jews concerned about Israel, but for all Jews. His manipulations and fraudulent representations of Christian Zionist theology, his support for a radical right wing agenda not just in Israel but in the U.S. should make every Jew sit up and take notice.
Returning to Tabachnick’s work, Zeek double and triple-checked the material Tabachnick had written over the past year and couldn’t find a single error. Despite this, Kaiser determined that discretion was the better part of valor and decided that protecting Zeek from legal jeopardy was more important than standing by her writer.
The Forward’s publisher, Sam Norich, fielded complaints he received about Tabachnick’s writing from Ari Morgenstern. I do not know what role, if any, Norich played in decisions made about Tabachnick. I should add that I made repeated attempts to interview both Norich and Kaiser for this story. I even e-mailed Kaiser a series of questions which she said she would answer. Later, she said she was having second thoughts. I sent e-mails and left a voice mail message for Norich and his sole response was to publish a comment, about which I wrote this post.
I do not know whether Kaiser put Tabachnick on hiatus solely to protect Zeek from the threat of a lawsuit from Hagee’s goons; or she was concerned about jeopardizing Zeek’s relationship with The Forward as well (Zeek shares The Forward’s web server); or this was part of her editorial pruning of Israel-related material and authors from the publication. Most importantly, I do not know whether threat of lawsuits had anything to do with The Forward’s agreeing to publish Hagee’s piece. At the very least, even if the timing of these matters is purely coincidence it does not look good.
While Alan Dershowitz boasts that he invented the term lawfare to describe the use of legal fora by Israel’s enemies to battle against it (this Wikipedia article disputes his claim and notes it originated seven years before he says he coined it), he makes no mention of a similar strategy among the pro-Israel right. Besides the Hagee-Morgenstern threats, the Israeli rightist Im Tirtzu, recipient of $200,000 in CUFI funding, regularly threatens legal action against those who criticize it. In fact, when Didi Remez created the Facebook group, Im Tirztu–Fascist Movement (what else is new?), to mock the group. Ronen Shoval immediately threatened Didi, who responded with a three page letter from his attorney, Michael Sfard, explaining why Shoval had not a snowball’s chance in hell of an apology. That’s the posture Jo Ellen Kaiser should adopt: “Serve a paper and sue me, sue me, what can you do me?”
Further troubling, is that Rachel Tabachnick and her partner in Talk2Action, Bruce Wilson, published several comments in the Hagee online thread which consisted of quotations from the pastor which rebutted the claims in his article. Those comments disappeared from the site (those quotations can now be read here along with amplified archival material attesting to Hagee’s views) . Now, when you visit the Hagee article you cannot publish any comments. This makes it appear to be an editorial retreat not just by Zeek, but by the Forward itself.
So why would Ari Morgenstern and John Hagee be burned up by Rachel Tabachnick’s attacks in the pages of Zeek? Clearly, even if there was no specific quid pro quo between Hagee and the Forward that resulted in his work being printed there, Hagee’s in the middle of a charm offensive in the Jewish community. He’s seeking to purify his soul of past sins against Jews unfortunately by lying his way out of them.
Many Jewish journalists (Sarah Posner, Max Blumenthal, etc.) are writing about Hagee and attacking his views, but few, if any are published in Jewish publications. Zeek is the exception. Until now, with the megaphone offered by The Forward’s website, Zeek offered some of the most damaging material exposing the seamy underbelly of Hagee’s anti-Jewish theology. This proved especially nettlesome to Hagee and his court Jews, Morgenstern and CUFI director David Brog. That’s why they undertook to silence her.
I note too that both Andrew Sullivan and the Washington Post Faith blog published letters from Morgenstern rebutting attacks on Hagee. I wonder if Morgenstern took them to the woodshed as he did Sam Norich? What, if anything, were the nature of those conversations? Did they too involve legal threats? I do know for a fact that Hagee’s lawyers wrote threatening letters to Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak’s Jews on First, a group that combats Christian fundamentalism.
Unfortunately, Zeek’s editor Kaiser determined that fighting a war against CUFI would deter Zeek from issues more central to its mission. She determined that exposing Christian Zionism was tangential and not worth the fight. To this I say, if you want to have a relevant progressive Jewish publication how can you NOT take up this cause? If you want to brand yourself as a crusading enterprise with a distinct message, what better way to do this than by saying to Ari Morgenstern in the words of his beloved president: “bring it on?”
Personally, I think that Zeek has missed a sterling opportunity. It would’ve found allies in this fight it didn’t know it had. It would’ve gain readers, gained traction, gained credibility. Not that it doesn’t have those things now. But it would’ve had them in spades if it had addressed these issues differently. Now, all it has is a reputation for flinching in the face of the assault by right-wing Christian Zionist bullies and their Jewish enablers.
Apparently, Hagee isn’t the only force in the right-wing community from whom Zeek is flinching. After being told to stop writing about Christian Zionism, Tabachnick wrote a story criticizing Phyllis Chesler for the role she played in supporting an effort by evangelicals to kidnap a Muslim child who came under sway of Christian missionaries. After reading the story, Kaiser was none too happy with her author and approached Chesler for a rebuttal. The rebuttal strangely did not rebut any factual statement in the original story. It did not find any errors, in fact it wasn’t substantive at all.
As a result of Kaiser’s flight toward the bunker (Phil Weiss’ description of The Forward’s behavior) Chesler’s allies in the far right Jewish world smelled blood in the water. Hit pieces on Tabachnick were published by Frontpagemagazine and American Spectator. Which goes to show that when you retreat in the face of such an onslaught it only emboldens the political bullies.
Another word on Hagee’s alternate charm-threat offensive in the Jewish community. Besides legal threats, he uses honey (or cash as the case may be) with those in the community prone to accept such blandishments. I’ve already covered the $500,000 gift from Hagee to Elie Wiesel’s foundation (the latter wiped out by an overly trusting reliance on Bernie Madoff’s financial acumen), which likely played some role in Wiesel accepting an invitation to keynote CUFI’s national convention this year.
The organization hosts Nights to Honor Israel along with co-sponsoring local Jewish federations, which receive individual gifts generally in the $100,000 range for their troubles. In an age when Jewish philanthropy toward Israel is receding, federation campaigns are looking everywhere they can for replacement funding. CUFI presents an exceptionally attractive alternative. But it should be noted that these gifts do not support local federation philanthropy. Instead, they go into the coffers of the Jewish Agency or individual CUFI donees (often settlement-oriented), which is the midst of a shakeup that involves absorbing evangelical forces into leadership roles (essentially a slow motion takeover). In this project, the evangelicals work hand in glove with handsomely compensated Jewish leaders like Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. The $58-million CUFI has given to Israel projects (many of them far-right settler oriented as I’ve documented here) over the past few years is another bone thrown to Israel and Diaspora Jewry to lull it into complacency.
But as Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote so presciently in The Forward last year, American Jews and their federations should not be tricked by such tempting offers. Do not think there is no price to paid, no quid pro quo. Hagee is not doing this out of the goodness of his heart. He’s not even doing out of the goodness of his heart toward Israel, as he claims. He, like every other powerful figure, has his own agenda. That agenda includes conversion of the Jews in order to bring the End Times and Jesus’ return. Missionaries like Hagee are no longer the hit ’em on the head types who use heavy-handed tactics that are transparent to the naked eye. They’ve become far more sophisticated in their methods. They do outreach. They seek allies. They work their way into communities and even nations, like Israel. They do good. They keep the more objectionable aspects of their agenda under wraps. They wait patiently for their opportunity.
Now, Hagee-allied groups are ensconced in Israel and doing missionary work to Jews and Muslims. They don’t do this under Hagee’s official banner. He’s a bit too sophisticated for that. They work under Maoz Israel Ministries, which Hagee and two of his fellow CUFI ministers have publicly endorsed.
That’s why I simply don’t understand why Zeek has allowed itself to be cowed by Hagee. Nor do I understand why The Forward has given its heksher in the form of coveted space on its op-ed page to Hagee’s smooth talk about Jews. This is definitely not their finest hour.
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