New Mexico church pulled offer to host Palestine conference due to pro-Israel group’s “interfaith bullying”

On Friday, I wrote about the bullying and smear tactics of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico and its director Sam Sokolove, against the upcoming Friends of Sabeel-North America conference in Albuquerque on September 28-29 – tactics that I had experienced personally before a previous visit to New Mexico two years ago.

Rev. Donald Wagner, the National Program Director of Friends of Sabeel-North America (FOSNA), has spoken out calling for an end to the “interfaith bullying” by pro-Israel groups, a matter, Wagner says “that has flown under the radar for too long.”

In an op-ed in the Albuquerque Journal, Wagner exposes more of the pressure tactics and smears that Sokolove and his group had used to try sabotage the conference at which Naim Ateek, Nadia Hijab Miko Peled and I will be among the speakers.

That pressure resulted in the church that initially agreed to host the conference withdrawing its offer. The conference did find an alternative venue. Friends of Sabeel-North America, Wagner writes, “calls for a cessation of the bullying that only brings division and denigration of persons.”

With Wagner’s permission, I am including his whole op-ed below – it is well-worth reading – and I urge everyone in the Albuquerque area who can to show support by attending the conference next weekend. All the details are at the conference website: “Justice: The Path to Peace in Palestine/Israel.”

FOSNA Encourages Peace, Cooperation Between Faiths

By the Rev. Donald Wagner National Program Director, Friends of Sabeel-North America

Albuquerque Journal, Fri, Sep 21, 2012

The violent responses to the film “Innocence of Muslims” remind us that religious passions can be triggered by hate speech and provoke violent reactions. We have also seen offensive cartoons, inflammatory rhetoric and provocative actions cause similar reactions. The threat to burn the Quran in Florida and the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s claim that “Muhammad was a terrorist” are among the parallel incidents. It seems that hate speech and attacks on religions will continue, but how can we limit or stop their occurrence?

In recent weeks, Albuquerque has been a focus of interfaith bullying, a matter that has flown under the radar for too long. It’s time to bring these issues into the light in order to stop them and limit their potential damage to the community. The problems started in the spring of 2012 when Friends of Sabeel-North America announced it would hold a conference in Albuquerque on Sept. 28-29. FOSNA is the U.S. and Canadian support organization for Sabeel Jerusalem, the voice of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land. FOSNA has conducted conferences in major cities across the United States during the past 10 years.

Sadly, the proposed Albuquerque conference was denounced by the Jewish Federation of Albuquerque and one local rabbi in particular who spread false rumors that Sabeel was an anti-Semitic movement that advocated the destruction of Israel. Church officials were asked not to endorse the conference, lest they offend Jewish sensibilities. Curiously, several on the Albuquerque FOSNA committee are Jewish.

When the New Mexico Conference of Churches got a request to be a co-sponsor of the conference, the federation stepped up its pressure and the conference board voted to reject the request. A local rabbi contacted the Episcopal cathedral that had agreed to host the conference. The same bullying tactics were applied and the offer to host was rescinded.

Some clergy have come under similar pressure, including Monsignor Richard Olona, a respected Roman Catholic priest with a long history of interfaith relations in Albuquerque. In Olona’s case, he was familiar with Sabeel’s theological and moral positions, including its commitment to nonviolence, justice and peace for Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land, and an end to Israel’s occupation.

Olona understood the importance of an open discussion of the issues in the Holy Land and was also concerned that with Palestinian Christians suffering extensively in Jerusalem and the Israeli-occupied territories, the churches should be more aware of these issues. He was not bullied by the federation’s rhetoric and upheld the need for free speech and the conference going forward. He described for me the multiple phone calls he received.

FOSNA calls for a cessation of the bullying that only brings division and denigration of persons. We offer an open debate on these emotionally charged but vitally important issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We invite the people of Albuquerque to come and hear speakers that include Jewish Israelis, Palestinian Christians and Muslims.

We are grateful for the support of a growing list of Jews and rabbis who embrace such a learning environment. The Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinic Council issued a letter of support for the Albuquerque conference, stating: “As rabbis and people of faith, we stand in solidarity with the work of Sabeel. Canon Naim Ateek sees us as equal theological partners in the land we both love. We encourage the Jewish community to engage the Palestinian Christian faith community with an open heart and mind in order to encounter another version of faithfulness.”

We encourage the Albuquerque community to come and hear the speakers address these important issues and we encourage the faith communities of Albuquerque to work toward transcending bullying tactics which should not be allowed. Instead, let us work to transform difficult conversations and potentially divisive issues into vehicles that honor free speech.

Let’s stop the bullying now - everywhere.

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Comments

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The Jewish Federation of New Mexico may have just shot themselves in the foot. It's conceivable that thousand of people who'd never heard of FOSNA before have now. Not all publicity is good publicity, but this has the potential to be the best advertising campaign FOSNA could have hoped for!

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It might be seen that way by some. But bullying designed to bring about an end to a brutal military occupation is quite different in its moral character from bullying designed to prevent an interfaith dialogue promoting peace and justice.

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but if there are those who consider organized political violence by Arabs from 1920 on with refusal to engage in negotiations for decades while not accepting any compromise to be bullying, what then?

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Organised political violence is war or terrorism, depending on the nature of the target. Bullying is the use of strength or influence to intimidate or harm whose who are weaker (OED). The article we are discussing describes an excellent example.

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Ah, yes, "Yisrael Medad," you seem to be a follower of the school of "Admit Nothing; Deny Everything; Hurl Counter-Accusations." Perhaps a different approach -- something having to do with substance, for example -- would be more effective. Ali Abunimah and the Reverend Donald Wagner are peace-seeking international treasures. More's the pity that you can't recognize that.

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Dear Mr Aluminah,

If again this year, as last year in Alberquque you include in your addrress reference to the PNA leadership en mass in derogatory terms and without exception could you kindly consider expanding upon the reasons that brought you to this position. Whilst the rest of your adddress was meticuously documented this particular point was asked to be accepted as a given indisputable fact. BDS is presumably formatted to address all facets of the Palestinian community and garner its support. I cannot imagine Fatah supporters in any way garnered or are you so confident that the guiless can be contetentdly ignored.

No to worry- Finkestein is also prone to casual language on this matter, stating that the PNA were a bunch of currupt clowns but again sunbitting no evidence. The popular grapevine is one thing, corruption, nepotism, fancy villas, a wave of an armless hand to refugees and a 'maqata' built like a moatless (but not grassless) castle to keep the people out.

But BDS is not a community grapevine or gossip column and should take on all aspects. You were honest enough to state that Palestinians have also committed despicable acts. That given BDS greater success Israel will not be the Israel we know now so why not put to your audience the future of the PNA in a similar reasoned context? Beyond that your work is greatly appreciated,

Christine N.Lane

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My advice to the officials in the church of Albuquerque who rescinded on holding the Sabeel conference in their church is to refer to their Bible, Micah 6:8 that tells them "what the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness" and I would add to refuse to succumb to the bullying and do what Jesus would expect them to do. What Jesus would expect them to do is endorse the moral positions, support those who commit themselves to nonviolence, justice and peace for all, which is the position that Sabeel stands for.

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.