On 10 and 11 June, dozens of participants gathered at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, for a conference titled “Seeking Peace in the Holy Land.”
Among the speakers were staunch supporters of Israel, including former US ambassador in Tel Aviv Daniel Kurtzer, Lara Friedman of the liberal Zionist group Americans for Peace Now and Warren Clark, director of Churches for Middle East Peace.
Columbus Conservative Rabbi Harold Berman also spoke. The program explained that his son Adam “currently serves in the Israel Defense Forces at the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza.”
Another speaker, Rabbi Steve Gutow, is president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a pro-Israel advocacy group.
But there was not one single Palestinian on the program. That wasn’t supposed to be the case. Just days earlier, Mubarak Awad, the Palestinian founder of Nonviolence International, was disinvited as keynote speaker after pressure on organizers from the Jewish Federation of Columbus.
Awad would have been a good person to educate those gathered at the Christian college. It was precisely because of his advocacy and practice of nonviolence that the Jerusalem native was infamously forcibly exiled from Palestine by Israeli occupation forces in 1988, during the first intifada.
Following his exclusion from the program, Awad decided to put into practice the principles he advocates.
“I was invited to the conference and then they disinvited me,” Awad told The Electronic Intifada. “I refused to accept it because it has happened to Palestinians many times. I told them I am coming and I am going to protest this insult to me and my people.”
Awad said that he traveled from Washington, DC, to Columbus despite his disinvitation and there he found many “Arabs, Muslims and Jewish supporters as well as Christians from the different churches” who were outraged by what had happened.
At the Nonviolence International website, Awad announced that he would put tape over his mouth to protest the conference if he was not allowed to speak. He also planned to hand out a leaflet which exposed his exclusion.
“This affair shows utter disrespect to Palestinians, silencing our voices at an event meant to celebrate dialogue,” the leaflet, a copy of which he provided to The Electronic Intifada, states.
The college has distanced itself from what happened. The disinvitation “was an unfortunate last-minute decision made by the leader of the event, Ward (Skip) Cornett, without consulting the administration of Trinity Lutheran Seminary,” Brad Gee, the college’s vice president for advancement, wrote in an email to The Electronic Intifada.
Cornett, liaison to the Jewish community and former director of continuing education at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, was the conference organizer.
As a result of Awad’s protest and after meetings with organizers, he was allowed to address the conference for five minutes.
But on 9 June, the day before the conference opened, Cornett had sent Awad a strongly worded email.
“I am very disappointed that you are now saying that you will protest here,” Cornett wrote. “It will be a major setback for any kind of future conversation. We will be done with conferences that talk about about peace in the Holy Land.”
“I did seriously think that we had an understanding,” Cornett added. “You indicated you would come and sit quietly, listen and report to me. That would be perfect.”
Awad, however, was not willing to sit “quietly” and watch as the stage was given over exclusively to pro-Israel voices.
Cornett’s email is jarring and condescending, but in conversation, he comes off as rather naive.
In an hour-long phone call, he talked about his perspective and motives. But the bottom line is that, knowingly or not, he allowed the Jewish Federation to veto the only Palestinian voice on the program.
Cornett said that the conference was organized in collaboration with Churches for Middle East Peace and the Jewish Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Columbus, which also gave a “small” financial contribution.
The Jewish Federation of Columbus is part of the Jewish Federations of North America, a network of pro-Israel organizations that in 2010 founded the multi-million dollar “Israel Action Network.” Its principal goal is to fight the Palestinian rights movement, especially boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).
Jewish Federation complains
Cornett said that Awad was added to the program only about ten days before the conference. He said his efforts to find a Palestinian Christian to speak had been unsuccessful up to that point.
A few people he invited were unavailable, but other Palestinians objected to the rigid framing around a “two-state solution.”
“I’ve been a big advocate for the Palestinians and I guess I’m just running into this idea that there are more and more Palestinians who aren’t really buying the two-state solution any more,” Cornett observed. But apparently this did not diminish his commitment to hold a conference that was unresponsive to those changes.
Once Awad’s participation was announced, the Jewish Federation began to complain, citing a student newspaper article on a speech he gave at Princeton University in 2002. According to the article, Awad said that Israel should not be a “Jewish state.”
Palestinians overwhelmingly reject Israel’s demand to be recognized as a “Jewish state” on the grounds that it legitimizes their expulsion and Israel’s denial of their fundamental rights.
Awad also spoke about how he watched his father being murdered and how his mother taught him and his siblings never to turn to violence in revenge.
“I did not understand some of their opposition to Mubarak Awad and I had repeated sit-down discussions with them,” Cornett said of the Jewish Federation. “I think they were fearful that he was going to say things that reflected badly on Israel.”
In the Columbus-Dispatch, Cornett described his invitation to Awad without first advising the Jewish Federation as a “major misstep.”
But when asked, he rejected the idea that he had allowed a pro-Israel organization with a clear anti-Palestinian agenda to veto which Palestinians could speak.
In our conversation, Cornett said that his goal was to try to generate some movement on Palestine within the Columbus Jewish community. He described himself as a member of J Street, the Israel lobby group that positions itself to the left of the much more powerful and established AIPAC.
Cornett described the Columbus Jewish community which he deals with as liaison as “very conservative” and as “AIPAC central.”
When a local J Street chapter was founded last year, there was a “huge fight” within the local Jewish community, Cornett said, with “right-wing critics” organizing events aimed at “demonizing and diminishing J Street.”
Even when pressed, Cornett did not seem to comprehend that putting the comfort of a pro-Israel organization before the truth of what is happening could only be seen by Palestinians like Awad as an act of anti-solidarity.
Nonetheless, Cornett insisted that the brief intervention Awad was eventually allowed to make was “wonderful” and “hopeful.”
Awad, for his part, says he “left the conference very proud of the Arab community as well as many other supporters from different religious and Jewish organizations” for supporting his right to speak.
The ecumenical deal
The Trinity Lutheran conference epitomized what theologian Marc Ellis has called the “ecumenical deal,” where Christian-Jewish “interfaith” relations and “dialogue” are structured around a quid pro quo: Jews will absolve Christians for historic anti-Semitism on condition that Christians remain silent – or at least very muted – about Israel’s crimes and violations of Palestinian rights.
This has often resulted in a dynamic where Palestinian rights are the currency in which Christian groups pay for the good favor of pro-Israel groups like the Jewish Federation that purport to represent “the Jewish community.”
The inevitable result is a conference on “Peace in the Holy Land” where there is no space left for Palestinians at all, much like on the ground in Palestine where Israeli settler-colonialism continues to gobble up what is left of the land.