Organizations or individuals who dare challenge the pro-Israel narrative, whether in the media, academia, church or synagogue, are destined to face considerable blowback, ranging from censorship and personal attacks to outright dismissal.
The recent case of my friend, Reverend Graylan Hagler, is only the latest example, but this time those attempting to silence him supplemented the familiar interfaith bullying with a heavy dose of racism.
Hagler was invited to speak at the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School on 24 September by the Rochester, New York, chapter of my organization, Friends of Sabeel—North America.
But days before he was due to travel there he was disinvited.
Hagler told Mondoweiss this week that pro-Israel groups pressured the divinity school to cancel his engagement. The veteran of the civil rights struggle also said he received death threats by phone and email.
He said some of those making the threats identified themselves as members of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the Christian Zionist organization founded by Pastor John Hagee. Hagler, senior minister at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, DC, traveled to the occupied West Bank in January 2014 as a member of an African American delegation. He witnessed first-hand the kinds of abuses Palestinians face under Israeli occupation.
He has compared them to what African Americans experienced in the days of Jim Crow.
In the case of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, we should not blame them for canceling the lecture; they were simply providing a room and there was a misunderstanding over security. But there would never have been an issue without pressure from pro-Israel groups, and security would not have been a concern without the threats that Reverend Hagler reported receiving.
That clearly had an impact. In justifying the cancelation, the school’s president, Marvin McMickle, admonished the organizers for not “vetting” Hagler sufficiently, and even cited the proximity of the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur for not going ahead with the event.
Whenever the Christian organization I work for arranges a conference or lecture, we anticipate threats and various forms of pressure from the pro-Israel Jewish establishment and certain pro-Israel Christian groups.
Three years ago, Friends of Sabeel—North America held a conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
But our venue had to be moved from the city’s Episcopal Cathedral after the local Jewish Federation met with church leaders and told them there would be violence in their sanctuary, and that our organization is an anti-Semitic hate group.
Rabbis from the Federation proceeded to harass several speakers, including a local Roman Catholic priest, who were simply coming to open the conference with prayer.
The conference was hosted at a Presbyterian church instead. The priest held his ground and offered his prayer, and I wrote an article in a local newspaper urging an end to what I called interfaith bullying.
The conference was remarkable: registrations tripled and the host pastor was thrilled. There was not a single act of violence or any verbal insults.
And this summer, Mubarak Awad, the well-known Palestinian nonviolence advocate, was disinvited from a conference at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, titled “Seeking Peace in the Holy Land.”
His exclusion, under pressure from the local Jewish Federation, meant that the only Palestinian speaker scheduled to be on the formal program was removed. Today in Rochester, we see a similar pattern, with the Jewish Federation, the local pro-Israel group Roc4Israel and CUFI combining efforts to silence and smear Reverend Hagler before he even had a chance to be heard by the community.
Patti Munter, a co-founder of Roc4Israel, took pride in the pressure her group and others brought to cancel the event, as she told The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle: “We were instrumental to what happened.”
Raising the stakes
The fact that Hagler is both an outspoken Black pastor and longtime advocate for justice in Palestine led him to title his lecture “Connecting the Dots: From Ferguson to Palestine.”
In so doing, he made a conscious link between the struggles for dignity and justice in Palestine and here in the United States. This is a connection the organized pro-Israel community would prefer to keep out of the public discourse.
Hagler has raised the stakes. And while not the first to do so, his decades of experience in the struggle for civil rights, his work to end apartheid in South Africa and his prophetic courage to speak truth to power made his presence not only uncomfortable for some, but something to be blocked altogether.
It runs against the efforts of pro-Israel groups to portray Israel as a democratic island in a sea of barbarity if people learn about what Israel is really doing to Palestinians and to refugees from African states seeking asylum.
It defies the efforts to whitewash Israel’s image if Americans begin to see the role Israel plays in equipping, advising and training urban police forces all over the United States, including in St. Louis, Missouri.
How ironic that some of the Jewish organizations said they were offended that Hagler would be addressing these issues during the Jewish high holy days.
When Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, learned about the attempt to silence Reverend Hagler, she told me, “this is what we Jews need to be doing, applying our love of God and neighbor to these difficult situations, like the race question in this country.”
Gottlieb noted the role that major communal organizations including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs play in sponsoring all-expenses-paid trips for hundreds of top US police officials to Israel. The visitors are often shown Israel’s apparatus of occupation and oppression in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, and told it is the right model to apply back home in the US.
Israel, along with other repressive, US-allied governments, has also touted its wares at Urban Shield, an annual police trade show strongly protested by activists seeking an end to police brutality and militarization.
“To ignore this information or claim that it is anti-Semitic mocks the values of traditional Jewish life and ignores the direct connection between US and Israeli militarization policies,” Gottlieb said. “Jews and the rest of us need this information to understand how to combat racism at home and abroad.”
In this context, Gottlieb sees it as another sign of racism that Hagler, a prominent African American, was disinvited.
Despite the disinvitation, Hagler did go to Rochester and spoke at an alternative venue — the Historic German House — where he received a warm welcome. But this was only after the fierce campaign to discredit him.
Still, let this be a beginning to the difficult process of justice and eventual truth and reconciliation. As our South African friends experienced this process, there is no reconciliation without truth and justice, and even then the road remains hard and uncertain.
The prophet Isaiah, in chapter 58, reminds those honoring Yom Kippur and the rest of us, that the fast and repentance God demands of us is “to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free.”
May we be faithful to this difficult and rewarding path, even when it makes us uncomfortable.
Donald Wagner is national program director of Friends of Sabeel—North America.