Palestine Unabridged: Claiming the Right to Freedom of Speech :: Part One ::
by Michael Gillespie
(Thursday 19 February 2004)
:: Controversy Surrounding Film and Discussion Series Reveals Bias of Episcopal Church Leaders and ADL Efforts to Interfere with an Iowa Library's Public Information Mission ::
In the Fall of 2003, when the Ames Public Library (APL), the Ames Interfaith Council (AIC), the Iowa State University (ISU) Arab Student Association (ASA), and the Axiom Foundation organized, sponsored, and supported Palestine Unabridged: Films about Life within the Conflict, the leaders of the organizations anticipated their efforts would spark public debate. Indeed, a wider public discussion was one of their goals. But they never imagined their efforts would thrust them to the center of a heated and protracted public controversy ultimately involving three local newspapers, the Pulitzer-prize-winning Des Moines Register, the Pulitzer-prize-winning Tribune, and the Iowa State Daily; WOI radio personality and ISU professor of political science Steffen Schmidt; ISU professor and Newsday columnist Fern Kupfer, several religious leaders and the local ministerial association; the Iowa office of the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ), the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines, and the most powerful and influential ethnic special interest group in America, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
“I was not surprised by the nature of the controversy, but I was extremely surprised at the amount of it,” said Sana Akili, ISU lecturer, ASA faculty advisor, and AIC vice chair. “We knew, going into this, that it would generate reactions and cause a stir in the ever-so-peaceful Ames community, but I had no idea it would generate so much criticism directed at the public library and the interfaith council, and so many letters to the editors of the local newspapers,” said Akili.
The film and discussion series, which opened on September 11, 2003 and ran through December 11, 2003 featured award winning films by Palestinian, Israeli, British, and American filmmakers shown on the big screen in the APL’s 150-seat auditorium on alternate Thursday evenings with moderated discussions at two local eateries, Café Diem and Lucullan’s, in downtown Ames on the intervening Thursday evenings.
Organizers dedicated Palestine Unabridged to Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old Olympia, Washington, college student and peace and social justice advocate murdered, run over and crushed by an Israeli government operator driving a Caterpillar bulldozer in Gaza in March of 2003, while she was protecting the home of a Palestinian physician. The Corrie family has strong ties to Iowa. Rachel’s father and mother, Craig and Cindy Corrie, are Drake University alumni. Rachel’s grandmother, Doris Corrie, lives in Des Moines. Several members of the family live and work in Iowa. Three of Rachel’s aunts, the Brodersen sisters, Barbara, Cheryl, and Colette, and an uncle, Bill Pusateri, attended many of the film screenings and actively participated in some of the Palestine Unabridged discussions events.
The first sign of a controversy that was to widen and deepen over the thirteen-week course of the film festival and beyond came in early August in the form of phone calls to Ames city council members. All council members received calls from ardent Zionists in the Ames Jewish community expressing concern about the proposed film series and asking, or demanding, that the council intervene. To their credit, the council members informed the callers that the city council had a longstanding policy of non-interference in the library’s public information mission and would adhere to that policy. Ames Mayor Ted Tedesco also fielded complaints, calls, e-mail, and a letter from Murray Kaplan, president of the Ames Jewish Congregation (AJC), protesting the library’s (and by extension the city’s) sponsorship of Palestine Unabridged.
In mid-August, at a regularly scheduled APL board meeting, a delegation from the Ames Jewish community delivered to the board a letter of protest signed by some 40 people. AIC cabinet leaders also addressed the APL board and the delegation from the Ames Jewish community. Akili, in her capacity as AIC vice chair, along with this writer, who served as AIC chair in 2003, thanked the library for its long support of the AIC (the library provides AIC’s meeting space), informed those present that the AIC's cabinet had voted unanimously to support and co-sponsor the film festival with the library, and expressed the hope that the AJC would decide to take a more active role in interfaith dialog in the community by sending a representative to the AIC's monthly meetings. That hope was realized almost immediately when, in the foyer outside the library board room following the meeting, AJC president Kaplan informed AIC cabinet leaders that the AJC would in the future be sending a representative to AIC monthly cabinet meetings. Thus, as one of the AIC’s goals in supporting and co-sponsoring the film and discussion series had been to encourage the AJC’s return to the AIC’s table and active involvement in interfaith dialog after an absence of many years duration, the film and discussion series accomplished a significant objective even before it opened.
Notice of ADL involvement published
A harbinger of the turmoil to come appeared on the front page of the September 2003 issue of the Jewish Press of Greater Des Moines in an article titled “Controversy Surrounds Ames Library Sponsorship of Film Series.” The article noted that, “Concerned individuals and community organization in Ames, including the Ames Jewish Congregation, along with the Jewish Community Relations Commission, are examining the details behind the Ames Public Library's sponsorship of a seven-part Palestinian film series. The films scheduled to be shown at the library were likely selected by the Axiom Foundation of Ames, which has a markedly pro-Palestinian bent, critical of Israel. There are other co-sponsors of the series in addition to the public library. At this time it appears that the library's sponsorship of the politically partisan series goes beyond the simple use of the library's facilities.” The article concluded with notice that, “JCRC will continue working on this issue in conjunction with the Ames Jewish Congregation and the Anti-Defamation League.”
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) sought and gained a reputation as a civil rights monitoring organization in the decades after its founding in 1913 to combat anti-Semitism but became a neoconservative front organization for Israeli intelligence organizations with the increasing militancy of political Zionism following the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948. Since the settlement of a class action law suit brought by the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and over 800 groups and individual plaintiffs against the ADL during the ADL spy scandal in 1993, the ADL has operated under a permanent federal injunction that prohibits its obtaining confidential government documents illegally, engaging in espionage against Arab-American organizations, and interfering in the activities of legitimate civil rights groups and other community organizations. The permanent injunction barring the ADL from further political espionage activities against Arab Americans and individuals and groups involved in pro-Palestinian advocacy and anti-apartheid activities was issued in September 1999 by then-U.S. District Court Judge Richard Paez, who now sits on the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The injunction was part of a settlement that included the court-ordered payment by the ADL of $175,000 for the plaintiffs' legal fees and a $25,000 payment to a community relations fund.
ADL leaders were forced to settle the suit on disadvantageous terms because their organization had been caught red-handed by the FBI and the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and exposed in the press as a front organization for Israeli and apartheid-era South African intelligence agencies’ illegal operations in the USA. There can be little doubt that federal authorities were troubled to learn that ADL leaders were deeply involved in political espionage in the USA, had connections to political assassinations here in the USA and abroad, and had many police department and sheriff’s department intelligence officers across the USA, as well as federal agents and organized crime figures, on secret, off-the-books ADL payrolls. Rabbi Michael Lerner’s Tikkun magazine reported on the scandal in July 1993 under the headline, “ADLgate: Anti Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.” Dennis King and Chip Berlet authored the remarkable 7,350-word Tikkun article about the ADL, its history, and its internal politics.
“Much ADL fact-finding is legal, and the organization has produced substantial reports on neo-Nazi organizing and other hate-group activity in recent years. Yet the fact that the ADL would become involved with a public/private spying ring that tracked liberals as ‘pinkos’ is a symptom of a much deeper problem which can be discerned in the organization’s recent political activities. The ADL, once the nonpartisan defender of victims of hate, has itself been seduced by a subtle intolerance, leading it to shift to the Right and develop a hyperbolic brand of neo-conservative ideology. Today, neoconservatives control the ADL’s policies and practices through a system of cronyism and internal staff authoritarianism, using the organization for purposes far removed from its original mandate. Much of their ideological advocacy is done behind the scenes, or involves sins of omission which have often allowed dangerous bigots to flourish unchallenged. Little of this is known to most ADL contributors, who still regard the ADL as the bastion against prejudice that it once was,” wrote King and Berlet.
“Clearly, in the wake of the burgeoning California scandal, the ADL’s neoconservatives will find it difficult to maintain their pretense of being the Jewish community’s infallible civil rights watch-dogs. But for the moment, they have managed to persuade the major Jewish organizations to circle the wagons in their defense. Although in most organizations the persons responsible for such enormous mistakes would have been fired, impeached, or court-martialed, the ADL leadership has induced four major Jewish umbrella groups¾the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the World Jewish Congress, and the American Zionist Movement¾to issue statements expressing their full confidence in the ADL (meaning the current ADL leadership). Their rationale is that if the ADL is not defended strongly, the Jewish community may be robbed of its ability to monitor and defend itself against neo-Nazis and other deadly enemies. In fact, the ADL is in no danger of losing its ability to monitor hate groups and keep files: all of its activities in this field (with the exception of receiving stolen government documents) are constitutionally protected; these operations will cease only if the ADL chooses on its own to disband them. . . . The ADL must learn to practice pluralism, not just preach it,” wrote King and Berlet. The article closed with a call for removal of the ADL’s national leadership and a substantial list of suggested policy changes, none of which occurred. Longtime ADL leader Abraham Foxman still, today, runs the organization with an iron hand.
The ADL has a well documented history of attempting to “determine what should be taught in our nation's schools, what should be read in our nation's libraries, and what should be publicly discussed about Israel at public forums,” by “monitor[ing] school curricula, library acquisition lists, and public conferences and symposiums, [and] working behind the scenes to stifle intellectual freedom,” according to the late Robert I. Friedman writing in a May 11, 1993, article in Village Voice. The supportive role played by the JCRC found mention in Friedman’s exposé of the ADL’s controversial and unsuccessful effort to censor reading lists, bibliographies, and more at the Chicago Public Library in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Because The Greater Des Moines Jewish Press noted that JCRC would “continue working on [Palestine Unabridged] in conjunction with the Ames Jewish Congregation and the Anti-Defamation League,” film series organizers, co-sponsors, supporters, and other knowledgeable observers believe local opposition to the film and discussion series was and is coordinated behind the scenes by the ADL and the JCRC.
Palestine Unabridged, conceived, produced, and administered by a group of savvy, courageous, talented, and accomplished women, opened to a standing room only audience in the Ames Public Library’s Farwell T. Brown auditorium on September 11, 2003 despite the barrage of complaints, including letters, e-mail, and phone calls from ardent Zionists including some of the library’s previously generous Jewish supporters who threatened to “never again” contribute financially to the library. On the opening night of the film festival, two men in their twenties or early thirties arrived late to the film presentation, Rana’s Wedding, a comedy-drama featuring a young Palestinian Muslim woman who challenges the traditionalism of her own culture even as she triumphs over the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of life under Israeli occupation. Library personnel informed the two men that the auditorium was at capacity and politely asked them return to a later film presentation. Instead, the men became defiant. They eventually exited the library but called the Ames fire department from outside, complained that the library was in violation of the city fire code, and, when he arrived, demanded that the fire marshal turn on the lights in the auditorium and interrupt the film for a head count. The fire marshal, who chose to take a far less intrusive and disruptive look at the auditorium, found no violation of the fire code.
Disturbance at a discussion event
The next challenge to the film festival came from a seemingly unlikely quarter, a local Episcopal clergyman, Rev. Alexander Aiton. During a moderated discussion of John Pilger’s Palestine is Still the Issue on October 2, Axiom Foundation president Betsy Mayfield observed Aiton, Rector of St. John’s by the Campus Episcopal Church and Student Center, going from participant to participant criticizing the format of the discussion. Rev. Sarai Beck, executive director of Ecumenical Ministries of Iowa, and ISU Prof. Stephen Aigner led the moderated discussion events. Aigner is an internationally recognized sociologist whose research interests focus on community studies, conflict resolution, and transformative approaches to community change and empowerment. Beck and Aigner had carefully prepared discussion formats to encourage and maximize productive discussion and minimize argument and rancorous disagreement. When Mayfield, a member of United Church of Christ - Congregational in Ames, confronted him and asked him to participate in a more productive manner, Aiton lost his temper, became enraged, and began shouting at Mayfield and gesticulating in an uncharacteristic manner not becoming to his office or to his reputation in the community. Loudly resisting all efforts to assuage his anger, Aiton took his unseemly display of temper outside and was observed by several discussion group participants to be in full-throated roar as he departed the event.
In an October 7, 2003 letter faxed to library director Gina Millsap, and obtained under the Iowa Open Records Act, Rev. Aiton complained of abuse he supposedly suffered at the October 2 discussion event, including an “unwarranted and false attack by a sponsor of the series.” He asserted that he was “owed a public apology from both the library and from Ms. Mayfield.” Millsap responded the same day via fax telling Aiton that she would share his concerns with discussion facilitators and make them aware that “an unpleasant exchange occurred between two participants.” Aiton was not satisfied.
In an October 8, 2003 e-mail message Mark S. Finkelstein, Director of Jewish Community Relations for the Jewish Community Relations Commission (JCRC) of the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines, complained to Millsap: “I was shocked and dismayed to hear, directly from Fr. Aiton, of his treatment at the recent film discussion sponsored by the Ames Public Library. I understand that verbal abuse was hurled at Fr. Aiton and that, in addition, an individual physically tried to stop Fr. Aiton from leaving the room (i.e., escaping from the abusive treatment.)”
Rev. Aiton responded on October 9, telling Millsap that he had brought to her attention what he felt was “a serious situation.” Aiton continued, “You are the Director and ‘get the big bucks’ for your administrative duties. I am disappointed that you obviously think it was not important.”
Hyperbolic complaints, thinly-veiled threats
But by early October, the library and its director had been under attack for several weeks. In a terse e-mail dated August 24, 2003 Oscar Volij of ISU’s Department of Economics told an APL circulation staff administrator that, “maybe your budget problems are related to the fact that the Library likes to sponsor pro-terrorist propaganda.” Volij is an associate professor in the Economics Department at ISU.
ISU political science professor Richard W. Mansbach, who a few months earlier had spoken by invitation to the Sunday Forum at St. John’s Episcopal Church on the topic of the conflict in the Holy Land, addressed a rambling e-mail to Millsap dated November 14, 2003. Mansbach introduced himself as “a Full Professor of International Relations at ISU, formerly chair of political science at both ISU and Rutgers University, probably the most visible scholar in the department at the present time, and the author of a large number of books and articles in the field. I have visited the Middle East, it is a topic of my lectures in graduate and undergraduate courses including Theories of International Politics, International Security Politics, and American Foreign Policy.”
“I have great sympathy for Palestinians and advocate strongly an independent and sovereign Palestinian state. Theirs’ is a tragic story, as is the story of many ethnic minorities including Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, and Tutsis, but I do resent unbalanced prejudicial propaganda. And I am absolutely outraged by your current series on Palestine. It is at once slanted, provocative in the extreme, anti-Israeli, and, most importantly, crudely anti-Semitic. It is also an insult to Jews everywhere. Were you to do a similar series on issues of race, you would probably be closed. No one, least of all myself, questions your right of free speech. What I do question is whether you have thought about balanced or fair speech,” wrote Mansbach.
“I understand that none of the films shows the murder of women and children in buses, restaurants, and schools in Israel or the insane fanaticism of Palestinian Jihadists who murder Americans who are trying to provide Palestinians with Fulbright Scholarships or who worship a different religion than Islam. These are people who would not allow you, as a woman, to hold the responsible position that you enjoy, precisely because you are a woman, and who commit suicide in anticipation of enjoying the pleasure of a rather large number of virgins with or without their consent,” wrote Mansbach.
“I have always been a strong supporter of the library which I regard as one of Ames' great treasures. However, unless this series is cancelled with due apologies to those who are deeply offended by its message or unless equal and support time is afforded to those with different views and sympathies, I will reluctantly have to forward my concerns to relevant politicians in Ames and in Des Moines as well as to human rights and similar organizations. I will of course also feel compelled to join a growing list of city residents who may conclude that your current project suggests that you have far greater appropriations than taxpayers should be asked to support,” wrote Mansbach.
Millsap replied to Mansbach promptly, writing, “I respect and support your right to say and do as you see fit. I also want to understand specifically what in the films concerned you. As a scholar, I know you know the importance of firsthand information, so I assume you are speaking from having seen and judged the films yourself,” wrote Millsap.
“Regarding your suggestion that we afford equal time to those with different views, let me share what we have done since before the program began in September. We have offered repeatedly in person, in correspondence, publicly at every film showing and discussion session, and in our publications, to work with anyone or any group who would like to present alternative perspectives and views. Additionally, we provide display space at each program for people with any information they wish to distribute,” wrote Millsap.
“Regarding the consequences you outline in your final paragraph. I am truly sorry that the good the Library does for the community does not outweigh our differences on this issue. Like tenured faculty at a university, we as librarians and City of Ames employees, respect strong differences of opinion. Just as it would not be appropriate for one group to prevent the free exchange of ideas on a university campus, so it is not appropriate for an individual or group to do so in the larger community,” wrote Millsap.
“This program represents voices and perspectives that exist in our community and we know there are many others. There is a place at our table for everyone in the community and we are just as committed to advocating for their right to present their views when they choose to do so,” wrote Millsap.
“Thank you for sharing your concerns and comments. I note in your second message to me that you suggest a program idea focusing on terrorism, tolerance, and anti-Semitism. If you would be interested in working on such a program with the Library as a community member or in your role as professor of international relations, we would welcome your proposal,” wrote Millsap.
Mansbach seems to have been singularly unimpressed. In reply, he asked Millsap, “Have you ever contemplated what sort of military campaign the Israelis could initiate if they chose to emulate the Palestinian terrorists? Although Palestinian civilians are occasional victims of Israeli troops (though they are used as shields by Palestinian militants who also draw fire by shooting from civilian buildings, all in violation of the rules of war), imagine the horror of large-scale Israeli attacks directed at civilians. Were such a dreadful escalation to occur I assure that most Palestinian civilian buses and school buses would be annihilated in a single day. Do you wish to help provoke such actions?” the professor of international relations and former political science department chair at two major research universities asked Millsap, as if an Iowa librarian could, by sponsoring a local film festival, “provoke” the Israeli military to annihilate, “in a single day,” thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians and school children. Mansbach ended by warning Millsap about a “growing lack of trust in Ames's public officials and concern about probable opposition to city budgets and funding for you and your projects,” and calling for the library director’s resignation.
Rev. Aiton, Dir. Finkelstein, Prof. Mansbach, and Prof. Volij are but four of some 100 individuals who wrote, e-mailed, faxed, or called Millsap and other library administrators with concerns, complaints, demands, and, in some cases, thinly-veiled threats. Some individuals contacted Millsap again and again, and one, Prof. Max Rothschild of ISU’s Dept. of Animal Science, e-mailed and called more than a dozen times.
Many of Rothschild’s e-mail complaints were addressed to library board members and others, and he castigated everyone directly associated with the library for their in role supporting the film and discussion series and the public information mission of the library. “Ames is a place with intelligent people who demand fairness when sensitive topics are to be presented. The library staff, director and board have failed miserably to address concerns and do your job and now the Ames library is tarnished. You all should be ashamed of yourselves,” wrote Rothschild to Millsap in an e-mail dated September 3, eight days before the film series began.
Rothschild apparently had not seen and did not attend the films he protested against so vociferously. “I understand from those that attended,” wrote Rothschild to Millsap in an e-mail dated September 28, “that the virulent anti-Israeli and underlying anti-Semitic messages continue at your film series. These are of course combined with the hateful and biased books you are encouraging patrons to read you with your one sided book display.”
Petitions by opponents of Palestine Unabridged
Millsap and her staff responded politely to each letter, e-mail, fax, and phone call. In addition to those already mentioned who expressed strong disapproval of the library’s sponsorship of the film and discussion series in personal letters, e-mails, faxes, telephone calls, or personal visits to the library, were: Ms. Julie Freed; Prof. Murray L. Kaplan of ISU’s Dept. of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and president of the Ames Jewish Congregation; Ms. Leslie Kawaler; Prof. Marshall Luban of ISU’s Dept. of Physics & Astronomy, and Senior Physicist at the Ames Laboratory for the U.S. Dept. of Energy; Ms. Pnina Luban; Ms. Veronica Pivonia; Ms. Martha Rappaport; Prof. Colin G. Scanes of ISU’s Dept. of Animal Science and Associate Dean of the College of Agriculture; Emeritus Prof. Harry J. Weiss of ISU’s Dept. of Aerospace Engineering; Ms. Frances Wilke; and Bob Wolfson, Regional Director of the Plains States Anti-Defamation League in Omaha, Nebraska. Some of these and dozens of others signed one or both of two petitions opposing Palestine Unabridged.
The first petition, dated August 21, 2003 and signed by about 40 people, mostly members of the Ames Jewish Congregation who were “deeply concerned and disturbed by the decision of the Ames Public Library to sponsor the film series,” was addressed to the trustees of library and hand delivered at the library board’s August meeting. It called upon the library to “at the very least . . . withdraw its sponsorship” of the film series. To its credit, the library board declined to act against the library’s public information mission and the library director’s decision to sponsor the film series.
A second petition dated November 2, 2003 and signed by some 80 people, including more than 20 members of St. John’s by the Campus Episcopal Church where the petition effort was announced by Rev. Aiton during Sunday morning services, called upon library administrators to allow the opponents of the film festival to make a public statement to the audience prior to the screening of Jenin, Jenin, a documentary shown on November 6, 2003. Library administrators, who had already allowed opponents of the film festival to place their literature in the auditorium on a table dedicated to alternative viewpoints, declined to allow a public statement.
One of her most disturbing interactions with an opponent of the film and discussion series occurred when Millsap fielded a phone call from a member of St. John’s Episcopal Church who couched his complaints in vulgar and forceful language. The caller, a university professor and administrator, used the term “bitch” and the phrase, “your head up your ass.”
The embattled library director also received letters, e-mails, and phone calls from several people who supported the library’s sponsorship of the controversial film and discussion series, including two city council members, Judie Hoffman and Riad Mahayni.
Rebecca Burke wrote to Millsap in support of the library’s sponsorship of Palestine Unabridged, as did Robin Gulick of Arlington, Virginia.
“I was alerted to the fact your library might be receiving criticism for showing a series of Palestinian films. I want you to know that I appreciate the library supporting the humanization of a community often victimized by most news groups and the risk you are taking to promote tolerance and understanding in America,” wrote Gulick.
“I have spent time in both Israel and Palestine talking to Jewish and Arab peacemakers. I have sat in demolished homes and walked through the streets of Gaza. Not everyone can have this opportunity, but they do have the opportunity to open their minds to the films you are showing. We must continue to educate Americans on this issue that speaks on a personal level to so many of us who want peace, justice and a life of dignity for all,” wrote Gulick.
St. John’s Episcopal – a church divided
Rev. Aiton’s column in the October parish newsletter included the text of a letter he had written to the AJC. The column was critical of the film festival, Mayfield, and this writer, who was one of two representatives to the AIC serving St. John’s by the Campus Episcopal Church. Pointing to “the Judeo-Christian tradition,” and recalling his church’s history of dialog and interaction with the AJC, Aiton broadly hinted that anti-Semitism informed this writer’s writings and his support for Palestine Unabridged. To his credit, in his published letter to the membership of the AJC, Aiton did encourage attendance at the film screenings and participation in the discussion events, reminding his readers of “the necessity of being in conversation with one another to overcome estrangement, hatred, and violence. It is now our turn in this time and place to create a space for such a dialogue amongst all faiths,” wrote Aiton. But Aiton’s publicly stated commitment to dialog was soon brought into question by his own actions.
At the October meeting of the vestry (the vestry is the governing board of St. John’s Episcopal Church), Rev. Aiton, leading discussion about Palestine Unabridged, harshly criticized the film and discussion series, its organizers, co-sponsors, and supporters. Following the discussion, the vestry decided to pay dues (in arrears) to the AIC for 2002, and, in a decision that was not unanimous, to withhold membership dues for 2003 and thus withdraw the church from membership in the AIC. Aiton later sent a letter to each member of the vestry, to the AJC, to the secretary of the AIC, and to his church’s representatives to the AIC informing them of the vestry’s decision to withdraw the church from membership in the AIC. The vestry, wrote Aiton, had concluded that the AIC’s mission statement did not support a project like Palestine Unabridged. So, less than a month after he had publicly committed himself to “dialog amongst all faiths,” Aiton persuaded the vestry of St. John’s Episcopal Church to withdraw from the city’s only organization devoted to interfaith dialog.
Alternate AIC representative Sally Greve, a retired ISU English as a Second Language instructor and a long time member of St. John’s Episcopal Church who served for ten years as editor of the parish’s monthly newsletter, wrote and sent to the vestry a strongly worded letter protesting the decision to withdraw from membership in the AIC. In her letter, Greve expressed the opinion that the AJC was wrong to oppose the film and discussion series, noting that they seemed to be unable to allow anything but their own views to be introduced.
“It smacks of the same attitude our forebears adopted towards the Africans they enslaved,” wrote Greve.
“Aren't we all created by the same God? Don't we all deserve to present our ideas and to be heard with some attempt at understanding and respect? This is one important aspect of the Ames Interfaith Council, that all persons from all religions deserve this respect, and the AIC is the community forum. The American public deserves to see what the Palestinians have to offer, and to form their own conclusions,” wrote Greve.
Pointing out that the film series was presented for anyone who might voluntarily make the effort to learn something more about the issues in the Middle East and wish to talk with their neighbors about those issues, Greve asked the members of the vestry who voted to withdraw from the AIC, “Do you not trust the intelligence of your neighbors to come to their own conclusions about the presentations?”
Rev. Aiton also lobbied against the film festival at Fall 2003 meetings of the Ames Ministerial Association and later spoke of Christians and Jews who felt the cabinet of the AIC, a lay organization, “had been insensitive,” and of meeting with a group from the ministerial association and a mediator from the local Center for Creative Justice in an attempt to repair “damage to trust” and to facilitate “a true interfaith dialogue on these important and emotion-charged issues.” Film and discussion series organizers and co-sponsors speculated that Aiton’s public display of anger and rage at Mayfield when she interrupted his repeated criticism of the format of the moderated discussion event on October 2 was directly related to plans by opponents of the film series to replace Rev. Beck and Prof. Aigner with discussion leaders of their own choosing who were more sympathetic to their opposition to the film festival and more attuned to the agenda of local, regional, and national Zionist organizations, plans Aiton actively supported and Mayfield inadvertently thwarted when she confronted Aiton at the October 2 event.
“I feel that the local pastorate shrinks from any discussion of the crisis in the Holy Land because they do not want to offend their own congregations or those who are determined to control and limit the public discussion about the Palestinian refugee crisis,” said Mayfield. “The political correctness nonsense renders us all but unable to talk about anything without offending someone. But this film series has produced dialogue, and I think that will continue.”
Mayfield said she views the conflict in the Holy Land as more political and economic than religious and hopes the dialogue will not be confined to religious venues. “Really, those who believe in the spiritual axiom, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ realize that Revisionist Zionism has little to do with Judaism. It's about colonization. Palestine Unabridged is helping people to see that, and I hope that will prompt more concern and more conversation in churches and in secular venues about the human and civil rights of Palestinians. We cannot ignore the moral issues involved in what is happening in Palestine. We just can't continue to ignore violence and oppression as it happens in Palestine and elsewhere,” said Mayfield.
Public participation and support
Many Christians and some prominent Christian leaders in Ames either agreed with Mayfield’s sentiments or were willing to give her and the popular film and discussion series the benefit of the doubt. A mid-November article in the Iowa State Daily by Eric Rowley reported that the film series had a large turnout, more than 160 on the opening night and about 40 participants on average at the moderated discussion events. Ames Ministerial Association chair Rev. Heather Withers served as a discussion leader, filling in for Rev. Sarai Beck at the November 13 discussion of Israeli director Micha X. Peled’s Inside God’s Bunker, and Palestinian director Muhammad Bakri’s Jenin, Jenin, two powerful and provocative documentaries.
On November 7, after they learned that Caterpillar, Inc., executives were to be present at a ceremony honoring the heavy equipment manufacturing giant’s financial contribution in support of a new ISU engineering laboratory, several members of Rachel Corrie’s family led a march and demonstration at ISU protesting Caterpillar’s sale of bulldozers used by the Israeli government in war crimes.
Many ISU alumni, including about 200 engineers, are employed by Caterpillar. The university has a longstanding relationship with the Fortune 100 company, which, with sales of more than $20 billion last year, mostly in foreign markets, is a leading global supplier of construction and mining equipment and gas turbines. Caterpillar’s web site contains a policy statement that attempts to absolve the company of any and all legal or social responsibility for the abuse of its products as weapons of war or in war crimes in the Middle East.
University administrators, sensitive to the personal nature of the Corrie family’s cause and protest, were considerate and receptive. The Brodersens were able to meet briefly with ISU president Gregory Geoffroy as he left the event honoring Caterpillar.
“President Goeffroy was very cordial. He accepted a letter from our family, a group of Rachel’s e-mails sent from Rafa, we gave him those, and a book, Remember These Children, put out by American Educational Trust, Americans for Middle East Understanding, Black Voices for Peace, and Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel. He said he would read them,” said Bonnie Brodersen, Rachel Corrie’s aunt, of Ashland, Oregon.
“I feel really good about being here,” said Brodersen, who commented on the courteous professionalism of the ISU Department of Public Safety officers present at the Hoover Building protest. “They said we have a free speech right, and that’s wonderful. It says something about ISU,” said Brodersen.
Barbara Brodersen, Rachel’s aunt and an Iowa City library assistant, also participated in the Caterpillar protest along with her son, 10-year-old Sam Brodersen-Rodruguez, as did Cheryl Brodersen, Rachel’s aunt, a nurse from Denison, Iowa, and Bill Pusateri, Colette Brodersen’s spouse and a field botanist also of Iowa City.
In addition to the family members, several other peace and social justice activists from across Iowa participated in the protest, including representatives of Time for Peace, an ISU student peace group.
Perhaps no single event better illustrates just how out-of-step the opponents of the film and discussion series are with public opinion in the small but remarkably cosmopolitan university city than the election of Riad Mahayni to the Ames city council. Mahayni, a former chair of the Department of Community and Regional Planning at ISU, was elected to the city council in early November 2003, just past the midpoint of the film and discussion series. A Muslim and a native of Syria, Mahayni, who was instrumental in relocating and resolving the dispute over the relocation of Darul Arqum Islamic Center in Ames several years ago, had been appointed to fill the term of Fourth Ward council member Herman Qurimbach. Quirmbach was elected to the state legislature in January. On November 4, Ames Fourth Ward voters elected Mahayni to represent them on the city council, and they did so by giving Mahayni a greater majority than any other candidate in the city council races except the one candidate who ran unopposed. Mahayni, who attended screenings of several Palestine Unabridged films during the run up to the election, said he believes that those who have opposed the film and discussion series and criticized its organizers, co-sponsors, and supporters have hurt their own cause.
“Most people see it as a free speech issue,” said Mahayni.
Indeed, those who opposed the controversial film and discussion series seemed to be in the minority, albeit a small but vocal and remarkably well-organized minority. And they were as persistent as they were outspoken in their criticism of Palestine Unabridged and its producers, organizers, co-sponsors, and supporters.
WOI radio is ISU’s NPR affiliate and an influential media voice in Iowa. On Nov. 13, 2003, ISU professor of political science and WOI-AM 640 radio personality Steffen Schmidt, widely known as “Dr. Politics” by his listeners, offered his personal opinion regarding Palestine Unabridged. Schmidt responded to a news article about the film and discussion series that appeared in the on-line edition of the Iowa State Daily. In an on-line forum attached to the news article and the Daily web site, Schmidt harshly criticized the film and discussion series and sought to persuade his readers to assume the worst about its sponsors and supporters.
“There is no such thing as a balanced discussion on the issue of Israel vs Palestine. This is like having a ‘balanced discussion’ on the Nazis. The series being shown is clearly biased against the state of Israel. The people who have sponsored this particular series are pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel. Whether they are also anti-Semites is something we need to discuss,” wrote Schmidt.
“Certainly,” Schmidt continued, “the Ames library would have second thoughts about showing a series of films that are anti African American or racist. Unfortunately, anti- Israel or even anti-Semitic is still fair game (just look at the synagogue bombings by pro- Palestinians in Western Europe). What a tragedy!”
Schmidt’s comments drew far more criticism than praise or agreement in the Daily’s on-line forum. He later moderated his comments somewhat, but in private replies to some who were critical of his impassioned support of Israel, his suggestion of anti-Semitism, and his insinuation that all who sympathize with the plight of Palestinians are violently anti-Jewish, Schmidt wrote that he was forwarding his critics’ e-mails, which he suggested were both threatening and offensive, to the office of the Attorney General of Iowa and to federal law enforcement authorities. On Nov. 17, 2003 at the beginning of his regular Monday morning appearance on WOI Radio’s state-wide Talk of Iowa program, Schmidt told WOI Talk of Iowa host Katherine Perkins and his radio audience that he had had a terrible weekend, that he had received several “threatening e-mails.” He suggested that he had been so troubled by the e-mails that he had skipped the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in Des Moines on the previous Saturday evening. But, contrary to Schmidt’s own impressions and his public and private assertions, law enforcement authorities apparently found no terroristic threats in the e-mail messages that so upset “Dr. Politics.”
A closer look at the role of church politics
The outspoken opposition of Rev. Aiton, a nominally liberal Episcopal clergyman, surprised many in Ames, not least because the Episcopal Church USA has long been perceived to favor a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict in the Holy Land and church leaders had often seemed to favor an anti-war posture prior to September 11, 2001. But a closer look at the controversy surrounding Palestine Unabridged and at the actions of Episcopal Church leaders directly and indirectly involved raises questions about the position of the Episcopal Church at every organizational level.
On Sunday, October 12, 2003 Bishop Alan Scarfe, who was ordained the 9th Bishop of Iowa in April 2003, visited St. John’s Episcopal Church. From the pulpit, just days after publication of Rev. Aiton’s open letter to the parish critical of the film festival and its supporters, Scarfe reminded the congregation that Aiton had been his contact during the search and selection process. Scarfe said that he often conferred with Aiton and relied on him for advice and counsel, noting with a smile that Aiton’s replies to his questions often ended with the phrase, “but you are the Bishop.”
Some Iowa Episcopalians who labor in the field of interfaith relations had entertained high hopes that Scarfe’s ordination as Bishop of Iowa would lead to friendlier regard for, and perhaps significantly increased emphasis on, interfaith dialog in the diocese. But that has not been the case. Bishop Scarfe has declined to appoint a diocesan contact person for the Interfaith Education Initiative (IEI), ECUSA’s only church-wide interfaith relations/dialog programming for laypersons. In September, at a time when Iowa Muslims reported that their mosques were welcoming increasing numbers of visiting church groups from other denominations, Scarfe rebuffed without explanation a proposal for a Christian Education project titled “Seeds of Friendship,” which would have encouraged church leaders of the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa to coordinate with local interfaith organizations in arranging visits that would give children and young people opportunities to visit other faith communities’ houses of worship and interact with children and youth of other religious traditions.
Bishop Scarfe has retained the services of longtime diocesan ecumenical relations representative Martha Williams, a member of the vestry of St. John’s Episcopal and a records analyst in ISU’s Department of Genetics and Cell Biology. Early in 2001, this writer asked Williams, chair of the Interfaith Committee of St. John’s by the Campus, to support the church’s participation in the Churches for Middle East Peace’s (CMEP) Shared Jerusalem program, an initiative sponsored by the Episcopal Church USA and a long list of other mainstream Christian churches and church organizations. Williams replied that she would ask her friend and colleague in ISU’s Department of Genetics and Cell Biology, John Pleasants, if Shared Jerusalem was an initiative St. John’s Episcopal could support. When Pleasants advised her against it, Williams declined to support the Shared Jerusalem initiative, thus effectively making her friend, John Pleasants, Cantor of the Ames Jewish Congregation, the arbiter of interfaith programming at St. John’s Episcopal Church, an arbiter with veto power over interfaith programming approved by the national office of the Episcopal Church USA. At the October 2003 vestry meeting, Williams was among those who voted to withdraw the church from membership in the AIC.
Williams became diocesan ecumenical relations representative during the tenure of the 8th Bishop of Iowa, The Rt. Rev. Christopher Epting. At the time of the bishop’s annual visit to St. John’s by the Campus in December 2001, this writer commented favorably to Bishop Epting on the work of James Solheim, Director of the Episcopal News Service. Solheim was, at that time, traveling with an ecumenical group of church leaders in the Holy Land and sending regular e-mail reports about the visit to interested parties here in the USA, reports that were widely shared and appreciated. Epting’s response regarding Solheim was dismissive, and he then launched into series of shop-worn platitudes to describe the conflict in the Holy Land, including the observation that Israel is located “in a pretty rough neighborhood.” Epting went on to express uncritical support for Israel. He concluded his remarks on the subject by saying, “I think many people in the Episcopal Church are too pro-Palestinian.” Epting later disavowed his public statements, asserting that what he had actually said was, “the Episcopal Church’s position has been pretty pro-Palestinian over the years.”
In a letter dated January 26, 2001, Bishop Epting wrote, “You will no doubt be pleased to know that my primary responsibilities will not be in the justice and peace area with respect to this issue but rather in what is known as ‘interfaith relations.’ Jewish-Christian dialog is important for a variety of reasons, both in and out of the Middle East, and I hope that we can find a way to be balanced in our approaches to those various dialogues (including those with Muslims) even while standing firm in our commitment to Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims.” Epting’s reference to “what is known as ‘interfaith relations’” along with his declaration of the importance of “Jewish-Christian dialog coupled with his mention of dialogue “with Muslims” in the parenthetical, tends to support the observation that, among many Western Christian leaders, the term interfaith dialog has long been a term of art meaning, in Epting’s words, “Jewish-Christian” dialog, the bishop’s “hope that we can find a way to be balanced” and seeming sincere rhetoric about “standing firm” in an unspecified and apparently meaningless commitment to Palestinian Christians and Muslims notwithstanding.
Bishop Epting was elevated to his current position as (the ECUSA Presiding Bishop’s) Deputy for (and director of the Office of) Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations (EIR) early in 2001. Since 1999, oversight for interfaith relations has been the job of the Standing Committee on Ecumenical Relations (SCER), which is headed by the Deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations. At the 74th General Convention in Minneapolis in July and August 2003, church leaders made a decision to replace “interfaith” with “interreligious” in the ECUSA lexicon. Epting’s successor in Iowa, Bishop Scarfe, now serves on the renamed the Standing Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligous Relations (SCEIR).
Under any name, interfaith relations programming in the Episcopal Church USA has come upon hard times under Bishop Epting. The SCER’s report to the 74th General Convention mentions having “tried to assume its responsibilities for interfaith relations.” It speaks of “the challenges facing Christian-Muslim efforts at mutual understanding in wake of current world conflicts and in the midst of Anglican struggles in Africa” and of a commitment “to establishing our own sustained educational and dialogical work in this regard on foundations of equitable and realistic respect for human rights.” The report notes EIR’s Interfaith Education Initiative (IEI), describing it as a resource intended “to strengthen local networks to facilitate interfaith dialog, and to help identify resource persons and experts in the field of Interfaith Education.” But the report announces that the “task force,” which SCER encouraged the EIR to create some years ago in support of interfaith relations programming, has not yet met “for logistical reasons.” It also notes that “SCER has had to face the fact that its on-going and substantive work in ecumenical affairs practically precludes its ability adequately to supervise the essential work of interfaith relations, and that while it has been a tremendous resource, the funding for IEI will continue only through 2004.” In that way, the SCER report attempts to put a distinctly positive spin on what is, in effect, an announcement by Epting’s office that the ECUSA is abandoning its programming dedicated to the improvement and maintenance of interfaith dialog at a moment when relations between Christians and Muslims around the world are under greater strain than at any time in living memory.
ECUSA anti-racism programming questioned
Over at the Episcopal Church USA’s Office of Peace and Justice Ministries, which rolled out its new anti-racism initiative at the General Convention in Minneapolis, the situation is not much better. The new initiative, a video presentation titled Seeing the Face of God in Each Other, is the public face of the renewed commitment of the Episcopal Church to racial equality and inclusiveness and an official public declaration of the Church’s rejection of racism. The video program features the voices and images of Episcopalians who have experienced racial bias themselves or who have worked with and supported those who have. While the video, which has reasonably high production values, is fine as far as it goes, it stops far short of what is necessary and is perhaps most noteworthy for its glaring omissions. As presented in Minneapolis in August, the new video presentation was entirely silent on two crucial and closely related issues, anti-Arab racism and anti-Muslim bigotry, both of which are increasingly common in the USA today, as evidenced by a long and continuing series of acts of violence against innocent Arab-Americans and Muslims, numerous attacks on Mosques and Islamic schools across the USA, and attacks, some deadly, against members of other minority groups, mostly Latinos and Sikhs, mistaken for Arabs or Muslims by American racists too ignorant or too deranged to make the distinction. Also disturbing are the incidents in which Jewish Americans, ardent Zionists, have been arrested by law enforcement authorities before they could carry out planned attacks on Arabs and Muslims.
Hate crimes against Arab-Americans, Muslim-Americans, and others who have been mistaken for Arabs and Muslims are fueled in part by nominally Christian theology and by the intemperate public statements of celebrity Christian Zionist leaders. The ECUSA Office of Peace and Justice Ministries’ silence on the topic of anti-Arab bias and anti-Muslim bigotry at what is clearly a time of crisis in the modern history of interfaith dialog and interfaith relations, is quite simply inexcusable. The absence of Arab-American faces and voices in Seeing the Face of God in Each Other will be especially puzzling and troubling for Arab-American Episcopalians, and, presumably, for Arab Anglicans who live in the Holy Land and in other countries in the Middle East and around the world. Anti-Arab racism and anti-Muslim bigotry should be repugnant to all Anglicans, indeed to all Christians, yet Arabs and Muslims go without mention in ECUSA’s official anti-racism programming.
There is good reason to believe the producers of ECUSA’s new anti-racism video are keenly aware of their product’s glaring deficiencies. At a pre-Convention screening of Seeing the Face of God in Each Other in California some months before its formal presentation in Minneapolis in August 2003, several audience members responded by asking pointedly about the absence of Arab and Muslim faces, according to an official of the Diocese of California. The response at that time was vague and non-committal. At the General Convention roll-out of the new anti-racism video, the second of four suggested topics for discussion provided by the program’s presenters included the questions, “Who is missing? Why?” Yet, the discussion included no mention of Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, anti-Arab racism, or anti-Muslim bigotry. And other than the unaddressed envelopes in which the suggested topics for discussion were provided, no provision whatsoever was made for feedback to the producers of the new video, which was presented as a project completed.
At the conclusion of the anti-racism program event at the Convention, this writer approached one of the presenters, Rev. Jayne Oasin, ECUSA’s Social Justice Officer and spokesperson for the new anti-racism initiative. When queried by a member of the press (who was displaying his convention press credentials in full view) about the absence Arab faces and voices in the video and the lack of any mention of concern about anti-Arab racism and anti-Muslim bigotry, Rev. Oasin responded saying, “We asked before 9/11 and they said they had no problem. We asked after 9/11 and they said they were afraid.”
Such a response from a social justice officer of the church--nearly two years after 9/11 and with evidence of widespread anti-Arab racism and anti-Muslim bigotry in the USA increasingly available--is as remarkable and as unacceptable as the exclusion of Arab and Muslim voices and concerns from the anti-racism video. Rev. Oasin’s response will rightly be perceived by many experienced peace and social justice advocates for what it is, yet another instance of “blaming the victim.” A response such as Oasin’s is all the more questionable coming from a social justice professional who should know better. No peace and social justice advocate or interfaith dialog facilitator who lacks contacts with representatives and widely recognized spokespersons within the Arab-American and Muslim communities, contacts who would be happy to put the video’s producers in touch with Muslim and Anglican Arab Americans who have experienced anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-Arab racism, can be taken seriously. As presented in Minneapolis, Seeing the Face of God in Each Other might more accurately be titled Seeing the Face of God in Each Other, Unless the Others Happen to be Arabs or Muslims.
For many years ECUSA has generally been perceived to be a progressive mainstream church that has taken socially responsible positions on many issues related to ethnicity, gender, and interfaith relations. But, since September 11, 2001, ECUSA officials who bear responsibility for encouraging interfaith dialog and for countering racial and religious bias have instead elected to end funding for ECUSA’s only significant interfaith programming initiative, and their plans anticipate no new funding or support for interfaith dialog or programming of any kind until well after the 2006 General Convention. They have likewise attempted to put a positive spin on ECUSA’s effective renunciation of any and all responsibility for the improvement or maintenance of interfaith relations at a moment when relations between Christians and Muslims around the world are under greater strain than at any time in living memory. And, with its new anti-racism initiative, ECUSA’s Office of Peace and Justice Ministries has studiously ignored and purposefully neglected to address the alarming increase in anti-Arab racism and anti-Muslim bigotry in the USA.
Convention legislation, resolutions which failed as well as those which were approved by the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops at the 2003 General Convention in Minneapolis, generally reflect the tension between progressive and conservative groups within the church. That tension has been most evident in the controversy surrounding the ordination of the ECUSA’s first openly gay bishop, the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. The leadership of the Anglican Church in Africa, generally perceived to be far more theologically and socially conservative than the ECUSA, strongly opposed the ordination of a gay bishop. Africa is also a part of the world where Christians, Anglicans prominent and numerous among them, find themselves at odds, and sometimes in conflict, with their Muslim neighbors.
Conservative African Anglican leader Nigerian Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon was prominently featured at the ECUSA 2003 General Convention. Archbishop Idowu-Fearon, who spoke at a Sunday morning Eucharist at the convention, couched his criticism of ECUSA’s progressive stance regarding social issues in references to scripture for his largely American audience. Nigeria’s Anglican Church is the second largest, after the Church of England, of the member provinces of the Anglican Communion.
In the aftermath of the General Convention’s approval of the election of Bishop Robinson as Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire, other African Anglican Church leaders have been neither as subtle nor as conciliatory as Bishop Idowu-Fearon, who is a personal friend of ECUSA Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Frank Griswold. Bishop Mouneer Anis of Egypt released a statement saying that the decision "showed great disrespect to the majority of the members of the Anglican Communion and the church worldwide" and could damage interfaith relations.
According to Archbishop Bernard Malango, primate of the Province of Central Africa, the decision "has shattered the Anglican Communion. Deep pain has been inflicted upon us all. We are now experiencing an overwhelming sense of loss of direction of the Anglican Communion."
In a September 2, 2003 statement, Archbishop Livingstone Mpalanyi Nkoyoyo of the Church of Uganda said that the decision meant the American church was "separating themselves from the Anglican Communion family . . . leading your people astray into satanic ways."
"We condemn this decision as bishops and on your behalf, Ugandans," wrote Nkoyoyo, "and we further state that we shall make sure that it never will happen in the life of the Church of Uganda and never condone it anywhere in Christendom."
Some observers have speculated that ECUSA administrators’ lack of interest in interfaith relations and unwillingness to address anti-Arab racism and anti-Muslim bigotry in the USA may be to some extent influenced by more conservative African Anglican church leaders’ problems with Islam, those leaders’ strident opposition to a variety of progressive initiatives that have substantial support in the USA and the UK, and the efforts of the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury and the leader of the Anglican Communion, to hold the worldwide Anglican Communion together in the face of the evident risk of schism occasioned by ECUSA’s approval of the election of an openly gay bishop. Others have noted Bishop Epting’s apparent lack of empathy with Palestinians and Muslims and his demonstrated disinterest in interfaith dialog. But backpedaling on social justice issues that are of great importance primarily to Arab Americans, Arab Anglicans, and Muslims may, in the view of some church administrators, simply be a politically expedient reaction to a difficult situation at an exceedingly awkward moment in world affairs, interfaith relations, and Anglican Communion politics. Others view the general retreat in the area of interfaith relations and omissions in programming designed to promote racial equality and social justice as an unconscionable moral failure by church leaders who are either disinterested (a reflection of insensitivity and latent, or not so latent, anti-Arab racism and anti-Muslim bigotry) or afraid to speak out and act responsibly in behalf of the human and civil rights of Arab Christians and Muslims who are at risk and under attack in America and beyond.
by courtesy & © 2004 Michael Gillespie