It was freezing cold on the night of Feb. 17 in Oakland, but people kept showing up, with Israeli and American flags, homemade signs and umbrellas, outside the First Presbyterian Church at 27th Street and Broadway. What were those 24 or so people doing, braving such a rainy and bitterly cold night to protest outside a church?
We were there because First Presbyterian’s minister, the Rev. Jack Shriver, had agreed to host the “Never Again for Anyone” tour, sticking by his decision even after the anti-Zionist nature of the program was brought to his attention.
“Never Again for Anyone” sounds like a harmless theme. A nice sentiment, especially for Jews. The trouble is, this speaking tour’s agenda is anything but harmless.
Speakers Hajo Meyer (an Auschwitz survivor) and Hatem Bazian (billed as an Islamic scholar) are very overt in their belief that Israel is an illegitimate state engaging in genocide, and that any Jew who supports the existence of Israel is a Nazi.
The tour explicitly equates the Palestinian experience under Israeli occupation with the industrial-scale extermination of Eastern European Jews during the Holocaust. Meyer has claimed that even “interference with education” is genocide; presumably if you dilute the use of a word so much that it loses its meaning, then you can claim moral equivalences where none exist.
The event was organized and co-sponsored by a number of groups, including American Muslims for Palestine and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network — organizations that call for the destruction of the State of Israel. A list of 20 local endorsers listed on the event’s website included a Jewish Voice for Peace chapter and the Oakland Interfaith Gospel, and tickets were available at several East Bay bookstores, such as Diesel, Walden Pond, Moe’s Books and Pegasus.
The Rev. Shriver had assured the people who wrote to him (asking him to cancel the event) that they would be welcome to attend, learn and express their thoughts. However, we quickly discovered that if people were able to be identified as Zionists, they were not, in fact, welcome. (The event’s website includes the note: “We reserve the right to refuse entry to anyone.”)
One of the members of our group paid for a ticket and entered the church, only to be asked to leave (money refunded). Another person seen standing with us was not allowed to buy a ticket and enter.
This contradicted what we had been told by the reverend, but it matched the behavior reported at other stops on the 14-city tour — including Chicago, Toronto and Los Angeles this month — where attendees were forbidden to photograph or record any of the proceedings.
Despite these many restrictions, the event in Oakland was video recorded on the sly by one of our people who
made it into the church. Another person took notes.
Inside, there were approximately 100 people in the audience, and what occurred during the program certainly met the criteria for anti-Semitism as defined by the European Union: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” and “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”
It’s hard to express the degree of hostility, hate and blind anti-Semitic ideology that goes on in such a program. Some people want to believe that they are interested in peace and justice, even though speakers like Meyer and Bazian denounce the peace talks and praise Hamas. The only “peace” that the speakers and their sponsors believe in is “peace without Israel.”
The First Presbyterian Church in Oakland is not the only Bay Area church to have hosted such events. Last year, the First Presbyterian Church in San Anselmo was the site for a conference co-hosted by Friends of Sabeel–North America (a group that Jewish leaders classify as anti-Israel). The event included presentations described by Yitzhak Santis, then the director of the Middle East Project for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, as “using theologically explosive language in casting Israel as cosmically evil.”
Fortunately, these two institutions in San Anselmo and Oakland do not represent all Presbyterian churches or ministers in the Bay Area; one of our community’s strongest Christian friends is the Rev. Doug Huneke of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tiburon.
One night before the event in Oakland, a mosque in Sacramento had hosted the same program. The response from Rabbi Reuven Taff, president of the 13-member Board of Rabbis of Greater Sacramento, was right on the mark. He was quoted by the Sacramento Bee as saying, “it makes it very difficult to sit down at the same table [at interfaith events] with anyone who supports or endorses a program of hate.”
Our community needs to continue to speak out and to reject the labels being given to us by those who themselves reject peace. We not only need to “name and shame” the institutions that host such hate speech, but our community’s leadership should also consider Taff’s words.
Why should we work in concert — at an interfaith event or otherwise — with a church or other institution that supports such events?
The Reut Institute accurately describes the Bay Area as one of the “hubs of delegitimization” of Israel.
The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation took the groundbreaking step last year of drawing a bright line in its funding guidelines against delegitimization activities, including the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
We believe it’s time for all of our community institutions, including our synagogues, to tell churches and mosques that choose to host these events that we will turn up the pressure on them for supporting hate speech.
Dr. Michael Harris of San Rafael and Charlotte Griffin of El Cerrito are members of the steering committee of StandWithUs/San Francisco Voice for Israel.