Jewish representatives on the Church Council of Greater Seattle, a coalition of about 450 churches in King and South snohomish counties, are strongly criticizing the council for harboring anti-Semitic views, disseminating anti-Israel literature and seeking to silence Jewish viewpoints on the Middle East peace process.
Leaders of the local offices of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federation have specifically complained about the work of the Church Council’s Palestinian Concerns Task Force, which is one of 22 task forces the council organizes from within its membership.
The working groups address issues from homelessness to the global economy and other international social and political issues. Each task force is allowed to recruit interfaith partners from other faith groups in the community to participate with a full voice in the issues that are discussed. The only restrictions the Church Council places on its interfaith partners is that they cannot vote on task force resolutions.
Two documents in particular — one entitled “Palestine: 50 Years of Dispossession” and the other “The Anatomy of Racism” — that were sent in a mailing to the Church Council Board from the task force served to escalate the growing alienation of the Jewish representatives on the task force.
But it’s not criticism or accusations against Israel that disturb Rick Harkavy, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, Brian Goldberg, regional director of the Pacific Northwest regional office of the Anti-Defamation League, and Chuck Broches, assistant executive director of community development of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. It’s not even the contentious meetings or the admittedly anti-Semitic remarks made by both board and committee members that outrage them as much as their strong feelings that members of the Church Council Executive Board would like them to just be quiet and go away.
In an open letter to the Church Council board, Rev. William Cate, a well-respected former executive director of the council for 20 years and a long-time member and original organizer of the Palestinian Concerns Task Force in the early 1990s, condemned their rejection of a shared Jerusalem resolution that the task force had adopted.
Cate wrote that the role of the task force is to “look carefully at the violence the Israelis have been inflicting on the Palestinians.” He believes that the Jewish perspective on the Middle East conflict as it relates to the discussion about a shared Jerusalem should not be included in the task force dialog.
“The point about sharing Jerusalem is a Christian issue because we’re concerned about justice,” said Cate. “We need a place where Christians can just talk among themselves because there was a lot of pressure from the Jewish community to overwhelm us. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t let us arrive at a common mind and have an internal dialog.”
The Church Council of Greater Seattle, in its mission statement, regards the role of the task force to be a group that “works to educate congregations regarding the Palestinian people, to organize citizens’ action regarding U.S. policies in the Middle East and to serve as a bridge to the Jewish community.”
“I was cautioned by the previous board to not waste my time with the Church Council and that it’s a lost cause,” said the ADL’s Brian Goldberg. “We have files going back years and years and years on the Palestinian Concerns Task Force. The federation, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League all said forget it. They want us to go away. They are not used to strong leadership. We’re in their face.”
The AJC’s Rick Harkavy and Goldberg’s main objection with the task force is that they disseminate information and propagate the view that the Israelis are the sole oppressors and that Palestinians are the only victims in the Middle East conflict. The three Jewish representatives are calling for the task force to be disbanded and urge creation of an interfaith dialog on Middle East issues.
“We’re asked to be seen and not heard,” said Harkavy. “To invite us to sit in their organization and not have any direct input speaks volumes about what their intention is. Rev. Fowler [Palestinian Concerns Task Force Chair] has made a series of comments that all we hear is the Jewish point of view in the media and that they [the Jews] have undue influence in the media. Whether he meant it or not, many Jews have that reaction right away that it’s an anti-Semitic remark. I’ve asked him to give concrete examples. To make these broad, sweeping generalizations are not helpful.”
Perhaps the most contentious comments for Harkavy and Goldberg surfaced in that same letter written by Cate that was published in the March 2001 issue of The Source, the Church Council’s newspaper. In the letter, Cate asserted that “what I see taking place here is a repeated effort by the Jewish defense organizations, who are fraternal interfaith delegates to the council, to stifle the Church Council’s moral voice on the Palestinian and Israeli conflict.”
Cate also goes on to quote and agree with a “fellow member” of the task force when he wrote: “Sadly and clearly the board has kowtowed to the pressure of what Prof. Norman Finklestein has labeled the ‘elite Jewish’ organizations which are unwilling to abide the slightest criticism of Israel for its brutal 34-year military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, including its illegal occupation of East Jerusalem, large sectors of which it has annexed to Israel in total violation of international law.”
In a written response, Harkavy and Goldberg label the comments as “church-based anti-Semitism” that was clearly intended to be offensive to the Jewish community.
In April 2001,the Church Council Board issued a formal written statement of apology to the Jewish community for “unintentionally publishing a letter that contained anti-Semitic language.” The statement goes on to strengthen the board’s desire to work and cooperate with the Jewish community while continuing to “discover effective language and exercise the necessary courage to name the injustices in the Middle East that keep diverse people from living together in peace.”
“A position statement regarding anti-Semitism has been drafted and the task force will consider it when they meet next in August,” said Alice Woldt, acting executive director of The Church Council of Greater Seattle, who has been on staff for 14 years and has stepped into the position after the sudden death of the newly appointed director. “Due to the task force leadership being out of town this summer it cannot be done any sooner. Once it’s approved it will be circulated. My intention is to work with the task force and several board members to set up a constructive dialog with Rick, Brian and Chuck to identify common interests and strategies for achieving them.”
Meanwhile, Cate categorically denies any hostility toward the Jewish community but defends his position.
“I appreciate the anxiety that the Jewish people have because of the Holocaust,” he said, “but they can become too paranoiac about it by the way they are treating the Palestinians. I’m certainly not a racist or an anti-Semite. The two men who are critical of me obviously don’t have a background in this issue. I would like an apology from them.”
Both Harkavy and Goldberg say they are going to pursue a resolution to this conflict that has been going on since November of last year. “Rick and I have made a firm commitment that we’re not going to run with our tail between our legs,” Goldberg said. “We’re not going to back down. I believe the majority of the Church Council are good people. They are our natural allies in fighting religious intolerance and fundamentalists that want to break down the separation of church and state.”
The current chair of the Church Council Board of Directors, Ed Choe, was contacted for comment but did not respond. The Rev. Stan Fowler, outgoing chair of The Palestinian Concerns Task Force, was out of town and unavailable for comment.