Israelis Not Invited

The February 2007 issue of The Lutheran, the denominational magazine published by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), confirms a troubling aspect about a Lutheran-sponsored conference in Germany last November: Conference organizers explicitly decided not to invite any Israelis to an event where Israel’s security barrier was condemned by Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh, who was elected to his post with support from Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

If Israelis had been invited, they might have challenged Batarseh about his political obligations to Hamas and Islamic Jihadtwo groups dedicated to Israel’s destruction and which have perpetrated many of the terror attacks the barrier was built to prevent. 

Moreover, if Israelis were present, they could have also challenged Batarseh about his affiliation with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a group responsible for numerous murderous attacks and designated by the United States and Europe as a terrorist organization.
In subsequent coverage of the conference, ELCA officials did not report Batarseh’s connection to any of these groups.
If Israelis were present, they could have pointed out that the barrier (only 5% is a concrete “wall”) has worked, helping to dramatically reduce terror attacks against Israeli children in their beds, commuters in buses and teenagers in cafes.  Fewer suicide bombers getting into Israel has also meant fewer Israeli incursions and fewer Palestinian casualties.  Israel has gone to great lengths to minimize the difficulties the fence causes, repeatedly altering the course of the structure to alleviate hardship, providing scores of gates to enable movement back and forth, and replanting more than 60,000 olive trees for Palestinian farmers.

In November 2006, The Evangelical Academy of Sachsen-halt, a school in with ties to ELCA, hosted an event titled “Mighty Fortresses and Mustard Seeds: Life in the Shadow of a Wall.” The event was sponsored by the ELCA Network of International Learning Centers, ELCA’s Global Mission and ELCA Vocation and Education. According to an article in the February 2007 issue of The Lutheran, “the conference examined three walls—the Berlin Wall, the Israeli barrier wall and the U.S.-Mexican border wall.”

The conference, which was subsequently covered by ELCA’s news service, was attended by several prominent church officials, including Rev. Murray D. Finck, bishop of ELCA’s Pacifica Synod in Yorba Linda, California and Rev. Said Ailabouni, then director of Europe and Middle East for ELCA’s Global Missions office. The event also was covered in a blog operated by Ben McDonald Coltvet, associate director for interpretation and planning for ELCA.
Conference attendees heard testimony about the security barrier from several Palestinian Christians including Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh, a Roman Catholic.
According to a May 20, 2005 report by Agence France Presse, Batarseh, an American citizen, is a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. This group is responsible for the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi in October 2001, a December 2003 suicide attack that killed three Israelis, and the murders of several Americans including wheel-chair bound Leon Klinghoffer, who was pushed off a cruise ship in the Mediterranean in 1985. Batarseh was elected to the Bethlehem city council in May 2005 while running on Hamas’s slate of candidates. After his election as councilor, he was elected Mayor with the support of other three councilors from the PFLP and five from Hamas. A Dec. 29, 2005 report by Chiesa, a Catholic journal, states that Batarseh was also supported  by Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
According to the Feb. 2007 issue of The Lutheran, Batarseh complained about Palestinians having to change ambulances before reaching hospitals as a result of the barrier and about the tourism industry collapsing. At one point, Batarseh stated: “We are paying the price for what was done to the Jews here in Germany.” (This statement evoked objections from German attendees of the conference.)  
With no Israelis present, apparently nobody suggested that that Palestinians might actually be paying the price for terrorism by groups with which Batarseh is affiliated—the PFLP, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It was suicide bombings and other murderous attacks by these and other Palestinian groups that led to Israel’s decision to build the security barrier. 
On Nov. 15, 2006, CAMERA contacted Ben McDonald Coltvet and asked if he felt it was appropriate to link Israel’s barrier, built to prevent suicide attacks, with the Berlin Wall, which was intended to keep people from escaping the Communist state. CAMERA also asked (among other things):
  • If any victims of Palestinian terror were at the conference;
  • If attendees were told about the growing levels of anti-Jewish hate in Palestinian society;
  • If conference participants were informed of Victor Batarseh’s affiliation with Hamas; and
  • Just how reasonable it is to allow a man who holds his post courtesy of Hamas, a racist group that targets Israel civilians in its quest to replace Israel with a fundamentalist Islamic state, to testify about the negative impact of Israel’s security barrier on Palestinians.
McDonald Coltvet responded on Nov. 17, 2006 with the vague assertion that that ELCA has been consistent in “denouncing violent acts and calling for dialogue that will lead to peaceful solutions.” He also stated that ELCA’s Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson has asked religious leaders to “reject growing anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and marginalization of Arab Christianity” and to “reject violence and call for an immediate end to all hostilities.”
In reference to CAMERA’s questions regarding the (lack of) involvement of victims of Palestinian terrorism, McDonald Coltvet responded that the conference intentionally excluded Jewish Israelis. He explained it was
… a conversation among Christian partners. The conference was one step along the path to peace, in which U.S. Lutherans and other church partners (including Palestinian, German and Mexican Christians) listened and learned from each other to develop ways we can extend our shared ministry of peace and reconciliation in the U.S., Mexico, Germany and Palestine. Had the conference focused solely on the conflict in Israel/Palestine, it would have made sense to include speakers from several different sides of the issue * Jewish, Muslim and Christian voices in trialogue.
In fact, several participants suggested that it would be valuable to have a future conference that would bring more perspectives to the table (including Jewish and Muslim voices) for constructive dialogue. The ELCA remains committed to dialogue with ecumenical and interfaith partners and values their contributions on this issue.
It should be noted that McDonald Coltvet did not respond specifically to the question about Batarseh’s ties to Hamas. Nor did he provide any information about Batarseh’s ties to Hamas at his blog about the conference—even after CAMERA brought the issue to his attention.
Also noteworthy is that Germans from both sides of the Berlin Wall and the residents on both sides of the Mexican-American border were present at the conference.
CAMERA posted a blog entry about Batarseh’s involvement at the conference on Nov. 15, 2006. Six days later, ELCA News Service published an article  by McDonald Coltvet, which also fails to report Batarseh’s connection to Hamas.
Others Voiced Concern with Slant
McDonald Coltvet suggested in his email to CAMERA that there was little if any controversy about the one-sided nature of the Nov. 17 conference, saying only that “several participants suggested that it would be valuable to have a future conference” with Jewish voices. However, in its February 2007 issue, The Lutheran (to its credit) revealed that some conference participants disagreed with the decision to exlude Israelis. 
Katharina Wegner, described as “a legal expert who handles migration issues within the Protestant church in Germany” reportedly said: “It’s a pity no one from the Israeli side is here.” Also, Stephan Dorgerloh, a professor at the Evangelical Academy of Sachsen-halt and a conference organizer, was quoted as saying “I’m not sure our decision not to invite Israelis to the conference was wise. Our debate is lacking. … We make things too simple to say we’re only victims and others are the perpetrators.”
The conference and subsequent coverage of the event by the ELCA News Service is troubling on a number of levels.
First, the lack of Israeli speakers at the conference was no mere oversight, but was the consequence of an explicit decision on the part of conference organizers to not invite Israelis—even though Germans on both sides of the Berlin Wall and the residents on both sides of the Mexican-American border were present at the conference.
Second, when confronted about the absence of Israelis, an ELCA official invoked, in effect, a “Christians only” rule, to justify the absence of Israelis. It should be noted, however, that there are Israeli Christians who support the barrier and who could have been invited to address the conference.
Third, the conference’s sessions on Israel’s security barrier included testimony from Victor Batarseh, a Palestinian politician with ties to terrorist organizations which have perpetrated suicide attacks the barrier was meant to prevent. There is no evidence to suggest attendees were informed of his ties to these organizations. Subsequent publicity and coverage of the conference failed to mention these ties.
Fourth, ELCA official Ben McDonald Coltvet failed to report Batarseh’s connection to Hamas in his writings about the event even after he was informed of the mayor’s affiliation to the organization by CAMERA. It does not appear that church officials provided this information to their denominational magazine, either.
Lastly, when confronted about the distorted narrative at the conference, McDonald Coltvet, an ELCA spokesperson, invoked official statements from the church condemning violence on all sides of the conflict as if these statements absolve church officials from their responsibility to portray the Arab-Israeli conflict in an accurate and fair manner. When churches offer a one-sided narrative about the Arab-Israeli conflict and deny Israelis a chance to respond, the resulting narrative legitimizes violence against Israelis, regardless of the official statements from these churches.

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