It was the phrase “…Zionist partners in crime..” that caught my eye on the poster in the window, I was checking out a poster for a 9-11 event schedule for our church of Friday, September 9th. What first appeared to be just another “9-11 truth” event, you know, it was an inside job, that kind of thing, suddenly looked darker. As I googled and researched the website of the main speaker,Christopher Bollyn, I discovered he had an agenda linking a worldwide Zionist(Jewish) conspiracy to control the Middle East, the US, the media…it was pretty clear. The international Zionists were responsible for 9-11.
I wrote an email to my leaders, raising my concerns. The responses covered a number of interesting areas, eg:
- The classic freedom of speech issue
- The fact that they had a valid contract
- The fact that we had previously held Palestinian solidarity events that had been called (anti-Semitic (ironically enough, mainly Israeli films!)
- We have also been the venue for the organizing effort of Black Lives Matter and the Stop Mass Incarceration Movements.
- Therefore we didn’t want to create a policy that would limit causes, events we did favor.
- Would our turning them away actually give them more publicity? Would we be playing into their hands?
- There was concern about offending our neigh its, but that in itself is not sufficient argument.
Our first conclusions were to take down outside posters and require the group to hire extra security for the event.
Then I got an email from my friend Pastor Elise saying that a teaching colleague of hers, a Spencer Sunshine, had contacted her about getting me to stop the event. He sent me lots more information, confirming what I already knew. As well as about the “progressive” Brooklyn coffee shop, Brooklyn Commons, where a Wednesday event was scheduled. Surprisingly, the person at the Commons saw nothing anti-Semitic on Bollyn’s website. They were not about to budge. Dr. Sunshine asked if I wanted my congregation to be the target of anger and protest. I said that could be perceived as threatening. He said he was just objectively reporting.
By this point, my leaders also wanted to post disclaimers.
West Park Presbyterian Church and The Center at West Park provides meeting facilities. Therefore, the content and opinions expressed during the program at today’s event are those of the speaker and should not be construed as representing or reflecting the views of West Park Presbyterian Church or The Center at West Park, nor the respective boards, staff or membership.
We agreed we needed to inform our friends on the Center Board as they needed to know, so I prepared this email:
The purpose of this email is to bring our friends from the Center on board regarding a situation I first brought to the Session's attention last Thursday, ( I will forward email string shortly but will summarize all right here. To review:
1. On Thursday, I read the posters in our boxes for a 9-11 event to be held on 9/9 at West-Park and became alarmed at a reference to "Zionists" stating a conspiracy. This led me to research the speaker, Christopher Bollyn. His belief is that a Zionist conspiracy controls the government, media etc. He and organizations he has been associated with include neo-nazis and David Duke of the Klan.
2. We discovered that when booked, Laurie (clearly) had no idea who these people were
3. We carried on an exchange that covered a number of areas including:
A. Free speech. (Although a church is a private institution and has no obligation to allow for presentations that violate its principles.)
B. The fact that we rent to religious groups that exclude the lgbtq community
C. The fact that our Israel-Palestine film series has been accused of being "anti-semitic" by members of the community.
D. Our relationship with the "Stop Mass Incarceration Network" and their perceived anti-police perspective. (We were their location for planing last October's marches against police violence.)
E. Even the issue of "hate speech" is not easy to define according to different people's perspectives
The point to the above is that while Bollyn is clearly an anti-semite, there was concern about the role of perception in these matters and establishing precedent or policy that would harm us in other ways.
4. There was concern over the fact that a contract had been signed and that we had no legal grounds for cancellation and could open ourselves up for actions regarding cancellation. (Although I wondered if the contract had been signed under false pretenses.)
5. The initial conclusion was that we:
A. Require them to hire security, given their own reports of violence at other events.
B. Prohibit external advertising
C. Prepare and post a disclaimer that this is a rental that we in no way endorse
D. Prepare policies that will protect us in future events.
6. Subsequent to this, I received on 9/4 an email from my colleague Pastor Elise Brown containing a letter/request from a professional colleague of hers. (I will forward that as well...)
7. We revisited the issue again yesterday after church with the following points being made:
A. Don was present for Laurie's conversation with Bollyn's people who made MUCH of the signed contract issue. A question here is whether canceling them can potentially bring them more attention than if we let them proceed at an event that may not be noticed at all. IE, do we play into their hands by cancelling?
B. It was decided we needed to share this discussion with our Center friends.
I must say that last night as I lay in bed the thought crossed my mind, as valid as all these points are and as valuable as the conversation has been, and your concerns are real, perhaps it is this simple, as long as we are in charge, the facilities of West-Park shall never be used for the propagation of what we know to be anti-semitism. Period. And let the chips fall where they may.
Thanks for all your thoughts on this concerning matter...
My middle of the night thought was it was very simple…I would never allow our property to be used for the promulgation of anti-semitism or anything denigrating any group. That’s all. So we scheduled a conference call.
Many people anxiously awaited that call, including Dr. Sunshine (his real name, from the Yiddish Sonnenshein) and colleagues to now even the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. With only one dissent, we voted to cancel. We had a clause in the contract about events that contradict the mission of the church, And as a private institution, we have no obligation to any other party.
Of course, the Bollyn folks accused of bowing to Zionist bullying. In email and on facebook. And the Commons lived through an awkward and painful night. We had a few angry phone calls and a few confused people showing up at Open Mic looking for the event. That's it. Progressive groups ae pulling out of the Commons. We knew our decision was the right one.
It was probably predictable that the 9-11 “truther” movement would slide into open anti-Semitism. And then seek to move into progressive circles committed to Palestinian solidarity. We learned that we had been targeted because of our denomination’s commitment to Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS). As I commented to a rabbi friends mine, there’s no shortage of assholery in the world. Sadly, there’s a left vulnerability to anti-Semitism.
Threats of being charged with anti-Semitism are not valid in trying to silence anti-israeli policy discussions. And likewise, charges of being afraid of being labelled anti-Semitic are not valid to promote anti-Semitism. Put another way, just because you’re anti-Israel doesn’t make you anti-Semitic. But just because you’re pro-Palestinian doesn’t mean you’re not.
We in the progressive community have much to talk about here…
Here’s how Haaretz reported the story: