Thursday, May 21, 2009


Below is a rejection letter from a prominent pastor in Des Moines, Iowa. The response is typical of may church leaders who fear the vehemence and viciousness of the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines who will do just about anything to silence institutions as well as people. The rejection, this time, goes to a couple who want to speak about Israel and Iran and our role in a potential debacle or, worse, war. Following the rejection are responses from those of us who disagree about keeping our congregations from ever having to "gasp" when they hear truth spoken to power. When will our churches, synogogues and mosques assert moral leadership in America and stand up for justice and peace?

May 12, 2009


Last night at the Plymouth Peace Committee meeting, the request to sponsor your presentation in June came to the attention of the committee. After much discussion about the nature of your topic, the committee felt that your topic is important and should be heard, but not at Plymouth.

Plymouth Peace Committee tries to avoid political commentary and points of view that may not be received well by our Jewish neighbors. As the past president of the Des Moines Area Religious Council, I am particularly sensitive to this problem. It’s almost impossible to separate questions of religion and politics when discussing the Middle East.

The last presentation sponsored by the Peace Committee at Plymouth was a presentation called “Love Your Enemies” by Louie Vitale. Although the slide show at the beginning of the evening was a rather harmless pictorial journal of the development of a cross cultural relationship, the following question and answer period brought up some very pointed political views that made some of our congregation gasp [emphasis supplied]. We are not willing to do that again.

I hope you do find a venue where you can hold your presentation. Please let us know where it is. Some of our membership will want to attend.

Thanks for your understanding.

Faith V. Ferré

Minister of Discipleship
Plymouth U.C.C.
Des Moines, IA
(515) 255-3149
Any speaker who suggests that Iran is not the existential threat pro-Israel war mongers say it is makes the Israel-firsters nervous, and they are pulling out all the stops in their largely behind-the-scenes effort to silence anyone and everyone who speaks against a US attack on Iran, anyone who thinks the US military has better things to do than fight Israel's wars for that rigidly ultranationalistic, militantly expansionist, nuclear-armed state, which, with largely uncritical US diplomatic and economic support, has persistently and systematically engaged in black letter law Geneva Conventions war crimes and crimes against humanity in the illegally Occupied Palestinian Territories for some 60 years. Here's something that may make you gasp, Faith Ferre: Too bad Hedy Epstein is not one of your Jewish neighbors. Or this: Too bad none of these kids are your neighbors. Perhaps you or your gasping congregation could minister to them, or in their behalf?
The article and photos below appear on page 14 of the (current) May issue of The Independent Monitor, the national newspaper of Arab Americans.

Vitale: “The sticky wicket is Israel”

By Michael Gillespie

For The Independent Monitor

4/20/2009 – 977 words

Franciscan priest and activist Fr. Louie Vitale spoke at Plymouth Congregational Church in Des Moines on Sunday, April 19, about his experiences during a visit to Iran in late February and his protest and arrest at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada earlier in April.

Vitale, whose commitment to the practice of active nonviolent civil disobedience in behalf of peace and justice has led to his arrest on more than 200 occasions, offered his perspective on the prospects for peace in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

“Let’s be honest about it,” said the 76-year-old priest, “the sticky wicket is Israel. There is so much tension about Israel, and they are all identifying the U.S. with Israel.”

“When [the Israeli December 2008-January 2009 attack on] Gaza was going on, and before when [the 2006 Lebanon War] was going on, everybody knows that the weapons came from the United States,” said Vitale.

“I was in Washington in 2006 when the Lebanon War was going on and it was very clear and I kept waiting for the government to say, for Condoleezza Rice to say, you know we were all calling for ‘a truce, a truce, a truce,’ and she said ‘no truce, no truce,’ well, that doesn’t help,” said Vitale.

Vitale recalled a meeting that occurred during his February visit to Iran. He and the other five American peacemakers who formed the multi-faith delegation led by Quaker David Hartsough met with people from all walks of life, merchants and professors, students and politicians, families and clergy members. They also met for about two hours with members of the Iranian parliament, including several representatives of various minority religious communities within Iran.

“That was a very powerful meeting,” said Vitale.

“Two of them represented the Armenian and Assyrian Christians. There was one representing the Jews and one representing the Zoroastrians, which is the oldest religion out there in Iran,” said Vitale.

“The one who was from Iran representing the Jews was really focused particularly on one our young fellows who is Jewish, and really insisting, ‘You’ve got to talk to American Jews about backing off,’” said Vitale.

During a wide-ranging Q&A that followed his formal remarks and media presentation, Vitale responded to questions and invited comments from the audience.

The Independent Monitor mentioned news media coverage of controversial statements by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, his prominent role in the United Nations conference on race taking place in Geneva, Switzerland, and asked Vitale if, when he was in Iran, he had seen or heard any evidence of anti-Jewish sentiment among Iranians.

Vitale said he believes that reports asserting that Ahmadinejad has called for the destruction of Israel “have been debunked.”

“The bottom line, what they are really trying to say is, ‘There is all this incredible energy directed toward what happened to Israel, but what’s happening to us?’” said Vitale.

“With the U.S. and with Israel, I think the question is the governments,” said Vitale, who pointed to widespread anti-war sentiment in the USA and to members of the Israeli military who have refused to serve in the illegally Occupied Palestinian Territories.

“[Ahmadinejad] speaks in pretty inflammatory language, but our last president spoke, you know, of the ‘Axis of Evil’ and some of the things that were said were very inflammatory,” said Vitale.

In response to Vitale’s remarks about Iran, one member of an audience of about 60, Navid Emami, who has lived and worked in Iowa for many years, offered some observations that drew general applause.

“I am from Iran. … There is a right wing government in Iran now. But there are also progressive movements in Iran. [Former Iranian president Mohammad] Khatami has urged dialog with other cultures and nations. Within Iranian society, the camp of reform, they were really gaining ground, but as soon as Bush went to the Congress with that famous speech about the ‘Axis of Evil’, well of course the right wing took advantage of that,” said Emami.

“This doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If the U.S. would lessen the pressure, Iranians will do their part. But if they feel they are surrounded by enemies, well of course they will support their government because they don’t want what happened to Iraq to happen to them. They don’t want revolution, they don’t want ‘regime change’, but if you leave it to them they will change,” said Emami.

“You are exactly right,” said Emami, “the Iranians are not anti-Semites. Literate Iranians are not against gays or lesbians. Actually, the majority of Iranians are very liberal,” said Emami.

A former provincial of the California Franciscan Friars, Vitale co-founded the Nevada Desert Experience, a movement to end nuclear testing, and Pace e Bene. Pace e Bene invites people to “Imagine a world with dignity, justice, and peace for all. A world with the tools to challenge the spiral of war, poverty and ecological devastation. A world where we apply these tools to our own lives as well as our larger society.”

Vitale, who was pastor of a Catholic church in a low-income neighborhood in San Francisco, CA for 12 years, served a five-month prison sentence in 2007 and 2008 for staging an anti-torture protest at a military intelligence training center at Fort Huachuca, AZ in 2006.

Vitale’s most recent arrest occurred on April 9 when he and thirteen others entered the gate of Creech Air Force Base north of Las Vegas, Nevada singing and prayerfully challenging the remote operation of hunter-killer drone aircraft over Afghanistan and Pakistan. Two Iowans, Rene Espeland, of the Des Moines Catholic Worker Community, and Brian Terrell, of the Strangers & Guests Catholic Worker Farm, Maloy, IA, were among those arrested in Nevada with Vitale.

Vitale told The Independent Monitor that he has no plans to return to Iran, but he noted with a grin that he didn’t have plans for his most recent visit there either.

What has happened to intellectual courage? When will the Christian clergy in America wake up?


Religious perplexities are inevitable; there can be no growth without psychic conflict and spiritual agitation. The organization of a philosophic standard of living entails considerable commotion in the philosophic realms of the mind. Loyalties are not exercised in behalf of the great, the good, the true, and the noble without a struggle. Effort is attendant upon clarification of spiritual vision and enhancement of cosmic insight.

Dear Faith Ferre:

Years ago I came to you to ask for support for a Palestinian film festival I and others were trying to mount in Des Moines in the face of angst and undermining tactics from the Jewish Federation of Great Des Moines. I doubt that you remember the festival or me because your response was, "I'm busy and can only give you a minute of my time. What do you want?" The implication was "get out of here." I went.

Your brush off, which happened that day and, at least, one other time over the years, is one of the re
asons I no longer attend church or belong to a church even though I am the daughter and sister of Presbyterian pastors and have been an elder myself.

Growing up, my father did not teach me to bend to tyrannical pressure when wrong was being done. Until he was fading into Alzheimer's disease, he did not preach that a comfortable, unchallenged life was our right as Christians or Americans nor did he cowardly refuse to recognize world shaking events because he might cause people in his congregation or community to gasp. He preached against the Holocaust. He stood up for people in pain and for people who did without. He believed in the power of acting like Jesus Christ rather than spouting off cliches about the man as savior and lord of himself.

I have come to think that the majority of clergy in Ames and Des Moines value a conversation with members of the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines and their subscribers more than the lives of Palestinians or Israelis and, apparently, have no interest in justice except as the federation sees it. As the federation sees it does not represent the views of all of Judaism, however silent those disagreeing may be. You can talk only so long until you realize that there has to be a will for peace, concession, revolutionary forgiveness and justice on both or all sides of any issue. In this case, the conversations should have stopped at least 30 years ago. In this case, unless you, yourself, know and understand the history and differences between Zionism and Judaism, you help no one at all.

When I received a copy of you letter rejecting the Hansen's request
to speak at your church, I was beyond furious. As I said above, you are not alone in the sentiments you expressed, though few have expressed this rejection of the Christian message better than you. By doing so, you put an argument on the table, and I would be remiss not to respond. Maybe you're about to set the methods right by putting such a vivid take on the idea that being a Christian leaders means ignoring, rejecting or avoiding difficult questions affecting our entire world. Is it only for comfort that you and your church refuse to honor and assist those putting themselves on the line to stop violence and evil, much of which is beyond the American experience. The greatest wish of the Jewish Federation is to keep institutions from allowing other voices to be heard. By refusing to allow others to speak in the institution you represent, you succumb to Zionist silencing techniques. The Jewish Federation wants to talk forever and they restrain themselves not at all in using verbal assassination and lies and fear to secure their ideologies.

When I came to you, you knew I could not threaten you or your position nor could I advance either. It was easy for you to reject me, but in so doing, you also rejected the voices of people who cannot speak here for themselves: the poor, the colonized, the suffering. Such cowardliness seems to be what many Christian churches have become. Moral initiatives fall through the cracks, safe or "politically correct" topics hide reality, comfort offers unrealistic security and a false understanding of dangers that do exist and do affect us. Many of us have never lived in the midst of war or occupation or behind a hideous wall of exclusion. When war comes to America, as it very well may, saying, "I didn't know; I didn't understand," will be no excuse.

The idea that Plymouth Church is there only for its congregation's comfort and peace of mind (never to be interrupted by controversy or a "gasp") is, for me, the opposite of the teachings that built the Christian religion. Evidently, what you have at Plymouth are the Sadducee and Pharisees and no righteously honest clergy intent on making a Christ like sanctuary.
I think this because anyone who values his or her own conversation with those who shred the lives of a whole people for their own mistaken sense of refuge has failed Jew, Christian, Muslim, all of us. Where is love and hope and justice that can achieve peace? Is your only option to look away from pain, fearful of a gasp? Will you not offer those who gasp a path to forgiveness and real peace for everyone rather than a justification of your own timidity, self-preservation and denial?

This is a long letter, I know, and since it doesn't agree with you, I can imagine another brush off. That's angry, I know, but you represent to me what the American Christian mainstream church has become, cowardly, deliberately ignorant and on the way to extinction. I lament this everyday of my life.

A Student of Liberation Theology
and Determined Activist
Betsy Mayfield

"Hate and revenge is a disease, and I don't want to be diseased or sick."

Gaza doctor whose family were killed by IDF fundraises for Israeli hospital
by The Associated Press
Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Gaza infertility specialist, is a familiar figure to Israelis - a Palestinian who crossed the lines of enmity years ago to work in Israeli hospitals and become a frequent guest on Israeli TV and radio.

But the interview he did on Jan. 16, as Israeli forces waged war on Gaza's Hamas rulers, was horrifyingly different: Israeli tank shells had just killed three of his daughters, and he was phoning an Israeli journalist-friend, live on the air, to plead for help in evacuating the wounded, including another daughter and a niece.
Four months later, far from voicing bitterness over his loss, Abuelaish is trying to turn his tragedy into hope, raising money for a scholarship fund for Gaza girls and an Israeli hospital, and preaching reconciliation.

"We need to open our eyes, our minds and to have big hearts, to smash the mental and physical barriers and borders, to build the broken trust," said the Harvard-trained son of a Gaza laborer, sitting in the apartment where 14-year-old Aya, 15-year-old Mayar and 21-year-old Bissan were killed two days before the war ended.

At a time when U.S. President Barack Obama has begun a round of meetings with Middle East leaders on how to end the Middle East conflict, Abuelaish's story illuminates the reality at ground level. With Israelis and Palestinians increasingly separated by fences and fear, it has offered a rare example of suffering on one side drawing empathy from the other.

Born in Gaza's largest refugee camp, the eldest of nine children, the 54-year-old doctor navigates easily between worlds. One day, he's bowing in Muslim prayer in Gaza. The next, he's chatting with fellow physicians at Tel Hashomer, a leading Tel Aviv-area hospital.

During the Gaza war, launched to end Hamas rocket fire on Israeli border towns, Israeli journalists often turned to him for a Gaza perspective, delivered in his fluent Hebrew.

Abuelaish, a widower, and his children, ages 6 to 21, spent the war in their apartment on the second floor of the five-story family building he shares with his brothers and their families in the town of Jebaliya, close to the border with Israel.

On Jan. 3, after a week of air attacks, Israeli tanks and ground forces moved into the Gaza Strip, including the doctor's neighborhood, and over the next two weeks would fire heavily, demolishing homes they said were thought to serve as Hamas positions.

On Jan. 16, Abuelaish was due to be interviewed by phone by Channel 10, a
commercial Israeli TV station.

Four of his older daughters - Aya, Mayar, Bissan and 17-year-old Shada - were in their room that day, along with his niece Noor, 17. Shortly after 4:30 p.m., the first shell crashed into the home.

Abuelaish ran to the girls' room. "Aya, Mayar, Bissan and Noor were dead, their bodies torn, pools of blood on the floor," he said. "Shada was badly wounded in the right eye and hand."

"I don't want anyone to witness what I witnessed," Abuelaish said quietly.

He scooped up Shada. A second shell struck, critically wounding 12-year-old niece Ghaida and two of the doctor's brothers.

The doctor quickly took charge.

Fearing that Ghaida would die and Shada go blind, he called his friend, Shlomi Eldar, Palestinian affairs reporter for Israel's Channel 10 TV.

Eldar aired their conversation live. Viewers heard the doctor's pleas to
evacuate the wounded to Israel, interrupted by his cries of grief.

Eldar also fought back tears as he urged anyone from the Israeli military who was watching the program to help the doctor. Then he worked the phones to get someone to rescue the family, said Ofer Shelah, a Channel 10 anchorman.

"Everybody was flabbergasted," he recalled. "It was a very shocking, human moment for everyone involved."

Palestinian ambulances couldn't reach the house for fear of coming under Israeli fire, so the family left on foot for the nearest Palestinian hospital, with teenagers carrying the wounded on makeshift stretchers. After many phone calls, Gaza ambulances drove the wounded to the border for a transfer to Tel Hashomer that was covered live by Channel 10 during evening prime time.

Shelah said he believes the doctor's tragedy changed attitudes. Israeli public support for the offensive remained strong, as a justified response to years of rocket fire, but Abuelaish made them empathize for the first time with Gaza civilians, he said. "He is such a winning person and his response was so noble that you couldn't sweep it under the rug as Palestinian propaganda, Shelah said."

The army says its investigation shows that its soldiers were shot at from a building next to Abuelaish's, and that the tanks fired at suspicious figures on the upper level of the doctor's house. It says it had repeatedly urged the doctor and others in the building to leave for their own safety.

Abuelaish denies getting warnings and insists there were no militants in his building or any shooting in the area until the tank shells struck.

Four months later, Palestinians and Israelis cling to their dueling narratives - that Israel used excessive force in a densely crowded area and killed a large number of civilians, that Hamas provoked the war by its eight years of rocket fire on Israeli civilians and then used its own civilians as human shields
against the Israeli forces.

But Abuelaish says time is too precious to be wasted on arguments. "Hate and revenge is a disease, he says, and I don't want to be diseased or sick."

He is now walking a path others have traveled before him, among them several hundred bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents who come together in what they call The Parents' Circle.

"In both societies, people are willing to listen to the bereaved," said an Israeli leader of the group, Roni Hirshenson, who has lost two sons to the conflict, one of them in a Palestinian suicide bombing.

"The message is that if the families of victims on both sides speak out together, we can overcome the hatred and act with reason," said Hirshenson, 67, who visited Abuelaish at Tel Hashomer after the war to try to comfort him.

Abuelaish said he has been inundated by sympathetic e-mails from Israelis.

The doctor is taking up a teaching position at the University of Toronto in the fall and will probably leave with his surviving children, Abdullah, 6; Ghafa, 9, Mohammed, 13; Dalal, 20; and Shada. Shada's eyesight was saved, and last week she was at home sitting in front of a pile of books, cramming for her high school finals.

Abuelaish will also spend part of each year teaching at Haifa University in Israel, and plans to return to Gaza in five years.

He plans to write a book about his life to make the case for coexistence. In partnership with Tel Hashomer, he is helping to raise money for a conference center there, to be named after his daughters.

"I lost three precious daughters, but I have another five [children]" he said. "I have a future, I have my people, and hatred and revenge can be driven out by love and wisdom."

100:4.1 Religious living is devoted living, and devoted living is creative living, original and spontaneous. New religious insights arise out of conflicts which initiate the choosing of new and better reaction habits in the place of older and inferior reaction patterns. New meanings only emerge amid conflict; and conflict persists only in the face of refusal to espouse the higher values connoted in superior meanings.

100:4.2 Religious perplexities are inevitable; there can be no growth without psychic conflict and spiritual agitation. The organization of a philosophic standard of living entails considerable commotion in the philosophic realms of the mind. Loyalties are not exercised in behalf of the great, the good, the true, and the noble without a struggle. Effort is attendant upon clarification of spiritual vision and enhancement of cosmic insight. And the human intellect protests against being weaned from subsisting upon the nonspiritual energies of temporal existence. The slothful animal mind rebels at the effort required to wrestle with cosmic problem solving.

100:4.3 But the great problem of religious living consists in the task of unifying the soul powers of the personality by the dominance of LOVE. Health, mental efficiency, and happiness arise from the unification of physical systems, mind systems, and spirit systems. Of health and sanity man understands much, but of happiness he has truly realized very little. The highest happiness is indissolubly linked with spiritual progress. Spiritual growth yields lasting joy, peace which passes all understanding.