Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sabeel Conferences affirmed US concern for justice and peace

Three Sabeel Conferences in the USA affirmed activism and concern for justice and peace

Friends of Sabeel - North America (FOSNA - and local organizers hosted three conferences earlier this year, in Seattle, San Anselmo, Calif., and Honolulu. These notes are adapted from FOSNA reports.

"The United States, Israel and Palestine: What Does Justice Require of US?" was the theme Feb. 19-20, 2010, at St Mark's Cathedral in Seattle.

Attendance was double that which was expected, close to 450, with participants coming from 19 states and 3 Canadian provinces.

A member of Veterans for Peace suggested, "Every major city in the US needs to host such a conference."

"A Time for Truth, A Time for Action - Palestine/Israel and the U.S. at the Crossroads" was the theme March 5-6, 2010, at First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo, Calif. In the final days before the Marin Sabeel Conference, Zionist groups had sent smear-filled letters to sponsoring churches and local bishops, rumors were afloat of their plans to disrupt workshops, and the weather service was predicting rain.

The planning committee met with diocesan officials to counter the hate mail, spent a morning in non-violence training and alerted local police. Registrations streamed in, passing 400, and the web site announced that enrollment was closed. The local daily ran a well-placed profile of a committee member and touted the conference.

Friday, March 5th, participants gathered in the sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo to sing "Bearers of Peace," and Rev. Naim Ateek spoke from his heart and to our hearts about the Nakba and occupation, comparing the situation to a banyan tree that sends down more and more roots as it strangles the life from its unwilling host, a once healthy palm.

Participants heard from witnesses to the occupation, both Palestinian and Jewish, and in the workshops activists spoke on Christian Zionism, the media, Palestinian politics, anti-Semitism, liberation theology and the needs of children and youth in occupied Palestine. We heard calls to boycott and divest from Israel and learned how to educate our communities and deal with hostile opponents.

Mohammed Alatar showed his film "Jerusalem: The East Side Story" and answered questions.

On Saturday morning spring sunshine filled the patio. The fake "Women in Black" who sowed confusion at the 2007 Berkeley Sabeel conference made no appearance.

The morning session opened with Dr. Mads Gilbert bringing to life his experience in Gaza's Shifa Hospital during Israel's slaughter in the winter of 2008-2009. His photos of wounded children, Palestinian health workers, ambulance drivers and stunned families, his recordings of drones and bombs and mortar fire, made a searing impression that moved many to tears. Dr. Gilbert's images sent a message: the situation is critical; we have no time to lose.

The audience was ready to listen as panelists spoke of religious extremism and the prospects for change in U.S. policy and then gave their attention to Omar Barghouti's appeal for nonviolent action in the form of boycott, divestment and sanctions.

From the opening moment, music punctuated the program, and Jim McFadden's singing to piano accompaniment was a signal to gather in the sanctuary after breaks. Local poets shared their work, and "down time" offered a chance to take in Middle Eastern music and food. And at the end, before the final dismissal and prayers, there was Remi Kanazi, a Palestinian hip-hop artist reciting his impassioned lines about oppression and hope.

More than 500 people attended the conference, and from the beginning at least a few Zionist opponents were in the crowd. At one point they included an official from the Israeli consulate, but although they took notes, no one disrupted workshops or plenary sessions.

We gained many friends, and they have been sending their comments via email and blog: "The most powerful and educational conference I've ever been to." Another said, "The people who came from our church were totally impressed with the speakers and the content. It couldn't have been better." Someone else wrote, "I know you changed people's thinking and their lives."

Best of all, many of them are saying in various ways: "We're getting involved from now on. Count on us!"

The Rev Liz Zivanov and the Rev Richard Toll welcomed more than 100 to the Cathedral Church of St Andrew, in Honolulu, for the 31st Sabeel Conference held in the USA on 26 February 2010. The committee had amassed a vibrant array of speakers, presenters, and workshop leaders for what would be a 2-day Conference.

Shortly after concluding Friday's dinner, program, and conversation, however, a massive earthquake struck near AscunsiĆ³n, Chile. Hawai'i Civil Defense forces went into "alert" status, but by Saturday morning, the "alert" had morphed into a Tsunami Warning. With a history of devastating Tsunami in 1946, 1957, and 1960, Hawai'i is well-organized to deal with this threat to life and property.

By 6:00 when the sirens sounded the warning, and the Civil Defense network had pre-empted all broadcast media with their spiel from Diamond Head Crater, the police had blocked access to coastal areas: folks could get out, but no one could get into Waikiki, for instance. This alert impacted the Saturday morning sessions of the Sabeel Conference.

Bishop Robert Fitzpatrick, V Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Hawai'i, reports he had no adverse criticism or contacts over using the Cathedral Church of St Andrew as the venue for the Conference. A vigorous discussion appeared, however, in the HONOLULU STAR-BULLETIN's "Island Commentary/Op-Ed" columns between the Rev Neal MacPherson, UCC (retired) and Professor Peter Hoffenberg of the University of Hawai'i History Department. Hoffenberg attempted to analyse the Sabeel website as an "anti-Israel organization" intent on siding exclusively with the Palestinians.

The Sabeel Honolulu Conference organizing committee worked hard, kept the fees incredibly low, and helped bring justice and peace issues to the fore in great detail. The Tsunami waves arrived as predicted; but they lacked the destructive energy of those in earlier years. People in Hawai'i, as elsewhere, were none the less grieving the loss of life and property in Chile as had been the case with Haiti and with a Tsunami striking Samoa some months ago.

[Honolulu report provided by Prof Willis H A Moore, Adjunct Faculty of History and Political Science, Chamiade University of Honolulu, reporting to: The Diocese of Hawai'i, The Diocese of Eastern Oregon, and others...]

Friends of Sabeel - North America:

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