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Token perspective not real dialogue

This weekend the Iowa chapter of a pro-Palestinian group called Friends of Sabeel is presenting a conference entitled "Hope for the Holy Land: Truth and Reconciliation" at Coe College in Cedar Rapids. As people active in interfaith dialogue and discussions of the Middle East, we were both invited to lead a workshop on "Jewish Perspectives on Middle East Peacemaking." After due consideration, we both refused.

Why? Because the organizers of the conference were willfully insensitive to the needs of Jewish people. Because, as supporters of Israel, we were not consulted in planning the event and were slotted into a token position in the program. And, most important, because the organizers of the event and the keynote speakers on the program advocate a perspective that demonizes people who support our positions.

The conference is tonight and Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Observant Jews are forbidden from driving, writing, exchanging money or engaging in numerous other activities that would be necessary in order to participate. Further, the date of the conference comes immediately after the holiest day in the Jewish year, Yom Kippur. Those observing Yom Kippur would be unable to prepare adequately for the conference.

These facts are no surprise to the organizers. (Indeed, one of the keynote lectures is entitled "Israel and the Spirit of Yom Kippur.") Buth they were easily overlooked: Because no member of the Iowa Jewish community was invited to participate in planning this program, objections were never raised.

And by limiting "Jewish Perspectives" to a workshop, the organizers could claim to be open to diverse perspectives while safely ignoring presentations that challenge the thrust of the conference. That's tokenism of the most insulting form.

The conference, its organizers and the keynote participants are highly critical of Israel -- not only in terms of its government's policies and actions, but also at a more fundamental level. Many of the participants have spoken publicly and written about the illegitimacy of Israel's existence and the racism of its supporters. Naim Ateek, the director of the Sabeel Center, has written: "It has taken me years to accept the establishment of the state of Israel and its need -- although not its right -- to exist." He apparently understands that the Jews have been oppressed around the world, leaving millions of them dead or stateless. But he does not see any right to Jewish national self-determination that would parallel a Palestinian right.

Another panelist, Mub-arak Awad, has stated: "I am telling you loud and clear there can not be a Jewish state in the Middle East. It is impossible." Even the Jewish participants on the program, Marc Ellis and Jeff Halper, take positions so extreme -- blaming Pales-tinian suffering on Jewish revenge for the Holocaust, denying the need for a Jewish state and calling instead for a single state in Palestine -- that they are outside the bounds of regular discourse.

We have had experience in dealing with a number of the Iowa-based participants in the conference and have found them to have made accusations about Israel that border on the libelous, including the rationalization of the use of terrorism. It is clear that their position as a group is so one-sided that their forum is rigged.

The Friends of Sabeel have the right to say what they want, even if it is highly biased and offensive to those of us seeking a reasonable, two-state solution to the long-standing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. All we ask is that they be clear in what they are advocating: the dismantling of not merely Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but of the entire Jewish state.

Dialogue between mutually respectful groups requires honesty and openness to opposing points of view. Sabeel is not offering any of that. That's why we are neither participating in nor attending their conference.

Gerald L. Sorokin is executive director of the University of Iowa Hillel Foundation. Jeffrey R. Portman is Rabbi of Agudas Achim Congregation in Iowa City.



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