Pittsburgh Racial Justice Summit session condemns Israel
AntisemitismOne-sided view of Palestinian/Israeli conflict

Pittsburgh Racial Justice Summit session condemns Israel

Speaker tried to link Israel to the police killing of an environmental activist in Atlanta

The Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian organization, has long been accused of facilitating anti-Israel  programming. (File photo)
The Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian organization, has long been accused of facilitating anti-Israel programming. (File photo)

For at least the sixth time since 2017, a workshop demonizing Israel was featured at the annual Pittsburgh Racial Justice Summit at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary on Jan. 20 and 21.

The Racial Justice Summit is an initiative of the Black and White Reunion, established in 1996 by Tim Stevens to help bridge the city’s racial divide. The summit includes keynote addresses and many smaller workshops.

On Saturday, Jan. 21, a workshop presenting a one-sided view of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, entitled “Justice for Palestine with a focus on the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh,” was led by Kate Daher, a founding member of the Pittsburgh Palestine Solidarity Committee. Other speakers included Mohammed Bamyeh, a sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a supporter of the BDS movement against Israel; Robert Ross, a Point Park professor and outspoken critic of Israel; Rev. Dr. B. De Neice Welch of the Bidwell Presbyterian Church; and Rev. John Welch of the Sixth Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church.

The session was recorded and is available to view on Facebook.

Daher opened the workshop by attempting to link Israel to the Jan. 18 killing of an environmental activist in Atlanta. The killing occurred in an area where a training center to boost police recruitment and retention is being built. Activists were protesting the center, arguing that its construction would be environmentally problematic and would result in a facility used for “urban warfare.”

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which investigated the incident, concluded that the activist shot a Georgia State Patrol Trooper and law enforcement personnel “returned fire in self-defense,” thereby killing the activist.

Kate Daher speaking at the Racial Justice Summit, Jan. 21, 2023. (Screenshot)
Daher tried to link Israel to the incident, explaining that Israel is training American police officers in what anti-Israel activists call “The Deadly Exchange.”

“Our police forces from Pittsburgh and all across the country have gone to Israel to train in crowd control,” she told the approximately 40 people in the session. Former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, she said, attended a conference in Israel “on how to militarize our police — and they train in Israel to do that. We are directly connected to this international issue and, without international solidarity, we are doomed.”

Daher then spoke about the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh last May. Daher falsely asserted that the “Israeli government refused to investigate it” and that Israel claimed it “had nothing to do with it.”

In fact, the Israeli government, with oversight by the U.S. Security Coordinator, did investigate Abu Akleh’s death, concluding that it was likely she was unintentionally shot by an Israeli soldier but not deliberately targeted. In November, the FBI launched a probe of the killing. Such an independent investigation is a rare undertaking for the FBI, especially when it involves an ally of the U.S. that is recognized as having a credible judiciary, such as Israel. Israel has said it would not cooperate with the FBI investigation.

Ross, De Niece Welch and John Welch, who recently returned from the West Bank along with a group of students from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, spoke of alleged atrocities committed by Israel, which they frequently referred to as an “apartheid” state, including “nightly” raids on Palestinians and the “kidnapping” of Palestinian children from their homes.

Ross urged his audience to boycott Israeli products and to ask elected officials to sanction Israel.

De Neice Welch equated the treatment of Palestinians in Israel with racism in the U.S. John Welch equated the Israeli “narrative” with “white Christian nationalism.” He also accused Israel of “hoarding” the water supply, thereby depriving Palestinians.

Bamyeh advocated for cultural, economic, academic and sports boycotts of Israel, likening the Jewish state to apartheid South Africa. He stressed that condemnation of Israel shouldn’t be “confused” with antisemitism.

While he acknowledged that Jews are part of the “historical fabric of the Middle East,” he said Israel “is not an expression of where the Jewish history should have led.”

Israelis use the Holocaust, he said, “not as a human tragedy, not as a crime against humanity simply, but specifically for a justification for…violence against the Palestinian population.”

Throughout the session, there was no mention of the Arab rejection of the 1948 Partition Plan or any of the proposed peace agreements over the decades that would have led to an independent Palestinian state or any act of Palestinian terrorism. There was no mention of the resulting violence that ensued from Gaza after Israel relinquished its control there.

Anti-Israel workshops have been presented at the Racial Justice Summit since at least 2017, with speakers sometimes veering into antisemitic rhetoric.

The Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh has attempted to convince the summit’s leadership to include a mainstream Jewish voice in its sessions about Israel, but hasn’t succeeded, according to CRC Director Laura Cherner.

“We’ve been having tensions over the last several years,” she said. “I think that it came to a head in 2019, and nothing really has changed in terms of it being a good environment for us to participate.”

During the 2019 Racial Justice Summit, a panel member “engaged in antisemitic tropes and actually shouted at a Jewish woman who was an audience participant,” Cherner said.

Cherner participated in the summit’s planning committee for several months following that incident.

“We tried over the years to engage with the summit, to make sure that a mainstream Jewish voice was present, and explain why we had a problem with some of the speakers and the content that they were choosing to platform,” she said. “It is clear that our perspective is not welcome.”

Cherner stressed that the CRC does not want to suppress Palestinian perspectives.

“We’re not saying that Palestinian voices shouldn’t be heard and we’re not trying to suppress any conversation about Palestinian rights,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is advocate for the community. When the Jewish community comes to you and says, ‘This is antisemitic,’ we hope that our allies and partners would take that seriously and listen to a marginalized community that is coming to you to express why rhetoric or a speaker is harmful to that community.”

Linking Israel to the killing of the activist in Atlanta is an example of that harmful rhetoric, Cherner said.

“The ‘Deadly Exchange’ — basically, blaming Israel for police brutality or racism in the United States — is completely not based in fact, and rewriting the history of racism in this country to place the blame on Israel is completely ridiculous,” she said. “It moves the blame from our own systems and tries to project it onto the Jewish state.”

While the Racial Justice Summit offers “a lot of good information that can be shared,” Cherner added, “ultimately the hostile environment really clouds that good information.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh ceased publicly partnering with the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in May 2018, following its hosting of a lecture by the Rev. Naim Ateek, founder of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. The Federation had expressed concerns with the antisemitic rhetoric commonly used by Ateek and the one-sided, anti-Israel philosophy embedded within the theology he advocates. The seminary leadership was dismissive of Federation concerns, Josh Sayles, then-director of the CRC said at the time. PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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