After decades of interfaith collaboration, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh will cease “publicly partnering” with the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in East Liberty, according to Josh Sayles, director of the Federation’s Community Relations Council.
The cessation of public partnering between the graduate seminary run by the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the umbrella Jewish community organization will be in place “for the foreseeable future,” Sayles said. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has long had a fractious relationship with the American Jewish community over some of its affiliated groups’ stances regarding the Palestinians and the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
Locally, the friction between the Federation and the seminary stems from the latter’s decision to host a lecture by the Rev. Naim Ateek, founder of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. The Federation had expressed concerns with the anti-Semitic rhetoric commonly used by Ateek and the one-sided, anti-Israel philosophy embedded within the theology he advocates.
Ateek’s lecture, held in the PTS auditorium on May 14, was sponsored by Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), which appears on an Anti-Defamation League list of the top 10 anti-Israel groups in America.
“Sabeel hides behind a language of peace, but in reality, uses theologically loaded rhetoric that when examined more closely, rejects Israel as a Jewish state,” Sayles said in an email. “The organization speaks of the formation of Israel as the ‘original sin,’ where Israel is cast as a colonizer that was only formed as a result of European intervention after the Holocaust. There is virtually no mention of a continued Jewish presence in the land for 2,000 years, and the Palestinian refugee issue is described as ‘ethnic cleansing.’”
While Sabeel condemns terrorism, it nonetheless “goes through great lengths to rationalize why Israeli actions may justify terrorism,” Sayles added. “It condemns all Israeli security measures and denigrates Israeli efforts at peacemaking, including Camp David. Analogies such as ‘Israel is crucifying the Palestinians,’ which invoke age-old canards of blood libel, are regularly referenced.”
Ateek, Sayles noted, has played “a critical role in establishing and spreading these anti-Semitic narratives among the international Christian community for decades.”
When Sayles met with leadership at the seminary to share the Jewish community’s concerns about giving the founder of Sabeel a platform in Pittsburgh, he was dismayed to be told, “‘We don’t see it the same way,’” he recounted.
“When I meet with Muslim community leaders and they share stories of Islamophobia, I offer the Federation’s support,” Sayles said. “When I sit with Hispanic leaders and learn about their community’s difficulties with immigration status, we work on ways to improve the situation. When I gather with black leaders and they tell me about the racism they experience on a daily basis, I’ve never once questioned where they’re coming from.
“So, I find it troubling when I reach out to PTS with concerns about anti-Semitism and am told, ‘We don’t see it the same way.’”
PTS President David Esterline was not part of that meeting, but Sayles, along with Rabbi Jamie Gibson of Temple Sinai — who has been involved in interfaith dialogue with the Presbyterian community for decades — reached out to Esterline directly weeks prior to the event, according to Sayles.
“He declined to meet with us until the very end of May,” two weeks after the date the event was scheduled to occur, Sayles said. “It’s clear that the well-being of the Jewish community is not a prominent issue at the seminary and that the problem starts at the top.”
Esterline, who has been at the helm of the seminary since 2015, is himself a proponent of the BDS movement, he told the Chronicle in an interview in 2015.
“We at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary hold a deep commitment to being a place where constructive dialogue is invited,” Esterline said last week by email. “When we received the request from Friends of Sabeel, North America (FOSNA) to hold their meeting on our campus, we agreed because of this conviction.”
About 120 people turned out to hear Ateek at the PTS, filling the auditorium and giving him a standing ovation at the conclusion of his 45-minute talk.
Ateek spoke primarily about Jerusalem and the imperative for the three monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Islam and Christianity to share the city.
His narrative, however, was riddled with inaccuracies and factual omissions, painting Jews as land-grabbers, with no mention of Arab states’ rejection of the U.N. partition plan and their launch of a war against the fledgling Jewish state in 1948. He condemned Israel’s 1967 reunification of Jerusalem, but failed to mention the Arab aggression that led to the Six-Day War.
“Israel started Judaizing the Old City and east Jerusalem by driving the Palestinians out,” said Ateek, who repeated the term “Judaizing” many times throughout his talk and accused Jews of trying to take over the Temple Mount.
“It’s unbelievable when you see how Israel is trying to encroach,” he said. “In the mind of the Jewish religious fanatics, they want to take it over. And not all archaeologists are even certain the Jewish Temple is there.”
He questioned President Donald Trump’s motivation in moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, asking, “Did he do it because his daughter married a Jewish person?”
In response to a question about the situation in Gaza, he told the crowd, “When you hear that Hamas sends a rocket here and there, most of the time it is a reaction to what Israel has done.”
He also described the recent protests along the Gaza border as “nonviolent,” with no mention of the reported gunfire against Israeli soldiers, nor the Molotov cocktails, the burning tires or the rocks flung by slingshots into Israeli territory.
“[The protestors] are just going there to say, ‘We have the right to go back to our villages and our towns,’” Ateek told his audience.
The lecture had been preceded by a private dinner with Ateek, attended by about 80 area clergy and lay leaders from various denominations, including Methodist and Episcopalian, as well as the Rev. Liddy Barlow, executive minister of the umbrella group Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania.
Esterline characterized Ateek’s presentation as “a message encouraging non-violence, even in the midst of this difficult season for Christians across the Middle East,” and said that “we welcome the Jewish community’s presence and perspective.”
“Our faith propels us to believe that nonviolent solutions can still be found in all human conflict, and that we are called to work tirelessly together toward a just peace,” added Esterline. “Above all, we remain committed to Jesus’s teaching to welcome the stranger, love the enemy and exhibit the justice of God.”
While Barlow said she was not available for an interview with the Chronicle, she emailed a general statement in response to an inquiry about Ateek’s appearance at the seminary.
“The Christian community in Southwest Pennsylvania is diverse in every way, including in its perspectives on the conflict in Israel and Palestine,” wrote Barlow. “It is my hope that Jews and Christians can continue to work side by side to address the challenges faced by our local community. I also hope that we can be in dialogue together across our different deeply-held perspectives, so that we can better understand one another and work together for a just peace in the Holy Land.”
On May 15, the PTS hosted Ateek again for a “Nakba Commemoration Sermon.” In Arabic, nakba means “catastrophe” and refers to the formation of the State of Israel.
“[People should be aware that] Sabeel views the complicated Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a distorted prism that paints Israeli actions as evil, never considering the difficult choices Israelis are forced to make to defend themselves,” said Ethan Felson, executive director of the Israel Action Network, a program of Jewish Federations of North America. “They have long trafficked in anti-Jewish motifs, and Friends of Sabeel has even called for certain boycotts of several Jewish-owned businesses.”
While the Federation has ceased collaboration with the PTS, it is still in dialogue with other Presbyterian communities in the area.
“It’s important to note that neither Sabeel nor the seminary represent the views of the majority of the Presbyterian or progressive Christian communities,” Sayles stressed. “There are plenty of ways to support the Palestinian people without denying the Jewish narrative, and vice versa.
“We look forward to continuing to work with those who recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state, and by extension are inclusive of the Jewish people as they fight for justice for all.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.