For at least the fourth consecutive year, speakers supporting the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement against Israel were featured prominently at the Pittsburgh Racial Justice Summit, held at the Presbyterian-run Pittsburgh Theological Seminary on Jan. 25, despite the urging of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
This year’s theme was “1492-2020: Decolonize Our Histories to Reclaim Our Humanity,” and several speakers used it as a platform to condemn Israel in its relationship with the Palestinian people.
In contrast to years past, the 2020 summit attracted fewer than 10 members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community because “of the overtly public anti-Semitism displayed at last year’s gathering,” according to Josh Sayles, director of the Community Relations Council for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Even many progressive and secular Jews who typically attend each year, Sayles said, “elected not to go because they feel it is no longer a safe space for members of our community.”
Of the four speakers presenting at the 2020 summit’s opening panel, two were advocates of the BDS movement: Rabbi Brant Rosen, a Reconstructionist rabbi and the co-founder of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council and the Jewish Fast for Gaza; and Tarek Abuta, the executive director of Friends of Sabeel North America. FOSNA appears on an Anti-Defamation League list of the top-ten anti-Israel groups in the United States.
“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. “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.’”
In 2018, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh ceased publicly partnering with the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary when it hosted Rev. Naim Ateek, founder of FOSNA’s parent organization, the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. The Federation had expressed concerns to the PTS about the anti-Semitic rhetoric commonly used by Ateek and the one-sided, anti-Israel philosophy embedded within the theology he advocates, but those concerns were unheeded.
“PTS’ decision to host Rev. Ateek in May of 2018 was the final straw for us in severing public ties with the seminary,” Sayles said.
In addition to providing a platform this year for Rosen and Abuta, the 2020 summit also included a screening of the film “The Roadmap To Apartheid,” which seeks to compare Israel’s relationship to the Palestinian people with apartheid South Africa. The film concludes with a call to dismantle the Jewish state and to accomplish that through BDS.
The film is riddled with inaccurate portrayals of the Israel/Palestinian conflict, according to Stand With Us, a non-profit international education pro-Israel organization.
“Like most anti-Israel propaganda, the film omits crucial historical context,” Stand With Us states in a “rebuttal” to the film published on its website. “The film omits the fact that Jews are indigenous to Israel and have maintained a documented, continuous presence there for over 3,000 years. It won’t tell you that Palestinian Arab violence against Jews began in the 1920s, long before refugees and occupation. It neglects to mention the war Palestinian and Arab leaders launched in 1947 in an attempt to kill or ethnically cleanse Israeli Jews. It glosses over the second Intifada of 2000-2005, in which Palestinian terrorists brutally murdered over 1,000 Christian, Muslim and Jewish Israelis. It completely ignores the thousands of rockets Gaza terrorists have fired at Israeli civilians since 2005.”
Also included at this year’s summit was a workshop titled “Combatting Housing Discrimination from Pittsburgh to Palestine,” described in the program’s written materials as drawing similarities between “the housing discrimination practices and policies” against African Americans in Pittsburgh to Arab citizens in Israel.
Demonizing and denying the legitimacy of Israel falls within the definition of anti-Semitism according to the International Holocaust Remembrance Association.
But for Dani Klein, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, but speaking on his own behalf, it is relevant to hear Jewish and Palestinian voices at the Racial Justice Summit because it is “always important to pursue racial justice across the globe, and in particular to address systems of injustice over which we have influence, such as those created and maintained by the U.S and Israel,” he wrote in an email after attending the summit. “The so-called ‘special relationship’ between these two countries is a toxic source of racialized hatred against people of color and indigenous peoples reaching beyond the imperial borders of the states themselves.”
The Racial Justice Summit has included anti-Israel presentations since 2017. At last year’s summit, during a panel presentation dubbed “Rewriting the Narrative: Reimagining the Future,” Susan Abulhawa, a Palestinian-American novelist, explained the launch of Zionism as “a political movement that was conceived by wealthy Jewish businessmen in Eastern Europe” and shouted down Jewish people in the audience attempting to refute her allegations.
While this year’s program lacked “overt anti-Semitic rants” like last year’s, Sayles said, “the values espoused by some of the speakers at the Racial Justice Summit were unquestionably anti-Semitic,” with conference organizers ignoring the mainstream Jewish community’s “red line.” While the Jewish community welcomes “difficult conversations with diverging viewpoints on Israel, minimizing the Jewish people’s connection to the land of Israel and/or denying Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state crosses the line into anti-Semitism.”
Over the last several years, Sayles and other Jewish communal leaders have reached out “with serious concerns” to organizers of the summit about anti-Semitism as well as to PTS leadership about anti-Semitism on the seminary’s campus.
“While anti-Semitism at either is highly problematic, and the summit is the flagship anti-racism program in our region, it only occurs once a year,” he noted. “The seminary on the other hand is the largest Christian seminary in Southwestern Pennsylvania and by its own admission has a daily responsibility to make our region stronger by building community for all. The Jewish Federation holds them to a high standard to fight racism and anti-Semitism in all forms because, as the seminary’s leadership would openly admit: with greater power comes greater responsibility.”
Although PTS leadership has at times “sat down with us to learn more about our concerns, no concrete steps have been taken to effectively remove anti-Semitic activities from their campus,” Sayles added.
The PTS intentionally welcomes onto its campus “organizations with many diverging viewpoints,” explained David Esterline, president and professor of cross-cultural theological education at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, in an email. “Indeed, we aspire to be a location at which difficult — even painful — conversations can take place. Working with our brothers and sisters of other faith traditions, we uphold the values that bind us together — respect for and welcoming of all God’s children.”
The “conversation” at the PTS about Israel and the Palestinians at the summit, though, did not include speakers supporting the Jewish state.
For now, the Federation will continue its moratorium on publicly partnering with the PTS.
The PTS is willing to “get proximate with diverse communities to fight racism in all its forms with one exception: the Jewish community,” said Sayles.
“It is my sincere hope that we can someday change the status quo and be in a public relationship with the seminary, but not at the expense of our community,” Sayles added. “Until then, we will continue our difficult work throughout the region — both publicly and behind the scenes — to combat anti-Semitism by creating greater understanding of the Jewish culture and people. We recognize that sometimes the work is painful and frustrating, and there will always be those who are not willing to acknowledge our pain or even our identity.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at