“Watching this film is a holy task,” prayed Rabbi Joseph Berman from Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) on March 5 while introducing the anti-Israel movie The Occupation of the American Mind at Washington, DC’s National Cathedral. Far from the sacred, this screening and the rest of the 2017 Voices from the Holy Land film series used a national landmark as a venue for radical groups to incite Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
As earlier during the series in the cathedral’s Perry Auditorium, film discussion moderator and former Foreign Service Officer Bud Hensgen noted his successes lobbying against anti-BDS legislation in his home state of Virginia. His BDS colleague from Maryland, Washington, DC Friends of Sabeel-North America (FOSNA) coordinator Paul Verduin, discussed his similar efforts with Freedom2Boycott in Maryland, an organization listed in film series flyers. A veiled Muslim woman in the audience from Maryland praised Allah, “hamdullah,” for her successful participation in this Maryland activism.
The earlier February 26 screening of Where Should the Birds Fly gave insight into the film series’ presenters and audience. Previously reviewed by this author, this propaganda film presents an illusion of a seemingly defenseless Gaza Strip enduring senseless Israeli airstrikes during the 2008-2009 Israeli Cast Lead operation against Hamas jihadists. Imam Johari Abdul-Malik from northern Virginia’s terror-tied Dar al-Hijrah mosque began the film discussion with a prayer for God “to soothe the pain of our viewing of this horror story” of “atrocities.”
Introduced by Abdul-Malik, United Palestinian Appeal Executive Director Saleem F. Zaru continued the film’s suspension of disbelief. Asked by this author about the film being devoid of any reference to Hamas’ dictatorship and significant arsenal in Gaza, Zaru responded with laughable doubletalk. “Gaza is a demilitarized zone. Whatever Hamas gets of weapons or any kind of arsenal is probably homemade” and Hamas’ military presence is “underground and it is very insignificant.”
Zaru’s audience offered no countervailing grasp of reality, as one questioner spoke of Israel’s “U.S.-made weapons of destruction raining down on a helpless people with hardly any military response.” Delinda C. Hanley, news editor of the “virulently anti-Israel” and anti-Semitic Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, stated that “you have seen this film; you have ammunition to say this isn’t [Israel’s] protection, this is horror.” Another audience member who identified himself as Palestinian received applause when he stated that the “whole idea behind what they [Israelis] do is to break the Palestinian people.”
Audience responses to the film were correspondingly strident, as one woman stated that American aid to Israel meant that “blood is on our hands.” She receives Democratic Party fundraising mailings, “and I keep the envelopes to send them back to say we will not give money as long as you are continuing to support the killing of the Palestinian people.” The audience applauded again when a self-identified American Jew (Bob Gris?) asked about trying to screen the film at Washington, DC’s United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). The “day after we achieve that, this problem will be solved,” he absurdly stated.
The Perry Auditorium’s political atmosphere remained the same during the April 2 screening of The Living of the Pigeons and six short films produced jointly by The Guardian and the radical Israeli group B’Tselem. Susan Wilder, former associate minister of Springfield, Virginia’s Grace Presbyterian Church, a film series sponsor, gave a welcome address. This BDS supporter is a member of the Presbyterian Church USA’s radically anti-Israel and anti-Semitic Israel/Palestine Mission Network (IPMN), to which Verduin also belongs. Tom Getman, an advisory board member of the anti-Israel FOSNA, (where Verduin is an activist) and a founder of Capitol Hill’s St. Mark’s Episcopal Church Middle East Working Group, a film series supporter, introduced himself to this author. The former World Vision executive Getman played a significant role in developing this Christian aid organization’s anti-Israel bias.
Similarly, the post-film panel featured Takoma Park, Maryland, JVP member Liana Smith and her fellow Marylander Marvin Silver, a pastor from the pro-BDS United Church of Christ (UCC). Smith praised JVP’s “fairly courageous stand” of having “answered what is considered the full call for BDS” as well as JVP’s support for Black Lives Matter statement on Israel, an “incredible document.” “Jewish Voice for Peace strongly supported every single word in that platform,” she stated, even while noting the controversy over the platform’s slander of an Israeli “genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.” The BDS supporter Silver recalled his visit to the Holy Land and stated that “my mind just could not stop making the comparison between the struggles of the Palestinians and the struggle of Africans here in the U.S.” for centuries.
The audience continued such demonization of Israel as Gris again received applause when he asked why the film series did not screen at the USHMM, where “it really could make a major impact on the Jewish community in seeing parallels.” He inquired about no synagogues supporting the film series; a series organizer who noted his Palestinian flag lapel pin responded that he “got nowhere” when soliciting about a half dozen synagogues. The synagogues’ reaction is not surprising, given the audience attendance of the northern Virginia anti-Semite and Holocaust denier Ken Meyercord along with his Palestinian wife. He stated that the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act under consideration in the Senate “rather severely curtails criticism of Israel” on American university campuses.
Maryn Goodson from Westmoreland Congregational UCC in Washington, DC’s Maryland suburbs and vice-chair of the UCC’s Palestine-Israel Network (UCC PIN) also noted Jewish hostility to the film series’ BDS supporters. She stated that a local rabbi stopped speaking with Westmoreland’s pastor Timothy Tutt after the UCC in 2015 adopted a BDS resolution, for which UCC PIN was a key supporter. He would moderate discussion of the film series’ last screening on April 23, which only one synagogue, Washington, DC’s Temple Emanuel, had agreed to sponsor.
This lack of Jewish support appeared logical given the screening of Out of Cordoba with its director Jacob Bender, the only Jewish director of a Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) chapter (Philadelphia). This leftist noted during the post-film discussion that “groups like the ADL [Anti-Defamation League] pretty much put a fatwa on my head and said that no Jewish organization should meet with me or with CAIR.” While most Jews rightfully reject relations with the Hamas-derived and radical CAIR, he noted that “wonderful groups like J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace” have ignored this appeal.
Bender’s film, funded in part by Saudi Arabia’s Alwaleed bin Talal Foundation, focused on Spain’s Islamic past, often mythologized as a period of interreligious tolerance, yet did not leave out criticizing Israel. His film narration noted that “I had increasingly despaired at the direction of the Jewish state.” In the film’s concluding segment he meets with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director of the Israeli leftist group Rabbis for Human Rights to discuss Jewish settlements in the “occupied Palestinian territories.” By contrast, Bender’s film narration glosses over the flight of Egypt’s Jewish community from antisemitism following Israel’s 1948 establishment, stating that the “reasons for its disappearance are many.”
Bender noted his refusal of frequent requests from synagogues to show Out of Cordoba without its last controversial 12 minutes, and this screening similarly did not proceed without criticism. Largely unique for the film series, his film provoked critical inquiries from two Jewish audience members. One Temple Emanuel congregant noted the Palestinian olive oil on sale in the auditorium and asked for Bender’s “thoughts about having both Israeli and Palestinian products offered here.”
The other Jew criticized the lack of explanatory context for Israel’s separation barrier shown in the film, built after hundreds of Israeli deaths in Palestinian terrorist attacks. Bender responded that the “separation wall so-called or the apartheid wall or the barrier in dozens and dozens of places deviates from the boundary between Israel and Palestine.” Given his false understanding of an international border between Israel and what are, in fact, territories disputed between Israelis and Palestinians, he decried the “continual process of colonization and taking Palestinian land.”
Andrea Barron from the Washington Area Jews for Jewish-Muslim Understanding meanwhile approved of Bender’s film treatment of the “occupied territories.” She probably also had no objection to his CAIR position. Her group namely hosted CAIR’s director Nihad Awad to a 2015 Seder.
Another female audience member exhibited similar naiveté while noting that she, from a mixed Muslim-Druze Lebanese background, now worships with Quakers and is active in JVP. “In Lebanon the three religions did coexist and do coexist, and so did they in Iraq,” she stated as if Middle East religious minorities had not suffered from jihad and Islamic supremacism. “They just live and love each other and can work with each other just like we do in here the United States. It’s when the politics get in the way, when the military complex wants to sell more arms, they basically start dividing people among religions.”
The Voices of the Holy Land film series indicates the sad state of the National Cathedral, where once President George W. Bush rallied America in response to Al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, attacks. Now the National Cathedral plays host to the enemies of Israel, a country also targeted by Islamic jihadists, all with the sponsorship of the Jerusalem Companion Diocese Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, DC. While the Episcopal Church itself has rejected BDS, the committee’s chair Tom Johnson and National Cathedral Dean Randy Hollerith each had no problems introducing respectively the April 2 and March 26 (Open Bethlehem) screenings.
The National Cathedral’s willingness to countenance BDS is part of the cathedral’s ever more progressive agenda within a wider Episcopal Church, clearing ever more pews with leftist ideology. The cathedral’s rainbow agenda includes pro-Islam events such as Muslim prayer services, transgendered priests, same-sex “marriages,” and the proposed removal of stained glass windows honoring Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. In response, Americans should boycott not Israel, but the National Cathedral, and find another national house of worship.