Places of worship reconsider connection to Palestine advocates
Jewish activists are at the forefront of ousting a series of Palestinian advocacy groups held at a cluster of churches in Cambridge.
Hillel Stavis, a local Jewish activist involved in the anti-divestment movement, described First Church Congregational U.C.C. and Christ Church, Cambridge – both located on Garden Street – as “red hot centers of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity.”
The Center for Palestine Human Rights (CPHR), a group associated with the Somerville Divestment Project – which in November lost a ballot initiative in support of the Right of Return for Palestinians and divestment from Israel – had until recently rented a space at First Church since March.
A few doors down, at the Christ Church, Cambridge, local members of Sabeel, a liberation theology movement among Palestinian Christians, have also been conducting assemblies that are upsetting parishioners.
Stavis also expressed concern about the nearby First Parish in Cambridge on Church Street, which hosts speakers that he said speak inflammatorily against Israel.
“There is a philosophy that you can do almost anything you want to the Jews and the Jews won’t fight back,” Stavis said. “But if Jews rally in a factual, respectable and civil manner, you realize you can talk to these people.”
So Stavis, along with the help of a dozen other concerned citizens and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, succeeded last weekend in ousting the first of such groups from Cambridge churches. After weeks of holding signs and peacefully protesting outside, Jewish advocates achieved the removal of the Center for Palestine Human Rights from their headquarters at the First Church.
According to SDP board member Bob Cable, the group received a letter from the place of worship in late October that read: “During the last five weeks, our office has been receiving numerous calls expressing concern about the nature and purpose of your organization. Some of these calls have come from individuals and organizations with whom we have important relationships. In order to maintain these relationships ... our staff has expended unacceptable levels of time and energy. This is a distraction we can no longer permit.”
Though CPHR had a lease that was set to expire at the end of December, the group moved out Dec. 16. And the organization has sought legal advice, Cable said.
“We are trying to eliminate trouble in the world, but that’s an incredibly huge job,” Cable added.
First Church’s Senior Pastor Mary Luti declined to comment.
Seth Brysk, director of the Israel Action Center at the JCRC, said Luti contacted his organization in October to see if complaints about the SDP had merit. After conversations with members of the interfaith community, Brysk noted that Luti came to understand “SDP’s ulterior motives.”
“It’s important for the community to understand the true motivation and meaning behind the divestment movement and particularly behind the SDP’s intentions to find a way to de-legitimize and demonize Israel as a first step to Israel’s destruction,” Brysk added. “We are happy to see their efforts thwarted.”
Now, Stavis and others are moving forward with their mission. On Monday, Stavis held a meeting at Christ Church, Cambridge with the new rector, The Rev. Joseph O. Robinson to discuss Sabeel, the movement of Palestinian Christians. While Robinson declined to comment on the issue to the Advocate, Stavis said the conversation proved that issues of the Middle East and Israel will be treated with “objectivity and fairness.”
Sabeel had first been introduced to the church by the former leader The Rev. Robert Tobin, who learned about the group in 1994 when he traveled to Israel.
Brysk called the group “a nasty organization.”
“They use anti-Semitic tropes that were discredited from Christian theology for political gain,” Brysk said. “Sabeel tries to play upon the noble value of Christianity of compassion and charity for the purposes of demonizing Israel.”
Tobin, who retired from the church two years ago, noted that he feels these Jewish activists – and the JCRC – are stifling free speech.
“I think it’s sad that they can have this kind of effect over an issue that really demands, in this state of the game, knowledge of what’s really going on and debating the issues,” Tobin said.
The Rev. Dr. Anita Farber-Robertson of the First Parish in Cambridge, whose Unitarian Universalist church may be the next target, agreed.
“To me, any group that would want to shut down public dialogue is anti-democratic and troublesome to me,” Farber-Robertson said.