When death threats are OK as long as the victim is ‘slow to criticize Israel’

Try to visualize this scenario. You are in open-carry state, in a publicly accessible facility, with no security. A man walks out of a room, heading to a water fountain, when he is accosted by another person, yelling at him, “I know who you are. I’m going to kill you.” And then begins spewing epithets at him. The person tries to leave the unexpected confrontation, but is followed, and the aggressor continues to yell and intimidate, all the while recording the incident on video. Finally the person being threatened manages to get away.

It is pretty easy to visualize what would happen next. The victim would call the authorities. The aggressor would be apprehended, and would either be charged with a crime, or at a minimum banned from the facility. In 2018, death threats, intimidation, and harassment are usually taken pretty seriously. Unless, apparently you happen to be a speaker at an event advocating for a group that is “slow to criticize Israel,” and that event is the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) General Assembly.

This exact scenario unfolded on Monday in St. Louis, Missouri, when the Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid found himself in this same situation, after giving testimony opposing an anti-Israel resolution at the Presbyterian General Assembly. Eid was in St. Louis as a guest of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, a group committed to a two state solution, and opposed to the Boycott Divest Sanctions movement.

He gave a speech in open hearings on one of the resolutions before the committee. When he finished, he walked out of the room, to go to the water fountain, when was accosted by another man — a Palestinian Arab living in St. Louis — who started screaming at him, cursing in epithets, and then told Bassem “I know who you are! I’m going to kill you, you Zionist collaborator!” Bassem told him to go away, and the man persisted and continued to follow him out the building, harassing and trying to intimidate him the entire time. Not only did he threaten Bassem, but the aggressor recorded the encounter and proudly posted it on his twitter. We later learned that the aggressor was at the meetings as a guest of the Church’s own Israel-Palestine Mission Network, its advocacy group dedicated to justice for Palestinians and proponents of BDS.

Bassem Eid reached out to his hosts from Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, and we immediately contacted the General Assembly and the convention center security. They came, and didn’t even think of calling the police, until I personally intervened and said, “this was an assault, an attempted battery. We are in an open carry state, you have to call St. Louis Metropolitan police.” They took a statement from Bassem, and because there was no video evidence at the time (the altercation was not yet posted on twitter) somehow decided not to take any action beyond posting a private security guard armed with a walkie talkie at the committee room door.

Not long afterwards the perpetrator returned to the facility. While he was initially brought to the security office, the General Assembly decided that because he was a guest of their own mission network, and they “could not collaborate” the death threat, they would not ban him from the facility nor seek charges. Shortly afterwards, they became aware of the two videos that the perpetrator (I’m going to call him the thug) posted, harassing and intimidating Bassem Eid after making the death threat. They still chose not to do anything. And the church’s second in command told me that the General Assembly is an open proceeding, and we promote freedom of speech and open discussion, and cannot ban him.

The end result was that those of us attending the meetings were rattled. Particularly since the thug was allowed to return to the room, and came in and out, even approaching two of our members. When Bassem Eid spoke a second time, the thug had one of his associates film his testimony. The end result was that the Presbyterian Church seemed perfectly fine with allowing this man to create a chilling effect on speech by putting everyone, including the committee’s own staff, on edge with legitimate concerns for their own safety. I’ll admit, I spent less far less time in the committee room Monday afternoon, not wanting to be in a potentially dangerous situation. This was not just a “he said/she said” incident. Four minutes of Bassem Eid being harassed and intimidated was on film, and the PCUSA did nothing.

That night, Presbyterians for Middle East Peace wrote a letter demanding action from the Church’s Stated Clerk Rev. J. Herbert Nelson. A request was made for him to ban the perpetrator from the facility for the remainder of the General Assembly, and to arrest him for trespass if he returned. Nelson was asked to provide a safe environment for all participants, and that it was unacceptable that people feel threatened doing the work of the Church.

Tuesday morning we arrived at the committee room, and there was no security guard present. And we had no response from the Stated Clerk. I immediately began to hear people from the Israel Palestine Mission Network trying to convince the committee staff (as well as the Presbyterian Outlook reporter who reported the events from Monday) that Bassem Eid was a liar, and there was no death threat. They tried to bully him to withdraw the news story. Apparently we made the whole thing up, and there was no intimidation, harassment, nor threat.

About an hour after the committee’s work began we received a response from the Stated Clerk, which later was posted as a press release on the Church’s website. Nelson’s response was baffling, as it seemed to be more concerned with open discussion then public safety or preventing intimidation.

He wrote:

Admittedly, Presbyterians tend to have strong feelings about public issues and, in the case of the search for peace in the Middle East, that exposes the General Assembly to strong, divergent opinions. Sometimes that exposes us to the existential passion of people embedded in the struggle, who have been invited to provide information and advice to the assembly committees. When that passion boils over, we have to deal with the results.

 

This appeared to be the case, as [the aggressor] perceived Mr. Eid (representing an advocacy group often seen as slow to criticize Israel) to be a Palestinian traitor to the Palestinian cause, became abusive and threatening.

What? Bassem Eid represents a group that does not criticize Israel enough, and thus it is ok for guests of the Church’s Israel Palestine Mission Network to harass and threaten people? Why does it matter what Bassem Eid’s position on Israel is? He was assaulted, threatened, and harassed. And the perpetrator was allowed to roam the halls freely.

If someone threatens a person with death, there are consequences. You don’t just say “oh, he’s with our preferred group.” As a pastor friend of mine said to me, if someone threatens someone at my church, we don’t let them stay. We call the cops, and kick them out. “It doesn’t matter how much they love Jesus.”

But that’s not what the PCUSA Stated Clerk did. He chose to engage in victim blaming, questioning and discounting the claims of Bassem Eid. Nelson’s letter implies that there was no actual threat, even though there are four minutes of video evidence to the contrary. He also ignored the concerns that the death threat and harassment had created a chilling effect on speech, and created an environment in which several people acknowledged they were scared, and uncomfortable speaking.

The Presbyterian Church USA decided that its ideological fixation on all things anti-Israel meant that it was ok for a speaker at an open hearing to be threatened.¬†And then they let the thug who did it remain, returning at later sessions, and walking the halls, creating an atmosphere rife with tension. I guess things would have been different if Bassem Eid was a fierce critic of Israel. Maybe in that situation the General Assembly would have taken the threat seriously. But instead, it sided with a thug. It put public safety second, in order to protect a radical who committed a crime, and then proceeded to post it online, all because Bassem wasn’t critical enough of Israel.

In what other scenario would a death threat be responded to by saying “oh, we promote open meetings, and freedom of speech.” If this occurred at a school, the entire building would have gone into lock-down, and the aggressor would be kicked out of school immediately, and almost certainly arrested.

Yet, this is not what PCUSA did. They did not even provide a security guard for the committee room for the second day of hearings. I am left with the belief that there is something rotten in the church’s institutional leadership. It is so blinded by its partisan ideology that public safety comes second to ideological purity. I guess it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. There certainly isn’t anything that even closely resembles Christian values in what transpired. For a church that proudly proclaims that its acts decently and in order, something is seriously out of whack. The Church’s response was not only inadequate, it was disgusting.

About the Author
Michael Gizzi is an active member of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, and an elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). A political scientist and professor of criminal justice at Illinois State University, Gizzi is actively involved in research on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. His opinions are his own, and not those of Illinois State University.
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