Listening to Mae Cannon, executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, speak at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference USA that took place in Oklahoma last October was a surreal experience. I was the only person sitting in the front row and was just a few feet from her as she stood behind the podium. A few minutes into her talk, she defended CMEP and her leadership of the organization— which has been harshly critical of Israel. “And they say my goal is to get you to pray against the Jewish people, which just for the record it’s not,” she said. “Don’t believe what Dexter Van Zile says about me.”
A few years back I had written a long article about Mae Cannon’s checkered career as a Christian peace activist. In that article I did not even suggest that her goal is to get people to “pray” against the Jewish people. My message was something else entirely: “Cannon, like a lot of other so-called peacemakers in the Christian community, cannot do the Palestinians the courtesy of confronting them about the bad decisions made by their leaders over the course of the past several decades,” I wrote. “This type of activism helps no one, least of all the Palestinians.”
Along these lines, I highlighted Cannon’s “tendency to subject Israel to intense scrutiny while giving Arab and Muslim actions a pass.” I also lamented her reluctance to address the issue of antisemitism in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict and her failure “to offer any specific advice as to how Jew-hatred in the region should be confronted.”
In the course of writing the piece, which appeared on CAMERA’s website in 2016, I sent an email to Rev. Dr. Cannon asking her why she included so many sources in the bibliography of her Ph.D. dissertation that she did not cite in the main text. I also asked why she did not address in her dissertation arguments that might contradict Edward Said’s thesis about Orientalism, which played a huge role in framing her arguments. I was promised a response, but never got one, which was why I was mystified by her comments from the podium. What exactly did I get wrong?
After her talk, I approached her, introduced myself and said that anytime she wanted to respond to my article, she could send me an email. Once her talk was posted online, I asked for an apology, which I have yet to receive. (I’m real broken up about that.)
This was my fifth Christ at the Checkpoint conference and this was the first time I had been denounced by name from the podium. I’ve written a lot of articles about CATC conferences and have been harsh in my criticism. There are times when the speakers at the conferences respond explicitly to what I’ve written, but they couch their responses with phrases such as “with all due respect” before offering up a defense of what they have said and done.
They don’t attack me by name or personally from the podium. Sometimes we shout at each other between sessions and other times we joke and laugh in a sort of no man’s land between our respective positions. Privately, some people involved in the conference go so far as to admit that the criticism I’ve leveled at the Palestinian Authority’s corruption, violence and incitement has been correct, but that if Palestinian Christians speak publicly about these problems, they’ll be arrested and put in jail. “What’s the benefit in that?” I have been asked.
I wish at this point I had the presence of mind to ask, “What would Ghandi do?” because Ghandi, who is regularly invoked by non-violent activists in the Christian peacemaking community, willingly went to jail to highlight the evils of British colonialism. Wouldn’t Ghandi’s career suggest that going to jail in Ramallah may be necessary to highlight the misdeeds of the Palestinian Authority?
Maybe it’s for the best. Overall, the folks who organize CATC are pretty good hosts even as I have written some harsh things about the conferences they organize. The Palestinian Christians I’ve criticized had a lot more reason to be angry at me than Mae Cannon ever did, but most of them take my writing in stride, in a manner similar to the way people on local school committees and boards of selectmen did when I worked as a newspaper reporter in the 1990s. (At CATC conferences, I feel almost nostalgic for my days as a reporter.)
After Cannon called me out, I told a group of the organizers at the CATCUSA conference that oddly enough, I never felt unsafe or even unwelcome at CATC conferences, and they made it clear that this was exactly the way they wanted it. (They like me! They really really like me!)
I’m starting to wonder if by allowing me to operate freely at their conferences, CATC organizers are offering up an implicit critique of Palestinian elites in both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas who throw people who say mean things about them on Facebook into jail or worse. It’s almost as if they are saying, “Hey, folks, this is what free speech looks like. If we can withstand the humiliation of being criticized publicly, so can you. It’s not the end of the world.”
During flights of fancy, I go into a fugue state during which I start to wonder if CATC organizers are fans of Leo Strauss, the philosopher who wrote an essay titled “Persecution and the Art of Writing.” In this essay, Strauss reports that in oppressive societies, smart writers can figure out a way to get their true ideas before an audience without running afoul of the powers that be whose rule is challenged or critiqued by these ideas.
“Persecution cannot prevent even public expression of the heterodox truth, for a man of independent thought can utter his views in public and remain unharmed, provided he moves with circumspection,” Strauss wrote. “He can even utter them in print without incurring any danger, provided he is capable of writing between the lines.” Strauss’s essay includes the techniques that writers use to get their real message across to readers energetic and wise enough to perceive it.
According to Strauss, a writer writes between the lines by enunciating the acceptable, agreed upon truths of society in a boring and pedantic manner. The writer will take up most of his essay describing the orthodox, permitted and conservative view of the society, all in an apparent effort to defend this orthodox view from criticism. But once the writer reaches “the core of the argument,” Strauss writes, he will “write three or four sentences in that terse and lively style which is apt to arrest the attention of young men who love to think.” These three or four sentences, Strauss declares, “would state the case of the adversaries more clearly, compellingly and mercilessly than it had ever been stated in the heyday of liberalism.”
This is a pretty good description of what happened at the 2018 Christ at the Checkpoint Conference held in the West Bank. For most of the conference, attendees were exposed to the same old lies and tired bromides that had been broadcast at previous CATC conferences: Israel is at fault for the conflict, Palestinians are innocent sufferers and the conflict will somehow come to an end when those damn Jews in the U.S. and Israel start acting more like Christians (who, truth be told, have perpetrated their share of violence over the past 2,000 years — but I digress).
And then in the middle of all this, Michael Brown, a messianic Jew from the U.S., stepped up to the podium and offered up a robust, lively, and frankly electrifying critique of Palestinian misdeeds that was far more memorable than anything else that was said at the conference. His main challenge was, in effect, “OK, you’ve condemned the Israelis, but will you speak truthfully about the misdeeds of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas?”
He called upon CATC organizers to openly express their disagreements with Hamas and the PA, for if they don’t, “The feeling is that you’re in harmony with them.”
And then in response, a CATC organizer offered a rather lame defense saying in effect, “Well, we’ve already criticized Palestinians” and declaring that Christians need to confront “systems” that cause people to do bad things.
Ostensibly, the whole point of every CATC conference has been to put Judaism, Israel, and Christian Zionism under direct ethical, moral and theological scrutiny, but once organizers are asked to do the same thing to Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian behavior, well then, it’s time to talk about “systems!”
How convenient! Nobody who is paying any attention — even people in the Palestinian Christian community in the West Bank — can ignore the dichotomy.
Part of me wonders if this wasn’t the point, if there wasn’t some sort of Straussian-inspired subterfuge going on CATC. Was it all a set-up? Were CATC organizers secretly trying to challenge the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority by allowing officials from the PA to lie shamelessly to attendees and then bring in a speaker like Michael Brown to expose their lies?
By outward appearances, CATC organizers look like loyal dhimmis following the PA line. But by allowing Brown to speak as openly as he did about PA and Hamas misdeeds, conference organizers were secretly telling attendees to be afraid, be very afraid.
And oddly enough, this same hermeneutic could be used to interrogate Mae Cannon’s talk in Oklahoma in October. Just a few minutes after she called me out, suggesting that I can’t be trusted, she admitted that one of the main messages that I’ve been repeating ad nauseum for over a decade — that Christian peacemaking has an antisemitism problem — is true!
During her presentation, she stated that attendees of the conference need to be on guard against promoting hostility toward anyone. “And I’m talking specifically to our community about antisemitism and statements that summarize and characterize the Jewish people with negative stereotypes that are dehumanizing,” she said. “I actually got a note from an orthodox Jewish friend of mine on day two of this conference. And they said, ‘Are you listening to some of these conversations? Because some of them sound very antisemitic.’”
In response to these concerns, Cannon stated that even as attendees seek to address Israeli-perpetrated injustices, “May we not demonize the Jewish people of Israel.”
I’m starting to think her talk was part of a crypto-Straussian conspiracy. First, Cannon demonstrates her loyalty to the cause of Christian peacemaking, by leveling a direct and robust attack on a vocal critic of the movement. And then a few minutes later she asks her audience — in the most memorable part of her speech — to acknowledge that said critic has been right all along!
How very shrewd! It’s something straight out of Leo Strauss’s playbook!
Don’t worry Mae, your secret’s safe with me!