When friends cave-in

What to do when a secular (though Muslim-led) organization with an impeccable record of convening people of all faiths to promote interreligious dialogue, multicultural understanding, and harmony gives in to the boycott Israel crowd?

That question vexed our organized Jewish community recently when the Chicago-based Niagara Foundation abruptly cancelled a June 18 appearance by Roey Gilad, Consul General of Israel to the Midwest in its “Friends in Faith” series.

Niagara is associated with the “Hizmet” (service) movement inspired by the Imam Fethullah Gulen, and has counterpart organizations globally. Arguably Chicago’s preeminent interfaith convener, it has navigated the riptides of Middle Eastern identity politics with grace.

“You guys fly at 30,000 feet, and keep your values in clear sight no matter how harsh the terrain on the ground,” I once complimented Niagara’s executive director.

So it was distressing when Niagara nixed Gilad under pressure from American Muslims for Palestine and other groups that reportedly had threatened to disrupt the event as part of their Israel boycott agenda.

In a meeting with Jewish community representatives about the cancellation, in which I participated, members of the Niagara board explained it as a way to avoid contentiousness, which runs counter to the grain of the organization.

That explanation for effectively handing a victory to the boycotters didn’t fly. Niagara’s leaders failed to acknowledge that by succumbing to those who sow division and by yielding to those whose goal is to ostracize pro-Israel voices, they compromised their mission “to promote social cohesion by fostering civic conversations and sustained relationships between people of different cultures and faiths.”

They failed to grasp that by yielding to those who hate Israel and all who identify with the Jewish State, they also compromised their relationship with the mainstream Jewish community—among them long-time friends.

As we pointed out in our meeting, rather than cancel they could have let the event take place, and turn any disruption into a “teaching moment” about Niagara’s values of respectful dialog and inclusion.

Those of us who have known and supported Niagara, want it back as an organization that takes the high road and doesn’t yield to those who hate—whatever the object du jour of loathing (be it Israel, Palestine, Turkey, Serbia, Pakistan, or any party to the world’s all too plentiful and all too toxic rivalries).

Several organizations in Chicago’s Jewish community last week called on Niagara to reassert its value to those who believe in dialog and to make a clear statement that it erred in cancelling the event.

Giving ground to those who want Israel and her supporters de-legitimized here, now, and forever will not bring peace or justice.

“There is only one way to bring about peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and that is for both sides to have sufficient goodwill to negotiate their own peace deal,” Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human rights activist recently wrote.

Let the Niagara case serve as a lesson to all organizations that hope to bridge the sorry divides of our current age. Help build goodwill or risk diminishing it; the enemies of dialog have determined there is no contentiousness-free middle ground.

About the Author
Aaron is Vice President at Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
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