When faith and advocacy collide 

The Israeli-Palestinian controversy dances its way into the Festival of Faiths

click to enlarge Yakshagana Hindu Dancers were a part of the 2014 Festival of Faiths. This year's festival will feature wedding traditions from various religions. - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Yakshagana Hindu Dancers were a part of the 2014 Festival of Faiths. This year's festival will feature wedding traditions from various religions.
  • submitted photo

The Festival of Faiths is an annual event, started in 2013, that celebrates the diversity of the religious community in the Hoosier state. This year’s festival will focus on life cycle rites. In the spirit of celebrating such rituals, an Indy-based group called The Christians for Peace and Justice in the Middle East (CPJME) proposed in June 2015 to stage a Palestinian wedding celebration; a performance that envisions the interfaith marriage of a Muslim man to a Christian woman.

“Our goal was to show everyone that there are Muslim Palestinians; there are Christian Palestinians,” said IUPUI sophomore Haneen Nedal Anabtawi – a member of the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine—who was one of the organizers of the proposed event. “We’re not there to say take this side or take that side, we’re just there to show people that we exist. We have a beautiful culture.”

This performance, however, will not happen at the festival. In mid-June, the Center for Interfaith Cooperation (CIC) — the group that organizes the annual festival — excluded CPMJE from participation.

No one involved in this dispute contends that this exclusion has to do with the subject of the proposed performance: an interfaith Palestinian wedding. But they would all agree that it has everything to do with the group that proposed the event. CPJME describes itself as a group “with a burning concern for peace and justice in the Middle East. That concern is focused on Israelis and Palestinians, both of whom have deep historical roots in the ‘Holy Land.’”

click to enlarge Don Knebel
  • Don Knebel
The website text expresses its sympathies with both peoples but slightly favors one over another.

“Since the Palestinians suffer so much more than the Israelis, our concern tends to focus on the inequities and sacrifices that plague their lives.”

According to Don Knebel, CIC executive committee member, such a mission means that the CPJME is an advocacy group and does not constitute a religious institution.

“We are a festival of faiths where we have religious institutions that are celebrating the various traditions,” Knebel said. “We do not have political advocacy groups especially ones that have controversial missions. We wouldn’t accept Planned Parenthood; we wouldn’t accept a Christian Right-to-Life group. There are opportunities for discussion of political issues that takes place at other events of ours and we’ve done that.”

The CIC leadership used the example of the Right-to-Life group in a letter to some of its board members who had concerns about CPJME’s exclusion from the Festival of Faiths. The letter, dated June 26, stated that the CPJME’s participation “would create controversy in an event designed to promote harmony and mutual understanding.”

But Edward Curtis IV, Religious Studies professor in the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, saw nothing political about the thrust of the CPJME’s mission.

“The group is dominated by ordained ministers of the Protestant tradition,” said Curtis. “And the question is, then, are you going to have a true festival of faiths that requires us to love all people and to struggle for justice and to want for our neighbor what we want for ourselves? That is at the heart of the Christian tradition. You may call it political, but making sure that the Palestinians have basic rights, the freedom of movement, the freedom for shelter, to obtain basic healthcare, all of these things… we don’t consider it political, we come from a tradition called the social gospel.”
click to enlarge Edward Curtis IV
  • Edward Curtis IV

Curtis, who is a CPJME board member, was also a CIC board member — until recently.

Four days after receiving the letter of explanation, Curtis resigned from the CIC board.

“The reason why I can no longer support the CIC or participate in its activities is that I feel that the organization has fallen into a pattern where it is being used to promote the political agenda of those who are supporting the status quo that is the occupation in Israel,” Curtis said. “I believe that people who support the occupation of Palestinian lands should be part of the CIC and I support Lindsey Mintz — who’s one of the chief lobbyists for the state of Israel in the state of Indiana — as chair of the CIC. My only request is that those who also support the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Occupied Territories also have an equal voice at the CIC with respect and dignity. And frankly, that is not happening.”

Mintz is the CIC board chair and the executive director of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). The JCRC released statements on its website blog in support of last summer’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza and against the nuclear deal with Iran, which the Obama administration achieved in concert with the other five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. And such positions put it in line with current Israeli policy under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The JCRC also criticized a January 2015 visit by Israeli scholar Ilan Pappé — a harsh critic of Israel — to the IUPUI campus that was sponsored in part by CPJME, stating that such visits would likely fuel “the flames of extremism” and create “an anti-Semitic climate on campus that may become hostile to Jewish students.”
“This is not an issue directed at the Palestinians,” said Knebel. “It’s not an issue directed by the Jews against the Muslims.”

Knebel, an Indy-based attorney who is a member of the Second Presbyterian Church, insisted that the executive committee decision could’ve been appealed to the full CIC board. This, he said, is a more diverse body both religiously and ethnically than the executive committee.

“The executive committee for the Center for Interfaith Cooperation meets every month,” Knebel said. “The board meets quarterly so the executive committee has the ability to make short term decisions… If people are aggrieved or believe that they are aggrieved by a decision of the executive committee, they can appeal that decision to the full board which is more representative of the public as a whole.”

But Curtis claimed he did ask CIC Executive Director Charlie Wiles — when he visited the June 18 meeting of CPJME to inform the group of its exclusion from the Festival of Faiths — if CPJME would be able to appeal.

“I asked Charlie if we could bring this decision before the full board of the CIC,” said Curtis. “Charlie said no.”
Wiles recalled this incident somewhat differently.

“Yes, I attended the CPJME Board meeting to convey the decision of the executive committee,” Wiles responded in an email. “I discouraged taking the issue to the CIC Board and encouraged CPJME to partner with a church or a mosque to conduct a wedding demonstration. Board members have the prerogative to bring anything before the board. I believe I said it was not a good idea. However, as executive director, I am not in a position to say ‘no’ to a board [member] who is pursuing any type of a grievance.”

So the CPJME didn’t appeal to the full board.

Curtis was the CPJME board member who originally contacted Students for Justice in Palestine group and asked them to come up with an event for Festival of Faiths. When asked about the prospect of another group sponsoring a Palestinian wedding celebration, Curtis said he didn’t know if the CIC would allow a religious group unaffiliated with CPJME to do so.

And the CPJME’s proposal wasn’t reorganized under the banner of a church or a mosque as Wiles claims that he suggested.

click to enlarge The opening procession of the 2014 Festival of Faiths - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • The opening procession of the 2014 Festival of Faiths
  • submitted photo

So what’s going on here? Is it bias rearing its ugly head in the CIC — the powerful allying themselves against the powerless — as Curtis suggests? Curtis pointed to the example of the Catholic Conference, a group that might reasonably be called an advocacy group — if you take a look at its website — which is a festival sponsor.

“They [the Catholic Conference] wouldn’t have their literature represented, but neither would we,” Curtis said, contending that CPJME wouldn’t have engaged in any political advocacy alongside their proposed Palestinian wedding celebration.

On this point, Knebel states, “I have no knowledge of any commitment by CPJME not to pass out literature. All I know is that it requested a booth, which is where it would have conducted its planned ‘wedding.’ We
can't control what participants say or do at their booths.”

Or is the CPJME trying to make an “issue” out of the exclusion of CPJME rather than appealing the decision to the full board as Knebel contends?

“It was more important to have this in NUVO to cast doubt on the Center for Interfaith Cooperation than it is to have this presentation,” said Knebel.

Or is this whole thing based, in part, on a misunderstanding?

“Here’s where I think I probably dropped the ball,” said Knebel. “In 2013 when we were a tiny little just started organization with our first Festival of Faiths, we should have probably articulated the policy that we applied more recently [with the CPJME exclusion]… we probably should have put that in a written document so I wouldn’t have found myself talking to a reporter.”

And there was a meeting of board members to discuss concerns about the executive committee decision according to Wiles.

“We also invited anyone from the board who had a concern to attend a [July 2] meeting and openly discuss the decision,” Wiles stated. “Ten board members, representing diverse communities, attended the meeting where we had a robust discussion and shared good ideas on how to be clearer about the mission and purpose of Festival of Faiths for future applicants.”

So what lessons are to be drawn here? Perhaps when you have a big tent in terms of religious and political affiliation, your diverse array of constituents and board members are not always going to see eye to eye.
Maybe the line between advocacy and religious belief is also at issue here. Another question: Is there more involved than just holding hands and singing Kumbaya in being true to one’s faith tradition? “Peace and justice…. Those aren’t just nice little add-ons, those are the heart of what it means to follow Jesus Christ,” said Curtis.

Or maybe the takeaway here is that matters of conscience and empathy and faith and politics and advocacy are tied together like a Gordian knot somewhere near the human heart and cannot easily be separated. Take the particular ethno-religious conflict half a world away — the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict — that led to Haneen Nedal Anabtawi to plan an ultimately unrealized wedding performance for the Festival of Faiths.

“When I was in Palestine, I had the opportunity to interview multiple women who lost either a husband, father, or son [to the Israeli occupation],” she said. “The stories they told me broke my heart. I couldn't continue to let these injustices take place so when I came back to Indiana, I made the decision to do whatever I can to raise awareness.”

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