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By Tom Holmes
If you thought the media were giving people in your community a slanted, incomplete picture of an issue close to your heart and you wanted to set the record straight, what would you do?
Until 10 years ago, Oak Park resident Rebekah Levin gave her unquestioning support to the state of Israel in their longstanding conflict with the Palestinians — until a series of events began to change her mind. One was a program she attended in which some "refusniks" — i.e. Israeli soldiers who refused to serve in the occupied territories on the West Bank — explained why they thought the occupation of Palestinian territory east of the so-called "green line," drawn by the U.N. in 1947, was unjust and illegal.
Having heard another side, she and a few others asked the organizers of the annual Walk for Israel if they could carry signs that would read: "JEWS FOR A JUST PEACE IN ISRAEL AND PALESTINE."
Told she would not be allowed to because the signs would be divisive and because Jews speak with one voice, she concluded that a lot of people in this area were getting a biased picture of what was happening in the Middle East and that somebody ought to balance the reporting.
Levin looked around and decided she was that someone. So in 2001, Levin and some like-minded colleagues organized an alternative march here in Oak Park, the first annual Walk for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine — 150 people participated.
Feeling momentum, she and what turned into a steering committee of 11 people began putting together an annual series of lectures, panel discussions, performances and films designed to raise awareness and educate people about all sides of the conflict in the Middle East.
The Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine (CJPIP) was born.
"After nine years of holding a lecture and public event series, we decided it was time to consider a new approach," said Martha Reese, a steering committee member. "We wanted to take our message outside the walls of the Oak Park library, where we most often held our events, into a more public space so people who choose not to attend our events can still hear the message."
After some research and conversation, the committee decided to try a pilot project with a budget of just $6,000. They put 60 ads on CTA trains on the Blue and Red lines and six large posters on CTA platforms. They got measurable data on the effectiveness of the campaign by using Google Analytics, a service that tracks traffic on their website.
In the first three weeks of the campaign in October, 7,000 pages on their website had been viewed, and viewership spiked dramatically for a few days after two New York bloggers gave CJPIP a complimentary write-up in one of their postings. But even after the temporary increase, they have been getting about 150 views per day. They also have a Facebook page with 550 friends which serves as a companion to their website.
"The volume of readership makes us think the project has been definitely worthwhile," said Reese. "It's an affirmation that our idea that this would be a great way to engage people has turned out to be right on."
In fact, activists in other cities have inquired about the ad campaign. American Jews for a Just Peace in Boston and Jewish Voice for Peace in San Francisco have asked for more information from CJPIP.
An attractive aspect of the pilot project to other activists, according to Reese, is its affordability. CJPIP receives no income from membership dues. Relying totally on donations, the steering committee tries to get maximum value out of every dollar spent.
"There's such an imbalance in the resources available to activists who want to get the word out as an alternative to the mainstream media," she explained, "so we have to be extremely strategic and creative."
Not everyone in Oak Park and River Forest appreciates what CJPIP is doing. Five years ago the committee invited a controversial speaker, Norman Finkelstein, to speak. In response, a full page ad signed by 40 people appeared in Wednesday Journal, which "selectively quoted his work and presented a very distorted picture of his message," Reese said.
Faith communities differ
All four rabbis in our area chose not to go on record regarding CJPIP, but a visit to either West Suburban Temple Har Zion in River Forest or Oak Park Temple B'nai Abraham Zion will leave little doubt as to whose side they are on. On the bemas of both temples stand an American flag and an Israeli flag.
A visit to their libraries, which are impressive — over 3,000 volumes in Oak Park Temple's collection — is revealing. Most of the 50 or so titles in Oak Park Temple are written by Jews and are, perhaps understandably, either pro-Israel or neutral.
One periodical called Moment, however, showed a willingness to print a diversity of opinion. Responding to what in a previous issue was basically a "kill all the Arabs and let God sort them out" rant, Gershon Gorenberg wrote, "Should the article have been printed? The answer to that is a simple 'yes,' because journalism's job is to tell people what's happening in the world, not to prettify it."
A member of one synagogue who preferred to remain anonymous argued that the "root of the problem is the attempt to deligitimize the state of Israel" if not destroy it. The member contended that both sides are represented in the media, citing criticism of Israel by the New York Times as an example.
Not all Jews, however, are hearing an entirely pro-Israel slant on the news. Elisa Lapine from the Secular Jewish Community reported that in her community many members support the work of CJPIP, but some take issue with its point of view.
"On a personal note, I have wished that we would, as a community, take a stand opposing the occupation and aligning ourselves with CJPIP more actively [like adding our name to the numerous sponsors of what has become known as 'the alternative walk' for a just peace in Israel and Palestine] but we have never been able to reach consensus on this which is no surprise," Lapine said.
And it's not only Jews who are staunch supporters of the state of Israel. If you check out the stage of the 15,000-member Living Word Christian Center in Forest Park, you might think you were looking at the bema in one of the local synagogues. On the left is the American flag and on the right is the flag of Israel.
When asked to provide a statement of Living Word's position on the issue, the manager of the Royal Crown Book Store — Living Word's official outlet for literature — provided a copy of John Hagee's In Defense of Israel, the Bible's Mandate for Supporting the Jewish State.
The dust cover reads: "After 26 years of unconditional support of Israel and the Jewish people, Pastor Hagee called on over 400 of America's foremost evangelical leaders to form Christians United for Israel. Today CUFI is a national organization of millions who are standing in support of Israel and the Jewish people, fulfilling Isaiah 62:1, 'For Zion's sake I will not be silent.'"
In contrast to the more conservative evangelicals, mainline churches seem more sympathetic toward the Palestinian side. Rev. Julie Harley, lead pastor at First United Church of Oak Park on Lake Street, said, "I respect [CJPIP's] work. Two of our members are involved, and they are certainly pro-Palestinian. Our church does not have an official position, but overall our active, vocal members tend to be pro-Palestinian."
Pastor Kathy Nolte at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church said her congregation has many pro-Palestinian members and, as far as she knows, only one who is pro-Israel. Several members of Good Shepherd work or have worked at the headquarters of their denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, in Chicago. A visit to the ELCA's website reveals the following statement on the status of Jerusalem:
"The reality is that Jerusalem is a very divided city that has known great violence and major conflict over expanding Israeli settlements, confiscation of Palestinian land, demolition of Palestinian homes, revocation of residency rights for Palestinians and great disparity in resources between Israeli West Jerusalem and Palestinian East Jerusalem."
Yet, when discussing the situation in Gaza, the ELCA statement makes no mention of the over 2000 Kassam rockets that have been fired by Hamas and other militant groups into civilian areas in Israel.
It is hard to discern whether faith communities come down on different sides of the issue because they are getting only some of the facts or because they are getting the information they need but viewing it through different lenses.
"There is a persistent problem," said Reese. "Attempts to have open, critical conversation on this very important subject are met by an attempt to shoot the messenger. Accusations like anti-Semitism are used to either intimidate people into silence or change the subject, so instead of talking about Israeli policies, you find yourself defending your right to be speaking out on this at all."
Levin agrees. She has been active in the civil rights, feminist, ecological and gay rights movements, but this one has been the hardest.
"I've been involved in CJPIP from the very beginning," she said, "when there wasn't a bandwagon to jump on. It's easy to be on the right side of an issue like Darfur, but this is an issue where if you speak out against the oppression of the Palestinians and the actions of the Israeli government, you get slammed."
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