Just three months after the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, at the Tree of Life synagogue building, the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary — two miles away from the massacre site — hosted speakers who invoked age-old anti-Semitic tropes and bashed Israel and Zionism as “an anti-Semitic lie.”
On Saturday, Jan. 26, the 21st annual Racial Justice Summit — which is described on its website as creating “opportunities for attendees to learn, connect and act on behalf of racial justice” — included a session on the perceived injustices of the Israeli government and Jews.
During a panel presentation dubbed “Rewriting the Narrative: Reimagining the Future,” Susan Abulhawa, a Palestinian-American novelist, explained the launch of Zionism as “a political movement that was conceived by wealthy Jewish businessmen in Eastern Europe.”
Her remarks are recorded on video.
“When all these Zionists started immigrating to Palestine and eventually took over the country and kicked the indigenous people out,” she said, “the narrative was that these Europeans who had been in Europe for thousands of years, who had documented European history for thousands of years, in literature, and art, and culture, in science and politics, that these people were actually indigenous to Palestine and the indigenous people who had been there were, in fact, the squatters.”
Laura Horowitz, a member of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, was present at the program, but walked out after a heated exchange with panel members.
“I’ve been debating going to the Racial Justice Summit for a while now,” Horowitz wrote on Facebook. “I wanted to go to hear and learn, but I was afraid I’d encounter some viewpoints that were hostile to my Jewish existence. I decided to go this year. I’ll never go back.
“A speaker on the last panel, a Palestinian woman, described Zionism as being created by ‘rich Jewish bankers,’ challenged the connection of the Jewish people to the land because we didn’t manage to keep our property documents after 2,000 years of being expelled from one state after another, and then said that the Jews want two states.”
Horowitz was “angry,” she wrote, “and a roomful of people sat there and watched this Jew hating go on without saying a word. I support the need for the Palestinian people to have their own state. I support the same need for my own people. I consider myself a progressive and will support progressives, even when they refuse to support me.”
Abulhawa described the hijacking of planes by Palestinians in the late 1960s and early 1970s as “violent resistance,” and condemned the “narrative” that shifted to depict them as “terrorists.”
“Now that narrative has persisted to this day,” she continued. “As long as the world can believe that, then everything Israel does is OK with us.”
When Horowitz objected to Abulhawa promoting anti-Jewish stereotypes, panel moderator Bekezala Mguni, who describes herself on her website as a “radical librarian” and activist, said that Jews are the oppressors of the Palestinians, according to an article in the Jan. 31-Feb. 6 issue of Print.
After Horowitz’s protestations, Abulhawa said: “I resent the idea that you think there’s two sides, because there aren’t two sides [to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict]. It’s like saying there are two sides to apartheid or two sides to slavery. There’s one side that’s immensely powerful and one side that isn’t. There’s one side that’s engaged in a settler colonial enterprise and one side that’s an indigenous population being wiped away.”
She labeled the “the entire Zionist enterprise” as “anti-Semitic, because it hijacks an ancient religion. … It presumes to speak in the name of all Jews as if all Jews are of one mind, are all on board, which is a lie also. And it’s an anti-Semitic lie, I would submit to you.”
In November 2018, Abulhawa was detained at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel, and ordered deported. Israel’s Immigration Authority told local media that Abulhawa was refused entry over a 2015 incident in which she refused to answer questions by security personnel when she attempted to cross into Israel from Jordan. According to the Immigration Authority, she was told then that the next time she planned to visit Israel she would have to coordinate her entry in advance, which she did not do.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh ceased publicly partnering with the PTS in May 2018, following its hosting of a lecture by the Rev. Naim Ateek, founder of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. The Federation had expressed concerns with the anti-Semitic rhetoric commonly used by Ateek and the one-sided, anti-Israel philosophy embedded within the theology he advocates.
When Josh Sayles, director of the Federation’s Community Relations Council, met with leadership at the seminary to share the Jewish community’s concerns about giving the founder of Sabeel a platform in Pittsburgh, he was dismayed to be told, “We don’t see it the same way,” he told the Chronicle at the time.
“We are open to meeting with their leadership to explore how we can begin to rebuild trust,” Sayles said on Feb. 3. “Part of that process would mean that moving forward, when we reach out to PTS to alert them to anti-Semitism on their campus — especially in light of Oct. 27 — that we are not met with, ‘We don’t see it that way.’”
Also at this year’s summit, the local chapter of IfNotNow, an organization of Jews seeking to end Israel’s presence in the West Bank that has led demonstrations against Jewish communal institutions, ran a breakout session “on antisemitism, its roots, and relationship to white supremacy,” according to IfNotNow’s Facebook page.
The Racial Justice Summit has included anti-Israel presentations at least since 2017.
Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist and pro-BDS organization frequently called out by the Anti-Defamation League for its “radical” positions against Israel, led a workshop at the summit in 2018 about the “DeadlyExchange,” described as “police training exchanges between the U.S. and Israel — and how we can work together to end it.”
In 2017, the summit hosted a workshop titled “The Joint Battle Against White Supremacy and Racism: Black Lives Matter and Palestinian Liberation Movement.” It’s aim, as described online, was “to educate and motivate the masses of justice minded people to see the struggle for Black Lives in the U.S. and the struggle for Palestinian Lives in Israel and Occupied Palestine as the same struggle against the same enemies of white supremacy as manifested in the US and Israeli institutions and policies.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at