A boycott launched by President Gideon Goldenholtz of the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis against last November's Milwaukee Symposium on "The Role of Religious Leaders in the Middle East Peace Process" has had the unintended result of enhancing media interest in the event. Its repercussions continue eight months later.
The Associated Press, local and outside newspapers, and academic and religious periodicals all sent reporters to the Marquette University campus. Resultant headlines included: "Understanding -- Key to Aiding Israelis, Arabs"; "Jews, Muslims, Christians Must Re-learn Harmony"; "Action is Necessary: Religious Leaders Have Obligation [Vatican UN] Observer Says"; "Speaking Out: Christians Address Mideast Peace"; "Conferees Say That Only Recently Have They Examined Aspects of Zionism"; "Israel Called Oppressive at Conference"; and "Jerusalem's Pride Also Its Curse."
Like other area clergy, Goldenholtz had been invited to bring colleagues to take advantage of question and discussion periods to air their views. He declined, however, complaining that neither of the slated Jewish speakers represented "mainline American Jewish" opinion. Hence, he was not present to challenge or confirm Jewish theologian Marc Ellis' assertion that, in most interfaith dialogues, "Christians are afraid to raise honest questions about Israeli behavior on the West Bank" while "Jewish leaders are allowed to get away with evasive non-answers."
Speaker's Life Threatened
Nor was Goldenholtz on hand to comment on the symposium's most widely reported incident. As summarized in the Milwaukee Journal's coverage: "Two Milwaukee police officers guarded Michael Lerner, one of the Jewish speakers, whose life was threatened by some right-wing followers of the slain Rabbi Meir Kahane. Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, had said on CBS television that the cycle of violence resulting in Kahane's assassination in New York City was one the militant leader helped perpetuate by his own use of violence." (Goldenholtz was prominent in local memorial services honoring that fallen founder of the Jewish Defense League and Israel's anti-Gentile Kach party.)
The rabbinical president was, in any case, shortly to have to contend with other news stories which may also have been brought to journalistic attention by his attempted boycott. Among their headlines were: "Jewish Rift May End State Council of Rabbis" and "New Group Likely for Rabbis." One interviewee acknowledged that "There are deep divisions in the Jewish community, but most Jews won't discuss those differences." In his camp, it came out, Goldenholtz had, at best, five staunch supporters among his rabbinical colleagues.
This is not to discount support given Goldenholtz from other sources. Mordecai Lee, seasoned Zionist politician and executive director of the "umbrella" Milwaukee Jewish Council, did his unsuccessful best to get key personages at Marquette, the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee and Cardinal Stitch College (departmental cosponsors with the Wisconsin Committee of the American-Arab Affairs Council) to dissociate their schools from the symposium. And, although only 4 of the symposium's 17 speakers were Arabs -- a Syrian-born Protestant, two Catholics from Lebanon and Jerusalem, and an Egyptian Muslim -- the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle fanned anxieties by alleging that the speakers were "predominantly Arab." The newspaper labeled the Jewish participants in the symposium as "extreme leftists."
Glimmers of Hope?
An otherwise disparaging Chronicle editorial did, however, conclude on a positive note: "Let us hope," it mused, "that enough people of good will at this symposium...are willing to build an honest symposium on what religious leaders can do to further Middle East peace."
Actually, many veterans of the overflow attendance have been pursuing that goal, working in their own circles and through the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee. In the latter they have found overwhelming non-Jewish support for distributing pertinent peacemaking literature, for jointly framing official statements and for candid public dialogue on American-Arab-Israeli relations. …