An Open Letter of Complaint to “The Mennonite”

A year ago today, The Mennonite, a publication of the Mennonite Church, published an article I wrote on Rethinking Mennonite’s Approach to Israel and Palestine. The article asserts that Mennonites need to address our history of antisemitism and embrace a more strategic and effective approach to advocating for Palestinian rights.

Two months ago, the Board of The Mennonite (TM) decided to remove my article from their website because of opposition to the content of the article.

The executive director Sheldon Good of TM had commissioned me to write this article for the 70th anniversary of the Nakba and the founding of Israel.  He edited the article and offered his support for its content, noting that it was important for Mennonites to hear another way of understanding how to both support Palestinian rights and to address the significant gaps in our narrative about Judaism and Israel.

Sheldon Good decided the timing of the article. It was not my idea to publish the article on the anniversary date itself.  On the morning of publication, we woke up to the news that Israeli soldiers were using extreme violence against protestors, most of whom were nonviolently marching for the return to their homes. Sheldon Good wrote to me asking if he could add an introduction about the Gaza massacre, which he did. He made the choice to publish the article after the Gaza massacre began.

On TM’s Facebook page, many disapproved of my article.  Most of the complaints were about the timing. They argued we should not talk about antisemitism on a day when Israeli soldiers were killing nonviolent protestors. I offered to TM in a phone conversation to have the article removed for a later date. I asked what to do with the comments coming in, and TM prompted me to respond individually to the comments and to interact with readers.  I received private messages from a number of Mennonites praising my skills in responding to what were hateful and misleading comments.

Several of those opposed to my article were Mennonite leaders who disagreed with me on LGBTQ rights and the advocacy I have done for victims of sexual violence.  Some of the comments and private letters to me gave orders for me to ‘shut up’ and suggested that my voice for antiracism training in the church, LGBTQ rights, and survivors of sexual violence and now my concerns for antisemitism were all reasons why the church should not publish my writing in the future. At one Mennonite university, there were calls for canceling my classes and banning all of my books by senior leaders in Mennonite Central Committee because of what they saw as a false claim of antisemitism. Some progressive Mennonites attacked the article arguing I was ignoring power imbalances and suggested that Mennonite participation in the Holocaust was not as bad as Israeli violence against Palestinians.

The second most frequent criticism was the section on threats to Jews from surrounding Muslim and Arab countries and accusations that I was Islamophobic in my article by asserting that Jews had to flee for their lives from Morocco, Egypt, and other countries in the region. I offered a variety of responses and citations for that point. I have worked across the Middle East and Central Asia. To suggest that there is no antisemitism in Arab and Muslim countries is absolutely absurd. Antisemitism is rampant. I offered to TM that I could change the wording of that sentence and offer examples.

Then on May 15, 2018, TM decided to publish an article by a Swiss-Palestinian man. His article charged I was making untrue statements about Mennonite antisemitism and had offered no evidence. This was untrue. My article offered links to my other writings summarizing the history of Mennonite support for the Holocaust and antisemitism. Naming antisemitism is not “impugning” Mennonites any more than suggesting that racism is an issue in the Mennonite church. Racism, Islamophobia, and antisemitism all come from the same source: white supremacy.

The Swiss-Palestinian man also accused me of being Islamophobic by suggesting that there was no antisemitism in Muslim countries. Whereas I had offered an extensive analysis of Mennonite antisemitism, this man had made untrue and unproven accusations of Islamophobia against me. He assumed that any concern for antisemitism automatically meant that I was “anti-Palestinian.” My article does not in any way impugn any individual or group. The article only says positive things about Palestinians. I am a supporter of Palestinian rights and been involved in the movement for 30 years. I have spoken on behalf of Palestinian rights at the White House, in the Pentagon, at the UN, on CNN, on Fox News. I have published here and here about a more effective strategy for supporting Palestinian rights and addressing antisemitism.

Over the next few months, this man went on to many websites and posted his article denouncing me and asserting that I did not believe in human rights. His article was reposted by others in the church who have opposed my work on various justice issues. His false accusations of what I had said in my article were continuing to circulate and be shared with others. This man called me “an enemy of human rights.” Because he used my name throughout the article, a simple web search of my name on the TM website put his article at the top of the list, above all the articles I have written for TM over the last 15 years.

In January 2019, I asked TM to remove this man’s article because of his repeated use of my name and false accusations about what I said in my article.  Given my continued work with Muslims in many countries, this man’s accusations were a direct attempt to undermine my credibility and my practice and scholarship on human rights and social justice. TM’s publication of falsehoods about me impacts my credibility as well as the credibility of TM itself.

TM allowed this man to repeatedly use my name in the article, to make multiple false assertions about me and what I had written. This is not the first time TM has allowed this type of public shaming and humiliation of a woman in the comment section. And to my knowledge, TM has never published an article that specifically names and shames a specific individual person, as this man’s article did against me.

TM’s decision to take down both of our articles suggests that both articles include false and defamatory material. I absolutely disagree that my article is false and defamatory in any way.

TM staff noted to me that significant leaders in the Mennonite church had chastised TM for publishing my article. Their silent power concerns me. The powers that be in our church have opposed my writing about LGBTQ rights, about racism and sexual abuse, and now about antisemitism. Significant Mennonite leaders have made deliberate choices to keep the history of Mennonite participation in the Holocaust out of Mennonite history books.  In the last year, they have made deliberate decisions not to apologize to Jewish representatives about this newly revealed history.

I have had many people read my article, including significant Mennonite and Palestinian leaders. Some Mennonite leaders privately wrote to me praising the article for “bravery” noting they have been too afraid to voice these concerns about Mennonite antisemitism for fear of receiving exactly the kind of backlash that I received.

I have reached out to many leaders in the church over the years, and I have had positive experiences in dialogue with many of them. I have reached out repeatedly to the Swiss Palestinian man who wrote the article but he has refused to talk with me. I asked his Mennonite pastor, a former colleague of mine, to mediate a conversation, but he refused as well. I have met with two other Palestinians in the Mennonite church who expressed anger with me. They were concerned with the timing of my article, thinking that I had written it in response to the Gaza massacre rather than weeks before it happened. I apologized for the timing and explained that it had not been my choice or intent.

It concerns me that TM would silence my voice on antisemitism while protecting the identity of those making the complaints. I left my faculty position at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) because key administrators spread false accusations against me and threatened to cancel my programs because I agreed to support student victims of sexual violence at EMU. The church leaders are, in effect, excommunicating me by refusing to listen to my voice or even discuss with me their opposition to the article.

By taking down my article, TM is choosing to eliminate one of the only voices on antisemitism on the church and communicates to the TM audience that my attempt to support both Palestinian rights and to address antisemitism is wrong.

 

11 Comments

  1. I have read your articles and I agree totally with you. I am sorry that they took them off.

  2. Lisa, your voice is an important prophetic reminder to the rest of us on so many issues. When I read your pieces they make me think and reflect on my own practice. This is exactly how we be the body of Christ to each other. Thank you! And thank you for your courage in refusing to be silent in the face of injustice, conflict, and disagreement. – Paul Neufeld Weaver

  3. When the voice of reason is besmirched, dismissed, misplaced, or mishandled, as is obvious with Ms Schirch’s TM piece, we all suffer.
    An apology and retraction is due her.

  4. Thank you Lisa for this forthright essay. As someone trying to walk a similar line of confronting antisemitism, promoting the welfare of Palestinians, and being as transparent as possible about power’s use and misuse, I greatly appreciate your words and work.

  5. Sadly I am reminded of the phrase from Luke’s Gospel: ‘Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” Thanks Lisa for all you do to bring light to dark places.

  6. Thank you for your clarifications. It’s hard work calling out injustice. Let’s keep working on it, as thoughtfully and kindly as you seem to be doing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.