Try to visualize this scenario. You are in an open-carry state, in a publicly accessible facility, with no security. A man walks out of a room, heading to a water fountain, when he is accosted by another person, yelling at him, “I know who you are. I’m going to kill you.” And then begins spewing epithets at him. The accosted person tries to leave the unexpected confrontation but is followed, and the aggressor continues to yell and intimidate, all the while recording the incident on video. Finally, the person being threatened manages to get away. It is easy to imagine what happens next, the victim calls the authorities, the aggressor is apprehended and either charged with a crime or, at a minimum, banned from the facility. In 2018, death threats, intimidation, and harassment are usually taken pretty seriously. Unless, apparently you happen to be a speaker at an event advocating for a group that is “slow to criticize Israel,” and that event is the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) General Assembly.
This exact scenario unfolded this Monday in St. Louis, Missouri, when the Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid found himself in this same situation, after giving testimony opposing an anti-Israel resolution at the Presbyterian General Assembly. Eid was a guest of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, a group committed to a two-state solution, and opposed to the Boycott Divest Sanctions movement.
Eid gave a speech in open hearings on one of the resolutions before the committee, which consisted of 60 commissioners, including youth advisory delegates, some of whom are teenagers. When Eid finished, he walked out of the room, to go to the water fountain, when was accosted by another man who started screaming at him, cursing in epithets, and then told Bassem “I know who you are! I’m going to kill you, you Zionist collaborator!” Bassem told him to go away, and the man persisted and continued to follow him out the building, harassing and trying to intimidate him the entire time. Not only did he threaten Bassem, but the aggressor recorded the encounter and proudly posted it on his twitter.
Bassem Eid reached out to his hosts from Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, and the General Assembly and convention center security was alerted to the threat. They came, and didn’t even think of calling the police, until PFMEP leaders intervened, arguing that this was an assault, an attempted battery, in an open carry state. You have to call the police. Ultimately an officer was brought in, and a statement was taken, but surprisingly no action was taken. They did not have the video footage yet and decided not to take any action beyond posting a private security guard, armed with a walkie-talkie, at the door of the committee. Within the hour, the videos were posted online, and shared with the PC(USA) staff – and they did nothing.
Not long afterwards the perpetrator returned to the facility. While he was initially brought to the security office, the General Assembly leadership decided that because he was a guest of the Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN), and they “could not corroborate” the death threat they would not ban him from the facility nor seek charges. Shortly afterwards, they became aware of the two videos the perpetrator posted, harassing and intimidating Bassem Eid after making the death threat. They still chose to do nothing. And the church’s second in command told us that the General Assembly is an open proceeding, and we promote freedom of speech and open discussion.
The aggressor was allowed to return, came in and out of the room repeatedly, and even approached two members of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace. When Bassem Eid spoke a second time, one of the aggressor’s associates filmed his testimony. The end result was that PC(USA) seemed perfectly fine with allowing this man to create a chilling effect on speech by putting everyone, including the committee’s own staff, on edge with legitimate concerns for their own safety. The committee room included probably close to 200 people in attendance, including several minor Youth Advisory Delegates, not to mention the thousand plus other individuals who were in the halls of the St. Louis Convention Center. This was not just a “he said/she said” incident. Four minutes of Bassem Eid being harassed and intimidated was on film, and the PC(USA) did nothing.
Contrast this with the actions of a local St. Louis synagogue, hosting Bassem Eid for an event this Thursday night. Immediately upon learning of the death threat, they doubled their security, to make sure that Bassem Eid and all the participants at the public event were safe.
On Monday night, Presbyterians for Middle East Peace wrote a letter demanding action from the Church’s Stated Clerk Rev. J. Herbert Nelson. A request was made for him to ban the perpetrator from the facility for the remainder of the General Assembly, and to arrest him for trespass if he returned. The Stated Clerk was asked to provide a safe environment for all participants, and that it was unacceptable that people feel threatened doing the work of the Church.
On Tuesday morning, there was no security guard present at the committee room, and no response from the Stated Clerk. Members of the IPMN were seen attempting to convince the committee staff – and a reporter from the Presbyterian Outlook – that Bassem Eid had lied, and there was no threat. There were several witnesses to this, as they tried to bully the reporter to withdraw the story he had written.
About an hour after the committee’s work began, an email response from the Stated Clerk was received, which later was posted as a press release on the Church’s website. The Stated Clerk’s response was baffling, as it seemed to be more concerned with open discussion then public safety or preventing intimidation.
He refused to take any further action, justifying the actions taken by General Assembly staff on Monday, and acknowledged that the aggressor was a guest of IPMN. More importantly, the Stated Clerk engaged in victim-blaming, suggesting that a former moderator of the church disputed that there was a threat, and implied that Eid was lying.
In perhaps the strangest part of the letter, Reverend Nelson wrote:
Admittedly, Presbyterians tend to have strong feelings about public issues and, in the case of the search for peace in the Middle East, that exposes the General Assembly to strong, divergent opinions. Sometimes that exposes us to the existential passion of people embedded in the struggle, who have been invited to provide information and advice to the assembly committees. When that passion boils over, we have to deal with the results.
This appeared to be the case, as [the aggressor] perceived Mr. Eid (representing an advocacy group often seen as slow to criticize Israel) to be a Palestinian traitor to the Palestinian cause, became abusive and threatening.
Apparently, the fact that Bassem Eid represents a group that is “slow to criticize Israel” justifies allowing a guest of the Church’s IPMN to harass and threaten people. Why does it matter what Eid’s position is on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? He was assaulted, threatened, and harassed. And the perpetrator was allowed to roam the halls freely.
The Stated Clerk himself acknowledged that the aggressor was “abusive and threatening.” Yet, all that this merited was an un-armed security guard for the first day of the committee hearings. This was a clear dereliction of his duty to protect the safety of all of the participants of the General Assembly, made even more critical given the presence of minors.
If someone threatens a person with death, there are consequences. You do not just let them stay. If this happened in one of the many PC(USA) churches, the police would be called, and the aggressor would be forced out of the building. But that’s not what the PC(USA) Stated Clerk did. His letter implies that there was no actual threat, even though there are four minutes of video evidence to the contrary. He also ignored the concerns that the death threat and harassment had created a chilling effect on speech, and created an environment in which several people acknowledged they were scared, and uncomfortable speaking.
The PC(USA) leadership signaled that it was acceptable for a speaker at an open hearing to be threatened. Now, they are trying to back-track, claiming that the aggressor wasn’t actually a guest of the IPMN, when that is clearly not true – given how a past moderator acknowledged on a video that he was an invited guest.
PC(USA) Stated Clerk Nelson put public safety second beyond a desire for an open meeting. If this occurred at a school, the entire building would have gone into lock-down, and the aggressor would be kicked out of school immediately, and almost certainly arrested. The PC(USA)’s actions were not only inadequate, they put the safety of all individuals in the Middle East Committee, not to mention those attending the committees meeting in several adjacent rooms at risk.