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Local Refuseniks
Long after 9:30 p.m. on a recent weeknight, Tema Okun and Tom Stern's living room is still full of people. They sit draped over couches and chairs or cross-legged on the floor. Papers are scattered over every available surface. A laptop blinks expectantly on a nearby stool.Despite the late hour, the discussion is animated. Heads nod, hands circle and jab the air, small-group leaders scratch notes on yellow legal pads, laughter erupts in quick bursts--as does argument.

It's definitely a Jewish meeting.

In fact, it's a meeting about Jewish renewal--of a kind. The violence that's escalated over the past half year in Israel and the West Bank has sent suffocating clouds of hopelessness and fear over many American Jewish communities. But there's a silver lining: Across the country, progressive Jews have been organizing to dispel the idea that American Jews are a monolith of unquestioning support for Israeli military policies.

At this Durham meeting of Jews for a Just Peace, not everyone is religious or shares the same sense of what it is to be Jewish. What they do share is a gut-wrenching sense of what it is not.

"We do not accept that Jewish survival depends upon unconditional support for the Israeli government and its policies," the group's statement of principles reads. "Rather, we believe that the future safety and survival of our people rests on our ability to live in peace with our neighbors and to work to ensure justice and security for all people."

To that end, group members (among them, Steve Schewel, former publisher of The Independent) have been calling for a pullback of Israeli settlements, an end to the occupation of Palestinian territories, and support for policies that "address the legitimate national and human rights of the Palestinian people."

It's not an easy stance to take. At vigils, informational pickets and in private discussions, group members have encountered plenty of opposition from people who view them as anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic, even unpatriotic. (Similar charges have been leveled from the halls of Congress at those calling for Israeli restraint. U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) went so far as to blame the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on such calls.)

But facing uncomfortable truths is what Jews for a Just Peace is all about.

"We want to give voice within the Jewish community for people to be able to voice dissent," says Stern. "If we as Jews don't speak up about these issues, what does that say about us as partners" in a potential peace process?

For some group members, this new wave of Jewish activism has been building for some time. Fritzi Ross, whose father survived the Holocaust (though most of his extended family did not), describes how she went from "being a strong Zionist to being someone who's very unhappy about the activities of the Israeli government." A few years ago, she joined a dialogue group with Jews and Arabs and she's been corresponding with a Palestinian man in Ramallah. "It's incredibly difficult for me to relate to making this other Semitic people our enemy," she says. "The relationship is so close, I can't believe we can't live together peacefully."

For others, events of the last six months have made speaking out a political necessity.

"For me, it was the convergence of Sept. 11, the resulting patriotic fervor and Israeli policy," says Daniele Armaleo. "It was all mixed in a lethal way that I thought was wrong."

"The war on terrorism suddenly became the war on Palestinians," adds Laurie Fox. "As Jews, we felt a responsibility to be the ones to say 'No' to this ethnic cleansing."

We talk some more about the shifting boundary between the personal and the political when it comes to these issues; how we feel implicated by the actions of the Israeli government (not to mention the inaction of own elected leaders) and the violence committed on both sides, because we are Jews.

By organizing Jews for a Just Peace, members say, they are refusing to simply be lumped in as part of a seemingly intractable problem. Instead, they're connecting to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in ways that will allow for real solutions. In this, they've been inspired by the Israeli "refuseniks"--soldiers who've refused to fight in the occupied territories--as well as by their own Jewish ideals.

As Stern puts it, "I've never felt more Jewish than since I got involved in this group."

Though it's just getting started, Jews for a Just Peace has already been successful at sending a message that not everyone's jumped on the Israeli military bandwagon. Members hope to stir more debate--both within and outside the Jewish community--and generate more support for ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

"Right now, we are the marginalized ones," says Phil Jacobson. "But that should be reversed."

As the meeting finally winds down, notes are gathered up and the laptop is packed away. The talk and laughter spill out into the street where cars are lined up along both sides of the road.

We know we haven't resolved the dilemma of how to achieve peace in the Middle East. Nor have we answered all of our inner questions about Jewish identity. But on both counts, we've generated something that was in short supply before we came this evening: Hope.

For information on Jews for a Just Peace, send e-mail to jfajpnc@yahoo.com.
--Barbara Solow

The Lord Giveth, and Pretty Soon the Traffic Expandeth
Who wouldn't want a little church in their neighborhood? Exactly, and so churches are a permitted use wherever they want to be in Raleigh, no rezoning needed. Regardless of size. Up to and including a megachurch. That's the first thing folks living off Baileywick Road in North Raleigh learned when Providence Baptist Church took an option on the woodsy, 73-acre tract in their backyards. Providence is the church housed in what used to be a Howard Johnson Hotel on Glenwood Avenue, across from the Pleasant Valley shopping mall. That was a big HoJo, but Providence has outgrown it: Its four Sunday services draw a total of 3,000 congregants weekly, and that number is going up 8 percent a year. Do the math, and it projects to over 5,000 attendees by the end off the decade, which is why Providence wants to build a 155,000-square foot church (with a parking lot for 1,600 cars) and have lots of room for expansion later.

The next thing the neighbors learned, Kim Calhoun says, is one another's names. At least, that was true for her and the 35 other people who got together last week and voted--unanimously--to oppose the project. Donning nametags, they introduced themselves, shared what little they knew about Providence and admitted their ignorance about Raleigh politics: Because they live in a lightly populated (and very expensive) area just outside the city limits, they can't vote in Raleigh, and most couldn't name a single City Council member. Two who could--Keith Wilder and Calhoun--were elected chair and vice chair of their group, and "North Raleigh Coalition" (NRC) was chosen as their name. Yard signs to follow, wording TBA.

Inside the city limit, other residents are taking flight. In the Stillwater Landing subdivision, which borders the church tract, the yard signs are up already--"For Sale," they say, and "Price Reduced." But the NRC folk, holding more upscale ground, have chosen to stand and fight. They're convinced that once the City Council sees how big this "chapel in the woods" could be, it won't let it into a residential area.

"This isn't just a church," Wilder says. "It's more akin to a business." Initial plans include only the sanctuary, playing fields and a garden, but Wilder's convinced that the reason Providence is coming out to this neck of the woods--conveniently located near I-540 and the airport--is to become a regional megachurch and retreat center able to draw conservative churchpeople from all over Virginia and the Southeast. Why else do they need a sanctuary big enough to seat 5,000 people--at one time? Or 73 acres? And he's read on their Web site that they're in the market for more. "Once they get their foot in the door--first they're part of the community, then they ARE the community," Wilder told the group. Agreed one: "If you were to call this institution by any other name (than a church), it would not be approved."

Well, maybe not. The 73-acre tract is located in the Falls Lake watershed, where too much paving will pollute the water supply, according to John Grace, longtime leader of the Watershed Protection Council (WPC), a conservation group. But here's the kicker: The tract is currently in Wake County, where it's zoned for one house per acre. That lets builders cover only about 13 percent of the land, leaving the rest to absorb rainwater and pollutants, Grace says. But if Raleigh approves the Providence site plan, it will annex the tract and rezone it according to its own, much looser watershed rules. Once in Raleigh, he says, the church could cover as much as 30 percent of the land--and its proposed site plan is within that limit.

Grace says anything more than 10 percent compromises the water quality in Falls Lake, but the WPC has never been able to convince Raleigh of that. Consequently, Raleigh does allow businesses in the "secondary" watershed area, where this is--just not shopping centers or gas stations.

Because this isn't a rezoning case, the only decision the City Council will make is on the Providence site plan. Site-plan standards are loose, too, but NRC folks think they can persuade the council that a megachurch would bring in so much Sunday traffic that emergency vehicles might not get through--one clear ground for rejection. Unless the roads are widened, of course.

At week's end, neighbors were receiving postcards from Providence inviting them to a sitdown. Is compromise in the offing? NRC members aren't inclined that way, mainly because they've heard the Raleigh council won't enforce one. "Will they approve something now and change it later?" asked John Swope, who used to live in town and was chair of the East (Raleigh) Citizens Advisory Council. "Yes, absolutely." On the other hand, it doesn't look like Providence will just go away from a site that, as the Rev. Donald Horner puts it, "the Lord has led us to."
--Bob Geary

Pre-Vote Peek
Tuesday, May 7, came and went quietly at elections offices and campaign headquarters around the Triangle, as candidates and voters waited for word on a new date for the local and state primary. But the delay caused by the redistricting miasma in Raleigh has one fringe benefit for voters. This year, they can see who's contributing to candidates before deciding who to support in the primary. Normally, the reporting schedule calls for candidates to submit a campaign finance tally a week before the primary. Since the reports only have to be postmarked by then, the contributors' lists usually don't surface publicly until after the returns are in.

In Durham, the all-Democrat county commissioners race for five seats has drawn the biggest pot, with leader Arnold Spell amassing $10,560 as of the April 29 report. Spell, the president of a real estate firm and current school board member, drew nearly $1,000 from statewide political action committees. His contributions included $725 from the N.C. Realtors PAC and $250 from the CCB Free Enterprise State Fund, a banking PAC that also gave money to two clerk of court candidates ($500 each to Archie Smith and Larry Hall).

Running a close second in the money race is incumbent Becky Heron, who has collected $10,036 so far. Heron chose not to disclose the names of her individual contributors, saying all her donors have given less than $100 each. While they are legally allowed to keep private the names of donors of less than $100, some candidates identified everyone who gave them money.

Mary Jacobs, a former city councilwoman who rounds out the top three fundraisers in the commissioners' race with $7,367, listed names and addresses for all her donors--even those who gave as little as $25.

Rounding out the commissioners race are incumbent Ellen Reckhow with $6,702; incumbent Phil Cousin with $2,250; newcomer Preston Edwards with $1,725 (including 71 percent from PACs--$725 from the N.C. Realtors and $500 from the local homebuilders). Ricky Hart has loaned himself $150. Incumbent Joe Bowser has pledged to spend less than $3,000, meaning he doesn't have to submit a report, and newcomer Warren Herndon had not yet filed his report as of May 7.
--Jennifer Strom

Our Disconnected, Rigid and Extractive World
Cosmologist Thomas Berry wants to turn back the hands of time. The 87-year-old "eco-theologian" wants humans to embrace a pre-Industrial Revolution world where corporations no longer control the planet, and where humans return to a closer intimacy with creation, working the land and reviving the crafts. Berry, a Catholic priest who lives in Greensboro, wrote about his dream in a book titled, The Dream of the Earth. Recently, Berry spoke at Meredith College to the Raleigh Area Theological Society.

While a return to simpler days seems like fantasy, Berry said it's the only hope the planet has as humans rack up more and more destruction of Earth's life systems. Our "extractive world" has displaced the "ever-renewing seasonal, daily cycle" of the past when people had intimate relationships with Mother Earth and her life systems, Berry said.

A former monk who once prayed seven times a day, including at 2 a.m., Berry lamented when a questioner noted that church parking lots--like malls--are full of gas-guzzling SUVs.

"The churches are hopeless," Berry said. "Religion has become Bible quoting. The Vatican puts out a document that quotes a lot of Bible phrases. That's no longer effective. The Bible will always be a very important book; it has a place. But it's not the be-all and end-all of the way the divine presents itself in creation. The cosmology is the commanding thing."

Corporations claim that what's good for business is good for the community, Berry said. "And that's the primary thing, to support the businesses. You can't have jobs unless you support businesses. That's why we've sold our souls, so to speak, to the industrial economy. We have put ourselves in a position where the commercial people own us.

"They tell us what to eat. They tell us everything. They build these monstrous stores and there's no appeal." A return to a land-based economy keeps everyone busy, Berry said.

"If you're working with the land there's always work to do, and there's work for children--2- and 3-year-old children. To feed the chickens is a delight of life. There's a hardness to it, but not to have that healing and that closeness to the land and with domestic animals is to miss something."

Berry was in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. He was struck by the fact that the city lapsed into shock and essentially shut down for four days after the terrorist attacks.

"We are just tormenting ourselves, and making for a world of unbelievable insecurity," Berry said in an interview after his recent presentation. "We were never more insecure. We were never more powerful, and Bush wants to put another $50, $60 billion into the military, but that is going to increase the anxiety rather than heal it."

"It's monstrous," said Berry, that in a world of so much need, the United States is spending more than $1 billion per day and "millions of dollars a minute" on the military.

He quoted from the Buddhist Book of Perfection, which states that hate is not extinguished by antagonism. Hate is cured only by compassion.

"People can't see that you can't deal with destruction by counter-destruction, and that is the primary thing of most religions and certainly in Buddhism," Berry said.

The government's response to Sept. 11 is to try "to get security out of total rigidity and inspection of everything," Berry said. Such rigidity serves "to make things worse than they need to be to my mind."

Berry sees some reasons for hope. Some of the oil giants are beginning to devote research and development dollars to alternative energy sources, and because he is so antagonistic toward the natural world, President Bush is "unintentionally fostering the environmental movement" because they are unifying in an attempt to counter Bush's destructive ways.

Like the great monasteries where prayers and songs are synchronized with the beauty of the natural world, Berry said people should develop new sacred liturgies that celebrate the mysteries of the universe. "The universe is the great cosmic liturgy; dawn and sunset are sacred moments," he said. "That's why in the evening the intimacy of parents with children is so important because that's a time to communicate and be present with each other."
--Patrick O'Neill

Send all digs, ribs, jabs, barbs and tips to: madison@indyweek.com or call David Madison at 286-1972 ext. 154.

Trotline is illustrated by V.C. Rogers.

  • Jews for peace, Baptists for growth and a Catholic priest for saving the planet.

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