A showing of a controversial film on terrorism and a speech by an ex-PLO terrorist sponsored by two Jewish groups last week prompted strong and varied reactions from the local community.
By the day of the program, only 100 tickets remained for the St. Louis premier screening of the film Obsession - Radical Islam's War Against the West with guest speaker, former PLO terrorist Walid Shoebat.
"It would shock me if 1,100 people came out of the program with the very same response," said Rabbi Elazar Grunberger, director of Aish HaTorah. "That's what diversity is all about."
The audience included participants from many congregations and agencies throughout the Jewish community. Richard Senturia, founder of Citizens for a Just and Lasting Peace in the Middle East, one of the co-sponsors of the program along with Aish HaTorah, estimated the crowd to be about forty to fifty percent non-Jewish.
Obsession opens with the quote by Edmund Burke, "All that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph is for enough good men to do nothing. " It was followed by a disclaimer which read: "It is important to remember most Muslims are peaceful and do not support terror." Highlights of acts of terror from all over the world followed beginning with footage of the destruction of twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
Additional footage of acts of terrorism from around the world were shown and their locations marked with Xs on a map of the world encouraging viewers to see them as part of a larger conspiracy of hate. Nonie Darwish, founder of Arabs for Israel, is interviewed in the film and speaks of, "an outright declaration of war of radical Islam against Western culture." Her opinion that "we are strangling ourselves with our political correctness" brought spontaneous applause from parts of the audience.
Many parts of the film were very disturbing including excerpts of training films showing young people being taught how to wear suicide bomb jackets and a very graphic dramatization of blood libel said to have been shown on Arab television. It portrayed traditional Jews killing a young Christian boy to use his blood to make matzah.
Most of the second half of the film compared radical Islamic terrorists to Nazi Germany. "If you can't learn from the events of Nazi Germany then you will not be able to grasp the true threat of radical Islam today," said former Nazi, Alfons Heck, in the film. There were also references drawn from the similarity of the Nazi youth movement and terrorists' efforts to recruit and educate young people in hatred.
Excerpts of television shows with non-radical Muslims pointed out they are victims of the terrorists as well. The film ended as it began, with the quote by Edmond Burke.
KFTK radio personality Dave Glover introduced the featured speaker, former PLO terrorist Walid Shoebat.
"I'm a Christian and my faith teaches me to love Israel," said Shoebat. "When I became a Christian in 1993 I tried to speak out about this but no one wanted to believe me. They said Oslo will bring peace."
Shoebat said he felt very strongly that it was time to stop reacting and do preemptive strikes to make a difference. Saying a shepherd must defend his flock, Shoebat accused the audience of choosing shame instead of war. He also took on the current controversy over phone tapping suggesting it was better for the government to find out about your girlfriend rather than having your plane blow up mid-air.
He quoted the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, "Peace will come to the Middle East when the Arabs learn to love their children more than they hate us. "
"The prophecy did not come to pass," Shoebat said. "Arabs grew in hate. We will have peace when Jews love their children more than false peace. Stop thinking you need to discover the underlying problem. You've done everything. Stop being raped, land for peace doesn't work, throw the bums out who are calling for the destruction of Israel."
In his closing remarks Grunberger encouraged the audience to become proactive and gave three suggestions.
"Send letters to politicians, do acts of kindness which is a spiritual way to fight terrorism and pray, which is real -- remember prayer works," said Grunberger. "God is in control in the world. Make a commitment and act on it. If each one of us did just a little bit, what a difference we can make."
Einat Bronstein was hoping Shoebat's remarks would be hopeful, but was not surprised by his message. Bronstein was born and raised in Israel. Her grandparents came there from Vienna in the 1920's and built a kibbutz.
"The movie actually confirmed and clearly, intensely depicted what I've been thinking and saying for a while now: I think we are on the verge of a third world war," said Bronstein. "What I heard from him, especially when it comes to Israel, is Israel is going to have to live on its sword -- forever I think."
She said Shoebat message struck a chord with her.
"He said don't be na ïve, don't think they are going to be good neighbors, don't give them a state because it is going to make you even more at risk, fight them as hard as you can and don't believe a word they say. Does that mean there is no hope for peace? You know he might be right, peace may not be in the cards for Israel for many decades ahead. This is really a difficult thing to live with. I think if Israelis really internalized this, half of them wouldn't live there."
Others also agreed with Shoebat's message noting the immediacy of the dangers posed by radical Islam.
"I'm shocked by the number of people who don't observe the seriousness of this threat to the Jewish people and the world," said Buzzie Schukar. "We haven't seen anything like this since the Nazis. I'm also painfully aware this has become a political divide. In America in the 1930's we were united against the enemy. Today we can't agree what is the force of evil."
However, several members of the audience expressed disappointment in the content of Shoebat's remarks. They were expecting to hear the confessions of a PLO terrorist: how did he become a terrorist, what did he do as a terrorist, why did he stop being a terrorist and what happened to him after he made that decision. Some also felt the film was manipulative and were concerned the disclaimer at the beginning wasn't enough. They felt the imagery was so inflammatory that the message that this isn't all of Islam was lost in the process.
Suzanne Yatim, a Palestinian Christian said she cried during the film.
"My big fear is people hating me because I am Arab," said Yatim. "I don't want people to generalize about Arabs after seeing the film."
Several members of the Muslim community who were present at the program were very disturbed by the images and the message.
"I have never felt this dehumanized," said Gulten Ilhan. "I am so concerned about the perception that people took away. The whole message was hatred. I felt like the Jews must have felt about how they were depicted during the Nazi era."
"It was so sad to me because the program only focused on the negative," Sheila Musaji said. "It put everything on the religion and ignored the 1,000 years of history between Muslims and Jews. During World War II, Albania, a mostly Muslim country, saved their own Jews and other Jews who escaped to their country. They are the only country in Europe who had more Jews after the war than before the war."
"I left sad," said Philip Deitch, a Jewish attendee, interviewed later by e-mail. "An opportunity to build meaningful bridges was missed while passions were inflamed and polarization was the result. While deriding anti-Jewish anti-Israel propaganda the movie was edited in a classic propaganda style opening with emotional 9/11 film footage, sinister music throughout and contrasts with the Nazis. They mocked their own opening disclaimer that they are only speaking of a minority of the Muslim community when the movie is all about presenting Muslim fundamentalism as a world wide threat while showing film footage of Muslims at prayer."
Deitch said that local Muslim leaders have been very vocal about supporting interfaith efforts for peace and he felt there was a double standard displayed in the reaction of the Jewish community to Obsession.
"How can we complain about the Passion of the Christ movie and not acknowledge the same blurring of truth here," he said. "Walid Shoebat participated in violence against Jews before and now justifies violence against Muslims. Jewish culture encourages peace through education yet our guest speaker derided the efforts of 'Harvard graduates' to find alternatives to violence -- the time to write letters to the editor, to debate, to research is over he said, it is now time to take real action. Who is promoting terrorism?"
Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, Missouri/Southern Illinois said the key was outreach and understanding.
"There was not enough discussion about what individuals can really do about the issues raised by the movie and Mr. Shoebat's presentation," Aroesty said. "My suggestion is that people to reach out and talk to members of the Muslim community in St. Louis. People need to understand that terrorists are criminals and come in all shapes, sizes and religious denominations. People cannot be left with the impression from that event that all Muslims are against all Jews or that all Muslims are against anyone."
Grunberger and Senturia were very pleased with the program and the responses they have been receiving.
"I think it served to accomplish what we set out to do: provide a community program that would educate and inform, to create an awareness and a buzz and a sense of urgency," Grunberger said. "People need to know what is really going on in the world as we speak."
"I was thrilled and delighted about the fact that at the end of the summer in St. Louis -- with the baseball Cardinals in town -- we could fill a venue with 1,100 people to hear a program about terrorism," said Senturia who said they had to turn away more than 300 people. The overwhelming number of people and enhanced security measures at the Frontenac Hilton caused the program to have a late start.
Neither Grunberger or Senturia were surprised to hear some people were upset by the program.
They said they did not feel that Shoebat was promoting hate.
"Several of us spent time with him before the presentation and never heard any type of projection of hate," Grunberger said. "He just feels strongly about how to handle the issue of terrorists and terrorism."
Senturia said he understood some people were offended by the program and acknowledged that he has a good friend who did not like it at all.
"We've agreed to disagree about our political views and we still remain friends," said Senturia.
Senturia said he feels very strongly about the importance of the message of the event.
"In 1936 and 1937 and even earlier, the Nazis wrote down and told the world what they intended to do to the Jews and the world ignored their words and actions," he said. "In 2006, there are elements of Islam and the Arab world that have said and written what they intend to do to Israel and the Jews. I refuse to go quietly into the night."