A September 26 Newsmax “Insider Report” item, headlined “Palestinian Activist Speaks at Obama’s Church,” makes a big deal out of how, “immediately following Obama and his family’s attendance at St. John’s Episcopal Church, a pro-Palestinian activist delivered an address at the same church.” According to Newsmax, the activist used his speech to deliver “a demand for Israel ‘to surrender its biblical heartland.’” But the church is hardly “Obama’s church,” and the “pro-Palestinian activist” who spoke was repeatedly courted by the Bush administration.
Newsmax’s claim that St. John’s is “Obama’s church” is presumptuous and absurd. First, as Newsmax also noted, it was “only the third time he has worshipped publicly since taking office.” Second, as the church’s website states, “every person who has held the office of President of the United States has attended a regular or occasional service at St. John's” since the church’s founding in 1815. That means it’s just as much George W. Bush’s church or Ronald Reagan’s church (or even Grover Cleveland’s church) as it is “Obama’s church.”
Newsmax then went on to attack the “Palestinian activist,” Ziad Asali, founder and president of the American Task Force on Palestine, citing a post at a website called Israel Today that drew from dubious right-wing sources like Discover the Networks and Gateway Pundit to back up its claims. Newsmax stated that Asali’s “message, according to Israel Today, amounted to a demand for Israel ‘to surrender its biblical heartland for a phony “peace." ' " But Israel Today’s claim appears to be nothing more than a paraphrase of what it thinks Asali’s agenda is; at no point does Israel Today assert it actually listened to Asali’s remarks.
Newsmax uncritically quoted Israel Today’s claim that “Asali and the ATFP pretend to want a lasting two-state solution to the conflict,” even though that “pretend” claim is right there on its website. Newsmax also accepted Israel Today’s assertion that ATFP’s support for a “right to return” for Palestinians means that the group “advocate[s] the demographic destruction of the Jewish state”; in fact, Asali has signed onto a New America Foundation letter supporting Israel’s right to exist.
In fact, Asali is much more mainstream than Newsmax and Israel Today would have you believe.
In 2004, he was a member of the official U.S. delegation to the funeral of Yasser Arafat, and in 2005 he was a member of the official U.S. delegation observing Palestinian elections. Both of those, of course, took place under the Bush administration.
Further, The Forward has noted that Asali attended three Ramadan dinners in 2008, sponsored by the White House, the State Department and the Department of the Treasury respectively, and that the year before he “had to choose between two government Iftar events taking place at the same time.” That was also under the Bush administration.
But conservatives think all Muslims are scary, so Newsmax endorses Israel Today’s conspiracy-mongering over Obama’s church visit -- even though he didn’t even see Asali speak -- by uncritically quoting Israel Today’s claim that “Perhaps unsurprisingly, the U.S. mainstream media ignored the fact that a Muslim with a thinly-veiled anti-Israel message was preaching on the day that the Obama family attended church for only the third time in the past year. ... Presidents and their staffs don’t schedule things on a whim, and they don’t show up at the same place as someone like Asali by mere coincidence.”
Indeed. Why bother with facts when you can push baseless speculation instead?