On May 15, a group of San Antonio-based community organizers disrupted a service at Pastor John Hagee’s Cornerstone Church dedicated to celebrating Israel. The Christian Zionist Pastor Hagee has sent tens of millions to Israeli organizations, including illegal settlements and the far-right McCarthyite student group Im Tirtzu. After the action, which was dispersed aggressively by members of Hagee’s congregation, Glenn Beck posted an open letter from Hagee on his website. Incidentally, Beck will be delivering the keynote speech at Hagee’s upcoming Christians United for Israel Washington-Israel Summit, an event I covered back in 2007. Following publication of the letter, an organizer of the action against Hagee, Genevieve Rodriguez, began received death threats by phone and email. I interviewed Rodriguez about the protest and its aftermath.
MB: Why did you decide it was necessary to protest Hagee from inside his church, and in such a confrontational way?
GR: First of all, we are a group of 24 who are community organizers working on a range of issues. We were not from any single organization, we are just people coming together. We were keeping up with what was going on in Palestine and the call from action from Palestinians on May 15. And for organizers here in San Antonio we feel the effects of the racism and Zionism and homophobia that comes out Hagee’s church every day. The corporate executives that go to his church go downtown every day and carry out the message they get from his church. They treat people that work with them the way he teaches them to treat people — so they are treating gays a certain way or taking away the message that brown people should be persecuted. That gets carried out in the way working people are treated in this city. And all the while he’s getting rich off a message of hate. So we decided that we couldn’t sit here in our city and not hold this man accountable when what’s happening here and what’s happening in Palestine is atrocious. How can we sit here in the same city as him and not take action in a non-violent way? So in a matter of four days we came up with this action.
MB: Did any other actions by others inspire you, at least from a tactical point of view?
GR: One of the really recent actions that inspired us was by young Jewish people in new orleans who interrupted Netanyahu in New Orleans and told him that he delegitimizes Israel. It was really moving. We realized Hagee’s sermon was being broadcast live to 35 countries on the web uninterrupted. So we realized we had to do it.
MB: How were you treated once the protest began? It seemed like things got pretty rough after it became clear you weren’t going to stop.
GR: The EMS was called after I was dragged off the pew. An usher in front of me grabbed me and dragged me over a pew and I hit my head on the pew. Then 5 or 6 men were grabbing at all parts of my body and they lifted me up like a roasted pig and hoisted me in the air. It was all congregation members including a guest pastor — no security. A young white man involved in the action stood up and some woman said, ‘Oh my God, he’s a Palestinian!’ Apparently these people didn’t even know what palestinians look like. And they curse them every day. As a young woman was carried out shouting, ‘Free Palestine!’ she was slammed to the ground. Then she was getting dragged out. Several congregation members stood up and began accusing a group of brown women of being with the demonstrators. They were just singling out all kinds of brown people because of the way they looked.
MB: Was there any fallout after the action?
GR: John Hagee sent an open letter to Glenn Beck trying to give his version of the story, saying this is all the more reason to show support for Israel and that our congregation acted like it was the Super Bowl after this demonstration, they were so unified. beck is speaking at CUFI, coming up this year. There are infomercials inside Cornerstone for the CUFI conference that includes glenn beck highlights, really using the event to promote him. Our goal was to stand in solidarity with Palestine and tell San Antonio that we are not going to let this happen without Hagee being held accountable. He’s doing this for profit, and we caught him completely off guard just entering there with just our thoughts and our courage. And they didn’t know what to do, they were completely shaken.
MB: So how did the group feel afterwards? Did you feel like you had succeeded?
GR: It was really hard afterwards for us to hear that Israeli forces were opening fire on protesters after we got home. It was such a moment of righteous anger and feeling like we were right in our actions and that they [the congregation members] should be embarrassed for the comments they made about us. During the service people were literally being killed. And Hagee said, ‘Isn’t this exciting?’ Well, we weren’t there to have fun.
MB: Why do you think Hagee commands so much influence in San Antonio? And why besides the obvious theological reasons does his message resonate with people who apparently know very little about Israel and Palestine?
GR: There is so much fear of the other in this city and the fact that they live a different way. It sounds childish, I know. But all those people who go to that church have a much better economic reality than a lot of the other people on the other side of town. These people in this church are going to hold on to anything and stick to anything that’s going to protect that because they don’t want to face the reality on the other side. The israel issue has been cloaked in religion but with the settlements and Hagee, well, we’re talking about money. This is about money and resources. And i feel bad for some of the congregation members who are kept in the dark and are so ignorant. They shouted at us stuff about us being Muslims. We didn’t make a single reference to islam. We were Latino, white, queer, including brown queer women, people with Middle Eastern heritage, and almost all of us are young. Religiously, there were Christians among us and every other kind of religion including atheists.
MB: I heard you received death threats as a result of the protest. Is that true?
GR: I put my phone number out in the video because I believed there were people who were ready to do something about this racism that is taking over San Antonio. And we want people without access to internet can call in to join us. As a result we’ve connected with organizers who don’t even live here. Then we also got death threats. one guy called me this morning and said he was going to rape me. I’ve received messages since my address is public that people from Dallas are going to come to my house and picket me. I got a phone call today from a man who said, ‘I want to destroy arabs and i’m going to destroy you too.’ A reporter from the San Antonio Express News was there and she recorded the whole call.
MB: Do you plan to do any similar actions in the future?
GR: We want to do more actions in solidarity with the Palestinians and we want to continue to expose Hagee financially. We have contacts inside his church and we want to set a serious campaign up that makes a dent into his support for the settlements and to Israel since they depend on people like Hagee. People inside Hagee’s organization are starting to realize the hypocrisy that he represents and are starting to build relationships with us. As far as the way he handles business [our inside contacts have] hinted that he’s corrupt, that he mistreats women and workers, and that there’s a whole lot of evidence of it.