Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Last week I attended an event at Hunter College called Palestine: Then & Now – The Road to Freedom, presented as part of Israeli Apartheid Week, a seven-year-strong show of support for Palestinian rights, observed on approximately 50 US college campuses each year, and usually attracting some much-needed attention to the BDS movement of nonviolent resistance against the Israeli occupation and brutal treatment of the Palestinian territories. I was still fired up from the previous week’s Baird-Weiner debate and was eager to get information on the growing movement from the mouths of activists on the front lines, so I arrived early. Good thing too, since the organizers failed to mention in any of the advance publicity for the event that attendees would need to go to a different building on campus to receive a pass to be admitted to the North building where the Lang Auditorium was. This, unfortunately, was the first of many frustrations I, and others, had with the event. The lackluster organization, presentation, and attention to detail was a constant irritant, directing attention away from the importance of the message being conveyed and the messengers’ qualifications. Fortunately for the organizers, the audience appeared to be largely sympathetic. Absent was the usual squad of loud-mouthed, young pro-Israeli men in yarmulkes, shouting back at the speakers. Perhaps the word just hadn’t gotten out.

I left my camera bag and coat to save my front row seat and went out to the hall to look for the printed handouts the guy next to me was reading. There was a small group of students outside, none of whom offered me any welcome or any materials, so I dug around in some nearby boxes and found a few cards and a one-sheet that urged anti-Israeli activists to avoid anti-Semitism. Typical apologist Left, I thought. Like the Democrats who allow themselves to be forced to the defensive against the Republican framing of events, here, I thought is the anti-Israeli version. We’re going to be attacked as anti-Semites and as being against the very existence of Israel, so we have to put some pre-emptive energy into emphasizing that it isn’t any more anti-Semitic to deplore the actions of the Israeli government than it is anti-Christian to deplore the actions of the US government and its military. It’ an important point, but I feel that these defenses as a pre-emptive are a waste of time and worse. They buy into the framing of the issue used by dogmatic Zionists, diverting attention away from the litany of Israeli human rights violations, violations of international law, and the ongoing US support for same. It’s a kind of rhetorical dualism that is very easy to get sucked into. Stating these apologies and defenses upfront don’t sway entrenched loyalists to Israel. They’ll still call someone like me a self hater and any Arab an anti-Semite. It doesn’t matter. In the rhetoric of defenders of Israel they will still attribute all opposition to anti-Semitism, and insist that Israel is merely defending itself, an innocent victim, an open democracy, not an abuser of human rights.

The first speaker at Palestine: Then & Now, was Tahani Salah, a Palestinian slam poet from Brooklyn who fired off a couple of spoken word pieces in the now cliched style of hip hop rhythms and angry first-person posturing. I have nothing against performers taking an “in your face” approach, like Salah’s, in fact I appreciate it, but I prefer when they have something coherent and meaningful to say. To me, her performance was all about her delivery and the feelings she spoke of having, or witnessing, without much indication of what brought those feelings forward. I didn’t catch anything of direct relevance to the question of Palestine. She did introduce one piece as being about a conversation she had with a Palestinian mother, but between her lines about “a place of forgotten beginnings,” and her assertion to herself that “if tomorrow never comes you’ll be happier,” she might as well have been wailing about conditions in her neighborhood in Brooklyn. The audience obviously appreciated her a lot more than I did, cheering her on. I’m used to that. A lot of people seem to respond to the conformist style of slam and reward its practitioners for their forcefulness and fire above any genuine gift of language or storytelling. I need something more. Tell me about that place, and its people. Tell me about their plight and yours, not just your anger and sadness. Throwing big truths into the air demands more than volume and passion. True gravitas comes from somewhere more inventive, crafted, and wise.

Next up was Lamis Deek, a passionate and articulate Palestinian-American attorney, and co-chair of Al-Awda New York. She apologized in advance for being long-winded, joking that she makes her living by talking, and has a tendency to go on a bit. I’m always a little worried when speakers or performers warn me about their shortcomings, but I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt, having seen a couple of YouTube clips and finding her very knowledgeable, direct and charismatic. I disagree with some of what I believe are her aspirations for a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but I’m not unsympathetic. Unfortunately she rambled and digressed her way through more than an hour’s time, attempting to explain the origins of Zionism, and the full history of the entire region of Palestine, giving special attention to the continued displacement of the Palestinian people and bringing it around to the dreary state of the occupation today. It was way too much to present, too wide in scope, and hard to absorb, considering the level of detail Deek employed and her constant leaps of digression, frequent snorting asides to rebut common pro-Israeli revisionism, which only made it harder to follow her overlong oratory. One minute she’d be talking about Lord Balfour and the next she’d jumped back to Biblical time to talk about the Canaanites and then back to the Gaza Massacre of 2008. It was very frustrating to try and take notes. At first I was with her, but frankly it didn’t seem to me that she knew what kind of talk she was there to give; was it a passionate rant of personal views or a scholarly breakdown of “the story so far?” If she had restricted herself to either approach I think she would have been wonderful, but she got herself into sticky situations more than once by blurring the lines between the two. Her introduction to Zionism was mostly very informative and illuminating, in a fairly detached, pseudo-scholarly mode, but later in her talk she made vehement statements of judgment (such as her reference to the “vulgarity of Zionism”) that injured her credibility. If her entire speech had been focused this way it would have been more effective. Instead she came off as struggling to hang on to her objectivity, the kind of demeanor that encourages the suspicions of secret anti-Semitism from pro-Israeli detractors and their cohorts. She occasionally bent facts in subtle ways to make her points more weighty and didn’t distinguish herself very well when at her first mention of Ariel Sharon she broke into an aside saying “last I heard he’s in a vegetative state now, right?” No matter how evil Sharon is, and he is evil, this mocking aside only made Ms. Deek seem callous and unserious. I can surely sympathize, and I am not suggesting we shower thugs with love, but what was the point in this immature aside? She also listed attack after attack on the Palestinians without any mention whatsoever of Hamas’ rockets and suicide bombers. By not mentioning them at all she reduced the credibility of her cause, since anyone critical could have easily assailed her as being a one-sided analyst, making her very important and factual points easy to dismiss as propaganda. Again, fortunately for Ms. Deek the audience was largely sympathetic.

When Deek finally gave the floor over to Randa Wahbe from Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine, I felt a sigh of relief from the crowd, but frustration set in very quickly as Wahbe indulged in the irritatingly all-too-common practice of projecting bullet-pointed Power Point slides and reading them to us. Few things get on my nerves as much as this, which combined with her bashful blushing at every audio-visual fuck up (the guy in the booth wasn’t much help) had many of us squirming with impatience in no time. Her slides were loaded with grammatical errors and other mistakes that distracted from her message, and some of her most adamant assertions were never backed up with facts. Early on, she insisted that “it’s very important to use the word ‘apartheid’” to describe the Israeli policies, but provided no justification other than the fact that it’s accurate. This damaged her credibility in my eyes. There actually are some good reasons to use the word “apartheid,” like the parallel it draws with the history of South Africa that Americans are more aware of and sympathetic to, as well as the inherent racism in the Israeli policies which the word “apartheid” underscores. But I didn't hear Wahbe elucidate these. When a slide came up advocating the boycott of pro-Israeli businesses, with twin logos showing for Starbucks coffee and Sabra hummus, she blushed again, as she admitted that while she personally thinks there are valid reasons to boycott Starbucks (for "corporatism") they “don’t fall under BDS guidelines,” without explaining what those guidelines were, or why Starbucks’ logo was on the slide in the first place. A few minutes later when the a/v assistants were having a hard time getting one of Ms. Wahbe’s videos to play, she took a few questions, and I asked about the Starbucks reference. She said that the logo was just there to show contrast: Starbucks = OK, Sabra = not OK. Meanwhile, there are myriad accusations online against Starbucks for raising money or offering other support for Israel and the IDF, all steadfastly denied by Starbucks’ website, but Wahbe didn’t mention any of this controversy, not even for the purpose of refuting it herself. It made her seem unprepared and less knowledgeable than I know she is, having read good commentary by her, even in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. The question blurted from the audience and met with the most in-kind enthusiasm from the panel was, “what kind of hummus CAN we eat?” Deek and Wahbe batted that one around for a couple minutes, with Deek advocating making your own, (right on) but also lauding Whole Foods’ own brand as one of the best. Funny that this was the liveliest part of the event. Hummus.

This, combined with two slides in a row containing glaring grammatical errors, and a video with unintelligible testimony from a Palestinian man about (I think) Lev Leviev’s West Bank settlements (thankfully, an audience member asked Wahbe to summarize what he’d said when the video ended) caused me to leave a few minutes before the end of the event, feeling that I’d learned nothing new. It felt like I’d just watched a little extra-credit assignment by a couple of undergrads, and if I were their professor I would have given them the credit, but as a concerned Jewish US citizen interested in making connections with pro-Palestinian organizations, learning more about the BDS movement, and maybe making a difference, I found it seriously lame.

On my way out I stopped to check out the refreshments the Hunter SJP had advertised would be available, and it was pretty comical. About a dozen little paper bowls of Lay brand-related chips and Cheetos were laid out; about enough for a tenth of the crowd, and next to them a row of Coke products in cans. Never mind that Frito-Lay are in a partnership with the Strauss Group in Israel (makers of Sabra) and that Coca-Cola are one of the most staunch supporters of Israel since the 1960’s. I had to laugh. Someone just sent out for snacks without thinking about it or checking the list of brands they’d just been showing us in the recital hall. I went home excited to write, and to criticize these women as being an utter disappointment.

But then I woke up the next day feeling guilty pangs. Who the hell am I to criticize? Here are these well-intentioned young people doing important work, direct action to oppose brutal policies my government supports, and I am doing…what exactly? Blogging? Writing? Photographing? Isn’t it rather pathetic of me to sit in judgment while these people, whose lives have been far more directly affected than mine by the Israeli occupation, put themselves out there in a very real and substantive way? I offer my criticisms of the event at Hunter in the spirit that I hope my honest observations will be helpful, just as the work of these women was instructive to me. I mean that. However, the discussion of Israel-Palestine is so important…and I meet compassionate, intelligent American people all the time who were completely unaware of the reality of the Israeli occupation until hearing about it via the BDS movement. This is life and death stuff. We’re not fighting for longer hours at the school library; this is human rights! We need to be serious to be taken seriously. Maybe that’s why the pro-Israeli youth brigade didn’t show up to scream back at Deek and Wahbe--they knew it wasn’t that big a deal. It should have been a big deal.

Friday, March 4, 2011


When I posted on Facebook that I was going to a debate at the New School about the Goldstone Report, a friend of mine responded, “What is there to debate?” I felt the same way, having read large portions of the Report myself, and finding its revelations about the IDF’s “Operation Cast Lead” truly shocking, but I do have some awareness that there are in fact people who question its legitimacy, and that some peoples’ dogmatic defense of Israel and its brutal policies are so ingrained that you can put any sort of evidence you want in front of their faces and they either won’t see it, or they’ll purposefully deny its implications, so I fully expected to see some fireworks. The event, sponsored by Nation Books, was tied in with their new volume of and about the report, edited by three Jewish-Americans, with contributions by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, human rights activist Raji Sourani, legal expert Jules Lobel, Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal, congressman Brian Baird, author Naomi Klein, and many other notable journalists, authors, historians and experts. I look forward to reading it. Promising “an engaging conversation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the report's findings, and the ramifications of the changing landscape in Egypt for the future of peace in the Middle East,” Nation Books invited as speakers last night former congressman Baird, a firm critic of Israel’s actions in Gaza, and Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY), a supporter of Israeli policy and a critic of the Goldstone Report. Weiner has been finding a lot of visibility and favor lately from progressives due to his full-throated defense of public health care legislation and other left-leaning issues. However, at this event Weiner unleashed a litany of blatant falsehoods so brazenly in denial of established facts that even moderator Roger Cohen of the New York Times was visibly shocked and in more than one case, made a point of correcting him.

The evening began with Cohen asking congressman Baird, who traveled to Gaza shortly after Cast Lead, to compare what he saw there personally to what he read in the report upon his return. Baird was eloquent and heartfelt in speaking about his decision to visit Gaza, his observations of the destruction there of homes, schools, hospitals, factories, in many cases after the areas were fully secured by the IDF, and that the Goldstone Report is very consistent with what he saw and learned there, including its charges against Hamas for its own crimes, establishing it as a balanced view of the conflict. Baird went on to say that no one on Capitol Hill was the least bit interested in hearing about his experiences there before voting on the resolution to not accept Goldstone, and furthermore to ban any further consideration of it. Said Baird, “member after member after member went down to the floor to vote on a report they’d never read on a place they’d never been.”

Moving on to Rep. Weiner, moderator Cohen asked him to explain how he came to his view that the report was illegitimate and biased against Israel. Weiner said that first of all the organization that commissioned the report (The United Nations) was determinately anti-Israel. Weiner moved off the topic to defend the devastation of Gaza as being the inevitably ugly result of war, saying that war is a bad messy thing and, “any time armaments are exchanged there is destruction.” He revisited this point many times over the course of the evening, as if motives and proportionality was a non-issue. At this point Weiner chose to laud Israel for being an “open Democracy” which conducts self-investigation when questions of its conduct are raised. No one challenged him on this last point, which was a sadly missed opportunity. The U.S. also conducts self-investigations and repeatedly finds itself justified in its actions, offering nothing more than apologies to victims if unable to slink out of responsibility, saying in-effect “it was a regrettable mistake.” Weiner expects us to believe that the same Israeli regime that would conduct an illegal occupation and attempts at ethnic cleansing should be trusted to do their own investigating and that international scrutiny, including that made by the countries that arm it, are unnecessary. Baird rebutted Weiner’s argument about bias, pointing out that not only did the Report also take Hamas to task for its own crimes, it walked though mountains of objective evidence. Baird made an impassioned statement that not only were Israel’s actions illegal, but also strategically foolish because if they desire peace they aren’t going to make many friends doing things like this.

Weiner further justified Cast Lead by pointing out that there were more than 130,000 phone calls made to Gaza, and numerous leaflets dropped on them, to warn that a military operation was coming, so they were given fair warning. Weiner seemed to not care that these Gaza residents have nowhere to go, being mostly confined to the tiny territory, and that even if they could leave, the destruction of their homes doesn’t become more just simply because they were told in advance that they could expect it.

At many points Weiner made statements that contradicted his earlier assertions. At one point he made enthusiastic statements about the Egyptian revolution, praising the desires of its young people for democracy and human rights, but earlier in the debate he used the Egyptian participation in the blockade of Gaza as proof that Israel isn’t the only one who think the Gazans are dangerous, so we shouldn’t be so focused on Israel as a culprit. Does Weiner think that the actions of a dictatorship he now vilifies are something to hold up as proof of his beliefs?

But then things got truly surreal when Rep. Weiner made the claim that there are no IDF soldiers in Gaza or the West Bank, that there is “no occupation.” Roger Cohen appeared startled and incredulous as he asked Weiner to clarify his statement, and after hearing the exact same thing told Weiner he was quite mistaken. It should be noted that Weiner has never been to Gaza, despite wanting to go, because, “I’ve been told it wouldn’t be safe for me there.”

Baird’s rebuttal of Weiner’s lies was emphatic and full of direct experience. He pointed out that he was at the Knesset the day they voted to make it a crime to state that Israel shouldn’t be a Jewish State. Some democracy! Baird pointed out that crimes against speech were not exactly a sign of open democracy, and that first amendment rights were an essential component for all. (Weiner later remarked that the US is the "only country with a 1st amendment," as if that excused Israel from the moral responsibility.) Baird also responded to Weiner’s claim that there was no occupation, asking if there is no occupation, why can the Gazans not get lentils, tomato paste, toothpaste, and supplies to rebuild their destroyed homes and hospitals? If there is no occupation, how is it that thousands of Palestinians are indefinitely imprisoned without trial? Not to mention the indignities their citizens suffer through day after day, including being forced from their homes.

Weiner moved into further fantasy land and claimed that the occupation (which he insisted was a “blockade”) was legal and in keeping with the Geneva Convention because it’s Israel’s legal right to keep out of an enemy country the items it could use to attack. Someone in the crowd called out, “LENTILS??”

At this point it became hard to keep track of Weiner’s lies. When asked about the recent veto by the Obama administration on the UN resolution to condemn Israeli settlement activities in Palestinian territory, he defended the activities saying that the settlements are not happening in Palestinian territory. When he was asked where in fact they were happening he said, “Israel.” Cohen demanded he explain where Israel was and what he considered it’s borders. Weiner said that Israel extended from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, making it clear that he believes there is no such thing as Palestinian territory and that Israel has a right to do whatever it wants in the West Bank and Gaza. He also claimed the the sole purpose of the UN was to “beat the bejeezus out of Israel.”

After the debate ended I stuck around and listened in on some conversations that went on between the participants and the audience. Baird explained the Israeli system of defending its actions, a four-step process:

1) Tell the US what it wants to hear (i.e. that the actions were in self-defense, etc)

2) If that doesn’t work, deny the facts.

3) If that doesn’t work, attack the other person.

4) If all three fail, say “we are conducting our own investigation into this and we’ll get back to you.”

One need look no further than the response to the Gaza Flotilla Raid for a recent example of this methodology.

Weiner, in his own post-show conversations made further shocking assertions. I overheard one woman arguing with him about borders, pointing out to him that it is against international law to annex land by acts of war, to which Weiner insisted, “no it isn’t! We’ve done it!” Another audience member questioned his defining Israel as a democracy even though it systematically violated people’s rights, to which he quipped, “there was a time when black people couldn’t vote in this country, but it was still a democracy!”

During the debate Weiner repeatedly characterized himself as a “progressive” and I think on the national stage he is considered one, frequently taking on the Tea Party and speaking passionately about positions held by many who also consider themselves progressive, but if being progressive can stop at the issue of Israel, how progressive are we? This same man who supposedly stands for progressive causes asserts that freedom of speech is not a right everyone should have, but only in those countries who have a law on the books establishing it. He says that countries have the right to annex land they win through war, despite the fact that this same argument would give anyone the right to take over his beloved Israel and call it their own. I had to wonder if he thought the Native American lands stolen by the US were fairly won?

Index cards were handed out to the audience last night for us to submit questions to Baird and Weiner. (Very few made it to the discussion, unfortunately.) I wrote on mine, “To Rep. Weiner: Do you think it would be fair to demand the tribal councils of the various Native American nations make a statement recognizing the USA’s right to exist?” I wish it had been asked. When I think about Israel-Palestine I can never stop thinking about the Indians. The parallels are plentiful, and will only increase if the Palestinians continue to be crushed under the boot of the Israeli regime, eventually dooming them to be a permanently impoverished minority, defined by the lies of their occupiers, and characterized by hatred, despotism, and having a primitive nature and morality. Last night’s display from Weiner would have at one time caused me to descend into depression and hopelessness, incredulous that a so-called progressive leader could espouse such revisionist bullshit, but Brian Baird gave us something very real and beautiful to take home with his intelligent, eloquent words, keeping his cool while hearing Weiner lie through his teeth, and made a strong case for the rights of all people, everywhere, and how the US ought to be promoting the availability and protection of such rights, rather than supporting those who would deny them. I’ll stick with that.

The Israel-Palestine subject is huge, and complex, not only politically, but for many of us culturally and psychologically. I was raised to believe that anything that benefits Israel is good, and that Zionism is absolutely just. It took me many years of questioning, reading, talking, to unravel these ingrained beliefs. It’s finally dawned on me just how much of this belief system relies on racism. Underneath nearly every indictment of the Palestinians I read and nearly every defense of Israel is the unstated assumption that Arabs are inherently hateful primitive people who live to kill Jews. It infuriates me that I was taught this way of thinking as a child in Hebrew school. It infuriates me that the same mother who taught me to think in principles and to love reason also taught me that removing an entire people from their homeland was just because the Jews need a homeland. It infuriates me that decades of thuggish behavior by the Israeli government was defended to me as the proper way to “never forget” the Holocaust. To me, reason and principles direct us to another course of action and another set of beliefs, including the right of all people to speak and live free from tyranny.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Free Speech Update

For those of you who followed my recent post on the Westboro Baptist Church and freedom of speech, today the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Westboro Baptists in the suit brought against them by Albert Snyder for picketing the funeral of his son Matthew, a US Marine who died in Iraq’s Anbar Province. Judge Alito was the lone dissenter. 21 news organizations joined other groups in urging the court to find in the Church's favor. Read about it here.

This is great news. While many will question the Court's wisdom in defending the rights of an organization who admittedly compounded the grief of someone, and whose "speech" amounts to hateful anti-gay slurs and psycho-religious idiocy, I stand with people like Noam Chomsky who once wrote, "it is precisely in the case of horrendous ideas that the right of free expression must be most vigorously defended; it is easy enough to defend free expression for those who require no such defense."