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.