On October 16, I spoke on a panel for the Joint Peace with Justice Committee of the Minneapolis and St. Paul Area synods, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, entitled “Seeking Israeli/Palestinian Peace: Varied Voices from the Jewish Community.” The forum was organized by Charles Lutz, a Lutheran pastor who has had an interest in the Middle East for many years, led delegations to Palestine, and brought Palestinians to Minneapolis to address this and other groups.
When the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Dakotas and Minnesota (JCRC) approached Lutz and asked to address his Joint Peace with Justice Committee, Lutz replied that he would only allow it as part of a panel of different Jewish perspectives, including representatives of J-Street, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN), which I represent.
In advance of the panel I attempted to contact as many media outlets as possible, including the local National Public Radio station, the local Fox affiliate, and the American Jewish World newspaper. No media covered the event, with the exception of a local cable access program “Our World in Depth,” which filmed the entire program, and will air it in the next few weeks (it will also be posted on line at http://ourworldindepth.org/). This was disappointing. Obviously, I thought it was a bigger story than reporters or editors in either the main stream or alternative media did. Interestingly, the editor of the American Jewish World had not heard about the event when I notified him in September, which meant that JCRC and J-Street had not advertised in their usual spaces. The AJW editor was not in the audience for the event either.
Based on audience responses, JCRC seemed to be the only organization not to bring out its own supporters. This was also disappointing. The “winner” was the presenter with the most supporters, not the one with the most compelling argument.
Sitting quietly and uncomfortably in the back of the room was my father, the committed Zionist, who probably wanted to come just to watch my arguments shredded. He arrived after most people were already seated, and had no choice but to sit among my supporters and shift uneasily in his seat as they applauded. The next day he tried to give me literature from the Jewish National Fund to convince me that, despite what I said about that agency in my speech, it is “environmentally friendly” and is turning the Negev desert green. I showed him pictures of the destruction of El Araqib, but he told me he doesn’t believe me because “Jews wouldn’t do that.” I’m unlikely to move the opinion of a 90-year old.
Steve Lear, of the JCRC, spoke first. His initial comments were that his organization represents the majority Jewish opinion. Even though there is a large diversity of Jewish opinion, he said, the overwhelming majority of Jews believe that face-to-face negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians are the only path to a long-term, viable peace, that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, and that the active campaign to delegitimize Israel has to stop. In a single sentence he connected BDS to the Crusades, the Holocaust, and suicide bombers and said that BDS is just another way to exterminate Jews.
This was stunning, since I know that if I had, for example, made the analogy between Israeli treatment of Palestinians today and Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews in the 1930s (as Hajo Meyer has), I would have been labeled an anti-Semite and a Holocaust denier. Apparently, Holocaust analogies can only be made in one direction. Lear also made the point that JVP and IJAN are in the “periphery of Jewish thought,” and that the problem with the delegitimizers is that there is a lack of acceptance of other people’s opinions. Clearly, this lack of acceptance also only goes one way.
Jordan Ash, the organizer of JVP-Minnesota, gave a beautiful, moving speech, showing how betrayed he felt by Israel when he came to the realization that, first, Israel was actively participating in South Africa’s apartheid regime, and then that Israel’s own treatment of Palestinians was oppressive and abusive of their human rights. Ash gave an articulate and compelling indictment of the US’s role in covering for Israel in the UN and denying Palestinians their self-determination and human rights.
Ron Garber, a co-chair of J Street/Minnesota said J Street believes in two things: First to encourage the American government to take a leadership role and help broker a viable two-state solution, and second to broaden the dialog between the American community and the American Jewish community to create the environment so that both sides (Israelis and Palestinians) can make peace. To me, this sounded like Palestinians were an afterthought; that the players in this drama were Americans, American Jews, and Israeli Jews. He understands the contradiction between having all the land, having a democracy, and having a Jewish state, and so to maintain the best two out of three, he is willing to give up some land.
Garber said that J-Street opposed the recent Palestinian bid for the UN to recognize statehood because it was “unilateral,” and also opposed the US Congress cutting off funds to the Palestinian Authority, since although they opposed the bid it was “a legal and non-violent means.” Yet J Street also opposes BDS, even though that is clearly also legal and non-violent.
I spoke about Zionism as racism, colonialism, and apartheid, and used examples taken from my personal story as a Jew married to a Palestinian ’48 refugee. As I’m sure will be clear from the video [we will post when we get it--editor], Garber and Lear tried to make Ash and me look like unreasonable and uncompromising fanatics. (What’s unreasonable about demanding that a state comply with international law? Why should we compromise on inalienable human rights?) Jordan clearly had the better answers to their charges.
Following the panel, I felt that it had served little purpose. Most of the audience, perhaps all of them, had entrenched opinions which would not be moved by anything that anyone on that panel could say. (To move people’s opinions, we only need to rely on Israel’s own actions in piracy in international waters, murdering civilians, abusing human rights, and passing anti-democratic laws, which work much better at exposing Israel’s brutality and moving entrenched opinion than anything I could say.) The purpose of the panel, to show the range of Jewish thought on this subject, only displayed this range to the few regulars who attend the Joint Peace with Justice Committee meetings, who also had already formed their opinions. Instead of the panel being an opening to further dialogue, I cannot envision a similar panel in the future, and I see little interest on any of the panelists’ part in continuing a dialogue. Perhaps our time and energy is better spent reaching out to people who aren’t as familiar with the issue.
What the panel did show, above anything that was actually said in the room, was that the Zionists, increasingly desperate, are losing control. The same tactics used for decades to marginalize opposing viewpoints are no longer working. The charge of anti-Semitism or self-hating Jew is no longer as terrifying as it once was. With all the effort that Israel and the American Zionist community is putting towards propaganda and rebranding Israel, it is gratifying to know that those of us who care about human rights and justice are making the Zionists’ work increasingly difficult and that ultimately we will prevail.