To kick off Israeli Apartheid Week at UC Berkeley, Students for Justice in Palestine organized a free screening of “5 Broken Cameras,” the Oscar-nominated documentary about Palestinian resistance in the West Bank village of Bil’in. The event last Thursday night was a tremendous success, with more than 100 people packing the large lecture hall to witness Emad Burnat’s intimate portrait of Bil’in’s heroic struggle against occupation and Israel’s ongoing confiscation of the village’s land.
Afterwards students who had visited Bil’in spoke about their experiences, and drew connections between the film and divestment on campus. The documentary repeatedly shows Israel’s use of Caterpillar bulldozers to build and expand settlements
in contravention of international law and Palestinians’ basic human rights, among other illegal activities
. Caterpillar also provided the bulldozer used to run over and kill
American activist Rachel Corrie in 2003. As of the last publicly available information, UC Berkeley currently invests $5 million in Caterpillar, and has numerous holdings in other companies profiting from the occupation. In drawing attention to our school’s involvement in the occupation we hope to galvanize student support against it.
After this short presentation we opened the discussion for a Q&A period, as people started to trickle out. More than two thirds of the audience had left by the time members of Tikvah Students for Israel entered the auditorium.
Tikvah is a right-wing Zionist group on campus whose organizing highlights include “Israel Peace and Diversity Week” to counter Israel Apartheid Week, and “Ethics of the IDF: The Code of the World’s Most Ethical Military”. This particular night Tikvah students were accompanied by Israeli soldiers with whom they had just concluded the Berkeley segment of a nation-wide tour, “Israeli Soldiers Stories: Real Soldiers. Real Lives. Real People.”
The tour is partly funded by the MZ Foundation
, a local grant-making organization dedicated to combating campus anti-Semitism by training students to “become effective advocates for Israel and the Jewish people.” MZ Foundation is a sponsor of the Israel on Campus Coalition
, a network providing campus Hillel chapters with training to “deal with Israel’s detractors on campus” among
Their “Israeli Soldiers’ Stories” project claims its mission is to “educate, inform, and delve into conversation about the Israeli-Arab conflict” and boasts, “Each soldier has a personal story that exposes the dilemmas of the conflict, including facing an enemy that hides behind its civilians.” In fact, the goal of these talks is to absolve the Israeli military of any wrong-doing and claim violence is either the product “a few bad apples” or provoked by violent Palestinians against whom helpless soldiers must defend themselves, rather than an ongoing policy of ethnic cleansing.
According to the tour’s event page, most soldiers are members of the StandWithUs Israeli Fellowship, “An elite public diplomacy program in its seventh year, that selects and trains 150 student leaders from six major Israeli universities.” Although StandWithUS says the tour is not coordinated with the Israeli Defense Force or the Israeli government, the application for the Israeli Fellowship from which most speakers come states that the program works in cooperation with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (link in Hebrew).
A promotional video for the fellowship details how it trains participants in hasbara techniques to improve Israel’s image around the world. One segment highlights fellows’ participation in a speaking tour about Operation Cast Lead, wherein soldiers “spoke out” to defend the IDF as the most moral army in the world despite reports from the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other internationally recognized groups which all found that Israel committed war crimes and even crimes against humanity.
One of the soldiers who entered the room took part in this tour, and can be seen at 1:25 in the video. With some research I found that his name is Shai Bernstein, and he was indeed a StandWithUs Israel fellow who not only served in Gaza, but also participated in Israel’s 2006 attack on Lebanon, during which the IDF was also accused of war crimes.
Soldier Hen Mazzig was also present, the shaliach (Israeli representative/emissary) for StandWithUs Pacific Northwest chapter, the same chapter that helped file the lawsuit against Olympia Food Co-Op. Some of you may recognize Hen’s name from the myriad of articles and talks he has given regarding an incident in Seattle this January. Jewish Voice for Peace put on a talk by Iyad Burnat, brother of 5 Broken Camera’s director Emad (you can see the entire presentation here). Hen was in the audience, and at the end of the talk stood up and claimed that five years ago Iyad had pushed him to the ground during a demonstration in Bil’in, that at the same time a “friend of his” (another soldier) had his jaw broken by a stone, and that another soldier later lost vision in one eye. He then produced a large poster of masked Palestinians throwing rocks. At this time a young man began shouting obscenities at Hen. Nevertheless Hen’s description of events, which he has subsequently given in countless articles and speaking engagements, is much more dramatic than a video of what actually happened.
Hen gave the exact same speech at our event, and blamed Palestinians completely for any of the violence presented in the film. He and Shai also tried to divert attention from the film by continually bringing up off-topic issues, such as Israel’s treatment of LGBT people, rockets from Gaza, and Palestinian abuse of Christians.
I will not take the time to address these issues, as they have been thoroughly dealt with elsewhere. They were meant as diversions so that the discussion became about the soldiers and people reacting to them instead of the film.
To be honest I struggled over even writing about this experience because it felt like another diversion. But what I wanted to focus on here was not the content of Hen and Shai’s arguments –they weren’t anything we haven’t heard before. Instead, I wanted to arm any other groups preparing to screen 5 Broken Cameras in the future with the information they need to stay in control of the conversation. When people come to an event posing as well-intentioned soldiers who just happened to be in the neighborhood when they are in fact trained and paid representatives of a propaganda tour, it is imperative to let the audience know exactly who they are, and where their motivations lie.
More importantly, I wanted to expose the vast organizational networks, coordination, and funding that go into Zionists’ attempts to stand in the way of the truth. They are pouring huge sums of money and energy into shutting us down and distracting from our message. What does that say about us? I think it says we’re powerful. I think it says they’re scared.