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When the Knesset comes to town

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Do not come to our small southern town and be rude and expect us to take it lightly. This lesson was made clear recently when four Israeli Knesset members –Meirav Ben-Ari (Kulanu),  Sharren Haskel (Likud), Amir Ohana (Likud), and Itzik Shmuly (Zionist Union) — were guests at an April 11 town council meeting in Chapel Hill, North Carolina as part of a U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program.

Chapel Hill is proud to be one of the country’s declared “Human Rights Cities” and thereby strives to have all policies, statements, and programs explicitly reference the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet it was asked to host members of a body that orchestrates an apartheid-like military occupation with rampant human rights abuses against Palestinians.

Local faith and human rights activists who got wind of the meeting felt it contradicted our human rights designation. Activists included members of Abrahamic Initiative on the Middle East, Coalition for Peace with Justice, and Jewish Voice for Peace – North Carolina. Though we weren’t able to persuade town officials to cancel the meeting, despite personal contacts and 93 e-mails, the mayor allowed us to be seated and promised we’d have a bit of time to express our concerns.

The council members and the MKs engaged in polite discourse about taxes, elections and other governmental issues. Finally came our turn to speak. Our spokesman was a retired Lutheran pastor. His welcoming remarks included Biblical references and greetings to the visitors as “brothers and sisters.” That brought a retort from MK Haskel that since the pastor was a man of the Book, he should be aware that “God promised the land to the Jews.”

Activists at the Chapel Hill meeting.

Activists at the Chapel Hill meeting.

Our spokesman politely suggested that settlements could be an impediment to peace. The MKs then took over the conversation and resorted to hurling rants and diatribes our way. MK Haskel defended Jews-only settlements, calling them “places of coexistence . . . Everywhere there’s Israeli construction, you see development of Palestinian lives as well,” she claimed. The settlements, she argued, are places where Israelis and Palestinians have found “good friendship” and “true peace . . . where they go to each other’s weddings and bar mitzvahs.”

What reaction did our side have? We had no chance to react. The MKs launched a tag-team maneuver — one long, intemperate harangue passed off to another delegate dishing out more of the same, while dredging up such familiar propaganda barbs as “no partner for peace,” “a generous peace offer rejected,” “only democracy in the Middle East,” et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And in reaction to an activist’s sign, there was complete denial of apartheid practices in Israel.

Close-up of one the activists' signs.

Close-up of one the activists’ signs.

We credit center-left MK Itzik Shmuly for his more civil comportment, but even he said, “When people from abroad use the word “apartheid” or call for a boycott, you have the feeling they don’t understand the complexity of the conflict.” Sorry, but when we hear it called ‘complex’ or even a ‘conflict,’ we hear complete denial of Israel’s ongoing assault against the Palestinian people.

When we tried to share a compilation of Israeli military human rights violations, documented by respected human rights organizations, the MKs summarily dismissed it as “lies” without bothering to rebut any of the claims. Their recurring theme was that we didn’t know what we were talking about. “It’s very easy for you to sit here reading the newspaper, seeing TV, and not understand what we have been through,” MK Ben-Ari insisted. If only we came to Israel, we were told, we could see for ourselves. In fact, most in our group have been to Israel-Palestine and have witnessed the plight of the Palestinians. Their pattern was to criticize us as activists, while never addressing our concerns or seeking common ground.

The disrespect reached a flashpoint as a local Palestinian-American said how the expropriation of his family’s West Bank farm by the Israeli government had so constricted their lives they “cannot breathe.” MK Ohana jumped to his feet and shouted, “You can’t breathe, but you can stab.” The outburst so offended one town council member Maria Palmer that she abruptly left the meeting. She later condemned the MK’s remark as “a horrible thing to say.” Palmer, noting the distress of many members of the public, urged the mayor to seek council approval for such visits in the future and for council members to closely vet these visits.

From the MKs’ bios, we saw they’ve taken stands for welfare, education, women’s rights, animal rights, gay rights and the environment. Someone at the State Dept. must have thought they would be a good match to impress our progressive community. We even learned from the Jerusalem Post that MK Ohana made a point of criticizing North Carolina’s discriminatory LGBT law. How hypocritical to support LGBT protections yet be so completely callous and blind to the suffering he helps to inflict on Palestinians!

We came to the meeting hoping to express our concern for the plight of Palestinians. What we got was a large measure of disrespect and a display of overt racism. We experienced for less than an hour what Palestinians have been experiencing for generations. We left without being limited to certain roads, without being stopped at checkpoints, and knowing that we would find safe shelter upon reaching our homes.

If the Knesset delegates came to Chapel Hill thinking they could divert attention from the occupation or portray Israel as something it’s not, they certainly failed. Instead, news accounts inspired more public education and dialog around Israel’s apartheid policies, whitewashing Israel’s stained reputation, and normalization tactics.

The MKs’ overbearing presence has energized us to redouble our efforts against the occupation and our own country’s deep complicity.

About Sam Bryan

Sam Bryan is a member of the Abrahamic Initiative on the Middle East based in Chapel Hill, NC

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About Miriam Thompson

Miriam Thompson is co-convener of the Abrahamic Initiative on the Middle East and led the group of activists present at the meeting described above.

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About Lee Mortimer

Lee Mortimer is a board member of the Coalition for Peace with Justice based in Durham, NC

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30 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    May 13, 2016, 1:24 pm

    Wonder how this set-to affected the government people there. At least the affair seems to have triggered something usefully educational:

    news accounts inspired more public education and dialog around Israel’s apartheid policies, whitewashing Israel’s stained reputation, and normalization tactics.

    The MKs’ overbearing presence has energized us to redouble our efforts against the occupation and our own country’s deep complicity.

    “Whitewashing”? or calling attention to? Israel’s stained reputation.

  2. just
    May 13, 2016, 1:47 pm

    “What we got was a large measure of disrespect and a display of overt racism.”

    The more they expose themselves, the better. It must be shown and experienced.

    Thanks for this report, and also for attending & bearing witness. It’s ironic that Israeli Knesset members who clearly uphold Israel’s violations of the human rights of Palestinians went to your city and reaffirmed that they still do not care about nor adhere to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    Being “rude” can be fairly de rigueur for many an Israeli. Some do not do diplomacy very well… It’s unfortunate and most unpleasant.

    (too bad that nobody attended from the Joint List, but maybe the US State Dept didn’t want that to happen)

    • ritzl
      May 13, 2016, 4:37 pm

      Great point about the Joint List, just.

      I wonder how the third largest party in Israel got left out by the planners od this “Democracy in Action” event. I wonder if the Chapel Hill city council has been made aware of this giant oversight.

      BTW wasn’t Chapel Hill the city where those three Muslim kids were murdered for being Muslim? One would think city government would be hyper-sensitive to such an apparently intentional omission.

      • ritzl
        May 13, 2016, 4:43 pm

        I also wonder if these Jewish MKs were asked something about such hate crimes and if they had any advice for Chapel Hill’s efforts (I can only assume there are some) to prevent future tragedies (I also assume the Chapel Hill city council believes those murders WERE a tragedy. Who knows given this panel.)

      • just
        May 13, 2016, 4:59 pm

        Good question, ritzl, but I’ll bet you anything that the delegation was just foisted upon them and presented as ‘Israeli leaders’ and most Americans wouldn’t know much of a difference between parties…(although I am sure that the authors of this piece do!)

        From the first link:

        “’The council never voted on hosting this delegation, and I would hope in the future that it would be a council decision whether or not to invite and host an event,” Councilwoman Maria Palmer said.

        “I felt that I was about to be either rude or start crying, and I didn’t want to do either one.”

        Four members of the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, stopped Monday in Chapel Hill to learn how U.S. government works as part of an International Visitor Leadership Program tour. The U.S. State Department-sponsored tour also visited Washington, D.C., and New York City.

        Tour cities depend on the delegation and the visit’s theme, said Leila Bekri, director of International Visitor Leadership Programs at Raleigh-based International Focus.

        The national program office and the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs chose Chapel Hill, she said. The Israeli group first visited the UNC School of Media and Journalism, before joining a three-hour meeting with the Town Council and about a dozen area residents.”

        Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/community/chapel-hill-news/article71421847.html#storylink=cpy

        You are correct about the 3 young students being murdered in Chapel Hill last year.

      • just
        May 13, 2016, 5:13 pm

        Oh, they’d probably have plenty to say about “hate crimes”, but not about those directed at Muslims. From the report it sounds that they are self- absorbed in their “complex” victimhood.

      • ritzl
        May 13, 2016, 6:29 pm

        Maybe Matt Lee can ask about this omission at the next State Department press briefing.

        Suggestion tweeted.

      • just
        May 13, 2016, 6:39 pm

        Great action! Thanks, ritzl!

        (I read twitter, but do not tweet ;)

      • nbch
        May 15, 2016, 4:07 pm

        The planning was not done by the town council. The council was asked to host the 4 MKs. The planning was done by the Israeli government and our State Department. Your tax dollars at work. The intent of their scheme backfired, at least in Chapel Hill.

    • unverified__f0593954
      May 14, 2016, 12:06 pm

      Your comment : “Being “rude” can be fairly de rigueur for many an Israeli. Some do not do diplomacy very well… It’s unfortunate and most unpleasant.”

      I don’t think Amir Ohana and his fellow delegates got the memo (with the possible exception of Shmuly ): http://engage.jewishpublicaffairs.org/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=8719

      Maybe a coincidence, but I believe this came out after the Presbyterian Church (USA) passed its divestment resolution and there were ugly voices raised from some in the Jewish community. Others in the Jewish community, like Jewish Voice for Peace, advocated for its passage.

  3. MHughes976
    May 13, 2016, 5:01 pm

    Complexity again. It’s spoken of, but rarely explained. And why shouldn’t one apply a boycott in a situation which happens to be complex?

    • poster1
      May 15, 2016, 5:19 pm

      Like, slave owners had to explain to the abolitionists all of the economic complexities of the situation. And to make the parallel complete, they would belittle the abolitionists for not being sensitive to this.

  4. LeeMort1
    May 14, 2016, 12:02 am

    The MKs’ comportment in Chapel Hill seemed consistent with what I’ve observed or heard from others who’ve differed with Israelis visiting in the U.S. They act as though they’re in their country and we’re the foreigners. Sending disrespectful representatives to harangue and abuse local audiences will do nothing to improve Israel’s reputation.

  5. Jerry Markatos
    May 14, 2016, 9:15 am

    Many thanks to all who challenged the PR scheme that sent representatives of a KKK-style government to an avowedly human rights town! As a friend once observed, “We pride ourselves on our hospitality, but even hospitality has its limits.”

    Thanks, also, to Mondoweiss and all its supporters, for this oasis of informed discussion, where accounts of ethical action light the way.

  6. just
    May 14, 2016, 9:48 am

    Very cool to see new folks here~ nice to ‘meet’ you, LeeMort1 and Jerry Markatos.

  7. unverified__f0593954
    May 14, 2016, 12:46 pm

    Regarding MK Haskel’s statement about God’s promise of the land – renowned Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann argues that the promise of land is ambiguous and is best interpreted as conditional on the Israelites’ faithfulness and obedience. Today, Palestinian land is being stolen through settlement expansion and the separation wall, and Palestinians are being killed by incursive wars and extrajudicial executions. The Book is not ambiguous about that: Thou shalt not steal; Thou shalt not kill.

    If we are going to the Book for guidance, let’s go to the whole Book and place more weight on those texts that are not ambiguous.

    [By the way, I am trying to get my username changed to something less suspicious sounding. Who wants to be “unverified?” Somehow that name was assigned to me and I cannot myself change it.]

  8. Boo
    May 14, 2016, 9:02 pm

    Why, yes, it has the ring of “undocumented”… ;-)

    • poster1
      May 14, 2016, 11:37 pm

      The cyber gods have shown mercy on me and I am no longer unverified. The system had some kind of indigestion regarding registration/logging-in this afternoon. Hope it’s fixed now. I’ve been pushing a lot of people hard to sign up so they can post to this article.

  9. amigo
    May 15, 2016, 11:24 am

    When people are losing the argument , they quickly lose the plot and resort to ranting and raving.These folks are probably used to talking over the few Arab Knesset members so they assume they can do the same anywhere they go with their hasbara and lies.

    Instead of remaining calm and collected and deal with the points raised ,they shout and who listens to a loud mouth who can hardly be understood.This is part and parcel of the zionist mentality.They know their cause is lost but are so far down the road of self destruction , they are passed the point of return.

  10. just
    May 16, 2016, 12:55 pm

    Somewhat related:

    Look who was hosted by Poland to speak out loud~ by Odeh Bisharat:

    “Viva Europa. Down With Europe

    About the same time a Muslim conquered the mayor’s office, Israel’s racist justice minister was preaching her form of morality to leading jurists in Poland.

    …A curse was put on London when it was forced to choose between two evils: a Muslim or the son of a Jew. Now both the anti-Semites and the anti-Muslims are in deep mourning. We, on the other hand, who see the human being in every person, tell one another: London is in our hands – mabruk (congratulations), Europe.

    During the British Mandate, when the Palestinians wanted to humiliate the colonialists who abused them, they would sing “London is our horses’ stable.” Now, without a single shot being fired, a Muslim has ascended to the mayor’s office in the capital of the former British Empire. Sadiq Khan conquered London because he refused to be dragged into the incitement against him. Instead, he delivered the always-appropriate message that he will represent all Londoners, even the Jews – and even if they head to the polling stations in droves.

    In contrast and on the same continent, the day before the election our justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, asked an international symposium in Poland – marking the 80th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s adoption of the Nuremberg Race Laws – whether Europe had indeed learned the lesson of the Holocaust. My first answer is a resounding “no.” The very fact that a racist woman like Shaked was invited to teach the lessons of the race doctrine demonstrates that Europe has not learned the lesson.

    What’s up with Europe, anyway? On one hand, it paints London, the cradle of Western imperialism, in the colors of international brotherhood, and on the other it rolls out the red carpet for the woman who wrote on her Facebook page during Operation Protective Edge: “… in wars the enemy is usually an entire people, including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure.” This evil woman preaches morality.

    We’ve grown accustomed to Shaked and her sermons, unfortunately. We’ve also grown accustomed to Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich, who promotes ethnic segregation in hospital maternity wards, to keep the Jewish newborn from being tainted by the cries of the Arab newborn. But the real problem is the audience for the new morality. According to media reports, in Poland it included former Israeli Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch and leading international jurists, retired and presiding justices, state prosecutors and cabinet ministers.

    I say to them, therefore: Shame on you! I say to them, these senior jurists, Supreme Court justices, ministers of justice and senior prosecutors: Shame on you! You sanction the crime. Not only have you not learned the lessons of the Holocaust and the race laws, but you also desecrate the memory of the victims of these cursed laws, which distinguished between individuals on the basis of their religion, nationality and skin color.

    The most important lesson of the Holocaust, after all, is to always be on the watch for expressions of racism and anti-Semitism. Any silence will be interpreted, rightly, as assent. And today: What is the message that these dignified individuals send to Ayelet Shaked? Simply: Carry on. Carry on passing laws whose purpose is to rid the Knesset of Arabs. Carry on with your efforts to impose Israeli law on the occupied territories, in violation of international law; carry on proposing bills aimed at eliminating human-rights organizations.

    Indeed, in Israel the problem isn’t Shaked, but Beinisch. In Europe the problem isn’t Shaked, it’s those who listen politely to her preaching.

    The conclusion must be that Europe did and yet did not learn. It learned how to stand up to racists. It learned, albeit with great difficulty, to extend aid and refuge to millions of people in distress. But at the same time it extends a warm welcome to those from Israel who preach hatred of the other.

    Viva Europa. Down with Europe.”

    read more: http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.719817?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

    • poster1
      May 16, 2016, 8:28 pm

      Bisharat says above: “The most important lesson of the Holocaust, after all, is to always be on the watch for expressions of racism and anti-Semitism. Any silence will be interpreted, rightly, as assent.” Racism coming from a Knesset member and in such an unbridled fashion that we activists witnessed in Chapel Hill was especially troubling. We are especially appreciative of council member Maria Palmer who did speak up, who did break the silence.
      Here’s a collection of sayings regarding silence: http://www.thechurchletter.org/inaction_neutrality_silence.htm

  11. poster1
    May 18, 2016, 10:28 am

    There was an excellent opinion piece published in the Chapel Hill (NC) News this morning by the ex-mayor of Chapel Hill. http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/community/chapel-hill-news/chn-opinion/article77859767.html
    She references the Knesset visit. Nice to see that this story is still reverberating. She says “What is the protesters’ message to the Council and our town? To get out the truth about the terrible suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank under the illegal Israeli occupation. “. We’d like to thank Mondoweiss again for helping get the truth out. ( I was one of the activists at the meeting.)

    • just
      May 18, 2016, 1:31 pm

      Thanks so very much for sharing both Eleanor Kinnaird’s and Miriam Thompson’s messages, poster1~ you and your fellow activists are doing fantastic work!!! Thank you all.

      I read a relevant opinion piece by Dr. Philippa Whitford in The Guardian this morning. (as ever, some of the comments are really very awful)

      “Breast cancer is bad enough – imagine enduring it in Gaza

      My return to the territory as a cancer surgeon revealed women struggling to access vital treatment. And the international community has turned away

      Twenty-five years ago, during the first intifada, I was working as a volunteer surgeon with Medical Aid for Palestinians in al-Ahli hospital in Gaza when the Madrid peace conference led to the Oslo agreement and the supposed roadmap to peace between Israel and Palestine. I returned to Palestine a few weeks ago in my capacity as a breast cancer surgeon.

      As well as assisting at clinics, performing operations and running teaching workshops in east Jerusalem, I visited Gaza to assess the challenges faced by cancer patients there. I found a population running desperately low on resilience and hope for the future, who feel forgotten by the international community. …

      …These women are struggling to access the care they need at the most vulnerable and frightening moment in their lives. Their stories are just a few among those of countless Gazans who are unable to rebuild their lives after successive rounds of violent conflict. The international community has turned away from Gaza as the memory of the violence in 2014 begins to fade. As one former colleague at al-Ahli told me: “Donors do not help Gaza unless there is blood. It is as if we have to die for them to keep us alive.”

      From what I have seen, life has become more difficult and more claustrophobic in Gaza over the last 25 years. Next year will mark 10 years of the blockade and 100 years since the Balfour declaration, which helped establish a home for Jewish people in Palestine. Now is the time for Britain to reflect on its historical responsibilities and unmet promises to the Palestinian people. …”

      http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/may/18/breast-cancer-gaza-women-struggling-vital-treatment

      It’s an important article, imho. (Glad you were able to become yourself, poster1!)

      • poster1
        May 18, 2016, 2:17 pm

        The resilience of the Palestinians is astounding. “The international community has turned away from Gaza as the memory of the violence in 2014 begins to fade.” We cannot let it fade.

  12. poster1
    May 18, 2016, 11:12 am

    [My colleague Miriam Thompson had trouble logging in, so I am posting on her behalf.]

    Thank you Mondoweiss for printing our story “Knesset Comes to Town.”

    As Co-convener of the Abrahamic Initiative on the Middle East (aimeproject.org), and attendee who testified at both the afternoon Knesset member visit and the evening regularly scheduled Town Council meeting with Jewish Voice for Peace and other allies, we were pleased to have the opportunity to challenge the the contradictions in hosting a visit by the Knesset Occupation supporters in our self proclaimed Human Rights City.

    We have been able to open a continuing dialogue that put the Occupation/Colonization of Palestine in the local print media and on-line editions. We testified before our elected Council members that they could not both oppose the discriminatory HB2 legislation passed in our North Carolina General Assembly, a blight on the State’s standing across the U.S., and at the same time host a delegation that endorses the violation of Palestinian civil and human rights. Finally, AIME will continue to press our Town Council to set an example by engaging its constituents in a more democratic vetting process for future visits,and use the Knesset visit to deepen our Town’s commitment to human rights at home and abroad,

    Miriam Thompson

  13. Thomas Trueblood
    May 18, 2016, 8:27 pm

    As a member of AIME, CPWJ and JVP, I had a front-row (I almost wrote “ringside”) seat at the Knesset members’ visit with the Chapel Hill Town Council on April 11. The Mayor had set aside time at the end of the meeting for an exchange between the visitors and those of us who came to question what they had to say and to present a dissenting point of view. When MK Ohana said he welcomed our presence and looked forward to a discussion with us, I actually began to hope that an honest exchange of views might take place.

    Alas, it was not to be. There was barely enough time left for two of our group to present any prepared statements–and when we did, the cigar exploded in our faces. Mr. Ohana, who had sounded so sweet and reasonable (and who had paraded the fact that he was gay–this is known as pinkwashing), tore into the “fact sheet” we had prepared as “all lies.” He didn’t say why they were lies, of course. Then MK Ben-Ari started whining about the difficulties of life in Israel, such as compulsory military service that prevented her from graduating from law school until she was 26. As a Vietnam-era Army veteran who wasn’t de-mobbed until I was nearly 27, all I could think was “poor baby.” Then came Ohana’s unpardonable response to the cri de coeur of the Palestinian-American in our group.

    The bottom line was that these folks forgot they were in the United States, where shouting down and name-calling are still not considered acceptable political discourse. The attempt to portray themselves as “just like us” failed miserably as they showed their true colors.

    A Jewish Israeli friend of mine, whose parents emigrated to Palestine in the 1930s to build a new society (not necessarily only for Jews), once told me “I’m so glad my parents didn’t live to see what Israel has become–they had such high hopes.” As members of Israel’s legislature, these visitors showed us what Israel has become. Unfortunately for all of us, it’s not a pretty picture.

    • just
      May 18, 2016, 11:28 pm

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and action, Thomas.

      (P.S. I very much like your name)

    • poster1
      May 19, 2016, 8:46 am

      MK Ben-Ari was also the one who talked about the beautiful relationship of settlers and Palestinians. “Everywhere there’s Israeli construction, you see development of Palestinian lives as well .” The tragic reality is that there are cases where Palestinian construction workers made destitute by the occupation and dispossession are constructing settler buildings on land that used to belong to their families. She says “…where they go to each other’s weddings and bar mitzvahs.” Right it is all kumbaya. Can she actually believe this?

      Tom Trueblood mentions the pink washing tactics. When the Knesset delegation left the town hall they were bused to the University of North Carolina Botanical Gardens to look at environmentally efficient building projects. So you can add greenwashing as a tactic too. In previous comments whitewashing was mentioned. Sorry troops, your stains remain for the world to see despite your muli-wash ablutions.

      Tom Trueblood concludes: “As members of Israel’s legislature, these visitors showed us what Israel has become.” The title we gave this Mondoweiss article is “When the Knesset comes to town.” Perhaps it could have been “When the Knesset comes to town – a microcosm of misrepresentation and hostility.”

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