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The Gandhi of the Middle East Will Likely Be an Arab Rising from an American Institution

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I had two reasons to go to Yale Thursday night to hear the group If Americans Knew. 1, The pro-Palestinian organization had been disinvited by the Greenwich Public Library under pressure from the lobby earlier this year– before a protest led to its reinvitation– and I was curious to hear its forceful leader, Alison Weir. 2, A new group, the Arab Students Association at Yale, was sponsoring Weir and I like to hear Arab students at American universities. They remind me a little of myself as a Jew feeling outside when I went to college 30 years ago.

I got there late and a documentary that Weir narrated, Occupation 101, was showing. It is a tour de force against the evils of the occupation, and features Noam Chomsky, Rashid Khalidi, Ilan Pappe, Phyllis Bennis, Richard Falk, Cindy and Craig Corrie, church leaders and B’tselem people too. The central image of the film is when Nelson Mandela addresses Congress about the noble struggle to end apartheid and the movie contrasts scenes of Palestine and South Africa that are eerily similar. Being on Weir’s side, I found the film disturbing and inarguable. But at some point I started thinking, This is propaganda, and I had an undercurrent of resistance–in much the way I imagine that Richard Witty is always irritated by my blog and denounces it as propaganda. I felt that the directors were stacking the deck, leaving stuff out, highlighting the worst.

There were lots of Israeli critics, but never a sign that Israel had fulfilled some Jews’ dreams–no coins thrown in that fountain. I sensed a demonization of the Israelis as people. I’m for sanctions against Israel , for cutting off aid till it ends the occupation; but I also want compassion.

After the movie Nafez Al Dakkak, co-president of the Arab Students Association, got up to start the question period. He’s Palestinian, a fineboned man with a studious/sophisticated look, cool glasses, a gracious manner. He wore a kaffiyah over his shoulders like a shawl.

There were 150 people in the room and the questions were respectful and inhibited. I could see that there were many pro-Israel Jews in the crowd, they were saying nothing. Weir wore a dark blue suit and a light shirt. She is blonde and looks to be in her late 50s. She has a very plainspoken and slightly tough manner. She’s a crusader. I know the type and admire it. She made the following points:

Who is she? She is just a journalist who threw herself into this before 9/11 and quit her job. Why will things change? It will only change from the grassroots in this country. But that is happening. People don’t know because of the media. The media will be the last to change. One state/two state? One state, though good people disagree with her. How bad is it? Frightful. Palestinian women are afraid to travel because they are subject to strip searches on a regular basis. The right of return? This is a principle of international refugee situations. Another reason we must not accept a bad peace deal. “We rarely see injustice leading to long term peace.”

Why are the media biased? Weir became careful, offering a number of reasons. The main one was the “emotional” investments of reporters.

She made something of the fact that the Israeli AP bureau is staffed by Jewish and Israeli reporters who control what we see back here. It’s “human nature” for them to have a bias. And many American journalists are also biased.

As is clear from my blog, I agree absolutely with Weir’s analysis. The Jewishness of the press is an important issue, and having made my living from the mainstream media, I’m more knowledgeable than she is. Fellow Jews have been the predominant element of my media cohort, from ownership to reporting; and I have no doubt that that there is a conscious or unconscious attachment to the Jewish state in most Jewish journalists. The former public editor at the New York Times, Dan Okrent, who was once my editor at the New England Monthly, said in an exchange with Weir that he found her statements calling for diversity in the Times reporting staff –fewer Jews on this beat–“offensive.”

I think she’s got a point. All Jews get recruited in Zionist support in this country. Yes there are dissenters. But to be a non-Zionist is so far aberrant, requiring a thorough process of rebellion, like mine or Tony Karon’s or Joel Kovel’s. Why just the other day, a liberal friend who works at the Times said to me of Israel, Well you know, I always have that feeling for the place. He’d lived there. I’ve already pointed out liberal Eric Alterman’s attachment to Israel in this Nation piece. Joe Klein: “I am a strong supporter of Israel.”

Max Frankel: I wrote editorials to support the Jewish state. Joe Lelyveld: son of a leading Zionist rabbi, I imagine he has pro-Zionist feelings. Jeffrey Goldberg: leading American informant on the Jewish state, went over and served in their army. Dan Schorr: mother lit candles for Palestine . I am saying that Zionism, and the special role that American Jews are to play in its support, is embedded in American Jewish life; and so it is important that non-Jewish Americans take prominent roles in the issue.

Weir is a wan forthright person. The event was turning out to be wan and forthright. Then right at the end it exploded. The last question had been asked and answered when a short broad guy stood up in the back. His name was Dror Hawlena.

He was a former Israeli officer, now a grad student in ecology. He agreed that the occupation was destroying Israel . He had come here tonight because he was against the occupation, looking for facts. What he had seen was pure propaganda. “It is a pity. The occupation is not good. Most of my soldiers think it’s really a bad thing. But this is the worst way to present it… Both sides are shooting at each other.”

Weir asked him to name one fact that she got wrong. He did not. Obviously what he meant was that he sought a more humane Israeli context to balance the endless images of terrified Arab children. This film was as bad, he said, as an Israeli film that would say that there were no Arabs when the Jews got there, that they attacked the Jews, that they are suicide bombers.

“I fervently disagree with you,” Weir said. “This is accurate.” What he had seen were the facts. “Why would I be saying this?” she said, if it weren’t true. She wasn’t famous, she didn’t have a big salary, wasn’t on CNN. I.e., her motivation is a missionary one. “These are the objective facts.” She gestured at a huge graph she had projected behind her from a powerpoint and seemed to have ready for just this demonstration. It showed the deaths from violence of Palestinians and Jews in 2007: 13 Israelis, 384 Palestinians. You can’t argue with that.

Then Weir said something I thought meanspirited. “You’re an Israeli officer. I don’t know what you’ve done…” The burden on people in his position was to apologize, as Americans had apologized to the Indians.

“I’m nervous now,” Dror said, but he continued on about the second intifadah, the attacks on Israeli neighborhoods.

Weir cut him off. “I don’t want one person who is a member of the Israeli army dominating the conversation.”

I thought that unfortunate. Up to this point we’d gotten her side of the story– my side– only. Our side had gotten to hold forth, at Yale, at a time when we are essentially blacklisted from the mainstream. And suddenly here is the personification of the other side, an Israeli officer studying at Yale (who I’d learn had taken part in the peace movement), trying to counter her, and she is doing him the same favor, doesn’t want to give him airtime, and why—I guess because we are always getting his propaganda anyway, but maybe because he’s a war criminal? Hmmm.

The presentation was over, and a crowd then formed around  Hawlena in a back row of the hall to hear him out. “I was evil. In this movie I was pure evil. Where is the hope?”

What I saw next is really one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in these 2, 3 years of my self-appointed task of following the American battle over the issue: several members of the Arab Students Association came over to listen. One of them, Mahdi Shabbagh, the ASA co-president, a tremendously personable Palestinian junior in a brown sweatshirt, studying architecture, thanked him for coming. Nafez Al Dakkak explained the importance of the movie to Hawlena. “When a soldier asks me for hawiya—“ that every day occurrence of life in East Jerusalem, being barked at for identity papers—“that’s what we’re showing. The children in that movie, this is me when I’m 12. It is my brother when he was seven. That is the perspective.”

Hawlena said, “The Palestinians are doing war crimes also, she is not showing that story.”

Al Dakkak nodded. “Google us and send us an email. It’s the Arab Students Assocation. I’d love to hear your perspective.”

Hawlena left. The crowd reformed at the front of the room, nearer to Weir.

I got a moment with Al Dakkak and asked about the propaganda issue. He agreed that the film was a selection of facts. “What are the facts? Does he expect us to show a full film of the past 60 years chronologically? Because we can do that.” The facts are stunning. Al Dakkak had read Ilan Pappe this summer and been shocked. It is hard to shock a Palestinian, but to read how systematic the ethnic cleansing had been—“When you’re living in Palestine, you don’t feel a need to learn about the history, and you need an Israeli historian even, to remind you that your case is so just, so overwhelming—“

Another encounter group had now formed by the stage near Weir. It consisted of a half dozen Arab and Arab-American students and a tall Jewish Yale freshman wearing a Star of David chain around his neck. He had taken up the criticism: of the film as propaganda and of Weir for speaking about Jewish influence in the media.

A couple of the Arab students tried to explain to him how true the film was to their experience.

Aminah Zaghab, half-Palestinian, from Maryland, a pretty woman with no trace of an accent, said, “When my aunt was dying [in the West Bank ] I had to sneak in. To see one of my relatives dying! As an American citizen.” Her father was born in ’47, he still has Palestine on his passport, and so it fell to her to negotiate at checkpoints. “I have had to get out of the car with machine guns pointed at me.” She trembled at the memory. “If anyone got part of the fear and the terror, and was scared and humiliated, or shed one tear, that is the point of this movie. If any one felt that, that got the point across.”

A tall Arab kid said, “You all are lining up against this guy,” and turned around to stand next to the Jewish kid.

Al Dakkak explained that when he hears a voice like the Israeli officer’s, he can only think of that horrible sound in his mind as he walks through Jerusalem, Hawiya hawiya—asking for his identity card. Israelis cannot pronounce the Arabic correctly. And what is that hawiya? He has a blue i.d., but it does not allow him to go to an airport, it does not give him free movement in Israel. The blue i.d. means only one thing, that he is a “human being.” And it expires in three years, which is to say, his personhood expires in three years. His mother is anxiety-ridden.

“What would you tell my mother. She is 42. She looks at me. ‘Momma, what?’ She starts crying. ‘I’m really worried your brother is not going to get an i.d.’

“This is what the occupation is doing to us…Nobody in Palestine likes it when they hear about a suicide bombing. The checkpoints are closed. I can’t go to school. But we know why the suicide bomber is doing it. For retaliation. For their father who was killed. For their mother who was raped.

“I don’t want to overwhelm you with information. But there’s a lot that you guys don’t know.”

The tall Jewish kid said that Americans were naturally for Israel and that AIPAC gets 84 percent of its money from non-Jews. [This is not true; I didn’t correct him.] “Americans are not interested in hearing bad things about something they feel good about. And Israel is a democracy amid a sea of totalitarian countries.”

Al Dakkak nodded his head. It was not about Arab and Jew, there were important connections between the people. “You know the basketball court next to the King David Hotel? I play there. I play with Jewish kids. My mom is a painter. The woman who taught her to paint, she is Jewish. But I’m the lucky 25 percent not living in poverty. And I haven’t seen my family in Gaza in ten years… A lot of the people who are doing the work on this, they are Israeli and Jewish. Norman Finkelstein– look what he has done. He has risked so much, his whole career. I don’t think Palestinians would risk so much… And Alison is risking all this, for a cause.”

It was 11:15. The Arab students were headed off with Weir.

I take three lessons from the event. 1. The film is propaganda, and yet in its defense I would say that the underlying injustice is such an enormity that it is susceptible to this form of treatment because people like Weir and Paul Findley, the congressman on her board, are so angry and ground down. I understand. I know why they’re angry. The media are full of
one-sided coverage from the other side–the regular talk about a “democratic Jewish state”–and If Americans Knew can’t get on CNN. And the occupation is a monstrous situation. There is a moment when an American church official Tom Getman of World Vision Jerusalem says that a psychological study of 1000 Gaza children shows that they are so desperate that they have lost their will to live. That fills me with anger about Zionism. That any Jew can hear that and not be deeply disturbed, cannot speak out?

The rhetorical difficulty is that the issue of victimization is not a simple one. Israel acts this way out of a sense of victimization. The American Jews who license Israel have the same sense of victimization. It is a psychological knot. So I guess I conclude that the way for independent observers to attack this terrible puzzle is to try and bring some nuance to the victimization narratives. I wish Weir had more nuance. I wish she spoke more transparently about her own path to this work.

2. The anti-Israel narrative is winning on campus. Apart from a few Jews who had been in Israel–and the tall kid at the front of the room was one– no one was speaking up against the grassroots feeling in that room. That grassroots mood is going to change the country some day; for it seems to be gaining the moral high ground on campus. I have a copy of Dershowitz’s book, The Case for Israel , that AIPAC handed out to students so they can indoctrinate themselves and make the case. But where is that legion? It’s my impression that the Jewish dogs ain’t eating the Zionist dogfood.

3. Arab kids are emerging in American institutions. They have a special role to play and they’re going to play it. They have a sense of the moment. It is hard to think of a more moving scene than the Arab kids coming back through the crowded hall to talk to Hawlena. They did so in a space created for them by my country’s democratic imagination. The Arab kids for once felt empowered. They were not inhibited or fearful.

And they were exhibiting the famous Arab hospitality. As he left, Al Dakkak extended his hand to the tall kid with the Star of David.

“I commend your courage. You’ve been standing here for a while. I’m very impressed. Very impressed.”

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of

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