I was at the Apartheid Week event Thursday night at NYU, "The Indigenous Struggle: A Call for the Boycott of Israel." The talk was a BDS call against Israel by groups of Native Americans, South Africans, and Palestinians. The speakers were Nada Khader, the director of WESPAC, a Native American woman whose name I didn’t catch and can’t find, representing the Indigenous Delegation to Palestine, and Gilad Isaacs, an NYU graduate student from South Africa. Seemed like it was going to be a pretty unremarkable night in the anti-war movement until a few minutes into the talk, when streams of pro-Israel jihadis began streaming into the room. I’d say that between a quarter and a third of the audience were members of this group, obviously organized, wearing blue and white, along with printed T-shirts countering the BDS movement, encouraging folks to "Buy Israel" or Israeli products, with "The David Project" emblazoned on the back.
I really thought these activists were kind of losing their stomach to make it to these places after that ruckus at Columbia a few years ago, and the massacre last year, but I was pretty impressed with their presence at this meeting. It was very clear that these folks were there to disrupt and intimidate, as all of them arrived dramatically late, filling up all the aisles in swarms. When some were asked to sit, instead of taking the scattered individual seats left, they pulled together chairs to make a new row for themselves at the very front of the seating area, just feet from the speakers. The kids were interjecting repeatedly, when Gaza was compared to the Warsaw Ghetto, a couple of folks fumed and shouted out "that’s not true at all, there’s no comparison," hands flying up and hissing and all. The crowd was reminded that a question and answer session was coming up after the talk, but this didn’t seem to restrain the noise much, nor did it stop the activists from repeatedly photographing the speakers and audience and even the Powerpoint slides from the presentation. Only after NYU security and a university monitor showed up did the nastiness wane. In fact, I’d say it scared a good deal of them quiet.
There were plenty of weak points in the presentations of the speakers that gave openings for the activists to go on the offensive during the Q&A session with generic lobby talking points and deliberate obfuscations like "Oh, please explain to me how is Israel apartheid when its Arabs have the right to vote?", and truly idiotic semantic statements like "Palestine comes from Philistine, which is a Latin word, whereas Judea comes from Jewish, so I don’t understand how can you call the Palestinians indigenous people", a barb directed at the Native American speaker. The entire Q&A degenerated into a Springer-type pissing contest, with various supporters of Israel as well as activists for the Palestinians making vague statements about freedom, democracy, and terrorism, state terrorism, etc. followed by countering cheerleaders in the audience trying to outbark the other side. Very few questions of course, just impassioned, rambling speeches or bland platitudes for one side or the other, followed by "EXPLAIN THAT."
All in all, a pretty bad night, as nearly all the substance of the presentation was composed of inspiring freedom talk, with an almost complete absence of any citations of death figures from the presenters (aside from Gilad Isaacs, who didn’t get nearly enough time in the Q&A session), legal rulings, findings from human rights groups, Israel’s protection from international sanction in the Security Council by the automatic American veto, "Peaceful Settlement Of The Question Of Palestine", UN 242, the ICC decision about the separation wall, the Fourth Geneva Convention, Article Six of the US constitution (the treaty clause), the Saudi Peace Plan of 2002, anything. My own frustration watching this was exponentially compounded by the unending allusions to human rights and international law without any elaboration on the specific findings of any bodies dedicated to such. It would have been simple, in my mind, to overwhelm the other side with facts with this kind of preparation.
Also missed was any opportunity to link the conflict to the United States, aside from two brief mentions of the military aid supplied to Israel by the United States. This was an opening to broadening the appeal of the movement to critics of American wars. Pathos prevailed over logos in this meeting, which does nothing but help dismiss the cause as a difficult battle between "two rights". At the end of the session I watched an argument between an impassioned Palestinian student, and members of The David Project, where he yelped out something like "you don’t bomb hospitals! I don’t care what the reason is!", countered by "it’s their fault for hiding weapons in hospitals". It could easily have been pointed out that not a single report from any human rights group has corroborated this, nor the demonic Goldstone report; the sole source for the claim was the IDF press office, etc. The "eight thousand rockets fell on Sderot since 2000" claim also went unanswered, when it could easily be pointed out that more Israeli missiles and bombs (real weapons, of course) fell on Gaza in just the first four months of 2008 than projectiles on Sderot in the entire eight year period preceding Operation Cast Lead. Over and over again, truly embarrassing incompetence (again, except for Gilad Issacs, who barely got the chance to address any of these points in the Q&A session).
I’d say with the exception of Abunimah, Finkelstein, and Chomsky, the lack of command of facts by supporters of Palestinian rights makes it extremely simple for even well-meaning liberals to write off the conflict as some extremely complex, unsolvable clusterfuck that isn’t worth the mess of dealing with, which is pretty damn useful for maintaining the liberal peace-seeking facade of the lobby and the status quo simultaneously. Incidentally, The David Project projects itself as a pro-peace movement as well, which is really cute of them.
One last note that I found pretty interesting about the talk was a well-meaning question about the need to hold dialogue between the sides by a seemingly liberal supporter of Israel. I chuckled when she tried to call the BDS movement in fact a form of violence directed against the Jewish state that is unhelpful for digging us out of this mess. I think it would have been very easy to point out the obvious lack of symmetry in a conflict between occupier and occupied and the ridiculousness of such efforts. I think holding such dialogue to help solve the conflict (which has been going on for years between synagogues and mosques) is as ludicrous as saying we could have peace in Iraq if only there were more dialogue and understanding between the Iraqis and American soldiers holding their country by force. But, again the speakers disappointed again on what seemed to be another chance to score points for their position, and turn the tables on weak AIPAC copypasta.
All in all, I’d say us anti-war activists really have a lot of homework and Googling to do before any persuadable liberals or the anti-interventionist right begin to take our efforts seriously on this issue, especially when there’s a vast, well-funded cottage industry in the United States dedicated to pumping out propaganda in support of Israeli atrocities to fight against. This is the information age, and it’s doesn’t take much effort at all to access primary documents about this and other critical issues, yet even the activist left seems to choose this path of inaction. This was a wasted night, with The David Project winning by default.