Blogger Sheizaf would rather write about cinema, but he has been called to witness a great crime

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On Wednesday, the New York Times did a piece quoting Netanyahu’s speech before the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations in New Orleans and didn’t mention that young Jewish activists repeatedly heckled the PM, even as the disruption was all that anyone was talking about. That night I went to an aliyah event at NYU and a leader of the recruiters of young Jews had been in New Orleans– the demonstrators were the first thing he talked about.

I left that event to hear the Israeli blogger Noam Sheizaf speak a few blocks away at NYU. He also talked about the hecklers and the different media realities:

From my perspective as a social media person, I am less and less interested… in the complicated manuevering between Netanyahu and Abu Mazen. And frankly I think most people got to the point where they are fed up with it, on both sides, and in Washington as well, and I think most of you have read the same stories for years about it. I’m interested in the person who was evacuated from his house in Jerusalem where he lived for 30 years to make way for a settler family last week. That’s what interests me. And these are the social media stories. I would like to make a prediction. I will guess that you will hear more and more [of this type of] stories about Israel soon, and they will become the stories of the mainstream media as well..

Sheizaf (who started Promised Land two years ago, and helped start 972 more recently) was part of a debate sponsored by Rabbis for Human Rights about Israel’s image in the media. (Parts of the exchange are on Youtube here.) His opponent was a former Israeli consulate official, David Saranga, and Sheizaf’s theme was the power of social media to upend the official narrative.

He told us of his own success. Reporters at the New York Times and Politico follow him on twitter; this would have been incomprehensible to him as a young journalist, that he would ever have that type of influence inside the Beltway.

And this is what I wanted, to have a political impact. Blogging is not just reporting, it is engaged reporting. We are engaged in an internal battle in Israel. I’m using these tools of facebook and twitter to push something…

I live-blogged [the flotilla] for four days from the Hebrew media. Traffic to my site went up ten times. [It took the IDF five hours to get out its version of the story.] And those five  hours framed much of how the story was handled and Israel has done damage control since then. And I understand why Hamas has said, the flotilla is better than 10,000 rockets.

Sheizaf’s pieces have been linked by the The Washington Post and The New York Times, but those links are chopped liver next to Glenn Greenwald. “When Glenn Greenwald said, go to this guy on Twitter– Glenn Greenwald is like a mega important person on the net, who is hardly known in the mainstream… Social media changes everything in the game.”

But this was not a careerist panel; and Sheizaf’s presentation was as morally serious as any event I’ve attended in New York in my lifetime. Sheizaf is a friend but I am being objective when I say that he is a future leader. Anyone who meets him sees this in him. He is softspoken, attractive, mature, confident, and thoughtful. He is Tel Aviv elite; and he is also a captain in the IDF reserves who has refused to serve in the Occupied Territories; and his hatred of Palestinian oppression became the theme of the evening.

It was electrifying to hear this young man in a sweater take moral command. Let me just quote things he said. (My emphasis)

The story David is telling about two societies equal in a conflict where everything is about security and good guys and bad guys, and one guy  wants peace and the other guy doesn’t is very compelling, but in the reality the Palestinians are the people under occupation and the people suffering abuse of their human rights, and they are real people, people older than the age of almost everyone in this room, almost, who have never been one day in their life free. Which is something that is hard in today’s society to understand. Never been free one day.

Once you have people who have access to these people who will report their daily troubles, every day, the story will not be about the government….

I live pretty comfortably in Tel Aviv. I prefer Tel Aviv to New York. Going to Tel Aviv and sitting on the beach, and then going to see a film, you might think you are in one of the nicest cities on the Mediterranean.

But 20 minutes away people in Nil’in and Bil’in can’t go into their own fields. And when I go [to demonstrate] there I am violating Israeli laws…

This point about electing one government or the other. The Palestinians have no say in these elections in which Israelis elect a government that is going to do something about settlements or about peace. No say over a government that controls their lives. What if one third of the people in this room had no vote and the other two thirds had a vote over their conditions, would that be a democracy? No.

Sheizaf also spoke with compassion for Israelis and their “tragic situation.” Most Israelis now understand how unsustainable the political situation is, and it makes them “confused, anxious, and very much scared of what the future holds,” but instead of taking action, they are paralyzed.

I’ve taken too long to get to the most exciting part of his talk. Two pro-Israel questioners with American accents kept peppering Sheizaf with flak about how screwed up human rights in Palestine are, say for women and gays. Why is he so concerned with Israeli violations? His answers:

Quite simple. First of all, I’m an Israeli, so I’m more interested in the wrongdoings of my own government…. I’m a captain in the IDF. I go to the West Bank and I see what’s going on there. And that’s something that bothers me deeply. These are the actions of my own government. I can influence them. I have to carry them out myself, and this is something that bothers me deeply.

The fact that Palestinians create injustices to others, it is tragic, but it is their own issue.

The bottom line is this, You don’t step on someone’s head and tell him he should shave at the same time. You don’t tell him he should look nicer. Israel can talk about Palestinian human rights as much as it wants, but as long as it’s done within the context of occupation it’s just PR.

I’ve got to be very clear about this… I don’t want to be involved in the internal questions of Palestinians as long as we are the occupying force. It’s the basic moral positon. You don’t take someone’s entire poltical right and then criticize its society for not being too liberal. They can’t be liberal, because they can’t travel, they don’thave freedom of speech

Woman in audience: Imposed by who?

By Israel.

Woman: In Gaza?

They can’t travel outside Gaza. The thing is this, people from Gaza who study in Bir Zeit university in Ramallah, can’t go to school because Israel won’t allow them, it only allows a few dozen people in emergency medical cases, and I get the sense that it does it for PR purposes. 

This is a moral issue for me, not to tell people how to behave when you’re the one who’s causing the greatest problem they confront.

Sheizaf then dropped a bomb. How would you feel if you found out that in the pre civil war south a white family was questioning the norms of a black people and telling them how to lead their lives.

Any society where one takes the liberties of the other, it’s really questionable where one can lecture to the other, you know you have to be nicer to your women.

When the woman persisted from the audience about kids being trained to be suicide bombers, Sheizaf ended on a stunning point, and for once his voice became emotional. (My taperecorder ran out of juice, some of this is a little imprecise, from notes; and this part isn’t on Youtube yet).

I am going to say something that may upset people here. Baruch Goldstein was the first suicide attacker, in the tomb of the Patriarchs, and he did it to ruin the peace process in 1994 and a lot of people still idolize him in the West Bank…

Both these societies have their faults.

I’m interested in speaking about Israel. My responsibility is in Israel.

I can’t separate the occupation from anything in Israel. I care more about cinema than politics. But I have to be political now. The occupation is one of the worse crimes in our lifetimes.

I don’t get paid for this work. I do it on my own time. We do it out of a commitment to approach people to tell them what we see. Emotionally and politically I am totally committed to changing this crime being done by my country.

James North often quotes to me the moral leadership of Yonatan Shapira, who refused to carry out “targeted assassinations” in Gaza because he asked his commanding officer if they would carry out such operations if the target was in Tel Aviv, and the superior said no, Jews were living in the neighboring apartments. I think that Sheizaf shows similar clarity and leadership in these comments.

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