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How Israel lost its soul during Gaza, and how Egypt has restored a vital principle of resistance

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It’s a crazed day for me. Running. Chomsky, Bayoumi and Blumenthal are speaking in the city tonight, and last night I went to an event for our Goldstone Report book at Alwan for the Arts and didn’t get home till 1.

I need to register two moving statements from the panel last night that resonate this morning. First, Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace talked about being in Israel during the Gaza onslaught, and how lonely it felt to be against the horrors taking place just 40 miles away. 

“It was the worst month of my life…. Sitting in Israel and not being able to do anything about it…. and a lot of activists felt the same way.”

During the Lebanon war of 2006, Israelis had been afraid, tense, Vilkomerson said. The entire country was caught up in the war, worried for their soldiers, and Israel evacuated the north. But there was none of that fear this time, complete indifference to what was going on. “The cafes were full, life went on entirely the same.”

Vilkomerson was shocked. She knew the West Bank, she went there to demonstrations all the time; but the level of the ferocity of the war was at a new level that she had not seen before, and that was evident from Day 1. They knew that 200 were dead at the end of Day 1, but Israel was unified.

The best example of the people’s indifference was that she would go to get her children from school and– “It was just like any other day. Hey, how are you doing, what’s up?” a friend would say. “I’d say, ‘I’m not good.’ ‘Oh why, what’s wrong?’ And when I told them, if they were on the liberal side, they would rearrange their features to look concerned.” And if they were on the right, they’d look at her like, what a stupid American.

She knew some Israeli activists who were so disturbed by the national mood that they did not leave their homes except to go to demonstrations. And they would go in groups to these demonstrations so as to be safe. And at these demonstrations, police barriers were set up from which war supporters threw rotten eggs at the demonstrators, and she would see people in business clothing, respectable people, literally trying to hurl themselves over the barrier to get at her to kill her.

“There was a sense of nationalism, we’re doing the right thing, how dare you criticize us.”

But she had to go to the demonstrations, she said, because she would have gone crazy sitting in her place, thinking she was the only person who was appalled. And let me remind you, our valiant president-elect, who only got by Hillary Clinton by opposing the Iraq war disaster, said not one word about the slaughter in Gaza.

Now here is the good news. Gaza catalyzed the people who were alone and enraged, it ruptured a significant part of the American Jewish community that had supported Israel without question. Rupture was her word. “Irreparable rupture in some portion of the Jewish community.” Yes.

And Jewish Voice for Peace was empowered. And the civil society coalition of Palestinians and Jews; and the demonstrations in the West Bank were enlarged. And Boycott From Within grew as a movement inside Israel.

What an amazing testimony.

The second statement I need to document for history was Felice Gelman’s very important comment from her visit to Egypt. By the way, we had a panel of four women and one man. Pretty good on gender diversity (and I speak as a reformed sexist pig).

Gelman was in Cairo for the worst days, the violence, and she said that when the Obama administration didn’t come out strongly in favor of the protesters, and when they were being attacked on that Wednesday of camels and horses, there was a  feeling among the protesters, “they had to win their own revolution.”

The Egyptian government thugs were using everything that the Israelis use against demonstrations on the West Bank. Teargas, rubber bullets, batons. And what did the demonstrators do: They threw stones. And they covered their heads in blankets– as helmets. My god, what bravery. But: they threw stones, and the world honored them for doing so.

“The Egyptian revolution has legitimized the right of nonviolent protesters to defend themselves,” Gelman said. “Which I believe the Israelis have taken away from us.”

She explained that in South Africa, there was some violence on the part of the anti-apartheid demonstrators, in India too. As historically there has always been, by resisters who are being crushed.

“The Israeli suppression of the intifadah [second] took away the right of nonviolent protesters to defend themselves. The Egyptian revolution has restored that right, in my mind. Palestinian deserve equal treatment to other protesters seeking exactly the same rights.”

Wow. I think of how brainwashed I have been by the debates over the nonviolent protests. By the insistence on the part of our media/officials that people on a boat attacked by commandos from helicopters in the middle of the night in international waters shouldn’t lift a stick to defend themselves as nine are mowed down dead. Now I am nonviolent (and afraid, not willing to die for please fill in the blank); but Gelman and Egypt have swept my thinking. And I urge the mainstream media to reflect this wisdom when they begin their wall-to-wall coverage of the surging West Bank protests.

There were other great statements last night, by Alia Malek on how wonderful it is to have good news at last; by Jamil Dakwar on how many reporters got into Cairo, but “Not a single reporter, not even Anderson Cooper, was able to get into the Gaza Strip, and that was not seen as a big deal”– that sweeps my thinking, too; and by my co-editor Lizzy Ratner on Desmond Tutu warning her not to be jaded about the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is vital to hundreds of millions of people around the world as an aspirational document.

And which, as Malek told us last night, 7-year-old Palestinian children can recite to you from memory. Yes: why?

(Goldstone book link at right; please buy it; I sold 9 copies at the table at the back of Alwan last night; then please write scathing/gossamer reviews of the book at Am*z*n or another vendor.)

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