Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations must have felt at home in an Upper West Side synagogue last night. Its rabbi introduced him by saying that “we stand for the centrality of Israel in Jewish life; therefore, we support Israel unconditionally.”
But then the questions started.
The three critical attendees who questioned Ron Prosor at his talk at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue overshadowed the meat of Prosor’s spiel, which focused on bias against Israel at the United Nations, turmoil in the Arab world and the peace process with the Palestinian Authority. At least 100 people attended the event at the Reform institution on a freezing cold night.
The first questioner, an older man named Norman who was not a member of the synagogue, was the harshest. He laid into Prosor, wearing a white kippa and a grey suit, by sharply questioning him over Israel’s conduct in Operation Cast Lead.
“The IDF called the Rabbo family to come out with a white flag. The grandmother came out with her three grandchildren–of three, five and nine–and an Israeli soldier popped out of a tank with a machine gun and he shot them down. He killed the three-year-old, he killed the nine-year-old and the five-year-old was left with her spine severed,” the man begun, referencing an incident documented by Amnesty International, the Goldstone report and Human Rights Watch. (The dead civilians were two-year-old Amal and seven-year-old Souad.) “My mother told me about how in her village in the Ukraine, the Cossacks came in and killed the Jewish family next door. I would like to know how I can support Israel that treats the Palestinians the same way that the anti-Semites treated my mother’s family in the Ukraine?”
Prosor, Israel’s UN ambassador since 2011, didn’t flinch. He had most of the audience on his side. But his answer left much to be desired. “Anyone who has been in Israel, anyone who…sent his own children to be part and parcel of the Israeli Defense Forces, knows that the stories you are telling that sound really genuine, are basically fiction added with a bit of stories that you hear in the neighborhood,” he said, before admitting that mistakes have been made, though the Israeli army takes measures to protect against civilian loss of life. He told Norman he should be “proud” of what Israel “stands for,” before taking the next question. The audience effusively clapped for Prosor.
But the next person also had some sharp questions for Prosor.
On the same day that activists around the world protested in the front of Israeli embassies to call for fair treatment of African asylum seekers, the questioner, who looked to be in his 30s, asked, “why has [Israel] not created a functional and fair refugee status determination procedure and instead is indefinitely detaining African asylum seekers in isolated internment camps, and instead…has recognized zero refugees from Sudan or from Eritrea…As a concerned Jew and supporter of Israel, I want to know this fits with Israel’s obligations and Jewish values?”
Prosor answered by first implying that the questioner didn’t know his facts. (Israel has, in fact, not recognized any refugees from Sudan or Eritrea, and in total has recognized only about 200 refugees since 1953.) He defended Israel’s conduct by saying that its policies accorded with other democratic countries’ migration policies, and said that most asylum seekers came into Israel “illegally” seeking work, but that Israel was beginning to do better and fix its policies on migration.
After getting a brief respite from an attendee who was interested in UN bias against Israel, a young teenage questioner who was a member of the synagogue asked about the peace process. He mentioned that Israel wanted to keep Ma’ale Adumim inside Israel, which would “bisect the West Bank in two parts,” and asked how a long term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley would protect Israel.
Prosor ignored the Ma’ale Adumim question, but said that the presence of Al Qaeda in Iraq, for example, showed the need for why Israel had to keep control of the Jordan Valley–and not rely on international peacekeepers. He also said that the plan to have U.S. soldiers serve in the Jordan Valley should be off the table, because it would attract suicide bombers, and “we don’t want body bags of American soldiers” as a result.
The question and answer session was a striking bookend for a largely staid talk at the Upper West Side synagogue. Prosor said the roiling turmoil in the Arab world as a result of the Arab uprisings had made the claim that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was supremely important obsolete. He complained about bias against Israel from the Arab world and the Non-Aligned Movement, though also said that the Gulf Arab states’ interests were aligned with Israel over Iran.
“Those opportunities are being utilized,” Prosor said obliquely.
And he dismissed those who said settlements are the biggest obstacle to an agreement with the Palestinian Authority. Instead, the “major hurdle to peace is the Palestinian quest for the right of return,” which would destroy Israel, Prosor said.