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Blaming the Victims: A night with AIPAC in St. Louis and protesters in Ferguson

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Background: On July 21, during the question and answer portion of a St. Louis Jewish Federation community briefing, I was screamed at, then grabbed by security guards, for having introduced countervailing thoughts to a very one sided conversation. Then on July 29 four members of St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) interrupted Consul General of Israel to the Midwest Roey Gilad while he addressed a crowd at another Jewish Federation event. They were forcefully expelled – and St. Louis JVP member Hedy Epstein was pushed by a member of the audience. Hedy will be 90 years old this week.

I believe in response to to our bad treatment at these events, Rabbi Susan Talve invited members of St. Louis JVP to speak at her Central Reform Congregation (CRC) on August 6. CRC has a reputation as being a very liberal congregation and Talve is involved in many campaigns for social justice, such as the struggle of local fast food workers to earn a decent wage. Five of us spoke. We were well received by the roughly 70 people in the audience, who asked good question to create a lively conversation. While Talve made it very clear that she did not support most of our views, we were appreciative to have the space to address members of the congregation.

Talve recently went on an AIPAC sponsored tour of Israel. On August 13 the Central Reform Congregation hosted an AIPAC event called “The Progressive Case for Israel” – which consisted of Talve and former Hillary Clinton advisor Ann Lewis answering questions from a representative from AIPAC.


Arielle and I were at the event – we had fliers about why Israel is an Apartheid state, and another from JVP giving a factual analysis of recent events in Gaza.

We both walked into the event with our friend Ben who recently joined JVP. They asked if we had signed up or if we are a member of the congregation. I said my mother and brother are members, which the AIPAC people didn’t accept as good enough. Then Ben, who had signed up, told them we were with him. They said we could come in. Then they saw the flyers and they said I couldn’t bring them in. So I went outside to put away the flyers but soon after Arielle was called a security threat by the AIPAC people so she was kicked out. So we started giving the flyers to the crowd coming in – mostly hostile, but I did see a few friends come in and talked with them.

Rabbi Susan Talve. Named one of America's most inspiring rabbis by the Forward in 2014. (Photo: Central Reform Congregation)

Rabbi Susan Talve. Named one of America’s most inspiring rabbis by the Forward in 2014. (Photo: Central Reform Congregation)

Then CRC Rabbis Susan Talve and Randy Fleisher came out to talk. Talve said that AIPAC made the rules, so I asked her, isn’t it your congregation? She said there are security concerns because of “everything going on”. I asked her if she had ever witnessed either Arielle or I act violently. She said we had our event last week and now this was something different. Talve said there would not be a question and answer session. Arielle was really upset, told Talve that she did not feel welcome (having been called a security threat), and left. Talve and Fleisher did allow me back in and allowed me to put our fliers on a table. So I talked to a few people on the inside before the thing began.

The format was this: first a representative from AIPAC spoke. Then Rabbi Talve and Ann Lewis (a former Hillary Clinton aide who represents AIPAC) shared the bema to answer questions from the first man. Here are some highlights:

  • It started with a video asking people to come to the 2015 AIPAC conference
  • Then the AIPAC man actually said – “2000 people dead – yes that stinks” but the good news is that the Israeli military showed exemplary morality. All the deaths were Hamas’ fault.
  • Then Talve talked about being at an event for Michael Brown and said that in the United States we need to address our out of control gun violence and learn that racial profiling doesn’t help
  • Ann Lewis then outlined the Progressive Case for Israel. It is exactly what you would expect. She said that Israel protects women’s rights, LGBT rights, free speech, free elections, rule or law, and demonstrates advanced environmental stewardship.
  • Then one of them said “Israel is not a perfect country” and recommended reading Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land”.
  • Talve said that just as the United States is a Christian country which protects minority rights, Israel strives to be a Jewish country that protects minority rights.
  • They all kept saying that AIPAC supports a two state solution.

I left after about 45 minutes – I couldn’t take all the lies anymore. I realized that disrupting would be pointless, and staying would drive me insane. I was pretty angry at all I had just heard I decided to drive to Ferguson to support the protests against the killing of Michael Brown.

I got there and joined a peacefully protest of about 70 people in front of the main Ferguson police station. After talking to a bunch of people and being there an hour or so I went to where the larger crowd was by the Quick Trip. When I got near, around 9 pm – boom, boom, boom – the police shot several rounds tear gas and people started running. Then a cop threatened to arrest me if I didn’t leave. I went back to the other protest for another hour, then came home, then watched on the computer how the tear gas just kept coming, how they used rubber bullets, how they arrested St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, two journalists, on and on – it’s crazy. I saw no evidence of any violence tonight perpetuated by anyone except the Ferguson and St. Louis County police. It’s like they are trying to make people angry to the point in which they get violent in order to justify their own violence.

I just feel so angry – at these county police, at these Ferguson police, at these Rabbis who call themselves progressive, who can go to a vigil for Michael Brown (the only rabbis so far in St. Louis to do so at the time of this writing) but yet stand in solidarity with those who killed Nadeem Nouwarah, Mohammad Mahmoud Odeh Salameh and thousands of others. By having an AIPAC event at CRC in my book they crossed a line. I’m not sure where that line is but they way crossed it. Behind them on the stage was a gigantic banner that had the Israeli and American flag and said “AIPAC”.That Talve can without irony, at an AIPAC event in her synagogue, talk about how the USA needs to address our out of control gun violence and racial profiling – when out-of-control gun violence and racial profiling is a pretty good (albeit very incomplete) description of Israel.

Talve sometimes expresses a nuanced view of the situation in Israel/Palestine, but there is nothing liberal, or progressive, or nuanced about allowing AIPAC to host an event at your congregation, about taking an AIPAC sponsored trip to Israel, about encouraging people to join AIPAC. This is the AIPAC which brings Netanyahu to its annual conference to receive standing ovations from our fawning members of congress. This is the AIPAC which bears a large responsibility from sending the arms Israel uses to continue its occupations and killings of Palestinians, for sheilding Israel from the consequences of international condemnation.

I just saw all these parallels in my head – the AIPAC representative cites Israel’s exemplary morality after the murdering 2000 people and leaving 500,000 homeless, the same night that Saint Louis County Police Chief Belmar says “We’ve done everything we can to demonstrate a remarkable amount of restraint” after gassing, arresting, threatening and shooting at peaceful protesters and press. Blemar’s recent predecessor as St. Louis County police chief in 2011 went to Israel to study “counter terrorism”.

I’m certainly not saying that the different situations are analogous – but after a long and emotional night at CRC and in the streets of Ferguson – I started thinking of both and seeing parallels.

Michael B
About Michael Berg

Michael Berg is a member of the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee and St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace.

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18 Responses

  1. ckg
    August 15, 2014, 3:11 pm

    I think many people see parallels. See, for example, Justin Glawe’s piece in the Daily Beast

    Michael Brown’s Hometown Is Under Occupation
    The black residents of Ferguson, Missouri are governed by white police and they say it feels more like Gaza than America.

    or the Telegraph article

    Palestinians tweet tear gas advice to protesters in Ferguson
    The use of tear gas by police in Ferguson has led to Palestinian Twitter users expressing their solidarity with US demonstrators

    At least two of the names in the Telegraph article are MW contributors.

  2. Betsy
    August 15, 2014, 3:28 pm

    this article by Rania Khalek, at Electronic Intifada, shows direct linkages between Israeli military & security apparatus & individuals & programs that shaped the Ferguson response:

    e.g., here’s a key point in the article

    At least two of the four law enforcement agencies that were deployed in Ferguson up until Thursday evening — the St. Louis County Police Department and the St. Louis Police Department — received training from Israeli security forces in recent years.

    but she also shows other direct linkages

    • just
      August 15, 2014, 4:37 pm

      Thanks for posting that, Betsy. Thank you ckg for your links.

      And thank you Michael Berg for your article. It’s a very revealing piece. I guess “liberal” is a funny adjective, isn’t it? Liberal except for Israel. To me it is mind- numbing to think of anyone being so callous/uncaring/dismissive of such horrific violence being clothed as any religious ‘leader’. I know she didn’t say the words that the AIPAC drone did, but she tolerated them. That is as bad, imho.

      And she is the mother of 3.

  3. Kay24
    August 15, 2014, 4:36 pm

    “Then the AIPAC man actually said – “2000 people dead – yes that stinks” but the good news is that the Israeli military showed exemplary morality. All the deaths were Hamas’ fault”

    When are they going to stop looking like idiots? The UN and other agencies have called the brutal attack on Gaza “unprecedented destruction” and even the Israeli media are reporting that they used excessive artillery, much more that previous massacres. You have got to be ignorant, or agreeable to such violence, to keep spewing the Israeli narrative. Ann Lewis, someone I admired at one time, has turned out to be yet another shill for a war criminal. Our leaders lie for Israel, that is disgusting.

    • ckg
      August 15, 2014, 4:49 pm

      Ann Lewis once said, “The role of the president of the United States is to support the decisions that are made by the people of Israel.”

      • ziusudra
        August 16, 2014, 2:54 am

        Greetings ckg,
        …the role of de president….
        He, O’Bloomers did just that as he meddled into the fray at the beginning of this excursion, by saying that Hamas must return that
        kidnapped soldier who was still armed & fighting against civilians!
        PS He stuffed his stink shoe in his mouf & is still gnawing on it! He believed Netanjahu!?

    • a blah chick
      a blah chick
      August 15, 2014, 6:58 pm

      “Then the AIPAC man actually said – “2000 people dead – yes that stinks”

      That’s straight out of the Hasbara rulebook, first show empathy before you launch into a spiel about how none of it is Zionism’s fault.

  4. Oklahoma farmer
    Oklahoma farmer
    August 15, 2014, 4:46 pm

    Mr Berg… Keep up the good work. My one complaint… not a complaint actually, but regret, that I haven’t the courage and stamina to stand with you in your pursuit. There are legions like me, so continue to fulfill our vicarious dreams. And forward the reports to us, the fainthearted .

  5. W.Jones
    August 15, 2014, 4:52 pm

    Talve said that just as the United States is a Christian country which protects minority rights, Israel strives to be a Jewish country that protects minority rights.
    Which of the founding documents or statutes declares that America is a “Christian” country?

    In culture and religion, American society, yes, is largely Christian. But it is not enshrined in law. That’s different.

  6. just
    August 15, 2014, 4:55 pm

    From an interview with Talve:

    “Rabbi Susan Talve spent her childhood in the peaceful Hudson River Valley—on a train line that went straight to Manhattan. Her father took a lot of teasing from his Turkish friends, because he urged his four daughters to go places, meet any challenge society dared put in their way. “I grew up with the wonderful illusion that I could do anything I wanted,” Talve says, sounding both wry and grateful. She pursued rabbinical studies in Jerusalem, traveled the world, tackled social justice issues that left other clergyfolk cowering. “I still find myself thinking I can do anything,” she laughs. “Sometimes it gets me into trouble.””

    My favorite:

    “My worst job ever was waitressing in Jerusalem. Oh my God. I couldn’t believe people could treat other people that badly. I always overtip.”

  7. elephantine
    August 15, 2014, 4:56 pm

    I definitely saw the parallels when I was reading about Ferguson. I found it pretty disturbing. That comment about showing restraint also made this clear. I was wondering if anyone would write it about here and I’m glad to see someone did.

  8. Greta
    August 15, 2014, 5:33 pm

    Hedy Epstein is 90 today. When I spoke to her to wish her happy birthday, she told me what had happened at this event. If we all grow to be as remarkable as this woman, the world will change for the better. Six years ago, three dozen of us were in Cyprus waiting to sail on that first trip to Gaza, and we celebrated her birthday there. She was not able to come with us, but we carried her spirit and her determination on that journey. I asked her today if she would come on the next flotilla. Her answer, “I’d love to go, but my body is telling me it’s probably not possible. How did I get to be 90 when I feel young? Maybe they changed the date of my birth on the records.”

  9. Pixel
    August 15, 2014, 6:49 pm

    Michael, GREAT piece – honest, gritty, heartfelt, angry, sad, frustrated, disillusioned.

    I’m about 100 years older than you are but, among other things, I still rail against hypocrisy.

    Like you, I’ve always tried to channel my feelings into positive action but it’s hard. Over the years, there have been some “wins” and many “losses”.

    I wish I could tell you that it gets better over time. In my experience, it doesn’t. The issues just change.

    I’ve known activists who’ve finally said, “Stop the world, I want to get off!” and they do. They bury their heads in the sand, temporarily or permanently, knowing they’ve done the best that they could.

    All any one of us can do is keep getting up every day and trying the best that we can, hopefully taking breaks and adequate time to care for ourselves, being there for and with our loved ones, so we don’t burn out. Activism is a life that we choose …or are called to. If we make that choice / answer that call we don’t have to be perfect, all we have to do is try our best.

    • Anonymous
      September 7, 2014, 1:07 am

      Hey Pixel,

      I know those words weren’t directed at me, but I just wanted to thank you for sharing them.

      I’ve been an activist for around 13 years now (grew up with the Israeli narrative before being rudely awoken during the second intifada at the age of 20) and it’s so so hard. Not just trying to get through to people about I/P, but about social justice issues in general, especially immigration/asylum, and civil liberties.

      I’m now 33 and I don’t know how others have done this for so long, with no result except more settlements, more repression and even more deaths. I personally feel I was called to activism, but even at my *fairly* young age I identify with the feeling of wanting to stop the world and get off. The world sucks.

      However, I found your words very comforting and reassuring. I’ve taken a screenshot of your comment so that on my very worst days I can get it out and try and see the bigger picture.

      Thank you.

  10. stamari
    August 16, 2014, 12:01 am

    Very well put Michael. I can see you rushing from a bundle of hypocrisy in one corner of your town about another corner of the world that is dear to you to see the racism of state violence in practice in another part of town. Despite your frustration and the horrors of situations, there is some kind of in this evening shuttle.

  11. Jeffrey Levy
    Jeffrey Levy
    August 16, 2014, 5:56 pm

    The Israeli Defense Forces, when not torturing or killing Gazans, appear to have sufficient spare time to enable them to train the NYPD and Ferguson police in democracy-control tactics.

    Israel-trained police occupy Missouri after killing of black youth.

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