Last Thursday the New America Foundation hosted a remarkable event: a Palestinian photographer and Israeli human rights worker detailing war crimes during the forgotten war of Gaza last summer. Israelis have been trying to forget about the war since it happened, said the human rights worker, Avner Gvaryahu of Breaking the Silence, and the world media has been helping them to do so. If you think about the last Israeli slaughter, Cast Lead of ’09, the Goldstone Report came out ten months later. This time there’s nothing like Goldstone, so it’s been left to human rights groups and journalists to perform the necessary function, summarizing the atrocities. (The New America event is available on podcast here.)
I was most interested in the photographer, Eman Mohammed, the downtown audience, and the moderator Peter Beinart.
Mohammed is slight and forceful, wears a hijab, speaks excellent English. She was a witness after the fact to several war crimes: the leveling of houses by missiles in which entire families were killed. “Wiping families off the planet,” as she describes the practice. She showed us a photo of a house where nine were killed, another photo of a demolished house that was neighbor to a targeted house. The families killed were not politically-affiliated, she asserted; they were just in the way. These indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks are illegal under international law and were borne out by Gvaryahu’s statement that in adopting the scorched-earth Dahiya doctrine as policy Israel shot 20,000 “exploding artillery shells” during this operation, seven times as many as it did in Cast Lead five years before– and anyone within a few meters of the shell is killed.
Mohammed’s most affecting stories were about hidden trauma. She showed us a photo of a six-year-old boy who is autistic (shot 9 here), who was born during Cast Lead, suffered through Pillar of Cloud, and then lost his house in Protective Edge. Imagine how his disorder has been affected by this experience, she said simply.
And she showed us a photo of a round-faced little girl with a pink bow in her hair. Mohammed’s daughter. Three weeks into the war Mohammed came home from photographing the house of a family wiped off the planet to find her house in darkness and her daughter on the floor unconscious with blood gushing from her mouth.
I had the longest moment in my life. I thought this is karma, I’ve documented so many funerals of dead babies, so it’s my turn. But as a mother, I didn’t want to believe that, I just wanted a button– to undo, to go back, to switch, to check, to wake up.
Desperately pouring water over her daughter’s face revived her, then Mohammed went to every hospital in the Strip without finding out what was wrong– they had bigger problems to deal with — and so she got out of the country a day later. Mohammed is Palestinian-American; she could get out. Her daughter’s fine now, but she still doesn’t know what caused the internal bleeding, but ascribed the malady to the siege and war.
This story provided the one killing moment of the night. During the Q-and-A later, a man with what I took to be an Israeli accent (minute 55) asked:
Just to get a more complete picture, Eman, right after you left Gaza, where did your baby get treatment?
Mohammed: In the United States.
You mean, you flew directly to the United States, there was no Israeli hospital involved.
What a prick.
He was the exception. The room in Soho was filled with nearly 100 people, standing room only, and they were mostly young and obviously diverse. They were open to hearing about war crimes; they showed sympathy to both speakers. The guy with the Israeli accent was echoed by another older Zionist catechist demanding to know why Breaking the Silence considers Gaza occupied, but they were the exceptions. There is just no space for Zionism in this young crowd. I’m not saying they’re anti-Zionist either, but the mood is very open, attentive, unprejudiced. They know something is wrong with Israel and they’re willing to hear about it. They understand Gaza is a historical crime. I got the same feeling a few months back when Hagai El-Ad of B’Tselem spoke with Lisa Goldman (who also invited Eman Mohammed to the more recent event). No one is proselytizing the Jewish state here. Gvaryahu cast himself as a supporter of the two-state solution — he believes in his right of self-determination as an Israeli Jew, he said — but happily he said nothing about Zionism.
Beinart also had the tact not to defend Zionism as Mohammed was talking about young Gazans “throwing themselves into the sea” in despair over their imprisonment. I wonder about Beinart because he has made such progress, from someone who used to address private AIPAC functions and supported the disastrous Iraq war to someone who has written that American Jews are in a (racist) cocoon and we must talk to Palestinians. So he shared the state with Mohammed, a Palestinian eloquently describing war crimes, at the same time last week as he wrote a piece for Haaretz decrying Obama’s equation of BDS with anti-Semitism. Beinart pointed out that there is a long tradition of Jewish anti-Zionism and said:
Anti-Zionism is growing because Palestinians are convincing left-leaning young Americans that Israel is a Western country that, with American support, systematically oppresses its non-Western, Palestinian, population.
Precisely. Any young person walking out of the New America space last week, especially after hearing that grotesque shout-out for Israeli hospitals, would be open to learning about what they can do about that oppression– Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions.
Beinart says that the only effective way to counter BDS is to “work to end the systematic oppression that Netanyahu has entrenched, and bring Israel closer to the principles of ‘freedom, justice and peace’”. The weakness of his argument is, to quote the bible, that it is neither hot nor cold but lukewarm so people will spit it out of their mouths, i.e., his activist liberal Zionism has done nothing to reverse the atrocities he himself has witnessed over the last four years, while BDS is biting hard, and nonviolently.
Also, to use another oldfashioned expression, the game isn’t worth the candle. Why work hard to preserve a Jewish state when I’d be goddamned before I had to live in a religious state myself, and so would most other Americans. It just doesn’t add up, it’s hypocritical. Beinart will get a chance to tell that downtown audience why Zionism is meaningful and necessary tomorrow night, when he debates Yousef Munayyer in the same small hall.