When the Knesset comes to town

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Do not come to our small southern town and be rude and expect us to take it lightly. This lesson was made clear recently when four Israeli Knesset members –Meirav Ben-Ari (Kulanu),  Sharren Haskel (Likud), Amir Ohana (Likud), and Itzik Shmuly (Zionist Union) — were guests at an April 11 town council meeting in Chapel Hill, North Carolina as part of a U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program.

Chapel Hill is proud to be one of the country’s declared “Human Rights Cities” and thereby strives to have all policies, statements, and programs explicitly reference the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet it was asked to host members of a body that orchestrates an apartheid-like military occupation with rampant human rights abuses against Palestinians.

Local faith and human rights activists who got wind of the meeting felt it contradicted our human rights designation. Activists included members of Abrahamic Initiative on the Middle East, Coalition for Peace with Justice, and Jewish Voice for Peace – North Carolina. Though we weren’t able to persuade town officials to cancel the meeting, despite personal contacts and 93 e-mails, the mayor allowed us to be seated and promised we’d have a bit of time to express our concerns.

The council members and the MKs engaged in polite discourse about taxes, elections and other governmental issues. Finally came our turn to speak. Our spokesman was a retired Lutheran pastor. His welcoming remarks included Biblical references and greetings to the visitors as “brothers and sisters.” That brought a retort from MK Haskel that since the pastor was a man of the Book, he should be aware that “God promised the land to the Jews.”

Activists at the Chapel Hill meeting.
Activists at the Chapel Hill meeting.

Our spokesman politely suggested that settlements could be an impediment to peace. The MKs then took over the conversation and resorted to hurling rants and diatribes our way. MK Haskel defended Jews-only settlements, calling them “places of coexistence . . . Everywhere there’s Israeli construction, you see development of Palestinian lives as well,” she claimed. The settlements, she argued, are places where Israelis and Palestinians have found “good friendship” and “true peace . . . where they go to each other’s weddings and bar mitzvahs.”

What reaction did our side have? We had no chance to react. The MKs launched a tag-team maneuver — one long, intemperate harangue passed off to another delegate dishing out more of the same, while dredging up such familiar propaganda barbs as “no partner for peace,” “a generous peace offer rejected,” “only democracy in the Middle East,” et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And in reaction to an activist’s sign, there was complete denial of apartheid practices in Israel.

Close-up of one the activists' signs.
Close-up of one the activists’ signs.

We credit center-left MK Itzik Shmuly for his more civil comportment, but even he said, “When people from abroad use the word “apartheid” or call for a boycott, you have the feeling they don’t understand the complexity of the conflict.” Sorry, but when we hear it called ‘complex’ or even a ‘conflict,’ we hear complete denial of Israel’s ongoing assault against the Palestinian people.

When we tried to share a compilation of Israeli military human rights violations, documented by respected human rights organizations, the MKs summarily dismissed it as “lies” without bothering to rebut any of the claims. Their recurring theme was that we didn’t know what we were talking about. “It’s very easy for you to sit here reading the newspaper, seeing TV, and not understand what we have been through,” MK Ben-Ari insisted. If only we came to Israel, we were told, we could see for ourselves. In fact, most in our group have been to Israel-Palestine and have witnessed the plight of the Palestinians. Their pattern was to criticize us as activists, while never addressing our concerns or seeking common ground.

The disrespect reached a flashpoint as a local Palestinian-American said how the expropriation of his family’s West Bank farm by the Israeli government had so constricted their lives they “cannot breathe.” MK Ohana jumped to his feet and shouted, “You can’t breathe, but you can stab.” The outburst so offended one town council member Maria Palmer that she abruptly left the meeting. She later condemned the MK’s remark as “a horrible thing to say.” Palmer, noting the distress of many members of the public, urged the mayor to seek council approval for such visits in the future and for council members to closely vet these visits.

From the MKs’ bios, we saw they’ve taken stands for welfare, education, women’s rights, animal rights, gay rights and the environment. Someone at the State Dept. must have thought they would be a good match to impress our progressive community. We even learned from the Jerusalem Post that MK Ohana made a point of criticizing North Carolina’s discriminatory LGBT law. How hypocritical to support LGBT protections yet be so completely callous and blind to the suffering he helps to inflict on Palestinians!

We came to the meeting hoping to express our concern for the plight of Palestinians. What we got was a large measure of disrespect and a display of overt racism. We experienced for less than an hour what Palestinians have been experiencing for generations. We left without being limited to certain roads, without being stopped at checkpoints, and knowing that we would find safe shelter upon reaching our homes.

If the Knesset delegates came to Chapel Hill thinking they could divert attention from the occupation or portray Israel as something it’s not, they certainly failed. Instead, news accounts inspired more public education and dialog around Israel’s apartheid policies, whitewashing Israel’s stained reputation, and normalization tactics.

The MKs’ overbearing presence has energized us to redouble our efforts against the occupation and our own country’s deep complicity.

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Wonder how this set-to affected the government people there. At least the affair seems to have triggered something usefully educational:

news accounts inspired more public education and dialog around Israel’s apartheid policies, whitewashing Israel’s stained reputation, and normalization tactics.

The MKs’ overbearing presence has energized us to redouble our efforts against the occupation and our own country’s deep complicity.

“Whitewashing”? or calling attention to? Israel’s stained reputation.

“What we got was a large measure of disrespect and a display of overt racism.” The more they expose themselves, the better. It must be shown and experienced. Thanks for this report, and also for attending & bearing witness. It’s ironic that Israeli Knesset members who clearly uphold Israel’s violations of the human rights of Palestinians went to your city and reaffirmed that they still do not care about nor adhere to the Universal Declaration… Read more »

Complexity again. It’s spoken of, but rarely explained. And why shouldn’t one apply a boycott in a situation which happens to be complex?

The MKs’ comportment in Chapel Hill seemed consistent with what I’ve observed or heard from others who’ve differed with Israelis visiting in the U.S. They act as though they’re in their country and we’re the foreigners. Sending disrespectful representatives to harangue and abuse local audiences will do nothing to improve Israel’s reputation.

Many thanks to all who challenged the PR scheme that sent representatives of a KKK-style government to an avowedly human rights town! As a friend once observed, “We pride ourselves on our hospitality, but even hospitality has its limits.”

Thanks, also, to Mondoweiss and all its supporters, for this oasis of informed discussion, where accounts of ethical action light the way.