The meshuggeneh offensive
If you’ve never seen a group of meshuggeneh pro-Israeli zealots – as self-righteous as they are ignorant, frequently wrong but never in doubt – try to disrupt a peace event that includes two Palestinians and an Israeli opposed to the Occupation, then, you’ve really missed something.
Recently I had a chance to experience just that. A few days ago, on October 19, the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace and a local Westchester County, New York peace group, WESPAC, sponsored a program with Israeli journalist Gideon Levy and Palestinian researcher Suhail Khalilieh. Aleen Masoud, a young Palestinian musician played music and also made some comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some old friends I was visiting, involved with WESPAC, were going and invited me along. The meeting was covered by Jewish blogger Phillip Weiss, of Mondoweiss, who wrote a fine story on it, complete with video footage.(1)
In all probability the global setting added fuel to the October 19th fire. After the Iran deal was finalized, with Congress unable to torpedo the deal, the two U.S. allies adamantly opposed to it were given what might be called generous consolation prizes. As if either country didn’t already have enough, two major arms sales were awarded, one to Saudi Arabia, the other to Israel. Beyond that, as an unofficial appendix to the Iran deal, Washington gave both a kind of green light to do locally what they were prevented from doing regionally: going to war against Iran. It all follows rather logically from what is called the Obama Doctrine, first articulated by the president in a 2014 speech at West Point. The Saudis intensified their unconscionable bombing of Yemen which they consider something of their unofficial West Bank. Unwilling to test the strength of Hezbollah in south Lebanon for fear of the consequences and likewise not willing to test the will of Russian jet fighters over Syria, the Israelis, in turn, turned their wrath on the Palestinians, their weakest adversary.
The Israelis proceeded with their usual eye on public relations, especially in the United States. While the Netanyahu administration repeats that its policy towards the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque (the third holiest site in Islam) has not changed, that the Palestinians and Jordanians continue to have joint authority over the place, predictably, they fail to mention that on several occasions, Israeli right-wing settlers, accompanied by the Israeli military violated the sanctity of the place in what amounted to an almost predictable provocation of Palestinian ire. As Uri Avnery, Israeli political commentator and long-time peace activist noted,
If one wants to cause trouble, this is the place to start. The cry that al- Aqsa is in danger arouses every Palestinian, and every Muslim around the world. It excites moderately religious Muslims (as most Arabs are) as well as religious fanatics. It is a call to arms, to self-sacrifice.
Nor is this the first time the Israeli government, knowing exactly what it was doing, provoked Palestinian violence by violating the sanctity of Al Aqsa. There is a whole history to Israel provoking Arab violence there. If the formal policy towards the place has not changed, the informal practices of the Israeli government to violate the space, has. Most recently there have been a series of what can only be called fanatical right-wing Israelis escorted and protected by Israeli police that have done so. It is these breaches in practice which ignited the current round of violence as Palestinians rose in anger to protect an Islamic holy site. It is ludicrous to argue that the Israelis have done no wrong here. All signs point to a purposeful provocation, meant to incite Palestinian violence which could then be used to initiate yet another Gaza-like wave of repression which the Israelis are now carefully preparing either in Gaza or the West Bank. Despite John Kerry’s current visit to the region, don’t expect the Obama Administration to intervene.
All this only aggravated the usual polarized relations between Israel’s more ardent supporters here in the United States and the growing number of skeptics and opponents of Israeli policies. Prior to October 19th, local Westchester Zionists got wind of the Gideon Levy event and began howling their usual obscenities especially against Levy and Jewish Voice for Peace. As the social base of Israel’s more extreme supporters becomes increasingly narrow, their voice has become increasingly shrill. As their liberal allies of all shades begin to fade, American Zionists are building alliances with the far right, with Tea Party types and the likes of the John Hagee-led Christians United For Israel (CUFI). While targeting American Jews openly opposed to the Occupation has long been the case, American Zionist organizations have more recently stepped up their attacks – the term “criticism” does not do justice to their approach – against these elements, be they “moderate” (as is J-Street, Tony Judt, etc.) or more to the left (as is Jewish Voice For Peace, Chomsky, Finkelstein).
In this case, the opening salvo against Levy’s Westchester talk began with an “expose,” “a special report” – a classic example of what in the old days we’d call red-baiting – appearing in The Jewish Week. It is a Washington, DC-based publication claiming a circulation of 30,000 representing an extreme Zionist position whether it entails denial of Palestinian rights (the there-is-no-such-thing-as-Palestinians faction) or opposing the recent negotiations with Iran. The said article targeted WESPAC, a small, local independently funded peace organization, one of the groups that had the courage to co-host Levy. For the most part, the article was little more than a typically cheap smear, broad on innuendo and thin on facts, the purpose of which was to scare the growing number of American Jews who oppose the occupation, support the BDS movement and are, in general active on the issue and critical of Israeli policies. It did include one interesting item of note though revealing the degree to which
The Jewish National Fund, one of the Jewish community’s largest organizations, recently announced $100 million for an Israel advocacy center to help students fight BDS. And billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson — in a lavish rollout in June in his hometown of Las Vegas — recently pledged $50 million to combat BDS activities on campuses around the country.
$100 million to help fight BDS (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel)…that’s a lot of shekels meant to stifle free speech on university campuses!
The Jewish Week article was just the beginning of what has become a not-so-unusual political tango with this on-again, off-again, on-again event. Jewish Week readers proceeded to flood the Greenburgh town hall with complaints about “an anti-semitic” event. The local police contacted WESPAC and insisted that they couldn’t provide security and pressed for a cancellation of the event.
But the ACLU intervened on WESPAC’s behalf, and fearing the possible legal action against it, the Greenburgh town government once again gave the event a green light. There were rumors that hundreds if not thousands of pro-Netanyahu types would come up from NYC to protest. In the end some 50-75 did show up. Cordoned off in the parking lot, some wrapped in Israeli flags, others with decidedly one-sided and bigoted posters they were joined by their strategic allies – a small group of local Tea Party advocates. A delegation of 6 or 7, mostly women, but including their own photographer who carefully documented the whole proceedings went inside to join the audience and make mischief.
Gideon Levy…like Gary Cooper in High Noon
Phillip Weiss’s reporting in Mondoweiss (link above) summed up Gideon Levy’s contribution to the evening succinctly when he wrote,
Last night the Ha’aretz columnist Gideon Levy gave a thrilling speech describing the brutal tyranny of the occupation, the inevitability of the one-state solution, and the necessity of boycott and sanctions to cause Israel to change its conduct at the Greenburgh Town Hall in Westchester County, N.Y.
It was a thrilling speech, depressingly excellent in its content I would say. It started dramatically and never lost its potency. It was also, now that I think of it, mercifully short as Levy said what needed to be said in about 25 minutes, and this under constant attack, pressure from the field of well-experienced hecklers whose goal it was to disrupt the entire proceedings.
Levy cuts a fine figure in his blue sports jacket and jeans, his attire brightened by a red scarf hanging open around his neck which he wore when speaking. The disrupters, essentially 5 or 6 women sprinkled throughout the audience, had already made their presence known, and in kind of warm-up for Levy, had tried to unhinge Suhail Khaliliah and Aleen Masoud’s remarks, constantly interrupting both, with the event’s chair and peacekeepers unable to contain their outbursts. Frankly, in most other settings, after the first intemperate – and openly racist comments – the likes of these would have been and should have been thrown out of the room on their ample butts, but they weren’t. As a result, they gained confidence and their interruptions became more frequent.
In the midst of this growing chaos, Gideon Levy got up to speak. One of the meshugginah’s stood in the back of the room with a post that read “Levy = Hate.” Nice welcome, no? To a standing ovation from most in the room, peppered with outbursts from the meshuggenehs, Levy began his remarks, drawing the audience’s attention to that poster, noting that it was true that he “hated” certain things. And then with a clarity and calm – that kind of controlled rage – that typifies his many writings on the Occupation itself, he let loose with the first of several well-aimed salvos. He began:
I would like to thank the distinguished lady in the back who is holding the poster. There it is. [Everyone in the audience turned round to look]. It’s one of the most precise and reliable posters I’ve ever seen in my life. Levy = Hate. Yes, I hate the Occupation; I hate racism; I hate ignorance and above all I hate the brainwashing which makes those ignorant people take such positions.
I’ve been active on this issue since just after the 1967 War and rarely have I seen a pro-peace, anti-Occupation speaker so completely puncture the opposition as quickly and effectively as did Levy. In a few short and clearly articulated sentences, he won the hearts of pretty much everyone else in the room. While the disruptions continued, the disrupters had been isolated and discredited, ideologically defeated, their attempts to completely disrupt the event disarmed.
As the legitimacy of the disruption crumbled, Levy went on to present a sober picture of the situation between Israel and the Palestinians. “The settlers have won,” he argued, having so sliced up and destroyed the territorial integrity of the West Bank. He decried the out-of-control current xenophobia in Israel against Palestinians as having reached a pitch that he had not imagined possible. While he praised those opposing the Occupation, he noted that there was only a sliver of Israeli society which had lurched to the right over these past decades, making the prospects of a two-state solution somewhere between unlikely to impossible. He spoke of the organizational weakness and divisions in Palestinian society as well. All this led him to conclude two points:
- That the Occupation will continue for some time. It is not about to end, far from it.
- International support of the Palestinians and pressure on Israel from the International Community is essential if there is to be any change, any progress toward a solution of the crisis. And it was in this respect that he called for support of the BDS movement as a way to put pressure on the Netanyahu government.
Levy’s remarks were frequently interrupted by the hecklers. I sense that they were experienced at heckling, knew exactly how far to push things. To me they were nothing short of one of the many emerging faces, not just of a virulent form of Zionism, but of a kind of stormtrooper mentality whose psychological violence is a prelude to other forms (which is one of the reasons they identify more and more with the Christian fundamentalist allies who share the same tendencies). Ironically the local police in the name of “protecting free speech” did nothing to interfere with them, the only person threatened with expulsion from the room being one of the event’s peacekeepers who was trying to – peacefully I might note – neutralize one of the more odious disrupters.
His remarks interrupted several times, still Levy plowed through his talk till the end. Not one to offer false hopes, his is a sober, humane message of the horrors of Occupation, of an Israeli society that lives in a bubble and doesn’t give a hoot and of the long road ahead; it flew in the face of the bigoted drivel of those trying to disrupt him. Ain’t got no heroes…but if I did, Gideon Levy would be right up there.
- Mondoweiss is a website that has become something of a national focal point for what I would call “progressive Jewish politics” (I know an awful term – but I can think of no better), especially concerning Israel and Palestine.