“Can we at least agree that Jews and Palestinians both have the right to self-determination?” I asked an anti-Israel Jewish activist at UC Berkeley.
“Well… No, actually,” came the answer to my rhetorical question. “I don’t think that Jews deserve their own country. They’re citizens of their countries in Europe and America… why should they come and take someone else’s country?”
Along with 10 other Israeli volunteers, I had been sent by the Ministry for Diaspora Affairs to Los Angeles and Berkeley during Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) to put the lie to the ugly caricatures of Israel painted by decades of Palestinian propaganda. The answer I was given by this particular student typified the kind of negationism that my team, and similar groups sent to cities around the world, faced again and again.
Our team was part of the unimaginatively named Faces of Israel program, a new government initiative to send Israelis abroad to tell their personal stories in their own words and thereby showcase the pluralism of Israel. We were given no pre-packaged message to convey and no talking points were handed out. Instead, after a PR primer, 10 teams of volunteers – including, it should be noted, many dedicated Arab citizens — were sent around the world to do nothing more than be themselves and, in the process it was hoped, make new friends for our country.
As is often the case in Israel, lofty ambitions quickly became mired in bureaucratic ineptitude. Speaking engagements were few and poorly planned. Instead of wooing the undecided masses, we spoke to sparse crowds of geriatric Mapainiks who couldn’t have cared less about what we had to say but were quite keen to tell us of their cousins in Or Yehuda, their time in 1976 spent working in the banana orchards of Kibbutz Ginossar, or how quickly they could fix the mess with the Palestinians were they prime minister for a day. Having traveled across a sea, an ocean and then a continent on Smithsonian-worthy Delta planes, we found ourselves being preached to by the choir and, by day four of nine, hadn’t much hasbara to show for our airmiles.
And then, after travelling from LA to Berkeley for eight hours in two vans to make it to a Ministry-organized event with all of seven Hillel groupies and one old intellectual in attendance, our fearless co-leader, an uber-capable graduate of the IDC named Taly Gerber, decided that before heading back to Lalaland we might want to wander around UC Berkeley’s campus to scope out the scene. This, it should be said, is the strategy that Taly and I had proposed to the Ministry: an “occupation” of college campuses – Irvine, USC, UCLA – to make sure that lies didn’t go unchecked by facts or agitated Israeli hand gesturing. The Ministry, in its inaccessible wisdom, had decided otherwise. Nevertheless, our improvised stroll that day at Berkeley — a true hotbed of anti-Israel invective — turned into the highlight of our team’s trip.
Curtain call at the cardboard wall
The scene on campus started off pretty tame: a few inflammatory posters lay strewn on the pavement, protesters had erected a cardboard “wall” replete with Israeli flags meant to embody evil, and terms like “war crimes” and “apartheid” were being thrown about flippantly. The usual, keffiyah-clad suspects engaged in their tiresome sanctimony, complete with frumpy clothes and contrived indignation in lieu of moral authority. No one was too surprised.
As we wandered towards the center of campus, more and more IAW activists emerged. They were about to stage a mock IDF checkpoint to demonstrate to one and all the daily horrors that Palestinians purportedly endure at the hands of the craven Israelis. The performance, complete with makeshift barrier, is a centerpiece of IAW everywhere, and we knew from experience that the rendition would be less than accurate (though we didn’t yet realize to what extent). Waiting for it to commence, we did our best to remain cool while explaining to semi-sentient 19-year-olds passing by that the anti-Israel theatrics they were about to witness were the product of fancy, not fact.
And then the ruckus started. The activists did everything in their power to portray Israel as a consumedly racist state that denies the most fundamental rights to Palestinians on the sole basis of their ethnicity, i.e., they pushed every button that Berkeley students have.
Led by one particularly belligerent young man (who was alternatively a Palestinian from the West Bank and/or an Israeli Arab from the Galilee, whichever was most expedient), the play quickly turned into a circus. Having gathered a few young women (including not a few Jewesses) to portray hapless Palestinian victims of Israeli brutality, the leader took on the role of the evil, victimizing IDF officer. His rendition was grotesque. Pandering to the crowd’s voyeurism, he yelled orders at the women, kicked them to the ground, shoved them, bound them, poured water on them, made them drink off the floor like dogs and insulted them with abandon. At one point he even punched a supposedly-pregnant Palestinian woman in the stomach. This went on for the better part of two hours. There was not a word about the decades of Palestinian terrorism, Israeli democracy, or the fact that many of the soldiers manning the checkpoints are themselves Israeli-Arab Muslims. The message to the stunned audience was simple:
Israelis are modern-day Nazis, nothing more. And you, sagacious Berkeley do-gooders, must stop your government’s support of Israel now lest you be accomplices to Nazism.
Many in the crowd around the exhibit – not larger than, say, 60 people at any one time – were allies of the anti-Israel activists, and equally as hostile toward us. They inhabited an alternative reality in which the Palestinians were like Gauguin’s Tahitians, despoiled of their idyllic and unmolested ancient land and culture by racist interlopers bent on world domination. Their views differed little from those of Hamas, but were dutifully cloaked in ivory-tower euphemisms and ornamented with Marxist halos. Terrorism was to them merely “resistance,” and Israel’s reaction to terrorism, however restrained, was always “aggression.” Any Jewish act short of abject passivity was “oppression,” and even the most reasonable responses to Palestinian violence, i.e. Palestinian “frustration,” were by definition “injustice.” Their Orwellian rhetoric was airtight; their every innocuous word was wielded like a sword against the insufferable evil of Jewish self-determination.
Calumny posing as compassion, fascism disguised as anti-fascism: this is how we’ve let Zionism, a liberation movement, be demonized, and Israel, a besieged democracy, be recast as a one-size-fits-all villain. Through the unfettered exploitation of people’s naïveté, by prostituting words like “justice” and “rights,” the Palestinians have been able to transform their largely self-inflicted plight into the banner crisis of our time, eclipsing countless more-deserving causes. What has emerged — and was clearly evidenced at Berkeley — is a hierarchy of suffering where no crisis, no matter how pressing, is ever allowed to enjoy even a fraction of the attention and collective ire that the Palestinians daily demand. No matter how innumerable or innocent the other victims, they must always matter less. They must die ignored and nameless lest they detract from the Palestinian plot.
Accordingly, there was nary a mention of the rank rights abuses going on at that very moment in Israel’s back yard; no mention of the genocide in Darfur, or of the organ theft of Eritrean refugees by the Beduin in Sinai. Syria, Yemen, Egypt and Lybia, where civilians are shot or shelled for wanting much less than the freedoms Palestinians take for granted, were wholly absent from the conversation. In fact, a long-haired boor of an activist from Homs, who should have been decrying the murder and torture of his neighbors and kin at that very moment, instead spewed anti-Semitic tripe and, when a particularly passionate Israeli protestor stubbornly refused to let the lies pass silently, became physically violent. Nothing, not even truth, could be allowed to spoil the narrative.
Here’s a video report from that day at Berkeley (most of the salient events were edited out):
By the time we got to Woodstock…
For the delegates in my group, the ordeal at times struck too close to home.
There was Ohad, a 31-year-old filmmaker and former IDF officer who manned critical checkpoints around Jerusalem during the second intifada. One day in 2002, an imminent and credible threat to Jerusalem was uncovered by the Shin Bet, and Ohad’s checkpoint was put under red alert: no one in, no one out.
Almost immediately, Ohad was confronted with a moral dilemma that North Americans of the same age cannot even grasp: a UN ambulance carrying an elderly Palestinian stroke victim sought passage through the checkpoint in order to reach an Israeli hospital in Jerusalem.
It was clear that the old man needed urgent attention. However, it was also quite possible that the ambulance was being used as part of a terror plot. It fell to then 21-year-old Ohad to decide whether to risk the old man’s life or a possible terror attack in the heart of Jerusalem (this at a time when suicide bombings were an almost daily occurrence). Ohad saw the old man and thought of his own grandfather. He decided to wave the ambulance through regardless of the threat… only to stop it in its tracks at the last minute.
His gut told him something was awry.
He realized that the old man had been sitting at the back of the ambulance, alone, rather than close to the driver, and was puzzled. He opened the ambulance door and moved the old man aside. And there, under the bench of a UN ambulance transporting a Palestinian patient to an Israeli hospital, he found a massive explosive belt laden with screws and bolts for maximum carnage. Ohad and his checkpoint had saved countless lives that day, quite possibly including those of the old man and the ambulance driver. And now, a decade later, he was being cast as a violent racist for his efforts.
There was also Hila, a 28-year-old jack-of-all-arts. In her tender years, Hila had survived not one but two terror attacks – a double shooting attack on a street in Hadera where she grew up and, not much later, a car bomb that killed multiple civilians, including nine from her home town. The mental scars she was left with ran deep. But she eventually found the courage to rise above the trauma, and went on to make award-winning documentaries promoting Arab-Jewish coexistence. But there was no room for coexistence at Berkeley that day. There was no room for Hila’s story, or that of countless other terror victims.
At one point, Hila became immersed in a conversation with a Berkeley student sporting a green hijab and Palestinian flag. “But, after a while,” she told me, “it became clear to me that despite our friendly exchange, this girl was not interested in co-existence at all but rather in a ‘one-state-solution’ i.e. a Palestinian state instead of Israel… It wasn’t easy for me, having seen terror up close, to see so much hate and anger directed at our country…”
Taking stock of all the uninformed and impressionable students she’d met, Hila realized that “Israel will always have to defend its right to exist. But this is our fight,” she added, “because we are not leaving.”
Shouting matches erupted between the actors and Israeli students — former soldiers — who were understandably outraged at the dishonesty and selective indignation on display. Some held up signs reading “I am from Israel and this is not true,” and “Caution: Fiction Ahead.” I spent two long hours trying to convey to the Jewish student who thought Israelis should “go back where they came from” that he wasn’t helping Palestinians at all but was rather an unwitting accessory to theatric jihad. Eventually, after the cast had outdone themselves portraying Israeli soldiers as storm troopers, he admitted to me that the hyperbole might have been excessive and, more importantly, destructive.
Though it often would have been easier to argue that the earth was flat than to defend Israel’s very existence, our whole group trucked on under the most trying of circumstances. And after three hours of a sustained charm offensive, I am happy to report that we were able to not only disrupt the event but also to co-opt it to bring attention to Israel’s side of the story. And as some of us took five minutes for an improvised jam session to show that Israel had some Woodstock in it too, Ohad – who’d started holding a sign that said “I uncovered a bomb in a UN ambulance while guarding a checkpoint” – was even invited to tell his story to Berkeley TV.
We left campus on a high. Our meager success showed us what can be done if sincerity and perseverance play their part. Most people, at least in North America, are not ill-disposed by nature toward Jews and Israel. Universal anti-Semitism is a lie that our “leaders” tell us to mask their own incompetence. At the end of the day, it’s pretty simple: if you invest the time to make people into friends, eventually, they will be.