Monthly Archives: January 2010

Canada’s Carleton University launches new divestment campaign

Last year we wrote about Canada (not Minnesota’s) Carleton University when their Apartheid Week poster was banned by the school administration. They didn’t realize at the time that the poster featured weaponry made by multinational companies that are part of the college’s investment portfolio. Well now they know. Here is their new campaign video which re-tells the story of the censorship of the poster and the reasons behind their new divestment campaign.

The banned poster below. This year’s divestment version of the same poster here.

Israelis want to expel Jewish-American editor of Palestinian Maan News Agency

Richard Silverstein at Tikun Olam says it best:

The Only Democracy in the Middle East™ has struck again: the English editor for the independent Palestinian news agency Maan, American Jared Malsin, was detained along with his girlfriend at Ben Gurion airport on his return to Israel from a European vacation.  During the detention it became clear that the Shin Bet intended to expel him from Israel as a security risk.  It provided no justification whatsoever.  And when Malsin notified the U.S. embassy of his predicament and they called to inquire, security officials lied by claiming neither individual was in custody and that they were probably “enjoying a night on the town in Tel Aviv” and had simply forgotten to notify them.

Actually, the immigration department did have a justification, exactly the one you’d expect from….China or Iran: Malsin apparently wrote news stories that “criticized the State of Israel.”

Really. But my favorite part of this story, which evolves by the minute, is that Malsin, a Yale graduate, apparently first came to Israel through Birthright, the program that gives free plane tickets to Israel to young Diaspora Jews in an effort to win their everlasting love. In my book, becoming a journalist who accurately covers the assault on democracy is the perfect way to show your everlasting love. It’s the only way to make it better. But that’s just me. I wonder if Malsin knew he’d become the subject of his own story.

-Cecilie Surasky

Why befriending elites won’t work- Israel’s losing battle against the new world power

According to Israel’s influential Reut Institute, I’m a kind of general in the new battlefield for Israel’s survival. After all, I live and work in a “Hub of Delegitimacy” (the Bay Area); I write a blog that criticizes McCarthyism as it relates to Israel; and I am part of an organization (Jewish Voice for Peace) that actively supports divestment from companies that profit from the occupation, and defends the rights of Israeli and Palestinian human rights activists, including those who call for BDS.

A few weeks ago, Reut briefed the Israeli diplomatic corps about this new war of legitimacy in the realm of academia, culture, and politics, which Israel is not prepared for. I actually agree with Gidi Grinstein, Reut’s director, who suggests in Haaretz that without moral legitimacy, Israel is in existential danger. But of course, it’s Israel’s unaccountable status quo- of illegal occupation and legalized discrimination- which is at risk. It is repression and inequality, pure and simple, which thousands of people like me oppose-not Israel itself (which leads me to the conclusion that people like Grinstein actually believe, and this is the real issue that must be interrogated and challenged, that Israel literally cannot exist without occupation and discrimination encoded in its DNA. )

To be expected from someone in pathological denial, Grinstein attributes the global opprobrium over Israel’s human rights practices to a massive Iranian-Hezbollah-Hamas plot, sympathetically comparing Israel to a racist and a totalitarian regime:

Rather than seeking to conquer Israel, they would aim to bring about its implosion, as with South Africa or the Soviet Union, by attacking its political and economic values.

…Turning Israel into a pariah state is central to its adversaries’ efforts. Israel is a geopolitical island. Its survival and prosperity depend on its relations with the world in trade, science, arts and culture – all of which rely on its legitimacy. When the latter is compromised, the former may be severed, with harsh political, social and economic consequences.

The suggested response? (Thankfully, I spend my days safely in my “hub” and not in Israel-Palestine, so it doesn’t involve arbitrary detention or the confiscation of my computer.)

Israel’s delegitimacy is propagated in a few global metropolises – such as London, Madrid and the Bay Area – that are hubs of international NGOs, media outlets, academia and multinational corporations. Therefore, an extraordinary effort is required to respond to and isolate Israel’s delegitimizers. We must play offense and not just defense.

The most effective barrier to fundamental delegitimization is personal relationships. In every major country, Israel and its supporters must develop and sustain personal connections with the entire elite in business, politics, arts and culture, science and academia. This requires not only an overhaul of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, and particularly of its larger embassies, by infusing them with significantly larger operating budgets, but also the mobilization of our civil elite in Israel and overseas for the task.

And this gets back to my new job title as general, and why this approach of befriending elites so they will act as ideological gatekeepers won’t work. The truth of the matter is that there are thousands and thousands of “generals” like me- from teenagers in Athens to Birthright graduates in Great Neck to church members in Ireland to grandmothers in Ramallah to college professors (and rabbinical school students) virtually everywhere.  We’re all generals and we all have an internet connection.

This is a force for change and accountability that cannot be “decapitated” through relationships with elites and exerting McCarthyite pressure. We’ve all bypassed the elites in the state/media/law/culture etc.. who have failed miserably to bring a just peace. The era of centralized power, and the associated power of the gatekeeper, is quickly ending. Today it is quick-moving, under-funded, decentralized, non-hierarchical, grassroots activism that is winning and unstoppable.

But still, the Israeli diplomatic corps simply cannot befriend enough of us, and give away enough free trips to Israel, to make a difference anymore. And now they know. Be prepared for a bumpy ride.
-Cecilie Surasky

Pogrebin on the “Israel-right-or-wrong mafia” in Moment magazine

First Jewish Week’s James Besser, and now the writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin, known to many as a feminist hero and Jewish activist, has written a groundbreaking piece in the Jewish magazine Moment. Her essay, “Jewish McCarthyism Strikes Gold(stone)”, in which she decries the shameful campaign against Richard Goldstone who investigated the war with Gaza on behalf of the UN, is remarkable because of where it appears, a respected Jewish magazine read by members of all branches of American Judaism. More evidence that the Jewish center is shifting and that the starry-eyed love-affair we American Jews have had with our fantasy of Israel is ending. Pogrebin writes:

Some weeks after the report’s release, a rabbi friend emailed me asking what I thought of it, promising me “confidentiality.” He knew how perilous it can be for a Jew to go public with an opinion that diverges from the “mainstream,” meaning the views expressed by “Jewish leaders” of “major Jewish organizations” and others who purport to speak for “the Jewish community.”

To understand the price for breaking ranks, just look at how mercilessly Judge Goldstone—a proud Jew and declared Zionist—was vilified, not by gentile anti-Semites or Arabist Israel-haters but by Jews in the Israel-right-or-wrong mafia who, rather than address the troubling issues raised in the report, resorted to character assassination to delegitimate its lead author.

Regarding Goldstone’s final report, she concludes:

I wish the document’s charges were being actively discussed and convincingly rebutted by an internal investigation, but debate has been effectively squelched. Smears and death threats have done little to erode Judge Goldstone’s prestige among those familiar with his lifelong commitment to truth and justice. But the ad hominen attacks have deeply wounded him, his wife, two daughters and four grandsons who must relate to their Jewish friends and colleagues under a cloud of McCarthyite slander.

Of course, on the surface, such a deliberate and calculated attempt by a significant portion of the Jewish and Israeli leadership to destroy the life of another Jew, who by all accounts is not just a great human being but a true friend to Israel, makes absolutely no sense. But as we see in this older but must-read Nation article, Israeli historian Idith Zertal shows in Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood that the builders of the state of Israel, like Ben-Gurion, long acted as though the interests of the Zionist project far outweighed the interests of individual Jews, whether Mizrachi Jews from Arab countries or traumatized Holocaust survivors. The stories are sadly numerous: From the tragic 4,500 Holocaust survivors on the famous Exodus ship, who through Ben-Gurion’s intervention were forced to stay on the boat for 7 months (Chaim Weizmann convinced the French Prime Minister to take them in as refugees, but Ben-Gurion thought they were more useful to him if they remained on the ship and helped build sympathy for a future Israel) — to the coerced “recruitment”  of exhausted Holocaust survivors into the Haganah, the Jewish underground militia that fought the war of ’48.

Certainly anyone who has witnessed protests by elderly, poverty-stricken Israeli Holocaust survivors and their families against an Israeli government that failed to care for them would find this history believable. Or those aware of the cavalier attitudes towards Jewish life exemplified by the settlement project itself. And so on and so forth…

In that sense, Pogrebin’s piece is striking for what it doesn’t say explicitly but necessarily plants in the minds of Jewish readers: perhaps it’s long past time to assume the interests of most Jews are aligned with the interests of Israeli governments when it comes to valuing the lives of Jews, let alone our cousins, Palestinians. As a Jew essentially sacrificed at the altar of toxic nationalism, Goldstone sadly has plenty of good company.

-Cecilie Surasky
cecilie@jvp.org

Academic freedom, CampusWatch goes after Columbia’s Rashid Khalidi and PARC

Is space opening up or shutting down for professors who criticize Israel or express sympathy for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement?

One answer is that academic McCarthyite group CampusWatch is, unfortunately, still in business. In fact, they just published yet another hopefully meaningless attack on the Palestinian American Research Center (PARC) and keynote speaker at their October conference, the preeminent Middle East scholar (and famously, former-friend-of-Obama) Rashid Khalidi, Columbia University’s Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies. Why do they want PARC to stop receiving funding from the Department of Education? Because in his speech at a conference on Palestine, Khalidi criticized Israel, and worse, criticized Campus Watch! Comical, yes. Imagine, one of the country’s most respected Middle East scholars having the audacity to criticize Israel and CampusWatch at a conference called “Palestine: What We Know.” CampusWatch’s Jonathan Schanzer smears Khalidi with a charge he denies, that he was ever an official spokesperson for the PLO, and insists:

While Khalidi undoubtedly has the right to express his opinion, the American public has as a right to know that they paid for it. PARC receives controversial Title VI funding from the U.S. State Department and the Department of Education for “Palestinian studies.” By inviting Khalidi, PARC spent fungible taxpayer money to bring a notorious former spokesman for a terrorist organization to Washington to rail against Israel and complain about a group that critiques him.

Meanwhile, Nora Barrows-Friedman’s new article in the Electronic Intifada about academic freedom suggests the answer to the question, is there more space on campus for debate on Israel/Palestine?, is both yes and no.

UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Richard Falk, says:

“There seems to be diverging trends in relation to academic freedom for those who express sharply critical views of Israel or Zionism,” Falk remarked. “On the one side there is growing sympathy for the Palestinian struggle, and this is exhibited by the spreading BDS campaign. On the other side, there are increased efforts by organized Zionist groups to exert covert and overt pressure on university administrations to punish those seen as critics of Israel. As a result, we can expect some inconsistent outcomes in this period.”

Caught up in that tension are professors like UC Santa Barbara’s William Robinson who called down the wrath of the Anti-Defamation League and others for criticizing Israel’s attack on Gaza: in June 2009, the university threw out charges of faculty misconduct. And Columbia’s Joseph Massad and Barnard’s Nadia Abu El Haj who both survived extensive campaigns to deny them tenure.

But Barrows-Friedman introduces us to two lesser-known stories about professors who are still fighting for tenure.

Margo Ramlal-Nankoe, former professor of Sociology at Ithaca College in New York, said that after she started addressing issues of human rights abuses in occupied Palestine — especially after the start of the second Palestinian intifada — she was warned by faculty members at the college that she was “risking” her career and “would suffer repercussions from the administration.” Ramlal-Nankoe told The Electronic Intifada (EI) that the verbal threats eventually led to alleged racist and sexist attacks, and an open death threat from a faculty member who protested Ramlal-Nankoe’s support of a department colleague whose husband was Palestinian. “He [made] a cut-throat gesture with his hand across his neck to me,” Ramlal-Nankoe said. She was later denied tenure in 2007.

This is just the beginning of her tale, and Ramlal-Nankoe appropriately filed suit, which is still in process. Also filing suit,  and also unresolved, is Terri Ginsburg:

Film studies professor Terri Ginsberg, similarly fired in 2008 by North Carolina State University (NCSU) in what she says was a punishment for her outspoken criticism of “Zionism, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and US Middle East policy,” believes that institutionalized censorship on the Palestine-Israel issue in the academic realm is eerily reminiscent of the McCarthy era of the 1950s and ’60s. “So many of the dynamics and methods of discrimination perpetrated against today’s scholarly critics of Israel and US Middle East policy derive from and continue, in updated fashion, practices initiated and implemented during that shameful period,” she says.

As Falk says, my sense is that this is a transitional period and that the tide has already shifted on campuses, with defenders of Israel’s occupation already feeling desperately outnumbered. Hopefully the fact that the cases of Ginsburg and Ramlal-Nankoe started some time ago means that more and more administrators are refusing to succumb to such McCarthyite tactics.
-Cecilie Surasky

Lieberman tells Israeli ambassadors to take the gloves off

Call it the nightclub bouncer (aka threatened manhood) school of diplomacy.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a former bouncer who now merely plays on a larger stage, summoned Israeli ambassadors to the homeland to berate them for being too soft and for not defending Israel’s honor when criticized. They must stop “groveling”, as the BBC reported:

He told a shocked audience of some 150 envoys in Jerusalem to “stop turning the other cheek” whenever Israel was insulted, Israeli media report.

The envoys were reportedly given no right of reply at the conference.

“We received a monologue without being able to hold a discussion,” one unnamed ambassador told Ha’aretz newspaper.

AFP added that he said:

“The era of grovelling is over,” he concluded. “We must be on good terms and respect the host nations, but we will not tolerate insults and challenges.”

“We will not turn the other cheek. There will be a response to everything.”

Ha’aretz later editorialized against his “bullying” and suggested he get fired. If US Ambassador Michael Oren is an example of gloves off, one has to wonder what ‘gloves on’ means. If Lieberman was actualy respected by the Israeli diplomatic corps, I’d be worried.

The latest contretemps with Turkey gives us a clue regarding the Lieberman school of diplomacy. Christian Science Monitor reports in “Why Israel humiliated Turkey in response to a TV show,” Turkey’s ambassador was summoned to a meeting at the Israeli Foreign Ministry to address , among other things, “a TV show that portrayed Israeli intelligence agents holding a woman and her baby hostage.”

Breaking with diplomatic protocol, Israeli officials failed to include the customary Turkish flag on the table between them and the Turkish ambassador, whom they seated on a low couch. To rub it in, they instructed the press members in attendance to note that they were sitting in higher chairs and the usual diplomatic niceties were conspicuously absent.

Gloves off indeed.

-Cecilie Surasky

From the heart of Jewish journalism- are we stifling debate?

James Besser is a respected Washington correspondent for NY Jewish Week whose reports appear in many other Jewish media outlets as well. He is a pro-Israel partisan in the sense that many Jewish-media journalists are, many sincere and some feigning extra enthusiasm just to keep their positions. I have no idea whether he is the former or the latter. But in the case of Gaza, for example, he says he “doesn’t disagree” with the assertion that Israel “was justified” in its use of overwhelming military force during Cast Lead. Which is why it’s so remarkable to see a blog post by him called “Stifling Debate about Gaza”

Besser points to Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper which recently editorialized what to much of the world seems obvious, that Operation Cast Lead has been completely ineffective in achieving greater security for Israel. “The time has come,” said Ha’aretz, “to rethink Israeli strategy in Gaza.” Citing its ineffectiveness, they then call for open crossings between Israel and Gaza.

After quoting Ha’aretz, Besser says:

What I’m wondering: wouldn’t any American Jewish group making such an argument be tarred as a violator of the pro-Israel orthodoxy, shunned, called “dangerous” to the Jewish state?

I’m not saying Israel’s Gaza policy is wrong.

From my safe perch in  Washington, I honestly don’t know what the best solution is to the Gaza-West Bank split, the tightening grip of Hamas on the strip and the fact the terrorist group doesn’t show any sign of moving beyond its goal of wiping Israel out.

I am saying there’s something disturbing about the growing determination to stifle debate in an American Jewish community with a multiplicity of pro-Israel views. Israelis engage in vigorous debate about these issues all the time, but apparently our own leaders believe that support for Israel is so shaky here that we can’t raise issues like whether or not the Gaza blockade is in Israel’s long-term security interests.

I also find it peculiar that when Jewish leaders here talk about Gaza, the only question they address is whether or not Israel is justified in taking harsh measures (their answer: of course, and I don’t disagree).

Lost in the  debate: is there any evidence these policies are working?  Does history suggest they are likely to work in the long term, or just the opposite?  Justifiable policies that produce negative results don’t strike me as a great idea, but perish the thought that we actually talk about that.

This isn’t tangential or a concern pertinent only to Gaza. His point about the refusal to allow debate about the effectiveness of these polices is the heart of the matter, because (aside from the fact that the massive attack on civilians and civilian infrastructure was also grotesquely immoral), if we did, we might have to confront the likelihood that Israel’s military leadership and successive governments, along with the right-wing settler infiltration of those institutions, are actually working entirely at cross-purposes with the majority of American Jews and Israelis who really do just want peace, presumably with a modicum of fairness. What if, by most of American Jewry’s standards, these repressive measures are a massive failure wherever they are deployed, but by their standards, the ongoing chaos and misery, and absence of any peace negotiations, is a huge success?
-cecilie surasky

Toronto, London, Berkeley: new axis of evil, declares Reut Institute

My Muzzlewatch stump speech has long talked about the parallel Middle East battle happening on the level of language and imagery:

While Israelis and Palestinians struggle over land, water and basic human rights in the Middle
East, a proxy battle is being waged here in the United States. Instead of Qassam rockets and
F-16s, the weapons are words, images and the internet. Instead of orchards and city streets, the battlefield is academia, journalism, politics, arts and publishing. And instead of calling it what it is–a struggle between those who unconditionally support often disastrous US-Israeli policies, and those who do not– the debate is framed as being about national security, the war on terror, and the clash of civilizations.

This battle is actually global, though the stakes in the US are obvious- unconditional diplomatic and financial support for Israel while it pursues its dream of a Greater Israel. But either way, it is framed as a battle between those who care about Israel/Jews, democracy and Western values, and those who threaten them. This framing benefits right wing Israel advocacy groups by erasing any legitimate Palestinian claims, collapsing all forms of resistance, including nonviolent civil society, under the banner of ‘terrorism.” Further, it means that Israel’s human rights record, and the US support which makes it possible, is removed from consideration

Recently, the Israeli think tank, the Reut Institute, has come up with its own version of this analysis which it is presenting to Israeli diplomats. Their frame is that this is a grassroots battle over the legitimacy of Israel (whatever that means), thus delegitimizing virtually any resistance to human rights violations and systemic inequality.

Substitute “Enemy Command HQ” for “Hubs of Delegitimacy.” Instead of “enemy armor outflanking our infantry,” use “resistance networks outflanking the IDF to attack Israel’s very legitimacy.” Instead of bombing Israeli embassies – picketing Israeli stores and taking Israeli products off supermarket shelves.

Pair Iran’s nuclear program, an existential threat to Israel, with the simultaneous creation of an existential political threat, and you are talking in a new type of language, and a new type of warfare in which the IDF is not equipped to engage in, and perhaps shouldn’t be engaging in.

A new report by the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv-based national security and socioeconomic policy think tank, maps out the “new battlefield” in which Israel finds the legitimacy of its very existence attacked by a wide array of organizations and individuals in global centers like London, Toronto, Brussels, Madrid and Berkeley.

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