Sunday, May 30, 2021

pro-Israel surveillance and smears


Zionist Groups in US Operate Campaigns to Quash Palestine Solidarity on Campus

Surveillance of and smear campaigns against student activists are common features of pro-Israel lobbying operations.
from TruthOut

YouTube video: The Palestinian exception to freedom of speech

As the world bears witness to the violent dispossession of Palestinians at the hands of Israel’s apartheid regime, this very same regime is conducting a parallel project of suppression, censorship and surveillance in the United States. An extensive network of U.S.-based pro-Israel lobbying groups, working hand in hand with Israeli intelligence agencies, continue to fund multimillion-dollar campaigns to destroy Palestinian liberation struggles and ensure professional, legal and financial consequences for Americans who dare to speak out against Israeli apartheid.

College campuses have become a central battleground of the lobby’s suppression efforts. Groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) pose a major threat to long-term bipartisan support for Israel as their campaigns unsettle pro-Israel political narratives and introduce young people to the violent realities of the occupation.

While pro-Israel organizations that intervene in campus activism often try to do so under the radar, their counterinsurgency strategies and patterns are being exposedTruthout spoke with three SJP chapters across the country about their efforts to advocate for Palestinian liberation and the challenges of organizing grassroots campaigns in opposition to a multimillion-dollar lobbying and surveillance regime.

Surveillance and Smear Campaigns

In 2016, Al Jazeera sent an undercover journalist to intern and network within the Washington, D.C.-based Israel lobby. His reporting confirmed what many advocates for Palestine already suspected: The lobby is funding complex surveillance operations to undermine Palestine activists, particularly those on college campuses.

Jacob Baime, the executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), was caught on undercover footage boasting about the organization’s multimillion-dollar surveillance technologies and smear campaign tactics. The group’s strategy, he revealed, is fabricating allegations of antisemitism against activists in order to create a sense of crisis. The ICC conducts “oppositional research,” defames activists using anonymous websites and promotes these defamations using targeted Facebook promotions. Baime’s associate, Noah Pollak, admits that defamation is a major feature of the lobby’s strategy to suppress criticism of Israel, noting, “you discredit the messenger as a way of discrediting the message.”

Organizers in all of the SJP chapters Truthout spoke with emphasized the personal risks they shoulder in publicly condemning apartheid. Organizers cited these risks in their requests to participate in this article anonymously. Many activists end up with profiles on Canary Mission, a blacklisting website that publishes the private information of anti-apartheid student activists and academics. When this occurs, their names are publicly associated with allegations of antisemitism and “terrorist” affiliations. The website’s explicit aim is to prevent critics of Israel from accessing professional opportunities. Al Jazeera’s investigation revealed the Canary Mission website is operated by Baime and financed by convicted American-Israeli real-estate mogul Adam Milstein. Milstein is the founder is the Israel-American Council and sits on the board of prominent pro-Israel lobbying organizations, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), StandWithUs, Birthright Israel and the Israel on Campus Coalition.

For Palestinian students, the risk is even greater. A member of SJP at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign explains, “Many of us are ourselves Palestinian and of course run the additional risk of being banned from Palestine by the Israeli government when we are vocal about the atrocities in Palestine.”

Running surveillance and smear campaigns against student activists is a common feature of pro-Israel lobbying operations. Last year, SJP members at Tufts University were nonconsensually recorded and subsequently doxxed by Israel lobbyists attending a private, virtual event. Tufts SJP — which was campaigning to end a university program that sent Tufts University police officers on training trips to Israel — was targeted by pro-Israel lobbying groups with a barrage of attacks and accusations of antisemitism. Some of these organizations included StandWithUs, the Anti-Defamation League, the Louis D. Brandeis Center and a variety of pro-Israel news sources.

“Many of us are ourselves Palestinian and of course run the additional risk of being banned from Palestine by the Israeli government when we are vocal about the atrocities in Palestine.”

A member of Tufts SJP says that the organization is being targeted because of how effective it has been at changing the narrative about Palestine on campus. She explains, “We [SJP members] now have to be very careful to conceal our identities and have become adapted to dissociating our names from our work.” But by building a broad coalition of social justice organizations at Tufts, “we have been able to connect Palestinian struggles for freedom to the struggles of others working towards collective liberation.”


Coordinated media attacks play a particularly important role for the pro-Israel lobby. By accusing SJP’s student activists of antisemitism, these organizations legitimize the lobby’s assertion that advocacy for Palestinian rights on college campuses creates an unsafe learning environment for Jewish students. The lobby is leveraging this narrative to accomplish something much more consequential — to redefine civil rights legislation and anti-discrimination policies to include criticism of Israel as a form of antisemitism.

“Lawfare,” or legislative warfare, is a key aspect of pro-Israel lobby strategies. Organizations like the Brandeis Center lobby university administrators and tech companies, as well as local, state and federal legislatures, to adopt definitions of antisemitism that explicitly include critiques of Israel. These definitions ultimately punish students standing in opposition to Israeli apartheid.

In September 2020, the SJP chapter at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) successfully passed a student government resolution calling on the university to divest from companies operating in illegal West Bank settlements. The resolution garnered national outrage from pro-Israel news outlets, and the names of activists involved in the campaign were eventually added to Canary Mission’s public blacklist.

Two months later, two students in collaboration with the Brandeis Center, a pro-Israel lobbying organization based in Washington, D.C., filed an official complaint with the U.S. Department of Education alleging that the UIUC administration had failed to protect students from antisemitism.

Filing complaints with the Department of Education became a highly effective tool for Israel lobbying organizations under the Trump administration. Kenneth Marcus, the founder of the Brandeis Center — the very organization filing antisemitism complaints against universities — was nominated by President Trump to act as assistant secretary for civil rights within Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education. There, Marcus announced the department would adopt a new “working definition” of antisemitism that would include criticisms of Israel. In practical terms, Marcus paved the way for pro-Israel students and organizations to leverage the financial and legal power of the Department of Education against universities that fail to take action against Palestine advocacy on their campuses.

The Brandeis Center complaint filed against UIUC bundles instances of explicit antisemitism — like the presence of swastika graffiti on campus property — with criticism of Israel and advocacy for Palestinian liberation. A Brandeis Center lobbyist even admitted during a campaign at the University of Tennessee that the real antisemitism that Jewish students faced on the campus was from Christian evangelicals in the community trying to proselytize them, not the pro-Palestine activists at the center of the Brandeis Center’s lobbying efforts.

Filing complaints with the Department of Education became a highly effective tool for Israel lobbying organizations under the Trump administration.

The UIUC university administration, under increased legal scrutiny, ultimately released a joint statement with pro-Israel organizations. The statement expressed a commitment to combating antisemitism on campus, which would include anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel.

On May 14, 2021 — amidst the height of bombings of Gaza and one of the largest Palestinian uprisings since the intifadas — Illinois General Assembly Minority Leader Jim Durkin introduced new legislation calling upon the University of Illinois to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which pro-Israel organizations like the Brandeis Center endorse. This definition expands conceptions of antisemitism to include criticism of Israeli government policy and challenges to Zionism. Durkin told the Jewish Insider, “this resolution, I hope, puts the university on notice that we’re watching, and we want you to resolve this in the appropriate way.”

The progression of pro-Israel lobby suppression campaigns on college campuses.

Jewish-led organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow have continuously rejected the lobby’s efforts to conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. On the contrary, prominent Jewish activists and scholars such as Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler have argued that conflating anti-Zionism and antisemitism can itself be antisemitic: For instance, provocations by Christian Zionists and evangelicals who suggest Jews living in the United States ultimately belong in Israel. Similarly, the suggestion that critique of Israeli state violence is antisemitic necessitates the belief that Israel, and its violent colonial expansion, reflect the will of the Jewish people as a whole rather than Israeli government policy.

Regardless, the pro-Israel lobby’s coordinated campaigns to target SJP’s activism have achieved their desired effect. As a Palestinian member of SJP UIUC explains, “The media and legal scrutiny have made many students afraid to speak out,” which raises the “stakes” for pro-Palestine advocacy. Student activists are forced to reallocate their energies away from effective advocacy for Palestine and towards addressing suppression campaigns.

What’s Next?

For Israel, the war of public opinion, particularly in the West, remains an essential feature of its national security strategy. Israel enjoys unconditional and bipartisan political support within the United States Congress, an asset leveraged to the tune of $10 million each day in military aid. It’s no surprise that the Israeli government invests enormously in preserving public support for Israel and subsequently working to neutralize organizations, groups and individuals engaged in critique of Israel’s illegal occupation and institutionalized apartheid.

Both the Trump and Biden administrations have acted in lockstep with this systemic repression campaign. In September 2020, the U.S. State Department under Trump committed to “target,” “fight” and “kill” the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS), a nonviolent economic boycott campaign modeled after a similar campaign to fight South African apartheid. The Biden administration also signaled its commitment to disenfranchising Palestine advocates when his Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirmed that the administration “enthusiastically embraces” the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

The consequences of these coordinated suppression efforts are not hypothetical. They consume the political and professional careers of many Palestine solidarity activists. Recently, amid the bombing of Gaza, Emily Wilder, a Jewish journalist with the Associated Press, was fired following a campaign from right-wing groups who condemned her years of advocacy with Students for Justice in Palestine. It’s evident that Israel’s continued investment in surveillance and defamation campaigns is likely to continue to have a chilling effect, not only on the movement for Palestinian liberation but more widely on free speech.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

activists and scholars leaving Israel

This article appeared in Haaretz on May 3, 2020. Because Haaretz has a pay wall and I believe this topic is so important I reproduce it here in full...

After Losing Hope for Change, Top Left-wing Activists and Scholars Leave Israel Behind

They founded anti-occupation movements and fought for the soul of Israeli society, but ultimately decided to emigrate. The new exiles tell Haaretz how they were harassed and silenced, until they had almost no choice but to leave

Last December, when no one knew that the coronavirus was lurking around the corner, Eitan Bronstein Aparicio, 60, and his partner, Eléonore Merza, 40, left Israel for good. They are both well-known in circles of left-wing activists. He founded the organization Zochrot some 20 years ago, she is a political anthropologist, and they co-authored a book on the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe,” as Palestinians refer to the events surrounding the founding of Israel). Ideologically, politically and professionally, French-born Merza, the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Circassian father, simply could not bear the situation any longer. Although she was about to be granted permanent residency status in Israel, she found a job in Brussels and the couple moved there, with no plans to return.

In a phone conversation with Haaretz from the coronavirus lockdown in Belgium, Bronstein Aparicio says he still finds it difficult to believe that he left. “I look on it as a type of exile, a departure from the center of Israel,” he explains.

Born in Argentina, Bronstein Aparicio emigrated to Israel with his parents when he was 5, growing up in Kibbutz Bahan in central Israel. “My name was changed from Claudio to Eitan – I carry the Zionist revolution with me,” he laughs. He describes himself as a “regular Israeli” who did military service, like everyone else. A personal process that he terms the “decolonization of my Zionist identity” led him to establish Zochrot (“Remembering,” in Hebrew) in 2001, an NGO that aims to raise awareness of the Nakba and of the Palestinians’ right of return among the Jewish public. He has five children: Three of them live in Israel, one in Brazil, and the youngest, a boy who’s almost 4, lives with the couple in Brussels.

“There is one point on which I am completely in accord with the move – namely, the need to rescue my son from the nationalist, militaristic education system in Israel. I am glad I got him out of that,” he says, adding, “People with a similar political profile to mine have the feeling that we have been defeated and that we will no longer be able to exert a meaningful influence in Israel. In a profound sense, we do not see a horizon of repair, of true peace or a life of quality. A great many people understood this and looked for another place to live. There is something quite insane in Israel, so to look at it from a distance is at least a little saner.”

Indeed, many of those who belonged to what’s termed the radical left in Israel have left the country in the past decade. Among them were those who devoted their life to activism, founded political movements and headed some of the country’s most important left-wing organizations: Not only Zochrot, but B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, Coalition of Women for Peace, 21st Year, Matzpen and others. The individuals include senior academics – some of whom were forced out of their jobs because of their political beliefs and activities – and also cultural figures or members of the liberal professions, who felt they could no longer express their views in Israel without fear. Many came from the heart of the Zionist left and then moved farther left, or looked on as the state abandoned principles that were important to them, to a point where they felt they no longer had a place in the Israeli public discourse.

They are scattered around the world, trying to build new lives with fewer internal and external conflicts, very often out of concern for their children’s future. Most of them shy away from terming themselves political exiles, but make it plain that opposition to the Israeli government is what drove them to leave, or at least not to return. Some declined to be interviewed, from a feeling of unease at leaving and because they do not want their private act to become a model for others. Those who spoke to Haaretz would be the first to admit to enjoying privileges that allowed them to move to a different country, as none of them faces an uncertain economic future or the prospect of engaging in menial labor. Still, a clear note of pain runs through all the conversations.

Among the well-known names no longer living in Israel are the curator and art theoretician Ariella Azoulay and her partner, philosopher Adi Ophir, who was among the founders of the 21st Year, an anti-occupation organization, and refused to serve in the territories; Anat Biletzki, a former chairwoman of B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories; Dana Golan, former executive director of the anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence; planner and architect Haim Yacobi, who founded Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights; literary scholar Hannan Hever, a cofounder of the 21st Year who was active in Yesh Gvul; Ilan Pappe, a one-time candidate from the Arab-Jewish party Hadash and a member of the group of “new historians,” who left the country over a decade ago and lives in London; and Yonatan Shapira, a former pilot in the Israeli air force who initiated the 2003 letter of the pilots who refused to participate in attacks in the occupied territories, and took part in protest flotillas to the Gaza Strip.

Others include political scientist Neve Gordon, who was director of Physicians for Human Rights and was active in the Ta’ayush Arab Jewish Partnership, a nonviolent, anti-occupation and civil equality movement ; Yael Lerer, who helped found Balad, the Arab-nationalist political party, and was founder of (the now-defunct) Andalus Publishing, which translated Arabic literature into Hebrew; Gila Svirsky, a founder of Coalition of Women for Peace; Jonathan Ben-Artzi, a nephew of Sara Netanyahu, who was jailed for a total of nearly two years for refusing to serve in the Israeli army; Haim Bereshit, a BDS activist, who headed the Media and Cinema School in Sapir College in Sderot and established the city’s cinematheque; Marcelo Svirsky, a founder of the Kol Aher BaGalil Arab-Jewish coexistence group and cofounder of the Jewish-Arab school in Galilee; and Ilana Bronstein, Niv Gal, Muhammad Jabali, Saar Sakali and Rozeen Bisharat, who sought to create a joint Palestinian-Jewish leisure and culture venue in the Anna Loulou Bar in Jaffa (which closed in January 2019).

The new “leavers” join those who left for political reasons many years ago, among them: Yigal Arens, a Matzpen activist and son of the late Moshe Arens, a longtime defense minister; Matzpen activists Moshe Machover, Akiva Orr and Shimon Tzabar, who left in the 1960s; as well as the filmmakers Eyal Sivan, Simone Bitton and Udi Aloni, who left in the 1980s and ‘90s.
The word that recurs time and again in when one speaks with these individuals is “despair.” Percolating despair, continuing for years.

“I remember vividly the period of the Oslo Accords, the euphoria – which I shared,” Bronstein Aparicio says. “I remember years when there was a feeling that maybe [the conflict] would be resolved and maybe there would be peace, but that feeling hasn’t existed for a long time. It’s a state of constant despair that keeps growing.”

Thus, after long years of activism, all the interviewees testified that they had lost hope for political change in Israel. Many of them are convinced that if change does occur, it will not come from within Israel. “I think it could come mainly from outside,” Bronstein Aparicio explains. “I have hopes for BDS, which is the only significant thing now happening in the field. From that point of view, political exile like this can have a meaningful role.”

Feeling of failure

Neve Gordon, 54, launched his political activity when he was 15, attending demonstrations held by Peace Now. He was wounded seriously during his military service as a combat soldier in the Paratroops. At the time of the first intifada (which began in December 1987), he served as the first executive director of Physicians for Human Rights Israel. Subsequently he was active in Ta’ayush, which pursues avenues of Jewish and Palestinian cooperation, and was a founder of the Jewish-Arab school in Be’er Sheva. During the second intifada he was part of the movement of refusal to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

Although his political activity has been extensive, Gordon may be best known to the general Israeli public primarily for an opinion piece he published in The Los Angeles Times in 2009, when he was head of the department of politics and government at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva. In the essay, Gordon stated his support for the boycott movement and termed Israel an apartheid state. An international furor erupted, and the university’s president at the time, Rivka Carmi, declared that “academics who feel that way about their country are invited to look for different professional and personal accommodation.”

In the years that followed, Gordon’s department at BGU became a target of systematic campaigns by right-wing organizations, notably Im Tirtzu, which demanded its closure because of the political views of a number of its faculty members. In 2012, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar (Likud) called for Gordon’s dismissal. At the end of that year, the Council for Higher Education recommended that the university consider shutting down the Gordon’s department if certain reforms weren’t undertaken, but its decision was ultimately revoked a few months later after a few changes were introduced.
In those tumultuous years, the professor says, he received a number of threats on his life. Three and a half years ago, he and his partner, Catherine Rottenberg, who was head of the university’s gender studies program, together with their two sons, moved to London after both received European Union research fellowships. Gordon is now a professor of international law and human rights at Queen Mary University of London.

It wasn’t the threats on his life that prompted him to leave, Gordon says, nor the struggle against the higher education establishment. In the end, what tipped the scales was concern for the future of their children. “I don’t see a political horizon, and I have two sons, with all that’s entailed in raising sons in Israel.”

And you also landed an excellent job in London.

“True, but my job in Israel was better by a long shot. I really liked the Ben-Gurion department, I liked the students and also the faculty. I felt I had a community, and it was very hard to give that up. Even when we got to London, we didn’t plan to stay. If we’d been a young couple without children, I’m not sure we would have stayed.” Gordon adds, “It’s not the easiest thing, to get up and leave at the age of 50-something. There’s a feeling of personal failure and the failure of a [political] camp.”

Was there a particular moment when the impossibility of remaining in Israel became clear?

“There was no one moment. Over the years we experienced growing extremism. It reached the point where we felt uncomfortable taking our children to demonstrations, because of the violence. The day-to-day racism is creating a place where I don’t feel I belong.”
The final blow, says Gordon, came when he began to feel it was no longer possible to speak out freely against the racist situation he witnessed. “The dialogue within Israel, which used to be open and which I took pride in, changed. Things that people like me espouse – support for the boycott movement, or terming Israel an apartheid state – became illegitimate,” he says. “And then you are already not only outside the consensus, but outside the true public discussion. You become a curiosity. And then you say, ‘What do I need this for?’”

Did the country change, or did you change?

“To be fair, the change is undoubtedly both in me and in the country. I also underwent a certain process. What I understood was that the solution cannot be contained in Zionism.”

Haim Yacobi, Gordon’s colleague at BGU, and subsequently head of its politics and government department, also left Israel. One of the founders of Bimkom, which deals with issues of equality in spatial planning and housing in Israel, Yacobi, an architect by training who is today 55 years old, moved to England three years ago with his partner and their three children, when he received a professorship at University College London. Like Gordon, he says that he did not leave because of political harassment: “If you look at the political situation in Israel squarely, on top of the colonial project in the West Bank and Israel’s becoming an apartheid state, then the question that arises is what I want for myself and for my children.”

He adds, “For people like me – whose work is critical and political, and who were also involved as activists – the politics of hope or of despair is of very weighty significance,” he says. “To emigrate at my age and status is to say: I am in despair, I see no hope. That stems from my political analysis, based on how I view as a just state and society. It’s not a decision that’s made overnight. We didn’t leave Israel because of the price of cottage cheese. We were exactly at the stage in which good bourgeois folks start to see the fruits of their labors, and I feel that I was very successful in what I did in Israel. It’s very frightening to emigrate at a late age and to reinvent yourself.”
The final blow, says Gordon, came when he began to feel it was no longer possible to speak out freely against the racist situation he witnessed.

Yacobi notes that many of his colleagues in Israel, even among the radical left, viewed his leaving as a betrayal. That reaction came as a surprise, but didn’t make him change his mind. “The motivation to establish Bimkom was my belief that change was possible. I am less naive now,” he says, adding that the political violence in Israel led him to realize that getting out was the only option for him.
Although Yacobi says he felt wanted in Israeli academia, he agrees that academic freedom in the country has been downgraded. “I think that very problematic forces, politically, have entered and have effectively become the police of the academic world,” he says.

Bar-Ilan to Brown

Indeed, one of the disturbing things that emerged from the conversations with academics now living and working abroad is the decisive contribution of Israeli institutions of higher education in forcing out scholars who espouse a radical-left political outlook. The process was not always a blatant one, and even when it was, some of the interviewees adamantly refused to talk about what they underwent, for fear their former universities would react by trying to damage their professional reputations.

A clear-cut case, which was reported widely, was the refusal of Bar-Ilan University, in early 2011, to grant tenure and promotion to Ariella Azoulay, who had been teaching at the institution for 11 years. Dr. Azoulay, 58, a scholar of visual culture, curator, documentary filmmaker and one of Israel’s most influential interdisciplinary thinkers, was hired by Bar-Ilan five years after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, when the university had an image problem. This was an act with a pluralistic aroma: to employ a lecturer with well-known leftist views at a university with a religious, right-wing orientation where the prime minister’s assassin had been a student. A decade later, deep into the Netanyahu era, when right-wing organizations were compiling blacklists of scholars who criticized Israel, Azoulay’s radical approach apparently sat less well with the university’s directors.

To the broad protest by senior academics who expressed concern that Azoulay was a victim of political persecution, Bar-Ilan University responded that its considerations had been strictly professional. Still, her achievements were enough for her to get a job offer from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island – an Ivy League university with a reputation as one of the world’s finest institutions of higher learning.

A year and a half after she was denied tenure, Azoulay left the country together with her partner, Adi Ophir, a philosophy scholar and lecturer at Tel Aviv University, and a leading figure in the Israeli left. Prof. Ophir was 61 at the time; Azoulay was 51. The offer she received from Brown included a teaching position for him as well. For the past seven years, the two have been living in Providence, teaching, conducting research and writing books that enjoy impressive international success.

Ophir is leery of the term “political exiles.” “Decisions of this kind are a combination of many things,” he says in a Zoom conversation from Rhode Island. “The trauma of [Azoulay’s] ejection from Bar-Ilan was an important part of it. Before that we had never looked for job opportunities abroad. Only when it became clear that they were going to throw her out for political reasons. And also the way the dismissal was received by academic colleagues – there was a respectable letter of support, but that was all. Other universities did not volunteer to hire her.

“But still, if she hadn’t received that incredible job offer [at Brown], it’s possible that we would not have had the determination or the strength to undertake such a dramatic move. The more significant political fact is that since we got here we haven’t considered returning. The moment a full life became possible in a different place, the political and moral compromises that life in Israel entails became intolerable.”

Is what happened to Azoulay typical of what’s going on in Israeli universities and colleges today?

Ophir: “A rift opened at the start of the second intifada [in 2000]. We saw ourselves become increasingly anathematized. I was never persecuted at Tel Aviv University, but there’s this constant feeling of something growing all around, a kind of encrustation and it signifies: These are the boundaries, you can’t cross them, those ideas can’t be voiced now, you can’t deal with those things. Because for anyone who does deal with them, it’s not clear whether his doctorate will be approved, or whether his article will be accepted, or whether his students will receive scholarships. In my case, at least, everything was very minor, but there was a growing feeling that we were simply no longer wanted in this place.”

From afar, he continues, “I started to see things I didn’t see from there. In Israel, I had many reservations about BDS. I thought about it from the viewpoint of my activity in academia, and I kept trying to tread between the raindrops, as it were: to recognize the legitimacy of the boycott movement without accepting its sweeping formulation. But I came to understand that what I was trying to do was protect myself and my space in the academic world.”

Ophir wasn’t always in that zone of consciousness. He grew up in a right-wing Revisionist home before becoming a devoted member of the socialist Zionist youth movement Hamahanot Ha’olim. In 1987, he cofounded the 21st Year together with Hannan Hever, who became a professor of Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is now living in the United States. Theirs was a protest movement that called for refusal to serve in the territories and for the boycott of products made in the settlements.

“Hannan and I spoke at the time about the refusal to serve in the army in terms of self-fulfillment,” he relates. “We thought that personal commitment to the State of Israel was to be expressed in a refusal to serve in the territories. I was totally a Zionist. It took me more time to understand what it means to be a Zionist.”

Ophir does not deny that the country he lives in, the United States, is responsible for horrific wrongs. “In that sense, the United States is a terrible place, and since Trump’s election it has become a lot more terrible,” he says. “But when you oppose the regime in the United States, you are not alone. You are part of a large mass, active and creative. I can talk about it with students with absolute freedom. In my last years in Israel I felt that when I talked politics at the university, I was looked at like a UFO.”

Do you also feel less alone in regard to your views about Israel?

“For the majority of my colleagues, Israel is a lost case. And most of the time, I am with them. A political exile is someone whose life remained in the place he left, and whose life in the new place is stamped in that context. I don’t feel that way. I feel a great deal of pain together with a deep sense of pointlessness. Occasionally I still do something on campus, small things. That is my ‘reserve duty.’ But the center of my attention and interest is no longer there. The whole world is going from bad to worse, possibly toward its end. The Zionist colonial project is a tiny blip within it.”

He continues, “It was a long process of separation. My mother died after many years of dementia. The parting from her lasted 15 years. The parting from Israel somewhat resembles that. Israel is something that is becoming alien and remote. In large measure I replaced my interest in political Israel with a growing interest in Jewish thought and history. I found myself a small patch that replaces the house in Tel Aviv. I’m enjoying being a Diaspora Jew.”

Were there people who felt you were abandoning ship?

'A political exile is someone whose life remained in the place he left, and whose life in the new place is stamped in that context. I don’t feel that way.'

“Yes – a good many, I think. Some said so openly. I thought they should be leaving, too. But that’s easy to say: Not everyone gets a golden parachute for relocating. Obviously there is an egoistical element in what we did.”

Are there things you miss about Israel?

“Hummus?” Ophir laughs. “Just kidding. I miss my children and my grandchildren. Very much. Sometimes I miss Tel Aviv. Sometimes I miss traveling around the country – going to the desert in winter. But there is hardly a place that I would walk across today and not feel that I was walking on someone else’s land.”

Ariella Azoulay declined to be interviewed, but sent a written statement: “I don’t trust the press and I don’t want to be represented by it; I support the boycott and have no interest in being interviewed for a Zionist newspaper. What I have to say about the fact that I was born to be an ‘Israeli’ as a form of control by the state over the body and mind of its subjects and citizens, and about my refusal to identify myself in the ‘Israeli’ category, I wrote in the introduction to my new book and I have nothing to add to that.

“And in addition, emigration out of a feeling of the impossibility of living in the place where you were born, because you serve to keep out those who were expelled from it, is painful, and I have no interest in sharing that pain with a Zionist audience that denies the pain and the loss that the State of Israel inflicted and is continuing to inflict, above all on its Palestinian inhabitants, and in a different way on its Jewish citizens.” (Azoulay’s most recent book is “Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism,” published last year.)

Once is enough

Hagar Kotef, 43, found herself in an even more disturbing situation with regard to an Israeli university. Dr. Kotef, who was active in Machsom Watch and other left-wing movements, completed her doctoral studies in philosophy at Tel Aviv University and at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2012, she had an opportunity to come back to Israel as part of a plan to integrate returning academics. She was offered a teaching job in a prestigious program at one of the country’s universities.

On the evening before her contract was approved, a right-wing NGO launched a campaign against her employment by the university. As a result, the rector refused to sign the contract, and the university put forward new conditions for the appointment, notably a demand that she sign a commitment relating to her political activity: Kotef was required to undertake not to attend demonstrations, not to sign petitions and not to speak publicly – or in the classroom – about any subject not related to her academic research.

It was the summer of 2014. When Operation Protective Edge broke out, in the Gaza Strip, Kotef signed an internet petition calling for Israel to negotiate with Hamas. Minutes later, she received a phone call from the university informing her that her employment was terminated. Kotef took the case to the Labor Court and was reinstated. “I started to work, but my job contract never arrived.”

Kotef and her partner, a physicist and brain scientist, started to look for jobs in England. “It was clear that staying there [at the university] wasn’t an option, and also that I wouldn’t find a job anywhere else in Israel,” she says.

Kotef later found employment as a senior lecturer in politics and political theory in the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. After teaching a semester there, she and her family left Israel permanently: “The combination of what happened in the university, the war, the violence in the streets, the fear to speak out, the racism and the hatred simply broke me.”

Even today, six years later, Kotef is still clearly shaken by the memories of that period. “Exile is too highly charged a concept: I don’t categorize myself as a political exile, because all in all we left for a good job and a good place. But at the same time, we did not leave by choice and it wasn’t a relocation.” Kotef admits frankly that she did not find a way to continue her political activity in London.

“I’m not capable of being an activist [regarding Israel or other issues] here,” she adds. “A few years ago, my partner scolded me for going to a demonstration: ‘We’ve already been expelled from one country because of you, we don’t want to be expelled from another.’”

Do you feel guilty about leaving?

Kotef: “No. I lost hope that it’s possible to change things from within, so I don’t feel I could be doing something if I were [in Israel]. If anything, I feel guilty toward my family, toward my parents, who were separated from their granddaughters, and toward my daughters, whom I moved to this place. Sometimes I look and say it’s lucky we’re not in Israel; and sometimes there is a feeling of loss. London is a cosmopolitan city, but there is still a hatred of minorities here, which Brexit exposed intensely, and we will always be strangers here.

“But I prefer to live and raise children in a place where my foreignness sometimes generates antagonism, rather than in a place where I am part of the side that is racist toward the other. There are moments when I ask myself what we have done, but I don’t feel that it was really our choice.”

Dangerous place

“I did not have a golden parachute of work in academia like some others had,” says Yael Lerer, 53, a translator and editor who spearheaded attempts to draw Israelis and Palestinians closer together from a civic and cultural point of view. Lerer, who moved to Paris in 2008, was a central activist in the Equality Alliance, an Arab-Jewish political movement out of which emerged Balad (acronym for National Democratic Alliance), later serving as the party’s spokesperson, parliamentary assistant to MK Azmi Bishara and as Balad’s first election campaign manager. She founded Andalus Publishing in 2001.

Although Lerer has lived in Paris for more than a decade, she says she feels she never left Israel. “I come and go. I haven’t sliced myself off from Israel. It’s just that my day-to-day life has become more pleasant. My French friends complain about racism in that country, but we are talking a whole different scale from Israel.”

The political persecution she experienced in Israel sometimes also makes it difficult for her to find work in France; to make ends meet she has to supplement her earnings from translation and editing by working in real estate (“which I really hate”). “There are projects that interest me but that they don’t let me do, because when I’m googled in France the first thing that appears is that I am one of those Israelis who forged an alliance with the terrorists,” she says. “There was incitement to murder me and I was slandered. I was offered a job in television, but someone vetoed it, because they didn’t want to get in trouble with the Jewish community. Research institutes that approached me also backed off at the last minute for the same reason. So I can work mainly in things where I am not up-front [about who I am].”

In 2013, Lerer returned to Israel for a time and was a Knesset candidate on behalf of Balad, in the 12th (and unrealistic) place on its list. While taking part in a panel discussion ahead of the election at Netanya Academic College, she was the target of a violent attack by rightists. The other panel participants did not come to her defense, she says.

“It was almost a lynching,” she recalls. “It’s a lucky thing there were security guards. I’d always thought that even if I received hate messages and threats of murder, it would only be on the web, but that in real life no one would do anything really bad to me. Suddenly I understood that I could no longer count on that. I understood that Israel had become a dangerous place for me.”

Best time to emigrate

Rozeen Bisharat and Saar Székely, who are life partners, despaired of Israel at a younger age than the other interviewees, but even so, they felt they had to leave fast. “The best point to emigrate is in your early twenties,” says Székely. “But I was already 33 and Rozeen was 32, and we had the feeling that in another minute it would be too late.”

Székely, who is Jewish, and Bisharat, who is Palestinian, were among the owners of the Anna Loulou Bar in Jaffa, and were political activists in different ways. Bisharat was involved in the student organization of Hadash, and during the social justice protests of the summer of 2011, erected “Tent 48” on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, in an effort to simultaneously raise awareness of the Nakba. Székely was an activist via political performance art. They left Israel two-and-a-half years ago.

What prompted their departure, they say, was the question of whether it was possible to effect
change. “When you try to exert influence or to change public opinion, it depends on whether you believe that it’s still possible to change things,” Székely says. “It’s a question of optimism – and that’s what we ran out of in the period before this.”

Hope waned for Bisharat after the protest movement ended and was severely battered in the Gaza war of 2014.

“For years I thought it was possible to generate change in Israeli society, to bring people content they hadn’t been exposed to,” she says. “But having a different opinion started to be considered treason. Automatically, if you don’t agree with the state’s way, you are a traitor. And I, as a Palestinian, was told: ‘You don’t like it? Go to Gaza.’ There’s no one to hold a discussion with. Not even in Tel Aviv. Part of my leaving was a desire to liberate myself from my role as ‘a Palestinian in Tel Aviv.’ In Berlin I am from the Middle East, or part of the Arab world. I am not a gimmick the way I was in Tel Aviv, but one of hundreds of thousands of other foreigners. Berlin gives me access to the Arab world, I can meet Syrians, Egyptians and Lebanese, I can be Middle Eastern. Tel Aviv today is far more white and European than Berlin. My real cultural exile was in Israel.”

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Americans need education on Israel rather than the holocaust

I am a reader of The Conversation, a site that puts up essays by academics on their fields of expertise. Recently they published an appeal for more education on the holocaust in American public schools. I replied with an essay calling for American education on the country's relationship with Israel and what Israel is doing that goes against the American motto of liberty and justice for all. Here is that essay.

The great irony of education on the holocaust as well as in the several holocaust memorials in the U.S. is the studious avoidance of any mention of how the state of Israel, borne of the holocaust, until which Zionism had fallen short of interesting enough Jews to move to Palestine to create a Jewish state, practices eviction and oppression of the native Arab people while at the same time stating “never again.” Just as Hitler proclaimed that Jews were not Germans and had to go, Israel proclaims that the Arab natives, not being Jews, have to go. Though Israel does not practice extermination as Hitler did, it does practice systematic oppression, harassment and eviction (going on now in East Jerusalem as I write) going so far as to deny that there is a Palestinian people all in the service of making life so intolerable for the Palestinians that they will leave on their own though they are refusing to go, despite decades of mistreatment.
Just as the United States swept Native-Americans from the continent with intent, so Israel seeks the same with the Arabs on the land it wants for Jews alone. We in America are ashamed of what was done to the “Indians.” and we are proud (most of us) of being a multicultural society where all are equal under the law. The descendants of the Indians have full civil rights along with all other Americans today. Yet Americans, uneducated in what is going on in Israel, voice not a whimper in objection to a repetition of what was done to the Indians, instead watching our government pouring on full support, billions of dollars in aid (Israel is the #1 recipient of our aid) and defending Israel from any consequences of violating international law against moving one’s own citizens into territory occupied in war by repeatedly vetoing UN sanctions on Israel. The U.S. alone stands with Israel in this way. The hypocrisy is epic. Education please!
Yet this knowledge is not passed on to U.S. public school students though it involves American current events and is a direct refutation of what America claims to stand for: liberty and justice for all. The holocaust is, by comparison, foreign history. Our current president has gifted Israel with everything on Israel’s wish list - our embassy placed in Jerusalem, endorsing the wording of a State Dept. document outrageously equating anti-semitism to criticism of Israel, the silencing of peaceful campus protests against Israel and just this week, the OK on Israel seizing more Palestinian land in the Jordan Valley.
Many American Jews are outraged that what Israel is doing is being done in their name, organizing to oppose it in organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace.
Is yet more holocaust education needed? It is required in the public schools in many states. The holocaust is continually featured in media, either the main subject or background to literally dozens of movies, books, plays, and magazine articles produced over the years and each new year features additions. It is a staple. There are holocaust memorials in several locations across the county and there is no lack of funding for more. It is a subject far from being unaddressed.
Education of all Americans is needed on the power of lobbies of which Israel’s is among the most powerful, so powerful it can get Congress to support enthusiastically what is definitively un-American! This education would truly be valuable for creating an awake and aware citizenry and would help reduce the ranting between Americans, helping them understand not just how corrupt our government has become, but why and how it is able to be pushed against the bedrock ideals that America once stood for in a concrete ongoing refutation of the truths we supposedly hold to be self evident. Russian interference? It is nothing compared to Israel’s tail wagging the dog.
You know about the holocaust, all Americans do to at least a limited extent. Educate yourself in an area where another country desires Americans be ignorant. Let Jews who are on the scene in Israel and appalled at what their country is doing tell you the whole terrible story. Visit B'Tselem, the Israeli NGO for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. They know that things will not get better as long as the U.S. gives full support to a human rights disaster. If we do nothing to end “the special relationship” then Americans are responsible for the awful project Israel conducts in broad daylight thumbing its nose at the rest of the world with our blessing. Education should affect behavior. If you feel sorrow for what we did to the Indians, if you regret the holocaust, then speak out for the Palestinians.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Lives: Reporting on Hong Kong vs the West Bank

This is a reproduction of an essay from the Christian Peacemaker Teams website. It is on point, a
point being graphically made for many years now by Alison Weir at If Americans Knew and also by B'Tselem on the scene.

Lessons of Hong Kong

“How was I supposed to think about a world where the life of a Palestinian is utterly disposable?”
— Pamela J. Olson, Fast Times in Palestine
When millions of people are in an open struggle for freedom, the world takes notice. The Green Movement in Iran, the Arab Spring, the Maidan in Ukraine, are just some of the recent challenges to authoritarianism that have drawn global admiration—and headlines. Now it is Hong Kong’s turn.
On 1 October, during one of Hong Kong’s massive demonstrations, a protester was hit in the chest by a live round of ammunition, and 4 October, another live round hit a demonstrator’s leg. The world’s press noted both of these developments. Fortunately, both victims lived. The story turned tragic on 8 November with the death of student Chow Tsz-Lok, who sustained fatal brain injuries in a fall near a police action. The Washington Post headline: “Student’s death plunges Hong Kong into night of grief and fury.” Since then, two more protesters have died from police violence.
In the U.S. Congress, the Hong Kong demonstrations sparked a bipartisan push for legislation to end the sale of crowd-control munitions to Hong Kong. The legislation was introduced by Senator Jeff Merkley, who said that the U.S. “should never be complicit in police violence against pro-democracy protests.”
“You can’t compare griefs,” goes the old saying. It takes absolutely nothing away from the struggle of the Hong Kong protesters to wonder aloud why a much bloodier struggle for similar goals in Palestine fails to attract the same level of sympathetic attention. In 2018, Israeli forces killed 289 Palestinians, most of whom were unarmed and not participating in hostilities against Israeli forces. In the first nine months of 2019, 89 more Palestinians were killed. 
The glaring contrast with Hong Kong is this: The Israeli forces routinely violate the rules of discrimination and proportionality that their own regulations require. Too often they use live fire when their own lives are not in danger, and too often they fire indiscriminately. Certainly the Hong Kong demonstrators face strong police forces and, ultimately, the overwhelming might of the Chinese military. It takes admirable courage to persist despite the potential for a very repressive response. Nevertheless, even after we take into account the recent tragic deaths in Hong Kong, the contrast between the casualty level there and the casualty level in Palestine is dramatic. And as long as Israel faces no consequences for the use of live ammunition and dangerous “less lethal” munitions against unarmed Palestinians, why wouldn’t they continue to treat Palestinians as “utterly disposable”?
A key factor in Israeli impunity – also in contrast with Hong Kong – is world indifference. Comparing the press coverage of both places, that indifference is not surprising. The USA’s politicians, media executives, even sports teams have felt the need to respond to events in Hong Kong, but American governmental and corporate benevolence flows to Israel almost without comment in mainstream media.
About a year ago, published a detailed content analysis of headlines in five leading newspapers, from 1967 to 2017, relating to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Israeli sources dominate coverage both in sheer quantity and in terms of positive rather than negative sentiment. Israel-centric headlines exceeded Palestine-centric headlines by a four-to-one margin.
Certain sectors of the American electorate accept a pro-Israel bias almost without question. For example, vice president Mike Pence gave a commencement address to this year’s Liberty University graduates. (Liberty University is the USA’s largest Christian institution of higher education.) Early in his speech, Pence reviews the achievements claimed by the Trump administration. For example:
We’ve been rebuilding our military, standing with our allies, and standing up to our enemies. And under this administration, if the world knows nothing else, the world knows this: America stands with Israel. (Applause.)
For the constituency Pence represents, Israel as a country exists in a category all its own, not subjected to the critical eye of Trump’s isolationist America-first presidency. Palestine is not simply a point of American neglect and ignorance. It’s worse than that: Palestine is to be regarded only through an Israeli lens. Palestinians, their rights, their reality, and their identity as a people, are to be systematically neutralized.
Palestinians themselves steadfastly refuse to accept Israel’s plans for them. There are small but encouraging signs that their persistence is affecting the current imbalance of media attention. First, the younger generation of Jewish Americans is far more critical of Israeli occupation policies than their elders. Second, the taboo among American politicians against criticizing Israel has been weakened by the willingness of three contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination – Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg – to advocate placing conditions on USA military aid to Israel. Their mini-rebellion, mild as it is, has been widely covered in the mainstream press, which just might be the first tiny step toward a more balanced coverage of the occupation.
In the meantime, let’s ask Jeff Merkley, sponsor of the crowd-control munitions bill, and his co-sponsors, senators Cornyn, Markey, and Blackburn, whether their concern about police violence against pro-democracy protests extends beyond Hong Kong.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

BBC, Hebron Exposed: A Weapon of Life

The Palestinians are powerless to counter the endless, continual humiliation that Israelis, be they civilians, soldiers or police, are dedicated to inflicting on them every day, year after year, while the world stands by and the United States ("liberty and justice for all") backs everything that Israel does.

The only way Palestinians can avoid complete helplessness is to make videos of their oppression. In this BBC production, a video that would never be shown on American mainstream media, you the viewer are introduced to the situation in Hebron where a small group of Israeli settlers live within an otherwise Palestinian city with Israeli soldiers stationed there to be sure the settlers are protected not only from harm, but from any consequences for what they do to the Palestinians. Please watch and imagine how anyone could bear this mostly non-lethal terrorism where arrest and harassment are meted out for any or no reason by people who hold all the power against people who have no rights.

The Dred Scott decision of the U.S. Supreme Court contained the opinion that "the Negro has no rights that the white man need observe." This video shows that concept in practice today where the Palestinian has no rights that the Israeli need observe.

I just read this in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz:

According to reports published by the Israeli organization Yesh Din: Volunteers for Human Rights, based on 1,163 cases in the years 2005-2017, the probability – in violent crimes involving Jewish perpetrators and Palestinian victims – that a complaint submitted by a Palestinian to the Israel Police would lead to an investigation, apprehension of a suspect, a trial and conviction was 1.9 percent. Fully 91 percent of the investigations conducted in the Shai (the West Bank) District during that period concerning harm done to Palestinians or their property were terminated without indictments being handed down; 82 percent of the cases were closed for reasons that show that the police apparently failed to collect evidence or locate suspects.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

a slaughter with full US support

Alison Weir (not to be confused with the British author), the American journalist whose eyes were opened two decades ago to the Palestinian plight, has for some time published the figures showing the lopsided cost of the strife in Palestine/Israel where state of the art weapons inflict a great number of casualties on the Palestinians. Her website, If Americans Knew, is well worth a visit for the graphics she presents.

Yesterday, I discovered an equally powerful presentation of the same kind of information, shown just below, by way of Prof. Juan Cole's website, Informed Comment. This graphic shows an over 200:1 ratio of fatalities and a 560:1 ratio of injuries within the 13 months of the Palestinian Great March of Return beginning in March of 2018 (referred to as GMR in the graphic below). This documents the assassination and injury of unarmed demonstrators at the Gaza border of Israel by Israel soldiers with sniper rifles. Seeing this, you can understand how Israelis can easily live with the destruction their country inflicts on the Palestinians.

Watch an outstanding investigative video of a Palestinian medic killed by the Israeli sniping from the New York Times, an uncharacteristically honest look at situation by that paper. Informed Comment has also published this: thousands of innocent Palestinians in Gaza at risk of amputation from Israeli sniping.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

I attend a talk by Amira Hass

Amira Hass, journalist with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, spoke today in the Chicago area. I attended as I admire her courage in standing up for Palestinian rights. There were about 200 people in the meeting room at a public library with all seats taken. She spoke for about an hour and then took questions from the audience.

She told us that the number of Israelis who, like her, see the injustice of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians has dwindled from what it was 20 years ago. Though this injustice is practiced daily by the army and the police, it is easy for Israelis to ignore the situation while the settlers deliberately indulge themselves in oppression, threatening and beating Palestinian farmers and shepherds, uprooting Palestinian olive trees and appropriating Palestinian land on their own initiative.

She said that outside pressure is the only method that will force a change. She noted than the newspaper keeps track of page clicks and this information has revealed that when she writes of the wrongs against the Palestinians few Israelis read what she has to say. If on the other hand she writes of things that are wrong with the Palestinian leadership such as corruption, Israeli readership is much higher. The situation of the Palestinians has become so routine that it bores Israelis, a good example of how it isn't hard to get along with somebody else's troubles...even when one is the cause of them.

She explained her avoidance of the term terrorist; that when she mentions some violent act she describes the act instead of putting it down to terrorism as is usually the case. She questions why an act of violence by someone in uniform is excused as the rightful use of authority while the same act by a non-uniformed individual will be called terrorism. She pointed out that every effort the Palestinians have made to find a solution to the problem of their land being taken from them has been condemned, even if entirely peaceful such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

She displayed this map of the occupied territory (West Bank) that clearly shows the impossibility of a two state solution.

It was not an upbeat presentation because all indications are that Israel will continue to do as it pleases while the world watches helplessly as the United States government reinforces Israeli extremism, at least through the end of the Trump presidency.

I was pleased to see a much larger percentage of young people in attendance than I have at similar events in the past. As an American, I am disgusted with the actions of my government regarding Israel, but I am very proud of the many Americans, in particular American Jews who are disgusted by Israeli treatment of the Palestinians and in particular are revolted by Benjamin Netanyahu's attempt to present Israel as the representative of all Jews worldwide.