A Victory for the First Amendment
Blog published in Palestine Square, a Project of the Institute of Palestine Studies.
Editor’s note: Alice Rothchild, author of Condition Critical: Life and Death in Israel/Palestine, recently spoke at the Sarasota Institute of Lifelong Learning (SILL). “Pro-Israeli” groups attempted to suppress her speech and led a campaign to coerce SILL into cancelling the event. This is the second of two articles where Rothchild recounts her experience. Read the first article: “A Hint of Trouble: How “Pro-Israeli” Organizations Work to Suppress Freedom of Speech.”
Despite a campaign by the Jewish Federation and StandwithUs to suppress my freedom of speech at an event organized by the Sarasota Institute of Lifelong Learning (SILL) in Florida, over 1,000 people came to hear this “dangerous person,” a Jewish woman in solidarity with Palestinians. So, how did the audiences respond? One event was leafleted by someone whom I presume was from the Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee or StandwithUs. Although he had not heard me speak, his unattributed pamphlet was titled: Facts About Israel You Won’t Hear From Today’s Speaker.
It was filled with highly misguided statements like:
“Israel is a vibrant democracy…the only one in the Middle East”;
“Israel is a multicultural, liberal democracy whose independent judiciary upholds and enforces equal rights, liberties, and protections for all its citizens”;
The “25% non-Jewish minority has always had equal voting and political rights”;
The Security Barrier is designed to protect all of Israel’s citizens…Arabs and Jews alike”;
“Since Israel began building the barrier, casualties from terrorist attacks have dropped by over 90%”; and
“97% of the barrier is chain link fence, 3% is wall, mainly to prevent snipers from shooting Israeli drivers.”
So, just briefly, Edith and Howard—the authors of the original damning letter from the Jewish Federation that sought to suppress my speech—Israel is primarily a vibrant democracy if you are Jewish and even better if you are an Ashkenazi Jew. But, this is a country that privileges nationality over citizenship and has over 70 laws that explicitly privilege Jews over non-Jews. Palestinian citizens in Israel have never had equal rights and protections. They lived under military rule until 1966. Their towns and villages are marginalized and segregated by the State, which has led to less funding, poorer schools, and fewer resources than their Jewish counterparts. The Bedouin in the Negev often live in unrecognized villages without electricity and water, and suffer repeated home demolitions.
Around 85% of the so-called security barrier —more aptly named the apartheid wall—was built in the West Bank to loop around the major illegal Jewish settlement blocks and to include as many water aquifers, as much agricultural land, and as few Palestinians as possible. The wall has devastated tens of thousands of Palestinian families, reduced them to poverty due to loss of land and commerce, and made movement within their lands even more hellish than it was with “just” bypass roads, checkpoints, and a strict permit system. The “terrorist attacks” almost stopped in 2004, two years after the wall was begun and long before much of it was constructed, because Hamas and other militant groups decided to halt violent resistance. The wall is still quite porous, and I know a long list of medical and graduate students, common laborers, and everyone in between who continue to “jump the wall” to get visas in Jerusalem or work in the black markets in Tel Aviv. A “chain link fence” does not come close to describing a metal fence topped with barbed wire, lookout guard towers, military roads on either side, and sophisticated security tracking devices. This is not a Robert Frost kind of wall. And it doesn’t matter what it is made of, but rather its purposes and illegality. All this and we have not even begun to describe the impact of military occupation, military courts, mass incarceration, separate roads, child arrests, and torture.
The term “alternative truth” comes to mind when it comes to presumed Federation “facts.”
I also found a little booklet of “Israeli pocket facts” being passed around, produced by StandwithUs, a well-funded Israeli hasbara group that routinely attacks people like me. The main message? Tiny Israel lives in an enormously big bad world, everyone else gets a country, why not the Jews? There has been a continuous Jewish presence for 3,000 years and this is testimony to the exclusive rights of Jews in Palestine—you can forget everyone else who passed through. So it is time to restore the Jewish homeland, to applaud Israel for taking in fleeing Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Never mind that when they arrived in Israel they were sprayed with DDT and housed in tent cities reminiscent of the Palestinians in 1948. Despite many who were highly educated and from formerly wealthy backgrounds, they only were welcomed when the majority of eastern European Jews were destroyed in the Nazi Holocaust. They left or were forced to leave when people in various Arab countries, where many Jews had flourished, angry at Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, took their rage out on their Jewish citizens. In Israel, they were mostly viewed as second class Jews, sent to less desirable border towns, and still suffer from the institutional discrimination towards Jews of color.
My two favorite explanations as to why Palestinians fled in 1947-48 include: “tales of alleged Israeli atrocities caused panic,” and “a small minority of Arab residents were forced from their homes in sensitive, strategic zones vital to the survival or the Jewish state.” Edith and Howard, do you mean the alleged atrocities in Lifta, Deir Yassin, Jaffa, Ramleh, Lyd, Tantura, Haifa, the 450 villages and towns destroyed? Do you mean the 750,000 refugees fleeing, walking, and jumping onto boats?
Trump and Kellyanne would be proud.
There was much that made me shake my head in dismay, but perhaps the most egregious alternative fact that grabbed my attention was this:
Israel built settlements to ensure its security, and Israelis resettled lands their families had owned in the West Bank, where Jews had lived for millennia until the 1948 war when they were expelled.
Are you saying that the hundreds of thousands of settlers who hail from the Soviet Union, Brooklyn, or Eritrea once owned land in the West Bank? Didn’t Abraham and Sarah once own some property along the Euphrates? This is not a reasonable argument.
Alternative facts do not make historical truths. It does not serve the cause of honest discourse, understanding of history, or the ability to move forward to engage in this kind of, if you will forgive me, propaganda.
Nonetheless, much of the Q&A at SILL was respectful and informative, although there was one presentation where members of the audience let their anger and their inability to let me speak without interruption get in the way of civility and thoughtful reflection and debate. After the events, I received two emails, one “angered, outraged and horrified,” accusing me of “adding fuel to the anti-Semitism fire and hurting the Jewish people throughout the world.” The other, “very concerned about the plight and state of the Palestinians,” apologized for the behavior of the audience and closed with: “People like you are what change the world. Bear up and keep going.”
This is not a task that anyone does alone.
I applaud the organizers in Sarasota for standing up to the McCarthyesque tactics of “pro-Israeli” organizations like the Federation and StandwithUs. No amount of dishonesty, soundbites, or celebrity PR spins can erase the facts of occupation, siege, and institutional racism. The BDS movement is a response to decades of frustration over multiple failed peace processes, ignored UN resolutions, and aggressive Israeli attacks. As James Baldwin said about racism and discrimination in the United States: “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” For Jews, in our new position of power and privilege, that is the least we can do to be in solidarity and co-resistance with our Palestinian brothers and sisters.