Israeli policies were criticized last Wednesday at a forum hosted by the Green Party of Bergen County called “The Israel-Palestinian Conflict: What’s Next?”
Some 60 people at the Ethical Culture Society in Teaneck listened as scholar and author Norman Finkelstein, lawyer and Palestinian-American activist Issa Mikel, and community organizer Lawrence Hamm of Newark faulted Israeli policies in the conflict with the Palestinians and urged that pressure be placed on the Jewish state. The audience seemed largely sympathetic to the speakers and applauded several times during the session.
Finkelstein, known for his criticism of Israeli policy, cited poll data in the United States that he said indicates a waning support for Israel, including among Jews. (The poll was conducted by Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College and Ari Kelman of University of California at Davis and the results published as “Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel.” See http://www.acbp.net/About/PDF/Beyond%20Distancing.pdf.) Finkelstein also referred to recent historical research faulting Israel’s actions over the years. That included characterization of the situation in 1948, when Palestinians left, or as they say were forced to leave their homes, as “ethnic cleansing,” he said.
“American support for Israel is broad but not deep,” he said. “My view is this distancing is because Israel’s actions are indefensible.” Most American Jews are liberal, he said, and “that now can no longer be reconciled with what Israel seems to be.”
Law and historical fact are on the side of the Palestinians, he said, pointing to an International Court of Justice ruling that Israel’s actions in the west bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the settlements are violations of international law.
In U.N. votes, he said it is Israel, the United States, and a few small countries on one side, and “the rest of the world on the other.”
The Balfour Declaration in Britain in 1917 and the U.N. partition vote in 1947 paving the way for creating Israel were paper actions, but then were implemented by the Zionists, whom he described as “committed, organized, and disciplined.”
Now is the time for Palestinians to pursue their cause with the same zeal, he said, and he credited their actions with bringing the issue to the fore. “Now we have a real opportunity, thanks to the Palestinians.” He continued: “Our strongest card is the moral and legal case we can make.”
Asked after the session if his use of the words “we” and “our” referred to any specific group, he said no – that he just spoke for those “struggling for a just and lasting peace in the Mideast.”
Mikel, a member of the National Council of Arab Americans, supports a program of BDS – Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions – to pressure Israel to come to an accord with the Palestinians. “You raise the cost of occupation in a non-violent way, ” he said.
“When one party has all of the cards, all of the power, negotiation not only won’t work, but it can’t work,” he said
“What’s next, war?” he asked. “No, that’s been tried, but I think there is another path,” he said. “BDS is an empowering movement. It gives Palestinians leverage that they don’t have now.”
He said that boycotting means not buying products made in Israel, divestment is pulling money out of companies doing business in Israel, and sanctions are government actions to bring economic and military pressure.
He said peace cannot be an arbitrary goal. “We need a long-lasting, just peace, not just cessation of hostilities.” He criticized the Oslo accords of 1993 as not workable and faulted Palestinian negotiators for giving in too much.
Mikel said he favors a “one-state solution” – Jews and Palestinians living and working side-by-side in peace.
Hamm, the community activist from Newark, is a founder of the People’s Organization for Progress and served as New Jersey state director of the Million Man March, a demonstration in Washington by African American men in 1995.
He brought a different perspective to the forum, recalling how he first became aware of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a student in Newark in the late ’60s when members of the Black Panther Party wore keffiyahs in support of the Palestinians.
“I don’t think we can ever see peace unless we get justice for the Palestinian people,” he said. He condemned the security wall under construction in Israel, which he called “a denial of our humanity.”
“I can’t remember the South Africans building a wall,” he said, in one of a number of references to the former South African policy of apartheid.
Hamm cited what he said is oppression here as well, recounting being arrested at a recent Fourth of July parade because he was using a bullhorn for statements opposing the war in Iraq. The charges were thrown out, he said.
“I think fascism is here, right here, right now,” he said. “We’re all having increasing levels of oppression and domination.” “What’s happening here is what’s happening there [in Israel],” he said.
“Whether it’s one state, or two states, what is going on over there is wrong,” he said. “We should support self-determination for the Palestinian people,” he continued, and urged “progressive Jews to go into their communities and raise this issue.”
Since the forum was not a debate, with room for rebuttal, The Jewish Standard asked Etzion Neuer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in New Jersey, to comment on it.
Neuer called the fact that the forum took place “proof that in Teaneck the First Amendment is alive and well,” and that opposing views can be aired. However, he took issue with Finkelstein’s stand, saying Finkelstein has an “absolute hatred of Zionism” and that he distorts the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
He noted that Finkelstein was denied tenure in 2007 at DePaul University in Chicago in a controversy surrounding his criticism of Israeli policy and his writings accusing some Jews of exploiting the Holocaust as a pretext for monetary gain.
“Finkelstein’s antagonism toward Israel runs so deep and his distortion of the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict is so prevalent that he is left with zero credibility on this issue,” Neuer said.
He also stressed that poll data consistently show that “most Americans have a very strong connection with Israelis and identify with their struggle.”
Regarding Mikel, Neuer pointed to his founding of Adalah-NY, an organization that advocates the BDS actions against Israel; his membership in the National Council of Arab Americans, an organization opposing the state of Israel; and his statements calling Israel an “ethnic racist state.”
“With those affiliations,” Neuer said, “there is little hope for a thoughtful and balanced perspective from Mikel on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”
The Green Party is a national group with state and county organizations promoting environmental awareness and social justice.
Speaking on the Bergen County level, one member, Stuart Shaw, said the Green Party has supported the Palestinian cause. “It doesn’t mean that we are against Israel, it’s just that we feel there is an injustice against the Palestinians,” he said.
When it was pointed out that the forum was one-sided, with no representation from the Israeli side, he said that was a counter-balance to reports from Israel and the mainstream media’s taking Israel’s side.
Alvin Meyer, chairman of the steering committee of the party’s Bergen County unit, said the “Greens” have some 800 local members.