Response to Akiva Tor

  • Email
  • Print
  • Share
May 14, 2010

In Principled Opposition, I discussed some of the implications of the divestment vote at UC Berkeley. Akiva Tor, Israel’s Consul General for the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, took the time to write a response. It is a response one must read carefully. I have.

Mr. Tor begins by relating two incidents of anti-Semitism that apparently occurred among members of the crowd. It is indeed a sad reality of activism on the Israel-Palestine question that bigotry too often raises its ugly head.

But that bigotry occurs on both sides. Some might be interested in comparing the frequency or viciousness of the bigotry among activists on different sides of the issue. I find such comparisons distasteful. The important point is that, as someone who is in very regular contact with both activists and supporters of different sides of this issue, I can attest that neither side has a short supply of such people.

Yet I can also say that for neither side is this the norm. Mr. Tor fails to point out that the activists bringing this issue to the fore at Berkeley publicly denounced anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

I’ll go a step further. Mr. Tor is correct that I was not in Berkeley for these events. But I am a graduate of Berkeley, and I saw first-hand both the passions and the hatred that this conflict can stir. Neither Jews, Arabs nor other supporters of either side on campus were immune.

I remember a swastika being painted on the doors of Berkeley’s Hillel years ago, and I remember other acts of vandalism and intimidation that made Jewish students afraid to venture out close to campus at night. I remember as well the numerous tales of harassment of Muslim students, especially those (often women) who wore clothing explicitly identifying their faith. Mr. Tor, we Jews have a horrifying history of persecution, but we do not have a corner on the market.

As to the resolution being presented as “not being about Israel,” I know of no one, on either side who ever believed that it was about anything else. So if, as Mr. Tor alleges, there was an attempt to conceal an agenda, it failed sufficiently as to make no difference. What I found more interesting, was Mr. Tor’s “refusal” to make a moral equivalence between, as he said, “unemployment in Gaza (and)…mean words in Berkeley.”

This is striking. Reducing the issue of Gaza to unemployment is really telling, as explains how it is that Mr. Tor cannot understand the anger directed at Israel these days.

Gaza certainly suffers enormously from unemployment. Almost all of its industry has been shut down due to the siege that has been underway since Hamas first took control of the Strip. Unemployment regularly stands at over 60% and sometimes is up to 80%. Gaza’s export-based economy is completely frozen. Its fishing industry is severely curtailed by draconian Israeli limits. Its only burgeoning industry is the smuggling tunnels, an industry which cements Hamas’ control over the Strip and enriches the group’s coffers through heavy taxation.

That is what is not equal to mean words in Berkeley. And that is without mentioning the nearly 1,400 people killed, mostly civilians, in Operation Cast Lead and the many thousands of homes and other buildings destroyed in that campaignn, which cannot be rebuilt for lack of materials which Israel forbids Gaza. Nearly eighteen months after the war, Israel continues to insist on keeping materials required for rebuilding out of the Strip rather than trying to find a way to ensure that they get to where they are needed, and bypass Hamas. Certainly, there are enough international mechanisms on the ground in Gaza to find a way to make this happen.

This situation continues, despite the fact that these measures have not prevented Hamas from growing stronger today, according to the IDF, than they were before Operation Cast Lead. Nor have these harsh measures helped one whit in freeing the kidnapped Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.

Consul Tor argues that Israel is being unfairly singled out by the Berkeley students, and that the Jewish state is being portrayed as a “Nazi state,” and a worse human rights violator than Iran, or other Arab states.

This is a tired argument. Few states enjoy such close cooperation in the diplomatic, industrial, political and economic arenas with the United States than Israel. None of these countries have the kinds of human rights violations allegations made against it that Israel does due to a forty three year long occupation, one that has only grown harsher and more complex in its severity since the peace process first began in the early 1990s.

Israel is welcomed into the family of Western democracies, by the US and Europe, and therefore enjoys many benefits that Arab states and Iran and other states do not. Israel’s recent admission to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is the latest example. These benefits should carry with it raised expectations—Israel is supposed to behave better than Iran or Saudi Arabia.

The occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza are very serious issues. They are sources of immiseration and exploitation, with enormous global consequences. It is a fallacy to suggest that these issues, which involve American governmental and corporate support to a much greater degree than many other issues, cannot be protested simply because there are worse problems in other places.

Finally, few human rights issues around the world affect Americans to the extent that the Occupation does. Not only do they complicate American diplomatic and military efforts in the Middle East (even Dennis Ross, who wrote, with David Makovsky, the strongest argument against what they called “linkage” recently admitted this, but Israel is a close ally on many levels and is a focal point for the faiths of a majority of religious Americans. There is every reason for Americans to focus on this conflict.

But let me come back to the position of Jews on the Berkeley campus. As I said, I have seen anti-Semitism on that campus, and it is ugly. I have no doubt that many Jewish students at Cal feel uncomfortable and unsafe in the face of both intense anger over the issue of the Palestinians, combined with the unambiguous anti-Semitism that many of us have had to face.

This is, unfortunately, the reality of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is faced as well by Muslim and Arab students. Islamophobia and anti-Semitism both existed before the creation of Israel, and the birth of the Zionist movement. They will continue to exist, more than likely, after the conflict is resolved. In the meantime, the bigots on both sides are going to latch on to the Arab-Israeli conflict and make an already emotional issue a fire that is all the more difficult to extinguish.

Indeed, Mr. Tor is right to wonder how peace can be made in such an atmosphere. I also wonder how peace can be made when each side refuses to do what it can to change that atmosphere. Let us have enough of Palestinian excuses for violence, and apologetics for Hamas’ religious, irresponsible and iron-fisted rule in Gaza. But let us also have enough of Israeli refusal to halt the settlement project, its continued refusal to acknowledge what happened during Operation Cast Lead, and its futile policy of holding the population of Gaza under siege, which gains no security for Israel and harms innocent civilians.

Our job in Diaspora is to support efforts to promote and peace and understanding on both sides, and advocate for our governments to play a positive role in developing those conditions. But to succeed, it is Israelis and Palestinians who must lead. When both sides start take the lead in cooperating, it will make the job of peacemaking easier for all involved, and will help our Diaspora communities to come together.

The sorts of statements Akiva Tor cited are a serious obstacle. But there is no shortage of such statements on both sides. The US does a great deal to oppose terrorism against Israelis. While I do not think divestment and boycott are sound strategies for ending the Occupation, it is not anti-Semitic to call for such actions against entities that support or profit from that occupation. Opposing such measures is fine, and indeed I do. Demonizing those pursuing such legitimate political activities is not.

ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by