Saturday, May 26, 2007

A Response to Beth Israel's Hasbara

Like the Zionist network they are a part of, the leaders of Ann Arbor's Beth Israel Congregation (BIC) are not averse to bending or breaking the truth when it suits them. Such propaganda is called hasbara. Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends (JWPF) has recently learned that BIC is handing out a leaflet--"Frequently Asked Questions About the Synagogue Protesters"--to its members and visitors. I respond below to some of the falsehoods and distortions in that leaflet (excerpts from the leaflet are in italics and block quotes).
... They [JWPF] believe the state of Israel has been an illegitimate state since it was born in 1948. This is not a group that opposes the post-1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza – this group opposes the very idea of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East.
In fact, JWPF has never taken a group position on the legitimacy of Israel. Suffice it to say, a majority of its members might well agree that the state created by Zionists in 1947-48 by the violent ethnic cleansing is illegitimate. At the outset of the Zionist war of dispossession or al-Nakba as Palestinians call it, Jews--mostly recent European immigrants--comprised only about 30% of the population in Palestine and owned only about 7% of the land. Through terrorism, such as occurred at Deir Yassin, and the exploitation of their military advantages, Zionists drove about 750,000 Arabs from their homes.

In any case, JWPF does not oppose the "idea of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East." What is opposed is the violent maintenance of such a "homeland" at the expense of justice and of the human victims of the Zionist nightmare.
... The protest is taking place here because of the central location of Beth Israel, our long history and the vitality of our gathering on Shabbat morning. The leadership of this group has requested to address the congregation and claims they will stay there until they are permitted to do so – we certainly will not grant access to a group that shows such blatant disregard for our congregation and its members.
JWPF is protesting at BIC, as opposed to another synagogue, because JWPF's founder, Henry Herskovitz, regarded BIC as his spiritual home and regularly attended High Holy Day services there. After Henry's transformative visit to Palestine in 2002, he asked to address the congregation, not at Sabbath services, but on a week night evening. There is nothing unusual about Henry's request as BIC routinely opens its doors for such presentations. For example, on May 19, 2007, BIC hosted a yoga class by Rachel Portnoy--on the Sabbath morning, no less.

Henry was denied similar access to the synagogue because he had the audacity to utter fundamental criticisms of and questions about Israel. The leaders of BIC are committed Zionists, who do not willingly allow such public discourse and only the most tepid criticism of the "loyal opposition" sort passes muster at BIC. Rabbi Rob Dobrusin has made no secret of his and BIC's support for Jewish supremacy in Palestine. On January 2007, he wrote in the Ann Arbor News:
While our congregants' political opinions and philosophical perspectives are all over the map, there is one general statement which I can make on behalf of the congregation - Beth Israel Congregation affirms without any hesitation or equivocation the legitimacy of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state, and affirms the right of Israel to defend itself from enemies who seek its destruction.
Last summer, Israel turned the entire country of Lebanon--into a "free-fire zone," as Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch put it before the group succumbed to intense Zionist pressure. Israeli forces killed over a thousand Lebanese people--mostly civilians and about 30% children under the age of 13, according to UNICEF-- injured thousands more and drove nearly a million people from their homes. In the last three days of its onslaught, Israeli troops indiscriminately "flooded" Lebanon with more than a million cluster bombs. BIC leaders responded to all of this by publishing on their web site a photo of four Israeli flags flying along with a statement of support for the "people of the State of Israel at this time of crisis" and stating that "We pray for the safety of those who defend Israel …"

In sum, JWPF protests outside BIC because it turned away one of its own and because it has seen fit to make itself a bastion of support for Israel.

... They say they will stay until the congregation passes a resolution opposing the existence of the state of Israel – this is not going to happen!
The simple truth is that JWPF has never asked BIC to oppose the existence of the state of Israel. Last March, JWPF approved the following statement:
Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends have been asked what it would take for us to end our vigils at the Beth Israel Congregation (BIC).

Our answer is simple and well within the power of BIC. We would end our vigils at BIC if the Board of Directors of BIC publicly states its full support for the following principles that basic human rights require:
  1. The full civil and political equality of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel within Israel;
  2. The prompt implementation of the rights of Palestinian refugees of 1947-8 and 1967 to return to their homes and properties in Israel and Palestine as stipulated in UN resolution 194; and,
  3. The prompt end of Israeli occupation and colonization of all lands seized by Israel in 1967.
Although we are not all Jewish, we hold that inequality, the forced exile of millions of Palestinians, and military occupation are inconsistent with the highest ideals of Judaism.
In any case, even this is negotiable and JWPF has repeatedly expressed a willingness to discuss its protest with BIC's, thus far, intransigent leadership.
... Why has it been going on so long?

This protest is legal – it is free speech, protected by the First Amendment. We cannot force them to leave. The action will continue until they decide to stop.

What is Beth Israel doing about them?

From the beginning of this protest, we have followed a policy of non-engagement with this group. Since what they are doing is legal, we cannot force them to leave, and we do not want to hand them the publicity a legal fight would entail. Our instincts in this area have been affirmed by the current and former Ann Arbor police chiefs, and by numerous other attorneys and community leaders we gave consulted. We continue to investigate legal options, albeit without much optimism.
It is clear that the leaders of BIC acknowledge the free speech rights of JWPF only grudgingly and they "continue to investigate" every legal option to silence JWPF. They have actually had some success in restricting JWPF.

In August, BIC member Eli Avny swerved his car dangerously close to several protesters--including a one-year-old child in her mother's arms--on the public sidewalk and lawn extension. After a thorough and professional investigation (I have a copy of the report), the Ann Arbor Police Department (AAPD) recommended that Avny be charged with Assault with a Dangerous Weapon but Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Susan Junck of the Washtenaw County Prosecutor's office refused to authorize the charge.

Less than a month after the Avny incident, another assault was committed against a member of JWPF by Abraham Seligman, who was then arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault and battery. BIC and Ann Arbor's "peace and justice" have been silent about these and less serious abuses such as a BIC member frequently spitting at JWPF members. The upshot for BIC is that as a result of the assaults the AAPD decided to restrict JWPF's access to public property--for their own safety, of course.

... I am not sure I want to bring my children to shul and have them see these awful signs. What can I do?

We sympathize. But this can be a teachable moment. We can use this as an opportunity to teach our children to stand up for Israel, and for whatever they believe, even in the face of irrational opposition.
The vigils are indeed a "teachable moment", you could teach your children to "question authority," including religious authorities, and to honestly inquire about why a group of people would give up their Saturday mornings to participate in a small, unpopular protest for years on end. You could teach them that almost every important movement for social progress, e.g. abolitionism, has been the fruit of oft-marginalized people who persevered until the rest of society caught up with them.

You could teach your children that Israel has long had problems with violence and injustice. Thus spoke the prophet Isaiah (ch. 1) to "Judah and Jerusalem:"

Ah, sinful nation!
People laden with iniquity!
Brood of evildoers!
Depraved children! ...
Your hands are full of blood

And the prophet Amos (ch. 5) said to "the House of Israel:"

Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood,
and bring righteousness to the ground! ...
They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor the one who speaks the truth. ...
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate ...
let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

You could teach your children that, according to the Talmud, the rabbis believed that the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. : "Because therein prevailed hatred without cause" and "That teaches you that groundless hatred is considered as of even gravity with the three sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed together" (Yoma 9b). Hatred of Arabs because they are not Jews or because they want to live in freedom and equality in their homeland is truly a blind, unreasonable "hatred without cause."
... While I find the protests offensive, I sympathize with the goal of Mideast peace. What can I do?

We join you in supporting, and praying for, Mideast peace. Come in and join us in the Prayer for Peace after the Torah service. Then, join a local, legitimate, respectful community group and work toward these goals.
Unfortunately, "legitimate, respectful" is code for groups whose members have been brainwashed or browbeaten into believing the lie that to be anti-Zionist is to be "anti-Semitic" and groups whose leaders are committed Zionists or who have been convinced that the price of bucking the Zionists tide in our community is too high for them to truly take a stand for justice and peace.

The main problem between blacks and whites in the old South Africa was apartheid and the main problem between Arabs and Jews in Palestine is apartheid, too--it's called Zionism. Whatever its faults may be, JWPF is one group that can't be intimidated or controlled by Zionists and sincere advocates of justice and peace are always welcome to join.

See also:
"The Attack on Human Rights Watch" by Aryeh Neier in The New York Review of Books, November 2, 2006.
"Apartheid Israel." Uri Davis interviewed by Jon Elmer on ZNet, September 19, 2004.

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