Middle East studies in the News
Reviving 1920's Munich Beer Halls at UCLA, Courtesy of California Taxpayers
by Roberta Seid
I have attended many anti-Israel, anti-Zionist lectures and events, but the Jan. 21st symposium on "Gaza and Human Rights" sponsored by UCLA's Center for Near East Studies was certainly one of the most disturbing.
A purportedly academic analysis of human rights abuses in the recent Hamas-Israel battle, it was an academic lynching of Israel and the entire Zionist enterprise. The 400-member audience of older "peace" activists, community members and students cheered enthusiastically when the four speakers—all professors—expressed hope that Israel would lose against Hamas, which they dubbed the Palestinian "nationalist insurgency." No speaker made a distinction between Hamas and Fatah. Palestinians became a faceless, undifferentiated mass of innocent and helpless indigenous people preyed upon by an all-powerful Israel. The well-credentialed speakers veered so far from reality and so skewed it that they seemed to be enacting a burlesque of the anti-Semitic rabble rousing in Munich's 1920's beer halls.
It felt like a Munich beer hall because to an implacably self-righteous, cheering crowd, Israel was painted precisely as Nazis used to paint the Jews: powerful, motivated solely by insatiable greed and cruelty, interlopers who don't belong and are contaminating someone else's culture and home, violators of all norms of civilized behavior, decency and law. All their actions have had sinister motives. All attacks against Israel were either implicitly justified (Hamas fights Israel because it controls their airspace and waters and is starving the Palestinians, or because Israel provoked them) or they were minimized. Palestinians are a "defenseless" people who, in the past 60 years, have never done anything to merit Israel's military responses. Gazan rockets are "homemade," and pose no threat, as evidenced by the small number of Israeli casualties, prompting one to recall the plaintive lines of Shylock, "If you prick me, do I not bleed?" And the rest of the world—Middle East nations' roles and rivalries and other powerful players, such as terrorists and terrorism--were airbrushed away, producing a cartoon image divorced from all reality of an unfettered, demonic Israel—not unlike the Nazi cartoons of Jews holding the globe and pulling all the strings of history. And the speakers indulged in repeated blood libel: Israel is "wantonly" and "savagely" starving and murdering Gazans, and especially Gazan children. More and more of civil society and the international community now understand Israel's evil, and are rapidly mobilizing to fight it through boycotts, sanctions, and international legal condemnation. The Palestinians are "winning the legitimacy war." Only Americans don't yet understand because their media misleads and misinforms them. And so the audience is left with the sense of a rising tidal wave of history--global hatred for Israel—and who doesn't want to be on the winning side of history? Little wonder the audience cheered and applauded enthusiastically.
The fact that two of the speakers and the organizer were Jewish simply seemed to add legitimacy to the claims.
Moral outrage and an inflexible hatred of Israel charged the atmosphere. Pro-Israel questioners met loud ridicule and booing from the speakers and the audience—and the menace of violence rippled through the crowd.
All this transpired in academia, passed for academic discourse, and is supported by taxpayer money.
The stage was set immediately when organizer Susan Slyomovics, Director of UCLA's Center for Near East Studies, introduced the event by saying that tonight the audience would hear the "truth" about human rights abuses in Gaza, the "truth" that she claimed can't be learned from the media.
The first speaker, UCLA historian Gabby Piterberg, born in Argentina and raised in Israel, set up the demonic imagery immediately, saying that when Israel began its recent military operation, Cast Lead, a pilot had said on Israeli radio, "We will shoot Gaza so hard that [the World War II bombing of] Dresden will pale in comparison." Though Piterberg spoke after the operation had ended, he did not mention that the pilot (if indeed one even made this comment) was dead wrong. Israel's careful surgical strikes and scrupulous efforts to avoid civilian casualties were the exact opposite of the Allies' massive bombing of Dresden, which at the time earned the praise of all military observers in the West.
Piterberg went on to try to delegitimize Israel's founding. He rehashed his theory that Zionists fit the model of European settler-colonialists who unjustly usurped the land from the helpless indigenous people and then ethnically cleansed them in 1948. Continuing his twisted "scholarship," he compared the Israelis, who speak the indigenous language and have had an unbroken presence and historical attachment to the land for 3,000 years, to the French in Algeria. But, he explained, unlike other successful settler-colonialist movements, Israel's was unresolved after 1948 because the indigenous people remained nearby. Consequently, after 1967, Israel embarked on a new tactic—settlements whose well-tended neighborhoods somehow "choke and isolate" the small dispersed "pre-modern autonomous communities" that are left. Since even that policy is failing, especially in Gaza, violence has escalated, and Israel is using the kind of "wanton violence and carnage" that characterized France's ultimately unsuccessful efforts to suppress the Algerian revolt. Anti-colonial insurgencies always win, Piterberg promised. The idea that Israelis, too, may be fighting for their homeland did not cross his mind.
The next speaker was Associate Professor Lisa Hajjar, Chair of the Law and Society Program at UC Santa Barbara whose most recent book is on Israel's military court system in the West Bank and Gaza. The beginning of Hajjar's talk was a welcome relief as she carefully described the rules of war and international humanitarian law. Oddly, the crimes she outlined, from targeting civilians, to firing weapons that cannot be directed to military targets, combatants dissimulating by donning civilian dress, and suicide bombing all applied to the tactics Hamas has used. But while she criticized Hamas for violating these laws, she airily dismissed their gravity and suddenly veered into wholesale damnation of Israel—even though it had scrupulously upheld the laws, going to great lengths to protect Israelis and innocent Palestinian civilians.
She argued that despite Israel's unilateral withdrawal in 2005, Gaza remains occupied territory because Israel controls its air space, coastline, and borders. She seemed to assume people had forgotten that Israel's invitation to lift restrictions and launch joint economic project with Gaza had been rebuffed by burning greenhouses and terrorist attacks, and rushed to her conclusion. Israel had violated the humanitarian laws of occupation when it waged war on this defenseless population whom it was obligated to treat humanely. Hajjar declared that Israel's Operation Cast Lead was a grave violation of international law. In a final crescendo, she charged that nations who commit such crimes should be prosecuted and that they are the "enemies of all mankind!" The audience erupted in wild applause.
The indictments against Israel mounted as Richard Falk rose to speak. An emeritus Princeton University law professor remembered by some former students as an outspoken supporter of Khomeini's 1979 revolution, Falk was recently approved amid much controversy as the UN Human Rights Council's Special Rapporteur on Israeli violations in the Territories. Falk lived up to his reputation. In a deliberate, calm and authoritative voice, he informed the audience that events like this panel are "necessary" because Americans "are all victims of the mainstream media" in which there is a terrible gap between what is reported and reality. He claimed that the media around the world understands the reality. Only the American media doesn't.
The reality that has been hidden is the antecedent to Operation Cast Lead--Israel's "massive violation of international law." Gaza had been brought to "near collapse" by Israel's 18 month "punitive blockade." Apparently the hundreds of trucks and thousands of tons of goods that Israel authorized regularly to enter Gaza did not count. Israel was the warmonger. Though Israel had exhausted diplomatic channels to persuade Hamas to continue the six month ceasefire that ended on Dec. 19th, Falk charged that Hamas had offered a 10 or 20 year ceasefire, but Israel didn't even consider the offer. In Falk's distorted view, it was Israel who broke the six-month truce when it killed six Palestinians in an incursion into Gaza on Nov. 4th. Apparently, Hamas' tunneling into Israel, which prompted Israel's action, was not a violation of the truce. To Falk, Hamas subsequent launching of hundreds of rockets into Israel's civilian communities was a "proportionate" response to Israel's limited Nov. 4th action.
Disproportion is the wrong word to describe Israel's military incursion, argued Falk. The right word for Israel's response to the 5,000 rockets that Hamas had launched since the 2005 withdrawal is aggression. Falk pointed to the differential in Palestinian and Israeli casualties, claiming the difference underscored that the rockets were harmless and posed no threat to Israel. The casualty differential also exposed the "savagely criminal nature" of Israel's attack on Gaza. Though Hajjar had accurately stated that inadvertent civilian casualties are accepted in the laws of war, and that proportionality is not measured by comparing casualties, she did not bother to correct Falk. Nor did it occur to Falk that Israel averted mass casualties because of its strong civil defense system, or that the real disproportion was in the different aims of the two sides. Israel was trying to eradicate 20,000 armed terrorists while Hamas was trying to murder unarmed Israeli civilians. Falk roused audience applause when he equated the Palestinians' battle with other insurgencies against militarily powerful enemies, such as Algeria and Viet Nam, and promised that counter-insurgencies always lose.
Even worse, he charged, during Cast Lead, Israel closed off Gaza's borders, denying the residents the opportunity to flee the battle scene and become refugees. (The fact that Egypt controls Gaza's southern border was never mentioned by any of the speakers. Doing so would have marred the image they constructed of Gazans being imprisoned and at the mercy of a powerful and genocidal Israel.)
Falk concluded with the observation that "civil society"—i.e. NGOs and other human rights groups—are playing an increasingly important role in shaping international opinion and international law. Today, he announced, civil society supports the Palestinian cause, though he didn't differentiate between Hamas, which the EU, US, Canada, and Japan all designate as an outlaw terrorist organization, and those who support a Palestinian state, including the Israeli government. The Palestinians, presumably including Hamas, are "winning the legitimacy war" worldwide, and he urged the audience to actively endorse boycotts and divestment against Israel in order to end Israel's "genocidal" policies.
Now that the speakers had deemed Israel illegitimate and bent on ethnic cleansing from its founding, had accused Israel of violating international law and of being an "enemy of mankind," and had demonstrated that Hamas posed no threat to Israel and that the world community shared these views, it was time for the coup de grace, Saree Makdisi's presentation.
Makdisi, a UCLA professor of English literature like his late uncle, Edward Said, has been prominent on the anti-Israel circuits. He began with what he considered a powerful rebuttal to the claim that if Canada or Mexico were launching rockets into the US, the US would react as Israel has. "You can't make that analogy because the U.S. is not occupying Canada or Mexico," Makdisi proclaimed with a flourish, no doubt to the applause of the 130 million Mexicans and Canadians who deny America's right to exist. (Apparently, Makdisi is also unaware of the forceful, "disproportionate" measures that California used when violence erupted in its own cities during the urban riots in 1968 and 1992).
Shamefully weak on facts or intentionally distorting them, Makdisi then launched into lurid fantasies of the suffering in Gaza. He claimed that because of their high birth rates, almost 50% of Gazans are children and deduced that 50% of the fatalities must have been children. That logic would work only if Israel were firing indiscriminately when, in fact, Israel had targeted specific locations and terrorists. Recent reports from Gaza indicate that an estimated 83% of the casualties were terrorist operatives. But such facts could not be introduced. They would undermine Makdisi's effort to resurrect medieval charges that Jews are child murderers. Makdisi stressed the point by mistranslating or twisting Israeli statements, a common feature of the evening. He claimed that one Israeli official had warned of a shoa—a holocaust—in Gaza. But, as press reports at the time of the statement repeatedly pointed out, "shoa" is a common Israeli word for a disaster. The Holocaust is referred to as HaShoa, in much the same way in English a white house is different from The White House. But this faculty specialist in language and literature was either unaware of the mistranslation or else simply chose not to educate his audience about it.
Makdisi leveled the blood libel charge in other ways as well. He claimed that Israel's "blockade" had imprisoned Gazans and reduced them, and especially Gazan children, to near starvation. He EVEN charged that Israel released a gas that stunted Palestinian children's growth. The resulting image was of poor, emaciated Palestinians doubled over in pain and hunger. The 15,000 to 20,000 fighters that Hamas boasts it has trained disappeared in Makdisi's landscape.
Makdisi then claimed that 80% of Gazans don't' want to be in Gaza. Israel forced them into Gaza during the 1948 War, and dispossessed them of their homes which were just a few miles away. When Makdisi then claimed that "Every person has a moral right to go back home," he met with wild audience applause. He concluded that the only "just" solution and the only real end of the conflict will come when Palestinians and Israelis are all in one state. "One people's desire to have their own state cannot deny another people's right to live in their own homes," he thundered to even greater applause.
The question and answer period cemented the eerie, menacing sense of 1920's Munich. When one questioner asked Slyomovics why she hadn't invited a more balanced panel so academic standards of diverse opinions could be met, she peremptorily answered that the panel had presented different facets of the problem, and that it was an important corrective to the media's imbalance. When he tried to pursue the issue, he was loudly booed by the audience.
Later, I privately asked Slyomovics if the Center was planning another panel that would present other points of view. She nervously answered no but said that other departments might do so.
When another questioner asked the panel whether Arab states' cruelty to Palestinians and Hamas' torture and murder of its Fatah rivals and their children, and its use of human shields would also be prosecutable crimes, speaker Hajjar ratcheted up the hostile environment by barking, "You have your Zionist hat on a little too tight." The audience roared with laughter and some began chanting "Zionism is racism" and "Free Free Palestine." When a questioner said she was confused by news reports about Iran supplying Hamas with weapons, Richard Falk answered that this wasn't an important question. The important question was what Israel was doing to innocent Gazans.
All four panelists had similarly airbrushed away the realities and rivalries in the Middle East, the threat posed by radical Islam, the insurgent forces that are destabilizing the region, and, above all, Hamas' persistent denial of another group's right to their own homeland. They narrowly focused only on Israel and the "innocence" of Palestinians whose violence could be explained by the grave injustice of Israel's actions and very existence. This was not intellectual inquiry. It was propaganda.
After the event, the smattering of audience members who vocally disagreed with the panel's demonization of Israel met with roughness and overt hostility. When one man asked an audience member, a former leader of a Jewish organization, why he apparently approved the lecturers' hate screeds, the man became enraged, shouting "F-k you." When the questioner paled in anger and moved closer, a husky young audience member grabbed his arm and told him to leave. I approached and asked the young man for his name. He responded with a "f-k you." So much for the peace-loving audience.
And so UCLA used its academic imprimatur to demonize Jews and advocate a political program of boycotts and divestment from the world's only Jewish State. In tone and message, the event was not very different from the venomous anti-Israel street rallies that followed in the wake of Israel's Operation Cast Lead—except it was done with a thin veneer of intellectual respectability.
Those who WOULD expect academia to sponsor programs that weigh controversial issues with at least a semblance of balanced inquiry would have been sadly disappointed. That universities mount such programs is cause for grave concern.
*Roberta P. Seid, PhD, is Education/Research Director of StandWithUs, and on the faculty of theUniversity of California, IrvineNote: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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