New York, NY – Staying in an apartment on Morningside Heights, Manhattan, I pass every day on my way to the Subway through Columbia University’s campus. Last Monday, as part of the Israel Apartheid Week, anti-occupation activists placed in the heart of the campus a small model of the separation wall, with some leaflets attached to it and a few Palestinian flags. In front of them, on the other side of the walkway crossing the campus, pro-Israel students had their own campaign going on, with their leaflets and posters, most of them detailing Israel’s security concerns.
From my point of view, the most surprising fact was that the “Israeli” campaign was launched by students who claimed to be pro-peace, under the title of Peace Week for Israelis and Palestinians. In Israel, peace is not a very popular notion right now, and human rights as well as peace groups are on the run, as the recent campaign against the NIF showed so well. But here in New York, and facing a Palestinian campaign, the pro-peace students seemed to be much more vocal than the Right wing people one would expect to find in such occasions.
This is one of those incidents that make the debate in the US so different from what’s going on in Israel. While the Israeli supporters of Meretz or Peace Now I know wouldn’t approve of Apartheid week, I don’t think any of them would take part in the Hasbara counter-attack either, especially not these days, and not with this Israeli government. Things are obviously different here, and I found myself wondering what to make of them. Is it a sign of maturity on the part of Israel’s supporters and an effort to handle the complexity of the situation, or simply another example of how out of touch they are with political reality?
Judging from the material I was handed by these pro-Israel-pro-peace activists, they seemed to be more in line with Avigdor Liberman than with Meretz. To justify the construction of the separation wall, they cited Israeli statistics regarding the number of terror casualties before and after the separation barrier was constructed. The posters wondered if US citizens wouldn’t support building such a barrier had their life been threatened by their neighborhoods.
A leaflet signed by LionPac, the Pro-Israel Columbia student group, read that:
“The Israeli Security Barrier was constructed not to mistreat or dominate Palestinians, but rather to save Israeli civilian lives and prevent terrorists from entering Israeli cities…
“Palestinian property owners whose land has been used in building the security Barrier have been offered compensation by the Israeli government for the use of their land and for damage to their trees.”
Naturally, all these claims could have been taken seriously had Israel built the security barrier on its own land, or on the Green line. but Israel chose to build it’s fence/wall deep into the west Bank, cutting through Palestinian villages and neighborhoods, separating people from their relatives, children from their schools, farmers from their land. If the US felt threatened by its neighbors it might have build such a barrier on its northern or southern border, but it wouldn’t dream building it in the heart of Canada or Mexico, and that makes all the difference.
As for the claim that Palestinians were compensate, this is something between a gross exaggeration to a blunt lie: not only that the IDF or the government never had the Palestinians’ rights in their minds while building the barrier, even now they are violating our own Supreme Court rulings regarding parts of the fence that needs to be moved west.
Another item distributed by the pro-peace students was a “Pocket Facts” booklet produced by the pro-Israeli organization Stand With Us. After recycling some historical myths, and just before stating that “Israel has enacted affirmative action policies to help minority citizens achieve full social and economic equality” (I would love to get examples), these booklets actually have two pages titled “Israeli Communities beyond the Green Line”, which make a case for the legitimacy of the settlements!
“Israel built settlements to ensure its security, and Israelis resettled land their families owned in the West Bank” [the truth is first settlements had nothing to do with security, but with return to so called holy sites; and in all but a handful of cases, they were built on either private or public Palestinian land]… Most Palestinians in the West bank live in built-up cities and towns… With peaceful negotiations, [80 percent of the settlements] can be incorporated into Israel with some minor border modifications and do not impact Palestinian population centers.”
I’m beginning to wonder what kind of peace the people of Stand with Us and LionPac have in mind.
I won’t go to more details regarding the rest of the stuff on the leaflets and the Stand With Us booklets, but rest assure that it suffers from the same poor arguments or distortion of facts. My point is that this sort of reasoning explains why many people view today the peace process as a tool to legitimize the Israeli occupation. What these pro-peace students saw as peace had to do only with the security concerns and with the anxieties of Jews, and nothing with the rights of the Palestinians. They failed to address the two key issues raised by the pro-Palestinian side: that the separation wall is not (only) a security barrier, since it was built deep into the Palestinians territory; and that the ethnic separation regime used under the military occupation in the West Bank could be labeled as a de-facto Apartheid (as oppose to a de-jure one), now that it has been going on from more than 40 years.
But what saddened me most, and not for the first time, was the total lack of empathy towards the Palestinians that I sensed from these pro-Israeli students. And while I can understand why Israelis can be so blind to the realities of the occupation, considering the very real (if not always justified) existential threat they feel – something Israel’s critic fail again and again to grasp – I don’t see what prevents a Liberal American student from imagining, even for a moment, what it’s like to live almost two generations under military rule.
In all the “pro-peace” material I found in Columbia, I never saw any mention of the restrictions on freedom of travel and of freedom of speech on all Palestinians; of the fact that Palestinians are tried in military courts and not allowed due process for more than forty years now; and of course, of the fact that they are the only people in the world who hold no citizenship. On occasions I tried to raise these issues, I was met with indifference, even some hostility. In short, people wouldn’t even listen. It seemed that for these Columbia students, “peace” was desirable only as a mean to serve one party’s interest. To them, it is as if one should support “peace” not because it might end an unjustified occupation or promote the values we supposedly share, but just because it might be good for Israelis.