The Center for Palestinian Studies (CPS) at Columbia University hosted an event on May 2, 2011 entitled “Gaza: Israel’s War and the Goldstone Report.” The panel of rabid anti-Israel academics included Norman Finkelstein, author of “This Time We Went Too Far: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion;” Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab studies at Columbia, co-director of CPS, and author of “The Iron Cage” (and former professor of political science at DePaul University who was denied tenure and resigned); and Peter Weiss, vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
I gathered a couple of defenders of Israel and attended the event in order to challenge the radical anti-Israel orthodoxy at Columbia. Before the event began, I handed out a printout of David Horowitz’s forceful and factual ad that ran in the New York Times last week, entitled: “The Palestinians’ Case Against Israel is Based on a Genocidal Lie.” I had the fortune to meet Danielle Reich, a Columbia undergraduate student, Hasbara fellow and campus Camera representative, who came to defend Israel as well. There were altogether 300 people, an assemblage of student activists, faculty and aging hippies with a handful of Israel supporters. Many people handed the flyer back to me after they saw the name David Horowitz Freedom Center. I engaged a few folks in debate over some of the points in the ad.
I reiterated the message in the Horowitz ad that the Palestinian claim that Israel “occupies Palestine” is an outright historical lie and that there has never been a “Palestinian” state or entity to occupy before the PLO was created in 1964 in order to obliterate the State of Israel. People asked why I am denouncing the Palestinian people. I said, “Because they are suffering,” echoing the message in the ad. But, I continued, the cause of their suffering is not Israel, but sixty years of Arab aggression. If we continue to blame and demonize Israel, we will never get to the core of the Israeli-Palestinian question, which is that Arab dictatorships have been using the Palestinian people as political pawns in their war against the State of Israel. This is the manner in which Danielle and I argued with some of the anti-Israel activists around us before the event began.
The speakers, Finkelstein and Khalidi, were venomous in their detailed demonization of Israel, and it was grueling to listen to their talks, but the audience was worse. The person I was sitting next to was mourning the death of Osama bin Laden. In fact, I think many in the audience were OBL sympathizers. I got into a vehement argument with one middle-aged lady who viciously attacked Israel, saying that Israel backed out of every deal and shortchanged the Palestinians and that I should read Dennis Ross’ book, whom she described as “one of your guys.” I said Arafat backed out of the deal which would have given the Palestinians a state and she kept hollering, “Bulls**t, Israel backed out, read Dennis Ross.”
I overheard one young woman praising Hezbollah and saying that Israel was the worst thing that happened since the Holocaust. I confronted her on her statements, asking her to repeat what she said about Israel and why she was praising a terrorist organization. She was startled to find a supporter of Israel in the midst of an otherwise compliant group of Muslims and left-wing activists and was speechless. Her friends chimed in saying, “One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter,” making the point that they, too, are admirers of Hezbollah.
Before the lecture, people were passing out nefarious literature on “Nakba” (the Palestinian anniversary of the creation of Israel, “the catastrophe”) and the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” to their activist friends and announcing upcoming events to excoriate the Jewish State. I spoke to a Palestinian Muslim sporting a 1960s beatnik goatee, who said the Palestinians have had a “culture” in the region for many past generations, after I confronted him with the fact that there was no Palestinian entity during the 400 year Ottoman reign and during the British rule after World War I. I mentioned the fact that Mark Twain said it was a desolate land with virtually no inhabitants. To everything I said, he answered, “Zionist propaganda.” He even claimed there was no Arab War with Israel in 1948. It is all Zionist propaganda. There was nothing further I could say to the deaf and dumb.
To begin the event, a video was shown of testimony from the Goldstone Report in which a victim described how his three children were intentionally shot in the chest by Israeli soldiers at point blank range. Norman Finkelstein went into excruciating detail on the war in Gaza. He said Israel reneged on lifting the blockade during the Hamas ceasefire. Israel needed a pretext to launch the attacks on Gaza, he claimed. As the narrative goes, Israel’s aggressive provocation drove Hamas to break the ceasefire. Finkelstein charged that it wasn’t a war, it was a massacre of 1400 unarmed civilians, including 350 children, inflicted by 2800 Israeli air combat missions. They terrorized the entire population of Gaza, bombing while they slept in their homes, intentionally targeting civilians, dropping deadly white phosphorous, and using “an insane amount of firepower.” The indiscriminate killings resulted in a disproportionate ratio of Palestinian to Israeli deaths, which turned out to be 100-1. There were no clashes with Hamas fighters, no battles took place, only deliberate massacres of innocent men, women and children. Amnesty International reported that there was no evidence of the use of human shields by Hamas fighters. Finkelstein went on like this for 40 minutes, elaborating on Israeli “crimes against humanity” and the sympathetic audience shook their heads in disgust and derision of Israel.
Rashid Khalidi was worse. He lambasted the American political and media establishments for their pro-Israel slant and distortions of the truth. According to Khalidi, they portray Gaza as being synonymous with terrorism, which is Zionist spin. He went on to talk about “collective punishment” of Gazans, the siege of Gaza, the blockades, like a prison where no people or goods can enter or leave. Then he went on to talk about the wave of Arab revolutions, which are for true democracy. However, he pointed to Israel as the crux of the problem. He said all of the Arab uprisings involve concern among protesters about the suffering of their Palestinian brethren, and in Egypt, the new regime will not be servile and submissive to Israel and the West like the Mubarak regime was with respect to the Palestinian-Israeli issue. The new regime will force the issue, with or without Israel’s cooperation. He said this in a threatening tone as if implying the Arab revolutions will rise up in solidarity against Israel.
Finkelstein’s and Khalidi’s talks were litanies of shameless lies and slander. Finkelstein never mentioned the eight year bombardment of 12,000 rockets and mortar bomb attacks from Gaza, 3000 attacks in 2008 alone, after Hamas seized power and started to build up its military wing. He never mentioned that Hamas is a well-armed group of over 20,000 operatives, an Iranian proxy that considers armed struggle to be its mission, in order to wipe Israel off the map. In answer, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, in which Israel engaged Hamas’ military wing and in which Hamas now admits 700 of its fighters were killed. Hamas hid in civilian population centers, in hospitals, schools and UN facilities, stored weapons in mosques and used ambulances to transport weapons and soldiers. In combat situations in population centers, civilians were duly warned by Israel in advance of attacks. White phosphorus was used as a non-lethal smoke screen to protect Israeli soldiers. It was not used to indiscriminately target civilians as Finkelstein heinously charged and was used in full compliance with international law.
The entire audience was docile and sympathetic. No one interrupted except for occasional applause. There were only two security guards in the back of the room. During the Q&A, everyone was respectful, polite and asked their questions and sat down, unlike the harassment we have had to face, like during the recent Horowitz lecture at Brooklyn College during “Israel Apartheid Week,” which was replete with obnoxious disruptions. At Columbia, I asked the question: “Why is there total silence on the Arab dictators as they massacre their own people in the Arab uprisings. Why is the only focus on demonizing Israel, the only free democracy in the Mideast? And why aren’t Israeli Arabs revolting, who have more rights in Israel than in Arab countries and in fact 80% of whom would stay in Israel if there was a Palestinian state?”
I got an answer from Khalidi who said he does speak out in other lectures about the brutality, and he agreed with me that the Israeli Arabs do have somewhat more freedom than in Arab nations. He said they would stay in Israel because it’s their home. I don’t know which way he meant it, but judging from his threatening tone, he probably meant that they are living in their true home, and Israel needs to be vanquished. After that, I shook my head and left. I had gone into the hornets’ nest, stood my ground, challenged the lies and defended the only true democracy and America’s one loyal friend in the Middle East.