is my first morning at the World Social Forum in Mumbai,
India and I am at a workshop on Palestinian women
and the occupation. In the audience is a woman who
I first think might be Israeli--she could easily be
one of my friends and I feel an immediate kinship
with her. She tells me she is 34 and has lived her
whole life in Gaza except for college. I ask her if
I can interview her.
cautiously eyes my card, on which I have purposely
written in thick, visible letters: Jewish Voice for
Peace. "I don't know, she says. "Do you
support the occupation?" It seems such a surreal
question. How could anyone support an occupation?
very word evokes domination, a kind of cruelty. No,
I say, we want to end the occupation. We want a peace
that is just.
ask about the checkpoints. She describes sitting in
her car waiting to be allowed to drive through. The
young Israeli soldiers are in sniper posts.You can't
see them, but they can see you, she explains. They
signal it's time to go by shooting their guns. She
waits a long time until the soldiers say, "OK,
now the dogs can go."
think, 'Do I want to be called a dog, or do I just
want to go?' " she tells me. "I don't care,
so I start my car and they yell 'No! Not you, I said
dogs!' So she turns her car off, and sometime later
they say, "OK, now humans can go!" She starts
her car and they look at her and the others and say
"No! I said humans." And she turns her car
off and waits until finally this "other"
category of Palestinian--neither human nor animal--is
allowed to pass. "This," she says, "is
my only contact with Israelis." And this, I think,
and is my first contact with someone from Gaza.
WSF and the new anti-Semitism
World Social Forum (WSF) is the populist answer to
the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Instead
of a gathering of the world's mostly wealthy, white,
and male heads of state and captains of industry in
Davos, the WSF is a cacophony of anti-globalization/human
rights activists from all over the globe. The roughly
100,000 participants represent every imaginable cause--from
Indian "untouchables" and Bhutanese refugees
to child trafficking and sexual minorities. They are
seen in the hundreds of marches that seem to appear
out of nowhere down the main thoroughfare, at the
500 information booths, in more than 1,000 workshops,
and on the political posters filling every inch of
available wall space.
have come because my New Voices human rights fellowship
has decided to send the fellows to the WSF. But I
have an additional reason for being here. The Simon
Wiesenthal Center (SWC) has cited the WSF as one of
the centers of what it and others refer to as the
"new anti-Semitism", and these charges have
been picked up by various journalists as evidence
of a dangerous new trend on the left. Upon closer
reading, most of these accounts make little if any
distinction at all between anti-Semitism and criticism
of Israel, or between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.
SWC description of the "anti-Jewish" atmosphere
at last year's WSF in Brazil is one of these accounts.
yet, their description of the WSF is so disturbing,
even frightening, that I am prepared to encounter
at minimum silent hostility, and possibly even physical
attacks from my fellow attendees. I have come to the
WSF to be loudly and visibly Jewish, to make a presentation
that deconstructs the theory that Jews dictate U.S.
policy in the Middle East, and to see for myself this
purported new tidal wave of hatred of Jews from the
rest of the global left.
conference is not what I expected
is surprising to find that the Israel-Palestine conflict
and the occupation are not more prominently featured
at the conference. Out of hundreds of ongoing marches,
I witness only one small pro-Palestine march, which
includes a prominent Israeli leftist marching in the
of about 500 information stalls, only two represent
Palestinian human rights groups: PENGON, which is
working to tear down the wall Israel is building through
Palestinian land, and Al-Haq, which is launching a
campaign identifying collective punishment as a war
crime. Of the thousands of political posters, I see
only one series--Al-Haq's powerful posters on collective
punishment--related to the issue.
attend most of the workshops I can find on the Israel-Palestine
issue. What I do not hear (or see) is anything I would
consider anti-Semitic. In a global conference of 100,000
people, one expects to hear an enormous range of political
perspectives, including the occasional extreme or
intolerant remark. Given that I am prepared for the
worst, I am shocked that the overwhelming majority
of what is said in workshops critical of US and Israeli
policies in the territories is milder than the articles
and essays one can read in Israeli newspapers on any
realities, one anti-Semitism industry
I return home, the Wiesenthal Center publishes an
alarming piece entitled "Networking to Destroy
Israel" in the Jerusalem Post. The article claims
that this year's WSF was "hijacked by anti-American
and anti-Israeli forces" and leads me to wonder
whether we attended the same conference. In this piece,
and for the second year in a row, they strangely declare
themselves the only Jewish NGO to attend the WSF.
(I personally saw participants from Brit Tzedek and
Yesh Gvul, to name just a few--and Jewish Voice for
Peace is listed in the official program.)
go on to cite a litany of statements, including mine,
as proof that the WSF is a place where people who
want to destroy Israel meet to plot and recruit. Employing
a form of twisted logic that would make Donald Rumsfeld
proud, they essentially claim that the absence of
any blatant anti-Semitism is not proof that there
was none, but merely an indication of a more "sophisticated"
kind of anti-Zionism (and therefore anti-Semitism)
in which sympathetic Jews such as Jewish Voice for
Peace (JVP) play a starring roll.
account is so riddled with errors--I am misquoted,
JVP is described as "campus-based", all
of my colleagues are given the wrong attributions,
and quoted either inaccurately or out of context--that
it is pointless to list them all. It contains bits
of truth but strings together isolated statements
to make them sound like a tidal wave of hatred and
part of what they call an "orchestrated"
and "insidious" campaign to destroy Israel.
this begs the question of why a group such as the
SWC would want to fuel hysteria about anti-Semitism
in general, especially in regard to the left. The
SWC has an important history of hunting down former
Nazis, exposing the activities of neo-fascists and
other right-wing hate groups, and fighting genuine
the SWC is like many other mainstream Jewish organizations
in the United States that have expanded their mission
from fighting the oppression of Jews by others to
attempting to silence critics - including other Jews
- of Israel's human rights record. These organizations'
new role as arbiters of acceptable opinion is a far
cry from their proud past. And it is ironic, given
the spirited debate about Israel's occupation that
takes place in Israel, but apparently is unacceptable
in the rest of the world.
many of these organizations, as evidenced in the SWC
op-ed, the mere mention of the heartbreaking reality
of Israel's occupation of the Palestinians is proof
of an insidious plan supported by other Jews to wipe
Israel off the face of the earth. Further, it is evidence
of bias simply to point out causality-that groups
like JVP or Al-Haq exist not because we are anti-Jewish
or anti-Israel-but to end the injustices of Israel
's occupation and treatment of Arabs, and to stop
the spiral of revenge that has become a horrible tragedy
even the most casual observer, this is shocking for
a community with a long tradition of protecting free
speech, and an even longer tradition of embracing
debate. It is also self-defeating given the now increasingly
mainstream view both in Israel and the US that the
occupation and militarization of Israeli culture is
bad not just for Palestinians, but also for Israelis.
is perhaps most troublesome is that by fueling the
fires of fear through hyperbolic statements, (an easy
thing to do to a people with our history of suffering
and persecution) these groups_who say they represent
all Jews_ play a critical role in giving the current
Israeli government permission to violate virtually
every moral and ethical standard central to the Jewish
tradition in its effort to keep down the Palestinians.
make peace ever more distant by perpetuating the myth
that Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, have
nothing to say to each other and are incapable of
recognizing each other as full human beings with similar
wants and needs. They get under our skin and seek
to make Jews believe that indeed, the world is out
to get us and we can trust no one.
of Loving kindness at the WSF, the untold story
my own experience as a very "out" Jew at
the conference, I felt no hate. Instead, I met a number
of Palestinians and Arabs who, on some fundamental
level, expressed the pain of separation. "I am
Muslim, and we were raised to respect the Jewish tradition,"
a Palestinian woman living in Jordan told me. "We
used to live next door to Jews, and we were friends."
I spoke at a session about suspending military aid
to Israel until it ends its occupation, and identified
myself as a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, a Palestinian
woman thanked me and a distinguished Lebanese man
from Jordan came up and gave me a huge hug and a kiss.
of the Arabs that the SWC op-ed quoted most prominently
in their description of what they called a campaign
to destroy Israel were environmental scientist Rania
Masri and activist journalist Ahmed Shawki.
minutes after meeting me for the first time at the
Forum, Ahmed Shawki offered to loan me the new digital
camera given to him by his wife. He knew I was eager
to take pictures and the airline had misplaced my
luggage. Knowing nothing of my politics, only that
I was from a Jewish peace group, he gave me his digital
next day, the bag containing my passport, credit cards,
and his camera was stolen. Our mutual friend and colleague
from Lebanon, Rania Masri, handed me a hundred dollars
from her wallet and absolutely insisted I take her
ATM card and PIN number so I would have money for
the rest of the trip. And Ahmed? To this day, Ahmed
refuses to accept payment for the camera that was
is the real story of Jews, Arabs, and the World Social
Forum that needs to be told; that is, the ways in
which we so quickly and easily recognize each other's
fundamental humanity. As one young Arab-Israeli woman--who
will never be quoted in an article about the rising
tide of anti-Semitism said so eloquently and
passionately the last night of the conference, "Yes,
I experience discrimination in Israel. But my friendship
with Jewish Israelis is proof that it is a lie when
both sides tell us we can't live together. We can
live together. You must not believe the lie."
Surasky is the Communications Director for Jewish
Voice for Peace and a New Voices fellow with the Academy
of Educational Development. She can be reached at:
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