Talking with Palestinian and Muslim students after my lecture at the University of South Florida in Tampa on March 8th, I was pained (but not surprised) to hear their version of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. For them, history had no bearing on the present, Muslim terrorism was not a serious culprit, and it was Israel that was the evil force in the region.
I had been invited to the university by a campus group in order to counter the presentations that would be made during an upcoming Israeli Apartheid Week. This event is now in its 8th year and is held on campuses across America and around the world with its stated purposes being “to educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system and to build Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns as part of a growing global BDS movement.”
Despite the fact that Israeli Apartheid Week does not aim for balance, I suggested to the campus group that invited me (called Ner Tamid) that we hold a debate on the relevant issues, allowing students to hear both points of view. Unfortunately, Ner Tamid was unable to find anyone willing to debate me, even though they ran a full-page ad in the student newspaper for one week, asking, “Who Will Debate the Israel-Palestine Issues?” The ad stated that, “Both sides will be able to present their viewpoints honestly and in a mutually respectful way,” also noting that, “We believe that with both sides represented fairly, everyone in attendance will receive a more complete understanding of the issues!” Still, there was no response.
I then proposed that my lecture be followed by an open mike Q & A, but the night of the debate, I learned that university security was concerned with that format, meaning that we had to take written questions from the audience rather than have open mike interaction. So, when I finished my talk on, “Israel: An Evil Occupier?” I asked the audience to allow me to speak first with those who disagreed with me so we could interact face to face. The interaction was intense, though respectful, and quite enlightening.
According to the Palestinian and Muslim students with whom I spoke, history has no bearing on the present conflict and Israel has no justification for its actions against the Palestinians. To give just a few examples, during the lecture, I quoted Middle Eastern scholars who pointed out that if the Arab leaders had accepted the United Nations partition plan in 1947, “Palestine would be celebrating its [64th] anniversary this May. And there would have been no Nakba,” the Arabic word for “catastrophe,” referring to the formation of modern Israel.
A Palestinian woman who mocked this quote when I shared it during the lecture told me afterwards that yes, it was true that the Arabs did reject the two-state solution in 1947, attacking Israel in 1948 and 1956 and several times thereafter. But, she said, all that had no bearing on the current plight of the Palestinians.
I discovered that none of the students I spoke with had ever heard of Hajj Amin Al-Husseini, the man responsible for much of the anti-Jewish sentiment in Palestine in the decades leading up to 1948 and a coworker of Hitler during World War II. And if they hadn’t heard of him, surely he could not have been important.
I was told that the thousands of Kassam rockets fired by Hamas into Gaza were nothing but “firecrackers.” (This will surely be of no comfort to the family of four-year-old Afik Zahavi-Ohayon who was killed by one of those “firecrackers” when it landed in front of his nursery school in Sederot on June 8th, 2004, nor will it comfort the other victims of those “firecrackers”).
I was also informed that the “security wall” was actually an Israeli “land grab.” The fact that it is almost entirely a fence (not a wall), that it was erected with the sole purpose of keeping out murderers, and that it only infringes on Palestinian territory for strategic safety purposes was dismissed out of hand.
And my statement that Israeli Arabs have equal rights as citizens was openly scorned during and after the debate. This, of course, is a very important issue, since 1.5 million Arabs live in Israel today, making up 20% of the population. If Israel was an evil apartheid state (perhaps even guilty of ethnic cleansing), how does one account for these Arabs? I was told that, in fact, they are an oppressed minority, much like blacks in America in the days of segregation, with no freedom to differ with the government.
What of the fact that they have been represented in the Knesset since 1948 and that they can make speeches in the Knesset railing against government policies? That an Israeli Arab is a permanent member of the Supreme Court? That the vast majority of Israeli Arabs surveyed have indicated that they would rather be under Israeli rule than Palestinian rule?
This was completely irrelevant to one particular Palestinian interlocutor who told me that, in contrast with Israel’s oppression of its Arab population, I could find real freedom of speech at Birzeit University located near Ramallah. Perhaps they would welcome my lecture there?