I expected Columbia's “Understanding the War on Gaza” conference on January 29 to be similar to UCLA's recent "Gaza and Human Rights" symposium: a one-sided lesson on how to spread anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Americanism. However, it was surprisingly balanced, perhaps because it was sponsored by Columbia's Law School. Most of the panelists focused on the legal aspects of the recent conflict and acknowledged that we should not make any judgments until evidence was accumulated.
The principal exception to this reasoned approach was propagandist and former spokesman for the PLO, Rashid Khalidi.
Khalidi is a study in contrasts. He blurted out his belief that “the law is an ass” during a discussion with students, yet he condemned Israel's lack of respect for the law and presented a sympathetic view of (illegal) terrorism as a tactic. He used facts and numbers that, in his own words, “may or may not be correct” to convince his audience that everything we thought we knew about the situation in Gaza is wrong. He published known fabrications in the New York Times Op-Ed, lied about the terms of the June cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, and made the hand-waving claim in front of a crowd of legal experts that according to some laws, somewhere, “there is a right of resistance to occupation.” (He later admitted that no legal system recognized that right.)
He’s a historian who does not learn from his own history, who repeats the same oft-disproven tales at every opportunity.
Whatever Khalidi lacks in empirical evidence, he strives to make up for through a sense of confidence that borders on hubris. Like a propagandistic Rambo with a full arsenal of big lies and half-truths slung over his shoulder, he unashamedly blasts away at opponents while ignoring anything that contradicts his views.
Khalidi calls the Israeli military courts “kangaroo courts” while ignoring Hamas’s record of torturing and executing “collaborators.” He condemns Israel for not following international law while ignoring Hamas’s, Hezbollah’s and Fatah’s violations of these laws (and Hamas’s habit of stealing from UNIFIL members and using them as human shields). This brazen spin-doctoring may explain why many students who disagree with elements of his argument still swarm around him after these conferences and laugh at his jokes.
Unfortunately, some students, such as one “Andrew” who handed out leaflets urging a boycott of Israel, do listen. In his essay on the “Normalization of Evil” Judea Pearl (father of Daniel Pearl) wonders why some people are willing to believe something that is obviously untrue – why some are willing to see terrorism as an effective tactic that should be accepted and appeased.
In his analysis of evil, Pearl condemns terror-supporting respected media outlets like Al Jazeera, and their recent celebrations of the “heroism” of child-murderer Samir Kuntar. Pearl criticizes Jimmy Carter, who helped to popularize the idea that terrorism is an effective tactic that should earn a dividend for its efforts. Pearl also cited UCLA's “Gaza and Human Rights” symposium as an example of this sort of manipulation.
There are some people who are willing to acknowledge these outrages. One of the speakers at the conference, Criminal Law Professor George Fletcher, author of “Defending Humanity,” confronted and succeeded in embarrassing the usually shameless Khalidi.
Fletcher argued that, since Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza territories, Gazans should have the rights and responsibilities that come with their existence as a communal entity. He also believed that Israel’s response was necessary because, as he put it, “No city, no country, no property owner will tolerate 5,000 rockets being fired into their backyards.”
Khalidi, in turn, alleged that Gaza was a “giant sealed prison camp” ruled by Israelis who prosecuted people for being Palestinians, which is “like driving while black.”
During the question-and-answer session, Fletcher said, while looking directly at Khalidi, “We all agree on the basic principles. There may be some issues of fact.” Khalidi’s face turned beet red. At the time I thought he was embarrassed and angered that Fletcher would question his scholarship. In hindsight, however, it’s a good bet Fletcher’s real point was to remind Khalidi of his refusal to defend his work in a face-to-face debate.
In February 2005, Fletcher, who Jacob Gershman of the New York Sun has called “something of a maverick” at Columbia's Law School, sought to openly challenge the teaching of Columbia's Middle East professors and the one-sided discourse on campus in which Israel is constantly portrayed as being the primary barrier to peace. To inspire participation in the debate, Fletcher purchased a $450 quarter-page advertisement in Columbia’s student newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, challenging three professors to one-on-one debates on the Middle East conflict.
Of the debate, Fletcher said, “Anybody who has any training and who knows anything about Israel can refute these arguments…it’s obvious that someone has to take these guys on.”
Propagandists have never been fond of debate, and I have found no evidence that anyone accepted Fletcher’s challenge. His presence at this conference was one of the few signs of positive change that I’ve seen at Columbia, where Khalidi’s radical anti-Israel views are widespread among his colleagues. Here’s hoping that others will imitate George Fletcher and find the backbone to challenge the Middle East studies establishment on its home turf.