The Palestine Solidarity Movement's (PSM) much anticipated 5th annual conference at Georgetown University on Feb 17-19th seemed more subdued than its predecessors. Maybe PSM had learned its lesson. Past conferences had created firestorms of controversy because of their extremist rhetoric and anti-Semitic chants and their open defense of terrorism. But no one should be fooled. The crowd may have been smaller than in the past—only 200 or so students and community activists—and the volume turned down, but the message and agenda were decidedly more radical. PSM wants the “ethno-religious” Jewish State eliminated.
The largely Arab-American, kaffiya-clad students received a weekend of training in how to promote "divest from Israel" campaigns, how to influence the media and deceive church groups, how to frame campaigns to demonize Israel and Zionism and to prove that Israel is worse than apartheid South Africa.
The people under the PSM umbrella were not there to find out how to build peace-directed coalitions through promoting dialogue with pro-Israel advocates around the world. Nor were they there to learn how to improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians by building hospitals and schools. Real Palestinians seemed almost irrelevant. When an audience member asked whether Palestinians should be consulted about the boycotts, University of Wisconsin Al Awda and Boycott leader Mohammed Abed answered that “Human rights issues are too important. A human rights group doesn’t wait for a nod [of approval] even from Palestinian civil society.”
Nor did they let the changing facts on the ground interfere with their message. The conference seemed divorced from Middle East reality. The unilateral Gaza disengagement and acting PM Olmert’s plan for more disengagement did not dampen their “end the occupation” rhetoric. It didn’t need to. They consider all of Israel occupied territory. One panelist suggested they tailor their slogans to make them more acceptable. “Don’t talk about occupation. Emphasize human rights and liberty in the whole region instead.” They scrupulously avoided references to the Hamas victory which was shattering any lingering association between the Palestinian cause and human rights. When Hamas or elections came up, they gave twisted answers. Palestinians had fair and free elections. The electorate will not allow Hamas to impose laws that violate human rights. “If they ask how we can deal with Hamas and its fundamentalism, ask them how they deal with an American fundamentalist president,” urged Omar Barghouti, a journalist and Tel Aviv University PhD candidate who was the ‘surprise’ guest speaker from ‘Palestine.’
Even when the speakers’ own lives contradicted their lies about “Israeli apartheid,” they didn’t flinch. “I have not been subjected to any racism personally at Tel Aviv University,” Barghouti admitted when asked about his experiences. “But this is not about me,” he hastily added. “This is about a system of racism.” No one pressed him to explain how or why he, a prominent anti-Israel activist, escaped the snares of a ‘brutal racist system.’ They couldn’t discuss real facts about Israel. That would interfere with their wholesale effort to portray Israel as evil.
Non-violence was not high on the agenda. Opening panelist Philip Farah told the audience that Mahatma Ghandi had once said that “If the choice were between violence and submission, we would choose violence a thousand times.” Opening panelists also advised the audience to “inoculate” themselves against the charge of anti-Semitism by working with “progressive Jews and Israelis.” When you have Jews on your team, apparently you cannot be accused of being anti-Jew. But don’t let these “soft Zionists” who support a 2-state solution like the Tikkun community and Israel’s left “set the agenda anymore. You can include them in coalitions, but don’t let them lead,” cautioned Barghouti and Abed.
The fact that the conference was held on the Sabbath didn’t trouble the two ultra-orthodox Neturei Karta rabbis who showed up and stayed all day so they could participate in this conference against peace. Coincidentally, Neturei Karta and Hamas have the same agenda—the “dismantlement of the State of Israel.” Conference leaders apparently knew the two rabbis well and greeted them warmly. They are valuable poster boys for the PSM cause, and they are invited to speak on campuses to offer their vision of the end of Israel.
Neturei Karta and Hamas’ goals were reinforced by the tee shirts, buttons and pins for sale at the tables in the conference hall. Some pins depicted a fist clasping a machine gun, machine guns alone, and maps of Israel with both Israel and the Territories colored green and the name “Palestine” written across the entire map. The extremist message of the maps was Palestine instead of Israel, not next to Israel. This is what is meant by “Free Palestine.” One pin showed a terrorist in a suicide belt with two machine guns and a tag line that read: “Revolution till victory.” In case any doubt remained, one could also purchase tee shirts with the words: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” that is, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. Even Charlotte Kates was there to distribute her radically militant materials. Kates apparently has mended fences with the PSM which broke with her and her New Jersey Palestine Solidarity group two years ago because she was too militant, anti-Semitic and radical even for the PSM.
The sole purpose of the conference was to create campaigns that would label Israel as a “pariah” state. None of the speakers thought divestment alone would achieve their prime objective. Barghouti called for BDS—boycott, divestment and sanctions. “The most important impact of BDS is to give Israel pariah status,” Barghouti explained. “Israelis like to think they belong to mainstream society and are very sensitive about it. If they are marginalized and treated like pariahs, they will feel it keenly and give in.” As Abed stressed, “It doesn’t matter if you get divestment passed. What matters is its educational impact on the international community.”
The break-out workshops had a single end goal: demonize Israel to your local church, your campus, and your communities to convince them that they should push divestment from companies that do business in Israel. Create hatred for the Jewish state by linking it to images of Nazis and to South Africa’s apartheid system so that there is absolutely no question about its guilt for everything that has ever gone wrong with the Palestinians.
The PSM gave workshops about how to organize a new rather incompatible source of support: mainline Christians. PSM had been stunned by the 2004 Presbyterian Church and 2006 Church of England resolutions to consider divestment. “It came just in the nick of time,” to shore up PSM’s divestment campaign, senior economist and former Ramallah Lutheran School teacher Philip Farah exulted. Farah credited Bethlehem Lutheran Minister Mitri Raheb and Anglican Canon Naim Ateek of Jerusalem’s Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center for the success of church divestment initiatives. He did not mention that both Raheb and Ateek promote ‘replacement theology’ with its teachings of contempt for Jews, a theology repudiated in Vatican II in 1965 for having contributed to the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust.
The value of these church positions was not lost on the PSM. No previous PSM conferences had even referred to Christians. This year, two full workshops were devoted to how activists could mine this rich, unexpected and unexplored source of allies. Last year’s PSM conference had spelled out steps for infiltrating K-12 public classrooms; this year’s did the same for churches. Deception was key. Infiltrating activists had to act like they had found that old-time religion.
Maher Bitar and Nadeem Muaddi told their workshop that activists should “target” small churches that don’t have their own political agendas already. “Be patient about bringing up the divestment issue with new Christian friends”, Mauddi advised. To win the congregants’ trust, he encouraged activists to deceive their new prospective friends by “looking and acting Christian.” Sounding more like Emily Post than a PSM activist, Muaddi detailed the styles that activists would have to adopt to ingratiate themselves. “Dress conservatively,” he said. No kaffiyas, sandals or jeans. Instead, “men should wear button-down shirts, sports coats or khakis”. He also gave women specific fashion advice: wear mid-length skirts with colored pantyhose. He told them to be well-groomed and to speak nicely, avoiding curse words and slang.” “Mind your manners. If someone sneezes, say ‘God Bless you. And always come bearing gifts, especially something from the Holy Land like holy water or rosary beads.” He further advised the activists to get involved in the church community. “Don’t look down on the church ladies’ clubs—join them.” All the participants eagerly listened to how they could deceive and manipulate the churches and spread the virus of hatred through well-meaning congregations.
In another session, Mohammed Abed told participants that the two-state paradigm would never give Palestinians their full right to “cultural self-determination.” In order to flourish, he said, the Palestinians needed access to the entirety of their homeland, not just the West Bank and Gaza. Abed’s message was clear: eliminate Israel.
Other sessions focused on training college students how to work more effectively with the media and how to plan and implement divestment campaigns. Rabid anti-Israel activist Alison Weir encouraged students to monitor and become involved with the school paper and to make news dramatic enough so journalists would report the stories. The goal, of course, is to get the Palestinian message out—by which the PSM speakers mean the demonization of Israel. Students were also told to build coalitions in order to bring a multi-cultural face to their anti-Israel efforts. Though this might mean that they have to listen to people with other agendas, that’s the way to build a larger group on campus that would help to demonize Israel. PSM has tried to distance itself from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and its ties with terrorists, but ISM co-founder Huwaida Arraf was there leading a session about how to volunteer for the ISM.
The conference and the PSM’s message and tactics are deeply disturbing. PSM activists insistently distort facts and history, hide their extremist demands in human rights rhetoric, demonize the Jewish State much as Jews were once demonized in Europe and unabashedly call for the dismantling of one state. Worse, they explicitly call for deception to spread their toxic message to a well-meaning but often uninformed public.
No one acknowledged the progress that has been made thus far towards a two state solution. To the contrary, progress toward a 2-state solution threatens their agenda. There was no mention of suicide bombing unless it was brought up in questions, and the answers always referred to Israel’s responsibility for any acts of Palestinian terrorism and equated Israel’s methods of self-defense with terrorist attacks.
Israel is not perfect and Israelis and their supporters regularly and hotly debate policy, but the PSM’s extremism does not lend itself to a discussion about how a Palestinian and a Jewish State could live peacefully side-by-side. Maybe one day there will be conferences held by people who don’t promote hatred or apologize for suicide bombers, but instead encourage dialogue that will lead to peace.
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