"We want to let people in the United States know that in Israel, there are three religions, two peoples, and one land. The conflict is over how and if that land will be shared."
With these words, Partners for Peace President Jerri Bird began the first of two "Jerusalem Women Speak: Three Women, Three Faiths, One Shared City" lectures on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington, Ind. on Sept. 23. Bloomington was the fifth stop on the eight-city, 17-day speaking tour orchestrated by Partners for Peace in September.
The tour featured 10-minute talks by Rawan Damen, a 22-year-old Palestinian Muslim; Michal Shohat, a 48-year-old Israeli Jew; and Jean Zaru, a 61-year-old Palestinian Quaker. At first glance, the "Jerusalem Women Speak" programs appeared to be objective, informative discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In truth, though, all three panel members spoke in a unified voice against Israel, and with the help of Partners for Peace, succeeded in spreading vicious and false propaganda. In Bloomington, several prominent campus organizations lent their names to "Jerusalem Women Speak" as sponsors, although the bulk of support came from Students for Justice in Palestine and the Committee for Peace in the Middle East, two lesser known (and anti-Israel) groups. In addition, a Bloomington city councilman representing the mayor's office served as a moderator during the question-and-answer session that followed the Sept. 23 lecture. Damen, Shohat, and Zaru received a warm welcome in Bloomington from many who were apparently unaware or unconcerned about Partners for Peace's close affiliations with extremist, even anti-Semitic organizations.
Partners for Peace was formed after the government rejected a tax-exempt status application from the Council for the National Interest (CNI). Afterward, CNI members created Partners for Peace as an outlet to pursue its activities. According to AIPAC's Near East Report newsletter, CNI members were urged to support Partners as an alternative. Like Partners for Peace, CNI was built on avowed hostility to Israel and a tendency to espouse conspiracy theories. CNI Foundation Chairman Paul McCloskey went so far as to refer to Israel as "an ugly little nation" and "a potential enemy of the United States." In addition, CNI Chairman Paul Findley has accused the Mossad (Israeli intelligence) of playing a role in the JFK assassination and attempting to kill President George Bush.
Partners for Peace's ties to CNI do not end there, however. Not only do the two organizations share an office, but they are also joined by marriage (Bird's husband, Eugene, serves as CNI president).
CNI, in turn, grew out of the American Educational Trust (AET), which publishes The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. To characterize the publication as biased against Israel would be a serious understatement. The Washington Report has slapped a string of caustic labels on Israelâ€™s defenders, among them "fifth columnists," "Israel-firsters," "viruses," "bacteria," "cancer," and an "alien intrusion" operating "against the interests of the United States." Furthermore, the White House, the State Department, Congress, and the media have been defined by the publication as "Israeli occupied territory."
In the past, Washington Report publisher Andrew Killgore and editor Richard Curtiss, as well as former CNI Executive Director David Bowen, have delivered speeches at meetings of the Liberty Lobby, which the Anti-Defamation League has called "the most influential and active anti-Semitic propaganda organization in the United States."
As for the lectures themselves by the trio, they were chock-full of falsehoods and deceptions. The panel consisted of one Muslim, one Jew, and one Christian, providing equal representation for all three major religious groups in Israel's capital city. On the political level, however, the panel was lopsided in favor of the Palestinians. Although the three women were of different faiths, Shohat was the only Israeli speaker. She was outnumbered two to one by Damen and Zaru, who are both Palestinians. Moreover, all three speakers reserved harsh words for Israel alone, with none for the Palestinians.
Damen, a recent graduate of Birzeit University in the West Bank and an accomplished author, characterized checkpoints as evil institutions designed by the Israeli government to dehumanize Palestinians. She made no mention of the fact that Israel, like any nation, has the right to restrict its borders, especially when facing the threat of terrorism.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorism, the U.S. has tightened its border with Mexico out of security concerns, resulting in long lines. A Mexican mayor described his ordeal reaching a doctor's appointment on the U.S. side, stating: "No one wants to face the lines to the US. What took 15 minutes now takes two hours" (Boston Globe, Sept. 28, 2001). Would Damen also characterize the U.S. checkpoints at the Mexico border as evil institutions designed to humiliate the Mexicans?
Of all three speakers, Zaru was the most inflammatory and neglectful of factual information. For example, she stated: "I leave a nation held in captivity. Palestine is a handicapped nation, and our children are handicapped for life." As with much of her speech, this statement was so devoid of specifics that it was hard to tell exactly what Zaru had in mind. Was she referring to the fact that Palestinian leaders had repeatedly rejected opportunities for Palestinian sovereigntyâ€“passing up statehood in 1947 and again in 2000? Or was she referring to the lavish lifestyles of Palestinian leaders, like Yasser Arafat and Hanan Ashrawi who decry the "apartheid" and "oppression" of the "Israeli occupation," but live in luxurious villas, fly only in first class, stay only in four-star hotels, while refusing to allow Palestinians to move out of refugee camps? Or, perhaps she had in mind the exploited Palestinian children who are brought to the front lines by the Palestinian Authority, resulting in death and injury for many. Unfortunately, she leaves out any helpful information, choosing instead to lay general blame on the Israelis.
A member of the Council of the International World Conference for Religion and Peace, Zaru also viciously attacked Israel for alleged acts of "ethnic cleansing," an absurd charge given that Palestinians — including those in the West Bank and Gaza — are one of the fastest growing populations in the world. Does Zaru's definition of ethnic cleansing include two statehood offers, compensation for lost land, and resettlement?
Although Shohat, the Israeli Jew, made a weak attempt to challenge Zaru on the ethnic cleansing charge, she allowed all the other false accusations against Israel to pass, implicitly condoning them. Instead, she focused her talk on her views that Israel should fully withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank. Unfortunately, she failed to note that Israel had offered nearly just that over a year and a half ago at Camp David and again at Taba.
Finally, the title "Jerusalem Women Speak" hid an extremely telling fact — only one of the participants lives in Jerusalem. While Shohat hails from that city, the Partners for Peace Web site (www.partnersforpeace.org) reveals that Damen and Zaru both reside in Ramallah, a West Bank town located ten miles north of Jerusalem.
"Jerusalem Women Speak" was not educational in the way that the organizers had hoped. Yet, one unintentional and important lesson from this incident was that if an unfamiliar speaker or group of speakers comes to your campus sponsored by an organization with an innocuous name like "Partners for Peace," the best thing to do is become an investigator ahead of time. Consult an Internet search engine or a media archive database and hunt for newspaper, journal, or magazine articles written by those involved.
If you learn that the group's or speaker's agenda is not as advertised in its publicity, try to expose the group's history with a letter-to-the-editor or column in your school or local newspaper. Make sure that faculty members and student clubs are alerted to the group's agenda in advance so that they don't unwittingly support a cause that they might not otherwise.
In addition, if you can learn in advance that the presenters are all stacked in one direction, try to speak with the organizers about bringing in a different voice to add diversity. Suggest some names of potential additions. Of course, if the sponsoring organization is the problem, this step will not be useful. In that case, the best thing to do would be to organize a panel of your own choice of speakers who will bring in viewpoints to balance the earlier one-sided program.
Guest contributor Josh Hamerman is a sophomore at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind.
Copyright © 2002 by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. All rights reserved. This column may be reprinted without prior permission.