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CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Throughout the first day of the Harvard “One State Conference,” speakers insisted that the aim of this highly publicized event was to address equal rights to both Israelis and Palestinians in the form of a one-state solution. Organizer Ahmed Moor said in a statement, “this historic conference aims to begin the process of defining what one state could mean—including obstacles to achieving it.”
But sitting in the audience of this conference, sponsored by several pro-Palestinian and progressive groups, it quickly became apparent that in this “debate” the rights of Palestinians in Israel and the disputed territories far outweighed those of the Jewish people. Any obstacles to peace mainly come from Israel; that message was the theme of the day.
Keynote speaker Ali Abunimah, the founder of the Electronic Intifada online publication, and Goldstone report contributor, referred to Israeli discrimination against Palestinians as “ethnic cleansing.” Panelist Sa’ed Atshan, a Soros fellow and a joint Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology and Middle-Eastern studies at Harvard University, described Israel as an Apartheid regime.
These terms are hardly new in the culture of anti-Israel activism and their absurdity quickly rises to the surface. Even Richard Goldstone, author of the infamous Goldstone report, eventually agreed that Apartheid is “an unfair and inaccurate slander against Israel,” according to a column he wrote for the New York Times in 2011.
Goldstone acknowledged that Arabs in Israel “vote, have political parties and representatives in the Knesset and occupy positions of acclaim, including on its Supreme Court. Arab patients lie alongside Jewish patients in Israeli hospitals, receiving identical treatment.”
The expression “ethnic cleansing” is also misleading. While the term implies a mass expulsion or killing of members of an ethnic group, in 1948 a large number of Arabs chose to flee because of the ongoing conflict that started with an attack on Israel by its Arab neighbors. They were also encouraged to leave by the local government, and promised to return upon Israel’s expected defeat. Few were forced out by Jews.
Some Palestinians actually chose to stay in Israel and were not expelled by the Israeli government. Their descendents still live as Israeli citizens today.
Abunimah also cited the deaths of thousands of Palestinians during Israeli military operations in Gaza since the 2005 disengagement, but there was little mention of the countless Palestinian suicide bombings in buses, cafes, clubs and malls that have killed more than 1000 Israelis since the Second Intifada began in 2000, or the thousands of missiles that have been launched from Gaza into bordering Israeli towns since the disengagement.
“The two-state solution might be like the tooth fairy …things people believe exist but actually don’t,” Abunimah said. No speaker acknowledged that the United Nations passed a resolution in 1947, offering to partition the land into two states for two people. It was rejected by the Arab League, and the Palestinians.
Speakers were quick to voice outrage at the violence, invasion and stoning exercised by Jewish residents in the West Bank against Palestinians, but made no reference to Palestinian violence in the West Bank, such as the recent brutal case of three Palestinians who entered the home of a Jewish family in the town of Itamar, murdering both parents, two children and a baby of three months. Lastly, no speaker mentioned Hamas and its charter, which still calls for Israel’s utter destruction.
Boston University School of Law Professor Susan Akram actually said that, “Jewish claims of nationality must be distinguished from claims of Israeli Jews.” Panelist Nimer Sultany, a doctoral candidate at Harvard Law School, added that, “the fact that a group of people have an interest in something, does not necessarily translate into a right.”
Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, Heike Schotten, said the primary obstacle in the conflict has always been “the specific nationalism called Zionism.” Schotten opposed the use of the term anti-Semitism to define hatred of Jews, claiming that there are other groups that can be viewed as Semites. She criticized the use of Jewish history, especially after World War II, to display Jews as victims whose only safe haven is Israel. She also encouraged public involvement in the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. “That’s the work that all of us can do,” she said.
Speakers also ignored a crucial point. While Jews living in Israel are protected by a border and security from Gaza and the West Bank, attacks are still a concern. Under a one-state solution, what would come of the security of Jewish people in Israel?
Jack Porter, ordained rabbi and director of the Spencer Institute for Business and Society, attended the conference and told JointMedia News Service that in his view moderate Jews could “integrate or at least live comfortably” with Palestinians. Having visited the disputed territories himself, “It’s not dangerous for me to go,” he said. “I didn’t wear a Yarmulke of course,” he added.
Atshan also described an Israeli campaign painting the Jewish state as a safe haven to LGBT people to distract from Palestinian plight, an act known as “pinkwashing” among anti-Israel activists.
Tel Aviv was recently named as the best gay city in the world for 2011, and gays also freely serve in the Israeli army. There is intolerance on the part of religious populations toward LGBT people in Israel, and gay marriage is not legal. Still, the lives of LGBT people, and women, are markedly better than in Gaza and the West Bank, let alone in other fundamentalist Muslim nations. There is an obvious irony in the fact that several of the speakers are activists in the realm of women’s and LGBT rights.
By the end of the first conference day, one young Israeli stood up at the microphone and called the views expressed by the panelists as “hateful” and deliberately dismissive of Jewish national aspirations. It was “very one sided,” Koby, from Haifa, later told JointMedia News Service. He was fearful and requested not to reveal his last name. “It’s a kind of academic experiment of people who do not actually need to deal with the consequences,” he said.
The conference lacked any hint of a fair or factual debate. At the very least, it displayed a kind of ethnic chauvinism that places the worth of Palestinians above that of Jews.
Alina Dain Sharon is the assistant editor of JointMedia News Service