[For the first part, click here.] During the closing plenary, one person sitting near me opined that Amb. Samantha Power’s wonderfully nuanced speech was not appropriate for this audience. Indeed, her initial pro-Israel pronouncements reminded me of Vice President Biden’s address to J Street in Sept. 2013, which could easily have been delivered at an AIPAC conference. By the time it ended, however, I disagreed with this assessment, feeling grateful that she had amply established her basic pro-Israel standpoint before stating policy differences.
It’s long troubled me that much of our “pro-Israel/pro-peace” camp is so alienated from Israel’s policies that a speech like Power’s would not have been more enthusiastically received in that room. JJ Goldberg also commented in his column on the underwhelming response; similarly, Ari Shavit later challenged left-liberal Jews for not demonstrating more compassion for the threats and losses endured by Israelis in the absence of peace (more on Shavit in Part 3).
Yes, she went into some detail on how the United Nations has often been unfair to Israel, and how the US has long worked to break this bias. She mentioned the notorious “Zionism = Racism” resolution of 1975 and how the lion’s share of resolutions in the UN Human Rights Council ritualistically condemn Israel instead of dealing with most of the many pressing human rights crises in the world. And she spoke with concern over the mounting wave of antisemitism, mentioning her native Ireland and the defacement of a plaque commemorating the Belfast birthplace of the late Israeli president and former UN ambassador Chaim Herzog (father of Labor party chair Isaac Herzog). Power also indicated how hard the US has worked during her tenure to finally get Israel placed in a regional group — “Western Europe and Others” — the same grouping to which the US belongs.
But she also made it clear in her supremely articulate way that she finds fault with both sides: “… ongoing attacks … incitement to violence, settlement activity, home demolitions and other trends are endangering the viability of a two-state solution. They must be stopped and reversed in order to prevent a one-state reality from taking hold.”
MK Ayman Odeh next took to the podium with a rousing speech that was received enthusiastically by the crowd. Odeh first rose to prominence as a Haifa city councilman, before becoming the head of the Hadash (Democratic Front for Peace and Equality) party, and then of the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties. He spoke of the problems of discrimination in employment and housing chronically experienced by Arab citizens of Israel, and of “100,000” Bedouin Arabs living in unrecognized Negev towns without basic services and living under the repeated reality and threat of demolition.
In this connection, I am reminded of a breakout panel earlier that day on the situation of Arabs living as a minority in Israel. Sayed Kashua, a Haaretz columnist and the creator of the popular Israeli TV sitcom “Arab Labor,” observed that not even one Arab town has been established in Israel since 1948 (not that he particularly believes in separate towns). He noted that due to housing discrimination, people can’t really move from his native town of Tira, and mentioned the Jewish protests against the recent sale of a home to an Arab family in the Jewish town of Afula. Kashua has recently moved his family to the US, from their comfortable neighborhood in Tel Aviv, because he doesn’t want his children to experience these kind of difficulties — even as he admits that he misses his native country.
Returning to Odeh, he included these stirring words, as noted in a JTA news article:
. . . “As an Israeli citizen, I know that Israel cannot be a true and just democracy so long as it occupies another people.”
“The occupation is the Palestinian people’s tragedy, but it’s also Israel’s prison,” …. “We must liberate both peoples from the prison of occupation.”
Explicitly invoking Martin Luther King and the civil rights struggle, Odeh spoke about the challenges of being what he called “unwanted” in Israel — of sending out resumes knowing your Arab name will outweigh your academic achievements, or hearing your Prime Minister tell his supporters on election day that Arabs are “coming out in droves.”
“How can it be that I still have hope?” He asked. “I have hope because when the government tried to throw us out, we established a Joint List — Arab and Jewish— instead of submitting to segregation. We at the Joint List are living proof that Arabs and Jews can refuse to be enemies.”
It’s in the spirit of dialogue and openness that I’ve criticized Ayman Odeh’s unfortunate (albeit understandable) decision not to meet the Conference of Presidents in its usual location — which happens to be on the same floor as the Jewish Agency and other Zionist institutions. My politics are very different from those of its long-time professional head, Malcolm Hoenlein, and most people involved with the Conference of Presidents, but it never would have occurred to me that the Conference’s customary meeting place would be problematic, or that an invited guest should insist on vetoing the place for that meeting. I regard this as a serious misstep on Odeh’s part that may undermine his effort to be seen as a voice for Jewish-Arab reconciliation in Israel and abroad, rather than simply the head of a protest movement that happens to have seats in the Knesset. This recalls to mind that Odeh’s nationalist Balad party partners in the Joint List reportedly vetoed an “excess votes” agreement with Meretz in the 2015 election, on the grounds that Meretz is “Zionist.”
For the concluding segment, click here.