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119

A Moment I Can’t Forget

119

Our Zoom call this week, for paid subscribers, will be at our regular time, Friday at Noon EST.

Our guests will be Huwaida Arraf and Rabbi Asher Lopatin, for what will be an unusual and, I hope, important conversation.

Huwaida is a Palestinian-American activist and former Congressional candidate in Michigan. Asher is executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council/American Jewish Committee (JCRC/AJC) in metropolitan Detroit, as well as the rabbi at Kehillat Etz Chayim. In March, Arraf spoke about anti-Palestinian racism at an event on diversity and equity at Bloomfield Hills High School in suburban Detroit. (I interviewed Huwaida about the event for the Foundation for Middle East Peace’s Podcast last week.)

Some local Jewish groups expressed outrage at her remarks. The JCRC/AJC declared that, “We are horrified that known anti-Israel activist Huwaida Arraf was invited to speak at Bloomfield Hills High School as part of the school’s diversity initiative.” As a result of the furor, the school’s principal and superintendent both subsequently apologized and resigned.

In joining us to talk together about what happened, Huwaida and Asher are doing something remarkable. I hope this conversation will help, in some small way, to promote a more open, honest, and respectful dialogue about Israel-Palestine in greater Detroit, and beyond.

As usual, paid subscribers will get the link this Wednesday and the video the following week. They’ll also gain access to our library of past Zoom interviews with guests like Thomas Friedman, Ilhan Omar, Omar Barghouti, Maggie Haberman, Noam Chomsky, and Bret Stephens.

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Sources Cited in this Video

The 92nd Street Y’s panel on Israel’s 75th Anniversary. Lucy Aharish’s discussion of Hatikvah begins around the 27th minute.

For High School and College Students

A couple of years ago, Ezra Beinart (who, as the name might suggest, is my son) started a group that invites Palestinian speakers to answer questions from high school students via Zoom. They’ve now expanded it to college students as well. This Monday, May 8, from 8-9 PM EDT, they’ll be joined by Representative Rashida Tlaib. If you know any students who might want to take part, they can register here.

Things to Read

In Jewish Currents (subscribe!), Elisheva Goldberg writes about the fight at the World Zionist Congress over judicial overhaul.

Yair Wallach, who teaches Israel studies at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, asks what would have happened to Palestine’s Jews had Israel lost the war in 1948.

Mohammed El-Kurd critiques the idea that Palestinians need to be perfect to deserve human rights. 

How different philosophers might explain America’s political predicament.

On May 15, Hasan Hammami, who I’m honored subscribes to this podcast, will speak on Zoom about his experience as a survivor of the Nakba in an event sponsored by the Museum of the Palestinian people.

The State of Arkansas refuses to pay Stephen Feldman, a Jewish professor of dermatology at Wake Forest School of Medicine (and subscriber to this newsletter), for a lecture he gave to Arkansas medical students because Feldman won’t sign the state’s pledge not to boycott Israel. The Christian Zionist state senator who crafted the law that Feldman is violating, Brad Hester, has said that “Anybody, Jewish or not Jewish, that doesn’t accept Christ, in my opinion, will end up going to hell.” You really can’t make this stuff up.

My friend Mark Baker died last week. He wrote this before his final Yom Kippur. May his memory be a blessing.

See you on Friday,

Peter


VIDEO TRANSCRIPT:

Hi. Our call this Friday is going to be with two people. The first guest is Huwaida Arraf, and the second is Rabbi Asher Lopatin. This is gonna be a really interesting and, I think, highly unusual conversation. The backstory is that Huwaida Arraf is a Palestinian-American activist in Michigan, and former Congressional candidate. And she was invited a while back to speak a high school called Bloomfield Hills High School in suburban Detroit. And she spoke at a kind of assembly on diversity about her experiences as a Palestinian, and it produced a huge furor. She talked about anti-Palestinian racism in Israel, and it produced a huge furor, which ultimately led to the principal of the school and the superintendent of the school district having to be forced to resign essentially because the claim was that her talk was, you know, offensive to Jewish students at the school. One of the organizations that criticized her talk was the Jewish Community Relations Council, which in Detroit is also connected to the American Jewish Committee. And the executive director of the of that institution, the JCRC/AJC in metropolitan Detroit, is Rabbi Asher Lopatin.

And so, Huwaida, who’s the Palestinian-American activist who gave that speech, and then was very, very severely attacked afterwards, and Asher, who happens to be someone I’ve known for quite a long time, who is the executive director of that Jewish organization in Detroit, are going to talk together on Friday about what happened. And I’m really pleased that both of them are doing that. Because, honestly, I think both of them are putting themselves out on a limb to some degree in having that conversation. But I think it’s the kind of conversation that needs to take place if events like that which I think are really, really troubling that hopefully they won’t continue to happen like this, and that we can have a discourse about Israel-Palestine where Palestinians are not punished for speaking the truth about their own experience. That’ll be on Friday at noon, our normal time. It’s for paid subscribers only. And of course, paid subscribers also get access to all our prior videos with people like Thomas Friedman, and Noam Chomsky, and Omar Barghouti, and Bret Stephens, and all of them.

I wanted to talk for a minute about a moment that has really stuck in my mind from a video that I watched a couple weeks ago. I really can’t get it out of my mind. And it gives me a strange kind of hope this particular moment. I wanna describe it and try to explain why I think it’s so significant, and so telling about where we are today in the United States in the debate over Israel-Palestine. So, many of you may know, if you’re New Yorkers, if you know New York, that the 92 Street Y is one of the, kind of, preeminent institutions in the city, preeminent kind of Jewish institutions in the city. And so, the 92 Street Y had a hosted a panel for Israel’s 75th anniversary, and on that panel was Bret Stephens from the New York Times, and Ronan Bergman, who’s a reporter for the New York Times, and Anshel Pfeffer, who’s a well-known writer and reporter for Haaretz. All pretty typical.

But the last panelist was Lucy Aharish. Now, Lucy Aharish is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, who is also an Israeli broadcaster. So, the 92 Street Y—to its credit—put a Palestinian on this panel. That is new. I really do not think that as recently as five or even three years ago, that this would have been likely the case. It shows that establishment Jewish organizations are opening the door just a crack to being willing to listen to Palestinians. I think the success of a group like Encounter, if any of you know about Encounter, which takes American Jewish leaders to the West Bank to listen to Palestinians, is part of this shift where it’s harder than it used to be to essentially not listen to Palestinians at all. But Lucy Aharish is probably about the least threatening Palestinian you could possibly find. And she is an Israeli broadcaster. She does not—at least on the panel—does not refer to herself even as Palestinian. She calls herself an Arab Muslim Israeli woman. And she even in 2015 lit the torch at Israel’s Independence Day ceremony, which she has acknowledged was extremely controversial, even with some members of her own family. So, if you’re a Zionist institution like 92 Street Y, Lucy Aharish is probably the kind of the Palestinian—that it would be hard to find a Palestinian who was less threatening than Lucy Aharish. She also happens to be married to Jewish Israeli film star who is on the cast of Fauda actually.

So, they have this conversation—I’ll link obviously to the video, which is well worth watching for the panel—they are having this conversation with the other panelists about the protests, and what’s likely to happen, and they’re also kind of tending to celebrate the protest because, you know, they’re nonviolent, and they show all this patriotism. And then, Lucy Aharish says, at about 27 or 28 minutes into the panel, she says, ‘well, you know, I went to the protests,’ and she says, ‘you know, at the protest, everyone begins very often by singing Hatikvah, the national anthem.’ And she says, ‘I just can’t sing it.’ And she said, ‘I so much wanted to be part of this crowd, of this spirit when they were singing Hatikvah,’ and she says—I found it very poignant to listen to her—she says, ‘I began to cry at the protests, because I can’t sing Hatikvah, the national anthem, because it refers to nefesh Yehudi, a Jewish soul.’ And she says, ‘I don’t have a Jewish soul.’ And I found it so poignant and powerful because they had gone out of their way clearly to try to find a Palestinian who was the most assimilated into Israeli society they could possibly have, right. She’s got a Jewish Israeli husband. She’s an Israeli broadcaster. She literally lit the torch at an independence celebration. But even Lucy Aharish, right, can’t sing the national anthem of the country. And what’s so powerful about the moment I think in some ways is she reacts not with anger, but with tremendous pain. And then she says something that really almost took my breath away. She said, ‘I have a heartache not being able to sing the song.’ But then she says, ‘I have a son. And he has a Jewish father. So, I can’t sing because I don’t have a Jewish soul, but my son has half a Jewish soul, so maybe he can sing.’

And there was almost no response, except for one kind of crack. There was almost no response from the panel to what she was saying. It was almost like they just kind of moved on. But what she was saying, as I heard it, was a profound indictment of the racism that is inherent in the idea that you associate a state with one ethno-religious group so that basically essentially being a full member of the society, such that you can sing the national anthem, requires you to have the soul of a particular ethno-religious group. And this woman is saying, ‘well, at least my son has half of that soul,’ right? I mean, if you projected that conversation in some other context, right, I think people would be quite horrified and see this as a deeply racist kind of way of thinking about what comprises citizenship and full membership in a society. To say you have to have the soul of a particular ethno-religious group, maybe you can have half that soul if you one of your parents is in that group, right? Such profoundly antithetical to notions of equality under the law that people should be treated equally and seen as equally valuable in a country irrespective of their race, religion, and sex.

And listening to Lucy Aharish, it just reminded me that when you bring Palestinians into the conversation, almost any Palestinians, even the Palestinians that a Jewish audience may find least threatening, the most moderate, they bring out things in the conversation that just do not come up when Jews tend to be talking with one another. And they raise profound and profoundly uncomfortable questions. Not just about the Netanyahu government, but about the very nature of the state itself. And I think that, for me, that moment at the 92 Street Y, even though everyone kind of pretended like it had not happened, is a sign of where things are going. Which is that these deep questions, which are deeply subversive of the entire idea of Jewish statehood—if you believe in liberal democracy and equality under the law—the door has opened a crack to these conversations in establishment Jewish circles and in the American media. And once they open a crack, things really start to change because things are said that you can’t unhear. People start to see things that they have been conditioned to not see. You know, it’s not a perfect analogy but reminds me a little bit of the way that for many, many men, once the #MeToo movement brought to light something that was always there, but that they—we—had been able to ignore. But then once you start to see it, it profoundly changes the way you think about the entire nature of the American workplace.

And so that’s why Lucy Aharisha’s comments give me hope. Because I do think it’s a sign that even in the most establishment Zionist institutions, a subversive set of ideas and questions are starting to open up, and that once those conversations begin, there’s a kind of peeling away of the onion. And I genuinely believe that for Americans, including American Jews, for whom liberal equality under the law is a non-negotiable principle and a sacred value, that once they start peeling away the onion, they ultimately will peel it away, and to the extent that they don’t actually believe that a Jewish supremacist state can be justified at all. Again, our conversation on Friday will be with Huwaida Arraf and Rabbi Asher Lopatin. I hope to see many of you there.

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The Beinart Notebook
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Peter Beinart