The geometry of apartheid

Emma Black reports on a protest of an event aimed at whitewashing Israel's crimes.

Protesters line the hallway outside the Stars and Stripes event  (Sarah Farahat)Protesters line the hallway outside the Stars and Stripes event (Sarah Farahat)

PALESTINE SOLIDARITY activists held a protest at Portland State University (PSU) against an October 3 appearance by Gideon Lustig, deputy consul general of Israel for the Pacific Northwest and a former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officer.

The pro-Israel event was titled "Stars, Stripes, and Other Things We Share." The poster prominently featured the Israeli and U.S. flags side by side--as if they realized that mentioning "democracy" or "freedom" would have been too easy for activists to call out as mere propaganda. So what positive--or at least neutral--similarities were they left with? Geometry.

The event was organized by the new student group With Israel and co-sponsored by Youth Americans Supporters of Israel (YASI). Presentations like Lustig's are part of Israel's new propaganda strategy called "Brand Israel," which aims to reverse the growing trend of Americans, and particularly young American Jews, who consider Israel an apartheid state.

This shift in opinion has been spurred by the growing international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement as well as Israel's own strategic overreach, such as its massacre in Gaza in 2009 and its subsequent 2010 attack on the Mavi Marmara. The Mavi Marmara is a Turkish boat that was part of a flotilla of six vessels bringing humanitarian aid to Gaza when Israeli commandoes boarded the ship in international waters and killed eight Turkish citizens and one American citizen.

Rather than change its apartheid policies, Israel has opted to spend millions on a public relations campaign as part of a multi-pronged effort to "re-brand" itself.

In response to the event at PSU, several groups--including Portland BDS Coalition (PDX BDS), Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights (SUPER), Portland Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) and Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights (AUPHR)--organized a counterdemonstration that brought out 25 students and community members to take a stand against the whitewashing of Israel's crimes.

"They're going to be talking about how Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, but what they're not going to be saying is that Israel's 'democracy' is only for its Jewish citizens," said Wael Elasady, one of the main organizers of the action. "They're going to be talking about gay rights in Israel, but what they're not going to say is that whether you're a gay Palestinian or not, you can't get through a checkpoint."

Half an hour before Lustig was set to speak, the activists positioned themselves along both sides of the hallway leading to the event and held signs that asked, "Is apartheid a shared value?" "Is ethnic cleansing a shared value?" "Is warmongering a shared value?" and "I support equal rights for all."

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TO SET the tone for his presentation, Lustig began by showing a YouTube video in which a bikini-clad woman walks down a beach and, distracted by an Israeli man she's flirting with, walks into a pole. Then the punch line: "Indeed, Israel can be a dangerous place. If you thought you knew Israel, think again."

In place of any mention of Palestinian oppression, Lustig focused on the things that he asserts Israel should be known for--such as its culinary innovations, like the cherry tomato and the square watermelon--in addition to other innovative technology like flash drives and internet chats.

The entire presentation mentioned Palestinians (always referred to as "Arabs") only as an afterthought, simply as a piece of the "incredible mosaic" that makes up Israel's "wonderfully diverse" population.

In what was billed as a "question and answer session" following the presentation, Lustig announced that he would only take two questions, both of which he selected from the front row. Both were about sports.

But as Lustig feigned innocence and proceeded to thank everyone for coming, the activists, making up half the room, refused to go along with his charade of normalcy. They kept their hands held high and, when they continued to be ignored, proceeded to stand up together and walk out of the event.

"Lustig ended by saying, 'You all should visit Israel so you can see how great it is," said Ghassan Mustafa, a PSU student from Ramallah. "But can I visit Israel? Can my family even visit the home that we were expelled from?"

In a debrief following the event, activists discussed what the deputy consul general talked about--and critically, what he didn't--and how this shows that Israel is on the defensive. In the words of Elasay:

Four or five years ago, the Israeli speaker would not have been talking about tomatoes and "Israeli" salata and completely ignoring the issue. He would have been on the offensive, calling the Palestinians "terrorists." But now they know that their story, their propaganda, is beginning to crack, and so in a desperate attempt to maintain American--and especially Jewish American--support, their new tactic is to cover up their crimes by promoting a superficial and utterly apolitical image of Israel.

Manny Hotchkiss spoke to the realization that many American Jews are coming to:

I went to the Holy Land in 2007, saw the total injustice perpetrated against the Palestinian people, and realized that my whole vision of what Israel was up to that point had been based on the propaganda I had heard since I was a kid. And it led me to see that we need to work really hard, not necessarily against Israel, but against injustice, to make sure that the Palestinian people get their freedom. And I think the only way we're going to do that is through a strong international campaign for BDS.

Overall, if the extraneous and superficial talk was at times infuriating, activists saw it as a great sign for where the struggle is headed. Though it's not as if the Israeli state is going to let up its well-funded PR, Lustig's presentation demonstrated that Israeli talking heads increasingly must try to shift the focus to square watermelons and internet chats in order to avoid any discussion of the occupation.

Israel's defensive position is due to the fact that it's becoming increasingly difficult to deny that justice is on the side of the Palestinians. Knowing this, Palestine activists should feel confident--as we continue to organize ourselves and build a BDS movement to bring justice to the Middle East.