WASHINGTON – Liza Behrendt, a 22-year old Jewish-American activist, accused the American pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC and its supporting organizations of stifling debate on Israel and particularly on settlements.
On Sunday, the first day of the 2012 Annual Conference, Behrendt attended a breakout session called “The Struggle to Secure Israel on Campus.” Wayne Firestone, CEO of Hillel (the largest Jewish organization on American campuses) was among the speakers at the session. Behrendt accused Firestone’s organization of denying membership to her group (which criticizes Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the presence and construction of settlements on that land) while she was a student at the predominantly-Jewish Brandeis University in Boston. She said she was not allowed to speak about Israel at Hillel. The event was filmed and broadcast on youtube:
According to the group OccupyAIPAC, last year Firestone “issued controversial guidelines barring Hillel groups from partnering with organizations that support any facet of the BDS [Boycott, Divest, Sanction] movement or that lack a specifically Zionist stance.” After the incident, Behrendt told OccupyAIPAC:
I felt it was necessary to confront Wayne Firestone, whose condescending guidelines barred my Brandeis University chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace from joining Hillel last spring. Hillel’s guidelines are part of organized efforts to enforce an ideological status quo among young Jews on Israel, but they are completely out of touch with what’s happening among young people.
Disruptions of AIPAC events by activists – even Jewish ones – are nothing new. However, the outbursts are usually reserved for big headlining events, like the speeches of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. AIPACers have gotten so used to the interruptions that they now collectively respond by instantly rising in applause to drown out the yelling activist. At the 2011 Conference, a number of activists who were critical of Israeli policy interrupted Netanyahu’s address before the AIPAC gathering, but were immediately escorted out — in a matter of seconds — by security. This footage I filmed last year shows one such incident:
The smaller breakout sessions are rarely interrupted, presumably for two reasons. First, admission to the AIPAC conference is relatively pricey. A ticket to the 3-day event costs about $400 per person, so if one is going to make a splash, one would likely want to do it in front of as many people as possible and as visibly as possible. There’s only one chance! Second, the interruptions at the keynote addresses are so frequent that, as a result, there is an abundance of security on-hand ready to drag the heckler out, much to the amusement of AIPACers. Im comparing the two clips above, one can note that Behrendt had a much longer window of time to state her case before security arrived. Even the small number of people in that particular breakout session were caught off-guard by the action.
Sadly, most of the people at AIPAC who saw this incident or, more likely, heard about it from someone else, will completely ignore the point of what Behrendt was saying. Namely, the American Jewish community is defensive when it comes to tackling the real moral issues facing Israel. These debates are frequently happening within Israeli societies and, of course, on websites like +972, but most American Jews are made uneasy by outbursts like these. They find themselves under attack, which, ironically, feeds into the narrative they are being fed.
One may disagree with the tactic used to raise such an issue, but that does not negate the subject or its merits. As 972’s Ami Kaufman pointed out, missing from President Barack Obama’s speech on Sunday was any real recognition of the more urgent issues facing Israel. Syria was practically a non-issue, and the word “Palestinian” was only uttered by President Obama five times. And this isn’t new: Iran has been the top issue on the AIPAC agenda for the last half-decade. So why are American Jews not demanding these conversations? Why are they not insisting that these issues be addressed by their leaders? So long as that continues to happen, activists like Behrendt are vital. Even if you don’t like they way they are saying it, at some point you have to at least try to listen to what they are saying.