Israel/Palestine Looms Large Over Minnesota Primary

Originally published in Jewish Currents on July 17, 2020.
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REP. ILHAN OMAR, who represents Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District—which includes all of Minneapolis and some surrounding suburbs—is well-positioned to win re-election this year. She faces four challengers, but Minnesota Congressional incumbents virtually never lose, and she has the endorsement of the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party, support from other high-profile politicians like Attorney General Keith Ellison, and a prolific fundraising operation.

But despite her strong odds, Omar does have one challenger who is running a relatively viable campaign. Antone Melton-Meaux, a Black Minneapolis-based lawyer, was backed by nearly a third of the DFL’s delegates for the party’s endorsement, and raised a whopping $3.2 million between April and June, next to Omar’s $472,000 in the same period. A sizeable portion of Melton-Meaux’s money has come from national pro-Israel groups that have endorsed him: Pro-Israel America and NORPAC. As HuffPost first reported, those groups, which are also significant donors to Republican candidates, have bundled more than $450,000 for Melton-Meaux to date. Their fundraising comes just weeks after they poured money into New York’s 16th Congressional District primary, in an unsuccessful effort to save Rep. Eliot Engel’s seat from progressive challenger Jamaal Bowman.

In some ways pro-Israel groups’ investment in the Minnesota race is unsurprising, as Israel/Palestine has been a flashpoint throughout Omar’s time in office. Melton-Meaux is the only Congressional challenger endorsed by Pro-Israel America, which is backing 40 candidates this cycle. Executive Director Jeff Mendelsohn, who describes Pro-Israel America as “an online portal” with over 100,000 members, said it was easy to find donors willing to back Omar’s opponent. “Our members and people beyond our membership recognize her positions as dangerous and antithetical to the US–Israel relationship that they value,” he said.

Though Melton-Meaux has not made questions about Israel central to his messaging, they dovetail neatly with his campaign’s narrative that Omar hasn’t been “focused on the 5th.” He argues that her controversies on the national stage and her “divisiveness” have detracted from her ability to work for her constituents. In contrast, he highlights his background as a mediator. “I live in conflict, and I know how to understand that there are very deep-seated differences that people come into a situation or dispute with,” he said. “What is amazing to me is that even with those differences in mind, people can have honest conversations and you can create really powerful solutions that didn’t exist before.”

The search to find someone to primary Omar began almost immediately after she won her general election. “Literally when Congresswoman Omar won there were calls going around to other electeds—particularly Black and Indigenous and people of color—testing the waters, before she even had a record in Congress,” said Andrew Johnson, a Minneapolis City Councilmember who Omar used to work for. “There were a lot of people who were called and said no, and I’ve personally spoken to a number of them.”

In the spring of 2019 The Hill ran a story on these struggling recruitment efforts. By December Melton-Meaux had jumped into the race, though he denies being recruited by any group or person. “He has chosen to pursue this office because of a deep commitment to service and a concern with the current representation our district is receiving,” said campaign spokesperson Lee Hayes.

Some aspects of Melton-Meaux’s candidacy have resonated with Jewish audiences. Earlier coverage of the race from Jewish media outlets like Jewish Insider and The Forward has emphasized his knowledge of Hebrew, which he studied in college and divinity school, as well as his Jewish communal ties. These publications have also highlighted Melton-Meaux’s opposition to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. On his website, Melton-Meaux promises to “always oppose BDS,” though he insists he would not support anti-BDS laws that infringe on First Amendment rights. “I look at this from the perspective of a mediator, and BDS creates undue pressure on Israel, incredible barriers and headwinds,” he told me. “But I’m also a lawyer who believes in the Constitution, and I’m an African American man who has been protesting, and I will protect individuals’ right to protest.”

This is not wholly unlike how Omar has expressed her own position on BDS, at least at times. In August of 2018, when Omar was running for Congress, she was asked “exactly where [she] stand[s]” on BDS, and told a synagogue crowd she did not think the movement was “helpful” in getting to a two-state solution. It “stops the dialogue . . . I think the particular purpose for [BDS] is to make sure that there is pressure,” she said, “and I think that pressure really is counteractive.” But five days after winning her general election, Omar said she “believes in and supports the BDS movement, and has fought to make sure people’s right to support it isn’t criminalized.” Some Jewish constituents felt deceived. Omar, however, denied there was any discrepancy in her statements, maintaining that one can support a non-violent protest movement without believing in the efficacy of all of its goals or tactics.

Later on she would introduce a resolution, along with Reps. Rashida Tlaib and John Lewis, affirming the First Amendment right of Americans to participate in boycotts. In a speech that same day she reiterated her support for a two-state solution, and emphasized that while Americans must condemn those who use violence, “we cannot simultaneously say we want peace and then openly oppose peaceful means to hold our allies accountable.”

For some Jewish constituents, the difference between Omar’s and Melton-Meaux’s positions on this issue is decisive. “I agree with most of [Omar’s] policy positions, but as a Jew the BDS stuff hits too close to home,” said Barbara Bearman, an 85-year-old Jewish voter in Minneapolis who plans to vote for Melton-Meaux. “With all the antisemitism that’s rising worldwide, it’s frightening. I don’t like being a single-issue voter . . . but this is a single issue that frightens me.”

Perhaps the clearest policy difference between the two candidates on Israel/Palestine concerns conditioning military aid to Israel. Omar supports conditioning aid if Israel pursues annexation—a position shared by a small minority of progressive Democrats in Congress, including Bernie Sanders. Melton-Meaux says he too opposes annexation, but would not condition aid as a way to pressure Israel.

Some of Omar’s critics who now support Melton-Meaux are less concerned with the particularities of Omar’s policy stances than with her rhetoric around Israel and pro-Israel lobbying. In the first month of her term, an old tweet resurfaced in which Omar, responding to Israel’s November 2012 attack on Gaza, wrote that “Israel has hypnotized the world.” (Omar initially called the wording “unfortunate” and later acknowledged the language was “offensive.”) Shortly after this, when Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy accused Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of antisemitism, Omar tweeted that McCarthy’s attacks were “all about the Benjamins baby.” An editor at The Forward accused Omar of tweeting an antisemitic trope and asked who she was alleging to have paid politicians to be pro-Israel. Omar quickly responded, “AIPAC!”

Omar’s tweets roiled Washington. Senior House leadership issued a resolution condemning her remarks, and urged Omar to apologize, which she did. But when Omar later said at a DC coffeehouse that she wanted “to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” a new wave of controversy ignited. The US House soon passed another resolution condemning antisemitism and other forms of bigotry, in response to the outrage sparked by Omar’s comments.

“I would have liked to support Congresswoman Omar but I can’t,” said Ron Latz, a Jewish state senator representing the Twin Cities metro area, who is supporting Melton-Meaux and did not support Omar in the 2018 primary. “She has demonstrated an antipathy for Jewish issues and Jewish sensitives and towards Jews themselves.”

Other local Jews say they have found little objectionable in Omar’s record, and feel compelled to stand up in her defense. “I do not find any antisemitism in what she has said, and she’s also shown a willingness to learn and has modified her views,” said Sylvia Schwarz, an activist with Jewish Voice for Peace-Twin Cities. “The Jewish community here is not monolithic.”

Beth Gendler, the executive director of the National Council of Jewish Women Minnesota, spoke highly of her group’s working relationship with Omar in Congress. “She listens to us, and has been a really important partner of ours,” she said. “Have some of the things she said been antisemitic or played into antisemitic tropes? Yeah, sure, antisemitism is in the air we breathe. Is some of the backlash because she’s a black immigrant woman wearing a hijab? I would hazard to say yes.”

Libi Baehr, an activist with IfNotNow Twin Cities, said her group of primarily millennial Jews took it upon themselves to stand up for Omar when the backlash to her tweets blew up. “We definitely feel a responsibility to vocally show up,” she said. IfNotNow members in both Minneapolis and Washington, DC visited Omar’s Congressional offices with freshly baked challah in solidarity, and the Twin Cities group has since spoken out about what they see as a double standard with Rep. Betty McCollum, a white Minnesota Congresswoman who is strongly critical of Israel.

“I did not think people’s pain and disappointment [with Omar’s comments] was unfounded,” said Baehr. “It was an unforced error, and she could have avoided the issues that came up after she had said those things if she had thought about it a little more. That said, I do think a lot of good came out of it, a lot of honest reckoning.”

The turmoil over Israel has faded into the background in recent weeks, as politics in the district have turned sharply to discussions around policing and racial justice, with Omar and Melton-Meaux responding in ways that reveal their contrasting political styles.About a week after Floyd was killed, Omar introduced legislation to create a federal agency tasked with reviewing all deaths in police custody. Two days later, she joined a group of protesters in Minneapolis organized around a call to defund the police, where she spoke about the limits of police reform and her own experience as a Black woman raising children in the United States, and defended calls to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department.

Melton-Meaux has also tried to capitalize on the protests, telling Jewish Insider George Floyd’s killing has “amplified” his overall message that “leadership matters.” His campaign released two commercials in June, one emphasizing his experience as a Black man in America, and the second emphasizing his commitment to social justice and conflict resolution. His campaign has taken a more optimistic view on the potential of police reform, though he also supports redistributing some money from policing into housing, healthcare, and schools.

Voters in Minnesota’s 5th appear satisfied with Omar’s approach. Yesterday, following Melton-Meaux’s big fundraising announcement, her campaign released new polling conducted by Change Research that showed the Congresswoman leading Melton-Meaux 66–29% among primary voters in the district. The pollsters found Omar had a 70% approval rating, compared to 40% for Melton-Meaux, who also “still lag[ged] in name recognition.” Melton-Meaux’s campaign declined to share results from their internal polling, but said “what it does show is Antone’s message of leadership, unity, and accountability is resonating.”

Even if Melton-Meaux’s supporters can’t stop Omar from winning re-election, many of them still hope to prevent the kind of blowout win Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had in her recent primary, where the New York Congresswoman trumped her challenger with 72% of the vote. (Bowman’s victory was more modest; the latest available figures have him 25 points ahead of Engel, though with nearly 40,000 absentee ballots outstanding.) Melton-Meaux’s backers—like Engel’s—think that by spending big, they can at least diminish the mandate of the victor.

“Of course we want to win, but even if we don’t, part of life is the struggle to do good and that means you find and support good people,” said Dr. Ben Chouake, the president of NORPAC. “Our job was to give Antone enough money so that people could hear him, and then they’ll make their decision.”

How to Sabotage Iran Negotiations in the Name of Avoiding War

Originally published in The American Prospect on March 4th, 2015.
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As multilateral talks over Iran’s nuclear program continue with the U.S. leading the negotiations, Congress seems to be doing its best to complicate things. And both Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) are doing their part to help.

Earlier this week, as 16,000 people convened in Washington, D.C., to attend AIPAC’s annual conference, the powerful pro-Israel lobby made it clear that the organization would push not only for increased sanctions on Iran—through the passage of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act—but also for the ability to make it more difficult to lift sanctions later, via a new bill, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.

This latest bill, introduced on Friday by Republican Senator Bob Corker and Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, would give Congress a 60-day period to review any negotiated nuclear deal, and if Congress were to reject the deal, then the president would be barred from lifting sanctions.

Josh Rogin reported in Bloomberg View that top members of the Obama administration, including Secretary of State John Kerry, pressured Democrats to oppose the Corker-Menendez bill, lest it complicate the already fragile negotiations with Iran. Nevertheless, some Senate Democrats signed on, because there is, as Rogin puts it, “broad Congressional desire not to be totally shut out of the [negotiating] process.”

AIPAC and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have set a considerably higher bar for what a “good deal” with Iran would look like.

After AIPAC’s annual conference, it is evident that the pro-Israel lobby plans to capitalize on this congressional “desire” and to escalate its fight with the White House. While the Obama administration and AIPAC both declare that a nuclear-armed Iran is not an option, AIPAC and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have set a considerably higher bar for what a “good deal” with Iran would look like.

For AIPAC and Netanyahu, a “good deal” would mean allowing for zero enrichment of uranium for any purposes—a non-starter for the Iranians. They also seek a “permanent” deal that locks Iran under restrictions indefinitely. But as Lara Friedman, from the pro-Israel policy organization Americans for Peace Now, has explained:

Iran is in trouble right now because it has repeatedly violated the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), resulting in sanctions. Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are grounded in the understanding that by demonstrating compliance with all of its NPT obligations, Iran will no longer be in violation of the NPT and Iran’s tenure in the international doghouse—at least with respect to its nuclear program—can come to a close (at least so long as Iran remains in compliance). An Iran nuclear agreement—whether its provisions are in place for 10 years, or 15 years, or however many years are agreed on—would dramatically mitigate the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

Just like the “zero enrichment” idea, Iran would never be able to sell a “permanent” deal to its people. The six world powers leading the diplomatic efforts with Iran (Russia, China, France, Great Britain, Germany, and the U.S.) understand this and are working to come up with a reasonable compromise that still ensures Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapon. If AIPAC and Netanyahu are serious about pursuing a diplomatic resolution to this conflict—and avoiding war—then their adamant opposition to both of these ideas raises serious questions.

At the AIPAC conference, speakers spelled out how they could use Congress to thwart the president from passing a deal they deem “bad.” On the gigantic screens in the convention center’s large plenary hall, AIPAC instructed attendees to “insist on a congressional role” when they lobby on Capitol Hill, because “on such a critical issue to U.S. national security, Congress must assert its historic role in foreign policy and review any agreement.”

Passing the Corker-Menendez bill might be an easier sell in Congress than imposing additional sanctions, because it is easier to argue that Congress should have “a voice” in the negotiating process. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Tuesday night that he wants to fast-track the bill, which might complicate its ability to garner enough Democratic support in time. Menendez has threatened to vote against his own bill, “outraged” at McConnell’s political move.

Edward Levine, an advisory board member for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to international peace and security, argues that the bill is more harmful than helpful:

Do [Senators] really want to send a message to Tehran that the President may be unable to fulfill his commitments? Do they really want to move the goalposts by adding support for terrorism to the list of reasons for reinstating sanctions? The Corker bill will endanger both the negotiations and the sanctions regime; it does not merit support.

AIPAC is also trying to bolster Congress’s role in the negotiations by minimizing the fact that there has always been significant presidential authority built into U.S. sanctions legislation. The authority comes through various mechanisms, such as “waivers,” special rules, and legislative exemptions, which allow a president to decide, often unilaterally, whether and to what degree to lift or implement sanctions. He can make these choices if he believes doing so is in the national security interest of the United States.

On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, AIPAC’s legions of supporters pressured Congress to impose more sanctions and to reduce the executive branch’s power to lift sanctions. Let’s just hope that the Iranians do not take this as a signal that the negotiators’ commitment to ease sanctions in exchange for good behavior is feeble. Because if the negotiations fail, the war that everyone is trying to avoid is that much more likely.

Presidents Conference Rejected J Street — and Me

Originally published in The Forward on May 1, 2014.

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I’ve watched as millions and millions of dollars have been poured into youth leadership programs, summer camps, Taglit-Birthright trips and other “big initiatives” to foster identity amongst young Jews. And I’ve grown up listening to my parents’ and grandparents’ generations worrying that the Jewish community will collapse when my generation comes of age.

Well, when my friends and I, many of us products of such communal initiatives, watched as the Conference of Presidents voted to exclude J Street from their membership, we heard a loud and unambiguous message: the voices of thousands of young Jews are unwanted. It’s not very complicated: The fastest way to get Jews to disengage is through votes like this.

The Conference of Presidents vote was not a referendum on J Street representing thousands of American Jews. It was, however, a referendum on whether the Conference of Presidents wishes to be a relevant and representative body to American Jews.

While secret balloting and closed-door meetings might work for the 1950s old boys’ clubs, today it signifies weakness and decay in the Jewish community. The Conference of Presidents is supposed to be comprised of organizations with grassroots bases in order to be accountable to the American Jewish public. But an intentionally opaque voting process undercuts the Conference’s supposed representative mission and is an affront to the individuals these groups purport to represent. For example, despite the involvement of many dues-paying AEPi brothers in J Street U, AEPi is not revealing whether its leaders voted against giving their students a seat at the table. Similarly, the JFNA represents Jewish communities across the U.S., with thousands of J Street U students coming under their representative umbrella. We deserve to know if our institutions voted to bar us from admittance. Why are these organizations afraid of transparency?

While some will try to assert that this vote proves that J Street is out of the mainstream, I’d suggest checking in with Jewish students on campus. Not everyone agrees with us, but most students believe in a representative community based on the values we learned at our synagogues, Hebrew Schools, and summer camps. Similarly, some of the largest establishment Jewish organizations came out in proactive support of J Street’s admission, including the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Anti-Defamation League, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Americans for Peace Now, the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and more. While the final “score” was 22-17, many organizations in the Conference just do not represent a significant American Jewish constituency, though they hold the same voting power. As Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Executive Vice President of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly pointed out, J Street won a landslide of the popular vote.

Our work to achieve two states and end the occupation does not end with this vote. J Street U is already in the midst of planning our Summer Leadership Institute, where students from over 60 campuses will gather in August to plan and strategize for the next school year. Every day, more students begin fighting for a community in which our commitments to Israel, to changing broken political dynamics, and to our progressive values work together in concert. As more students recognize that the state of Israel’s future is inextricably tied to the dignity and freedom of the Palestinian people, J Street U will continue to grow.

Just as lavish hasbara efforts cannot protect Israel from dealing with its serious existential crisis, neither can votes like the Conference of Presidents protect the Jewish community from wrestling with the changing sentiments of American Jewry, particularly amongst young Jews. I wish they had voted differently, and I’m grateful to and proud of the organizations that did back J Street. But, at the end of the day, our work goes on.

 

Should Adelson, Bennett and Lieberman be welcome at Hillel?

Originally published in Haaretz on January 1, 2014.
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Last week, the Swarthmore Hillel student board voted to reject Hillel International’s Israel guidelines, allowing them to work with students of all political perspectives. Hillel President Eric Fingerhut responded by taking the once suggested guidelines and declaring them mandatory practice. The guidelines lay out that, “Hillel is steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Fingerhut told the JTA that “under no circumstances” will Hillel host “anti-Zionists” who reject Israel’s Jewish character, as they undermine Hillel’s commitment to Israel as a Jewish homeland.

But what of those who impugn Israel’s democratic character?

In a follow-up interview, Fingerhut made clear that the guidelines will be “applied across the political spectrum.” If Hillel International is now enforcing the Israel guidelines, then we need to know how they will be applied for those on the hard right who challenge Israel’s democratic commitments.

Would a prominent member of Knesset, like Naftali Bennett, who unflinchingly opposes a two-state solution, be barred from the Hillel building? Would we ban Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Avigdor Lieberman, who has said that when push comes to shove, Jewish and Zionist values should trump democratic ones? When those on the left question Israel’s dual Jewish and democratic commitments by calling for one-state, Hillel draws the line. But will it do so for the right-wing one-staters in the Israeli cabinet?

The Haredi Jewish community poses another critical question. A sizable number of Haredi Jews are avowed non- or anti-Zionists. Of course not all are antagonistic towards the state of Israel, but it is crucial to know if Hillel will bar Haredi Jews who reject a modern state of Israel from the communal conversation. Can we write off the political commitments of the Haredi community, the fastest-growing segment of the Jewish community?

Hillel International endorses a two-state solution, as demonstrated by the strong consensus in our community that two-states is the only way for Israel to remain both a Jewish homeland and democratic state in the future. If one calls for a one-state solution, can they still be in the tent?

Sheldon Adelson, a prominent funder of the program which provides Israel Fellows to 67 campus Hilllels across the country (not to mention one of the biggest funders of the Taglit-Birthright Israel program) has openly voiced his deep disdain for a two-state solution. If he believes in a one-state scenario in which a minority of Jews control a majority of Arabs, can he be welcome at Hillel? It certainly doesn’t seem like it under the current guidelines.

Unfortunately, there are also those who take active political steps to undermine Israel’s democracy. Members of the Jewish Home political party, now a part of the ruling coalition, called for a number of Arab parties to be banned from Parliamentary elections in 2009. Will the Jewish Home party be added to the list of banned groups with which Hillel refuses to co-sponsor?

If this is beginning to sound a bit crazy to you, it’s because it should. Even though they pose significant challenges to the Israel’s democratic commitments, Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman should not be banned from Hillel. And though I find Sheldon Adelson’s politics reprehensible, I wouldn’t deny him the right to speak. Because I know my community is best served by a rigorous and deeply challenging conversation about Israel. I know that we cannot create a future generation of thoughtful, compassionate, intellectual Jewish leaders by barring uncomfortable voices. And those uncomfortable voices, especially on this issue, won’t go away by ignoring them.

Despite Fingerhut’s insistence that the overall discontent with the Israel conversation at Swarthmore is a mere “aberration,” this is not the case. As polls demonstrate time and again, young Jews want to see an end to the occupation through two-states. We’ll need a broad conversation to lead us there: a discussion that includes voices from across the political spectrum. As a pro-Israel and pro-peace student, I do not agree with anti-Zionists, but I still want to hear their perspectives. But I know I need to engage with everyone and take action with those who share my political values.

I take Eric Fingerhut at face value that from now on, speakers who question Israel’s democratic commitments will be as restricted as those who question Israel’s Jewish character. And so all invested in this discussion need to know: are Bennett, Lieberman, and Adelson welcome in the Hillel building?

Thoughts on the Closing of Open Zion

Originally published in The Daily Beast on November 11th, 2013.
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If the latest research on the American Jewish community has shown us anything, it’s that very often the people in positions of power, the leaders with the soapboxes and editorial positions, do not profess views that represent an overwhelming number of the individuals they claim to represent. And so, it was with great disappointment that I learned Open Zion would be closing shop and Peter Beinart would be moving on to new journalistic opportunities.

It seems strange to feel attached to a site that has existed for only a year and a half, and yet I know that I’m not alone in feeling a nervous sense of loss.

Part of what leaves people feeling unnerved is that there just is no other institutionalized forum for this kind of daily online discussion and debate. And especially at this time, right smack in the middle of fragile peace negotiations, losing that type of space provides a stark reminder of what kind of void it was originally created to fill. And how not even the finest Jewish publications out there, like The Forward and JTA really make it their mission to provide that kind of frankly uncomfortable discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We can click between Mondoweiss, Al Jazeera, Commentary Magazine, +972 Magazine, The Jerusalem Post  and all the others to try to piece together what perhaps is the spectrum of the debate, but there’s no real space where they all converge. And unfortunately, it’s these media bubbles that so often replicate, reinforce and reproduce our fractious politics. Open Zion was not just an interesting news source, but an experiment to break down the dichotomy between the progressive and conservative media.

I remember attending a J Street U winter conference in January of 2012; Peter Beinart came to talk to me and dozens of other students about his upcoming book The Crisis of Zionism that would be released later that year. He informed us then that he was in the midst of launching a new website, Zion Square, which later became known as Open Zion, to “start a new kind of conversation.”

Everyone working on these issues began reading Open Zion. Where else could you read Yousef Munayyer and Gil Troy side-by-side? What other platform in the Jewish press gave the freedom for writers like Maysoon Zayid to weigh in next to Alan Dershowitz and Danny Dayan? But what seemed so “revolutionary” at the time just turned out to be patently obvious to us now. Of course we need that kind of space. We need to be reading Ali Gharib’s reporting next to Brent Sasley’s analysis, while also making space for Palestinians, politicians, feminists, journalists, students, educators, rabbis and policymakers.

We’ll soon need an alternative to fill the void. I hope some of the institutions we already have will make a greater effort to model that kind of discourse. I’d love to read more Palestinian voices in The Forward, or see liberal Zionists engage more directly with Mondoweiss writers. I wrote for Open Zion for my first time last February, when I weighed in on the BDS debate playing out at Brooklyn College. I later reapplied for an internship, spent the past summer in New York City and had the opportunity to write on all sorts of topics, from intermarriage, to Hebron, to the future of Hamas’s political leadership. Having the chance to research, write and publish on such things strengthened my relationship to the region, deepened my understanding of the issues, and connected me with all sorts of challenging individuals.I wish that Peter Beinart had exerted greater efforts to make Open Zion the type of institution that could survive his departure. Our community needed and still needs that kind of outlet. Maybe the ultimate judgment of the site’s success will be if other platforms in the community do indeed open themselves to diverse, ideologically opposed voices. Peter established the structure, but we don’t yet know if it’s sustainable.

It’s also true that Open Zion was certainly not perfect. The opinions were often unbalanced and many voices were under-represented or absent entirely, such as Haredi Jews and Palestinians living in Gaza. I know much of that stemmed from it having a tiny staff with ambitious goals. If the site had more resources, I think the breadth and depth of content could have been significantly expanded and engaged a greater number of readers and writers.

Our community is a vibrant one with diverse opinions, and our media outlets should settle for nothing less than representing that. Our bare minimum standard should be an acceptance that we can’t have a meaningful discussion about Israel’s future without engaging religious settlers, anti-Zionists, Palestinians and Jews together, in one hard, difficult conversation.

Part of me feels that Open Zion is ending too soon. But then again, it’s also possible that the site contributed to fostering a sense of communal complacency–perhaps we became too dependent on OZ “filling the niche” of open discourse.

Maybe in the end its departure can serve to wake us up.

Jewish Fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi Marks 100 Years Amid Sweeping Culture Changes

Originally published in The Forward on September 1st, 2013. 

Many kegs have been tapped since the night of November 7, 1913, when 11 Jewish students gathered at New York University to found the first official chapter of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. Over the next 100 years, the organization, most commonly known as AEPi, would grow — from a small sanctuary for ostracized Jews into an influential international fraternity encompassing 177 active chapters in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Israel.

“The story of AEPi is the story of extreme upward mobility,” said Marianne Sanua, an American Jewish historian at Florida Atlantic University and the author of “Going Greek: Jewish College Fraternities in the United States, 1895–1945.”

“AEPi is absolutely unique. They are the only historically Jewish fraternity to still hold on to their Jewish identity. They don’t hesitate to call themselves a Jewish fraternity, and they don’t hesitate to say they prefer most of their members to be Jewish.”

AEPi reaches more than 9,000 undergraduates worldwide, and boasts an alumni network of more than 80,000 men. Their challenges reflect many of the same struggles of the larger Jewish Diaspora: its relationship to Israel, the increasingly pluralistic society in which it exists and the extent to which young people outwardly identify with Jewish institutional culture.

In August, more than 1,400 students, alumni and Jewish institutional leaders gathered at Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to commemorate AEPi’s centennial anniversary.

“The audience heard a very unequivocal message about what AEPi is and the values we uphold,” said Elan Carr, AEPi’s international president and supreme master. “And those values are Jewish continuity, tikkun olam, Jewish leadership and support for Israel.”

One attendee, Barry Magen, who owns a Jewish art company in Elkins Park, Pa., reflected: “The conference gave me hope. I really believe that their leadership development is unparalleled.”

AEPi’s rise to such prominence was always an unlikely story.

In the early 20th century, fraternities across the United States were powerful presences on college campuses — and they unabashedly shut their doors to Jewish students. This exclusion, according to Sanua, was accomplished through restrictive clauses in fraternity constitutions and gentlemen’s agreements. In response, Jews formed their own Greek organizations; by the 1920s, at least 17 national Jewish sororities and fraternities existed in the United States, including Alpha Epsilon Phi and Zeta Beta Tau.

“This was their peak,” Sanua said. “Many of them went out of business during the Depression, or merged with one another.”

Additional attrition ensued in the 1960s and ’70s. Prompted by new civil rights legislation, colleges cracked down on such discriminatory practices as restrictive clauses in the constitutions of both non-Jewish and Jewish fraternities. The Vietnam War also contributed to the shifting milieu; liberal college students rebelled against authority as a whole and the Greek system — which they perceived as a conservative, hidebound institution.

“In America there was a general mood that fraternities were undemocratic, socially exclusive and destructive,” Sanua said.

The 1980s, however, brought a return to tradition, as well as Greek life’s revival as a vaunted campus symbol. “AEPi reaffirmed their commitment to Jewish identity while other historically Jewish fraternities were heading in the opposite direction,” Sanua said. “They also recognized that they likely could not compete with historically gentile fraternities.”

“We’re very proud that we stood our ground [in the ’80s] as a Jewish fraternity,” Carr said. He believes that committing to AEPi’s core values and history was the right decision not only “with regards to assimilation and loss of connection to Israel,” but also because staying true to what he calls “their brand” helped to ensure long-term success.

Today, AEPi’s challenges look very different.

“While our students don’t have to deal with anti-Semitism in nearly the same way as our founders did, they do face threats in terms of delegitimization of Israel — a place that is very special to our organization,” said Adam Maslia, AEPi’s Howard M. Lorber Director of Jewish and Philanthropy Programming.

It was after the second intifada that AEPi really began to tackle Israel advocacy from an institutional level. “We knew then that if being the last remaining Jewish fraternity means anything at all, it must mean that we are going to stand and support the Jewish people, which is the Jewish state,” Carr said.

But while AEPi’s leaders frame Israel activism as a fraternal mission, the extent to which individual chapters see themselves as pro-Israel advocates varies considerably.

“AEPi at Berkeley is pretty much the hub of the mainstream pro-Israel community,” said recent college grad Isaiah Kirshner-Breen, who now lives in Washington. “They’ve been always very active at organizing people against [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions], both in 2010 and this past spring.”

“Israel programming isn’t a huge thing for us, although every AEPi brother did show up for Israel Day,” said Jacob Plitman, an AEPi brother at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We’re rather culturally Jewish. We do a Seder, we all end up going to services. We’re Yom Kippur Jews.”

“Our school doesn’t really have an active Jewish community. We don’t do much with Israel,” said Michael Zysman, an AEPi brother at Bentley University, Mass. “We have a lot of non-Jews in our chapter.”

Certainly, non-Jews still pose a challenge for AEPi. While the group’s mission statement defines it as a nondiscriminatory fraternity, it also calls for efforts to “develop leadership for the North American Jewish community.”

Several students who asked for anonymity said that the recruitment goals of AEPi national versus those of local chapters are often divided.

“Nationals doesn’t really encourage you to recruit non-Jewish members, but we will actively recruit them if we think they will fit in with us,” said one student from a university on the East Coast.

Another college student in the Northeast admitted, “I think we tell Nationals we’re 75% to 80% Jewish but we’re probably more like 60%.”

Virgil Doyle, a non-Jewish student who served as president of Johns Hopkins’s AEPi chapter, embodies how much the fraternity has evolved over the years.

“I came to college with a pretty good idea I wanted to join a fraternity as a social thing, and AEPi just happened to be the group of guys I most identified with. There are enough people in the fraternity who are very involved in Jewish life around campus that me not being a part of that directly wasn’t something that I really worried about.”

The rise of AEPi has also begotten the rise of what is known as “APES,” an off-campus and unofficial AEPi spinoff. “When AEPi gets kicked off campus [for violating rules], they automatically [lose AEPi status] and have to become APES,” explained Ryan Erfer, an AEPi brother at Emory.

For some, the APES designation is seen as a punishment, since they are no longer recognized as an official chapter. Yet other chapters opt for APES status voluntarily. Two years ago, when the AEPi chapter at the University of Pennsylvania faced a two-year probation for violating pledging rules or disaffiliating altogether, they chose to “go APES.” Some argued it carried a “cooler” appeal, particularly since the Interfraternity Council is powerless to regulate them.

“APES tends to have a reputation for throwing parties that don’t adhere to the rules,” Erfer said, referring to the fraternity’s national reputation.

“‘Jewish bros’ is a real thing, those people exist,” Plitman said, referring to a contemporary pop-culture category of young men. “APES are the Jewish bros.”

Despite all this, AEPi continues to grow. Although it’s impossible to predict the future contours of the American Jewish community, the men of Alpha Epsilon Pi will quite likely play a role in shaping them. As Doyle sees it, “We probably have more discussions about the Middle East and Israel than the average Hopkins Greek male.”

Far-Right Pro-Israel Group Rallies Against Vaunted New York Jewish Institution

Originally published in The Daily Beast on August 12, 2013.

The 92nd Street Y bills itself as a “proudly Jewish organization,” one that “enthusiastically welcomes people of all backgrounds and perspectives.” That seems to be exactly what’s got the American Jewish far-right so upset.

On Thursday evening, around fifteen people gathered outside the Upper East Side institution, under umbrellas, to stage a protest against the cultural center. Despite the small crowd, the energy and frustration were palpable. Led by Richard Allen and Helen Freedman, the mostly middle-aged demonstrators were joined by a few elderly people, and two or three young children who came with their parents. The rain and humidity would not deter their plans.

A collective known as JCCWatch, a volunteer group that protests allegedly anti-Israel activity enabled by local Jewish community centers, organized the protest—the latest in a series against 92Y. In this case, the protests were against the 92Y’s “financially and morally corrupt” leadership, arguing that the guest speakers they invite are anti-Israel and many are actually leaders within the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel. JCCWatch advertised the Thursday protest by posting a message on their website: “Enough! STOP HOSTING ISRAEL-HATERS WORKING TO DESTROY THE JEWISH STATE!”

Allen founded JCCWatch a few years back when he noticed that the The Other Israel Film Festival, a project through the JCC in Manhattan, partnered with groups like the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem and the liberal umbrella group The New Israel Fund. JCCWatch’s website argued that these groups “actively partner with or link to groups that, in addition to their stated missions, support, fund, or closely work with” BDS groups. Since the JCC in Manhattan and the 92Y are beneficiary agencies of the UJA-Federation, a funder of Jewish communal causes, JCCWatch argues that under no circumstances should they “partner with, link, or in any way support any of these despicable BDS groups.”

The other protest leader, Helen Freedman, serves as the Executive Director of a group known as Americans For A Safe Israel, which was founded in 1970 as the American counterpart to the Greater Israel movement. The Greater Israel movement pushes for Jewish settlement and control throughout all of Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Shouting into a megaphone at the protest, Freedman yelled, “The declaration that Israel is occupied is absurd. The declaration that settlements are an obstacle to peace is absurd. 92nd Street Y is an obstacle to peace!”  

The 92Y and UJA-Federation of New York seem intent on ignoring the protests. Neither returned requests to comment for this article. No one from the 92Y was willing to comment during Thursday’s protest either. I asked a protester on the street, who identified herself as Peggy, if there had been any response from the 92Y since the first protest and she said no.

While I watched these agitated people pass out flyers and attempt to talk to passersby, I couldn’t help but notice the way they were being ignored. “When we try to talk to them about it, they don’t get back to us!” cried Freedman into the megaphone. “Why are groups like my organization never invited to speak at the 92nd Street Y? We’re a national pro-Israel organization.” 

An elderly woman I spoke to named Charlotte told me, “We are objecting to the Y having so many entertainers and speakers against Israel and who are also for the boycott of Israel. We don’t want the Jewish charity money to be given to anti-Israel people.” Specifically she was referring to guests invited to speak like literary icon Alice Walker and former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, both harsh critics of Israel and backers of BDS. 

But JCCWatch’s objections weren’t limited to advocates of BDS gaining a platform at the 92Y: protesters railed against the decision to invite Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder of the pro-Israel lobby J Street, to speak this coming fall too. “Groups like J Street, The New Israel Fund, and B’Tselem do not care about Israel,” Allen shouted into the megaphone.

Because JCCWatch often professes views that fall outside the political mainstream, Jewish leaders and communal members tend to dismiss them. Yet whereas groups like J Street have repeatedly advocated for a “wider tent” and “a seat at the table” when they encounter opposition, JCCWatch takes a more hostile approach to the American Jewish Establishment’s efforts to marginalize them. 

“Nineteen U.S. embassies are closed right now,” Freedman said into the megaphone, referring to the mass-closure of American diplomatic outposts in the Middle East and North Africa on grounds of a security threat. “Americans are on the run because institutions like the 92nd Street Y fail in their responsibility to their donors and to their members. This is a disgrace.”

JCCWatch’s mission is to staunch donations to Jewish institutions like the UJA-Federation until they start inviting sufficiently pro-Israel speakers. “Please pay attention!” Allen said at the protest. “Know where your dollars are going. Close your wallets!”

On a civic level, their actions were wholly democratic. These were constituents with a grievance—local New York Jews, who were staging a non-violent protest to voice their concerns. Six NYPD officers were dispatched to supervise the event, and as one officer said to me, “This is their First Amendment right.” 

Yet notably, these individuals who hold oft-dismissed political views do not seem to care that Pro-Palestinian perspectives are also frequently ignored within the Jewish community. Suffice to say that marginalization and McCarthyite attacks occur from both the left and the right of the political spectrum. 

Whether or not the 92Y chooses to engage or respond to JCCWatch is unclear, but either way, their next protest will take place, as scheduled, on Thursday, September 12th.

What Should We Expect From Martin Indyk?

Originally published in The Daily Beast on July 24, 2013.

Ignore those who dismiss Martin Indyk as just another AIPAC guy unconcerned with a viable two-state solution; they haven’t done their research. There’s a reason that right-wing Danny Danon is so nervous that Secretary of State John Kerry might appoint Indyk to oversee the new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks—and why he sent a letter to Netanyahu arguing that Indyk is no “honest broker.” But with the buzz about Indyk’s likely appointment, a reasonable question is, well, what should we expect?

As a pundit, Indyk, who served twice as U.S. Ambassador to Israel and is now Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy at Brookings, left behind a hefty paper trail. In 2009, Indyk published Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peacemaking Diplomacy in the Middle Eastwhich provides a window into his experiences working to negotiate deals with Israelis, Palestinians and Syrians; it notably includes reflections on the mishaps and strategic blunders that derailed such deals. This, coupled with op-eds he has published over the past decade gives us a decent idea of how this man might now behave around a negotiating table.

For starters, we can expect Indyk to be tougher on Israelis than past American diplomats have been. This is promising since he already has established trust with Israel from his ambassadorship. Even so, we can still expect Arab parties to feel frustrated with the American diplomatic approach. Indyk writes that the “easier and more effective” approach to peacemaking will inevitably be perceived by some as showing greater loyalty to Israel than to Palestine. But Indyk argues that “the Arabs cannot have it both ways” and if they’d like to see the U.S. use its influence with Israel then “they should not complain” when that effort means a coordinated response. While histrionic pressure “may provide psychic satisfaction” to Palestinians, it will do nothing serious to make Israel more willing to take the necessary risks needed to relinquish territory.

Indyk writes about how in the past, the United States was too innocent and unsuspecting of ulterior motives that leaders vying for power in Middle Eastern politics had. “It was typical of our naïveté that we never expected Rabin would use U.S. influence for his own purposes,” he writes when reflecting on the failures of Oslo. He argues that the U.S. was blind to the actors and events that disrupted their strategic plans, and that going forward, a more realist approach is needed. “[We showed] a troubling naïveté in the American approach to the Middle East that is in part innocence, part ignorance, and part arrogance.”

Indyk also believes that the United States was soft, “continually backing down” at Camp David–thus ruining their hopes of showing Israelis and Palestinians that they could lead tough negotiations. “Barak and Arafat could only interpret this as a sign of weakness. Unfortunately this would become a familiar pattern.” This time around, hopefully, Indyk has learned his lesson.

We can also expect these talks to be as discreet and private as possible, marking a shift from the public fanfare of previous United States efforts. Indyk notes that “leaks are the lifeblood of the Israeli political system” and that any successful future peace process will necessitate “toning down the rhetoric and allowing the results of American diplomacy to speak for themselves.”

Indyk certainly believes that resolving this conflict is in America’s interest—he sees it directly connected to the strength of America’s bargaining position with the countries in the Persian Gulf. In a sharp New York Times op-ed published in 2010, Indyk criticized Netanyahu for his absence at a U.S. led nuclear security summit to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, arguing that “the real reason” for Netanyahu’s absence was that he was avoiding Obama, who had demanded a settlement freeze in East Jerusalem. Indyk notes that if Netanyahu continues to blow off Obama in favor of Likudniks who oppose peace, “the consequences for U.S.-Israel relations could be dire.”

Indyk also deeply understands some of some of the most seemingly intractable issues of this conflict, namely Jerusalem. Ehud Barak has preached for years now that “the real Arafat” revealed himself at Camp David—a leader who lacked the character to make a historic compromise and who was secretly just looking for the demise of the Jewish state. Indyk categorically rejects this.  “Camp David was hardly a good laboratory for that proposition,” he writes in his book. “It was not reasonable to expect that Arafat, or any Arab leader for that matter, would agree to an end-of-conflict agreement that left sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif in Israeli hands forever.” Later, he also explicitly affirms that Camp David negotiations did not break down over the issue of right of return, despite plenty of rumors.

The timetable on these negotiations is unclear. On the one hand, Indyk says that going forward, goals must be more “modest” and assumptions more “realistic.” But we also should not expect this process to take years, squeezed into the final weeks and days of Obama’s term, like we saw with Clinton’s. Indyk argues, “An attempt to reach a Middle Eastern agreement in the last year of a president’s second term is probably the worst timing of all.” He recognizes that how a president hands over policy to the next administration is critically important to its ultimate survival.

Whether or not Kerry will manage to pull off bringing Israelis and Palestinians to direct negotiations remains to be seen. However, with Martin Indyk’s track record and experience working on this issue, assuming he listens to his own advice, it seems that he might be a pretty good choice.

Andrew Pochter Was Not ‘Delusional’

Originally published in The Daily Beast on July 3, 2012. 
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It was with incredible sadness that I learned about the death of 21-year-old Andrew Pochter. He was raised in Maryland, studied at Kenyon, and traveled to Egypt to teach English to children for the summer. On Friday he was fatally stabbed in a protest against Mohamed Morsi in Alexandria.

The death of any civilian is terrible. And still, his hit especially close to home for me.

Andrew and I were the same age, grew up in similar towns, were both active in our campus Hillels, and both cared deeply about the happenings in the Middle East. I never met him, but our shared values and upbringings made me react to his death in a particularly visceral way. I just finished my junior year and had so many smart, interesting and idealistic friends study abroad in various Middle Eastern countries. It could have been me. It could have been any of them.

That was why reading Batya and Yisrael Medad’s posts about the death of Andrew Pochter made my skin crawl. For background: Yisrael Medad is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post, a member of the Executive Board of Israel’s Media Watch, and a foreign media spokesperson for the settlers’ Yesha Council of Jewish Communities. His wife, Batya, is a newspaper columnist and lives with him in the settlement of Shiloh in the northern West Bank.

In The Jewish Press, Batya wrote an outrageous post entitled, “Why Was Andrew Pochter in Egypt, Not Israel?” She asks, “Are you disturbed by the fact that an American Jewish student is more attracted to Arab society than to Jewish Israeli society?” She wonders if Andrew’s parents “supported his delusion” that he could make a difference in Egypt. And, in the wake of his death, she even asks whether Andrew realized there is “better medical care” in Israel. It “bothers” her that Jewish Americans would truly care about countries other than Israel in the Middle East.

Batya Medad found the situation “disturbing,” but for reasons very different from why I felt so disturbed by Andrew’s death.

Her husband published an equally reprehensible post entitled “Pochter’s Past Left Him No Future.” He snidely points out that Andrew was raised in a family with both Jewish and Christian parents, and concludes:

  • Unfortunately, there are too many American Jewish students with:
  • – no proper knowledge of the Middle East, Arab culture and Islamist custom;
  • – too much enthusiasm and passion;
  • – a progressive/liberal outlook;
  • – too little Jewish background.

Andrew Pochter’s death came far too soon, but he will not die in vain. His life represents the hope of a better, more compassionate and just future. The Medads and others like them still see the world through an “us versus them” prism, still refuse to see how people in the Middle East are interconnected, and still oppose Jewish American interest in any Middle Eastern country other than Israel. But Andrew’s memory, volunteerism, leadership and activism will continue to inspire and guide the rest of us left to further the work he recognized was so important. And I sincerely hope Batya and Yisrael will one day realize that the events, people and conditions in other countries can and will directly impact the events, people and conditions in their own lives. If they refuse to accept this, then they are the ones who are delusional.

Seeing it For Myself: Injustice In the South Hebron Hills

Originally published in The Daily Beast on July 2, 2013. 

Last summer, I traveled with a J Street U delegation to the South Hebron Hills, in the southernmost reaches of the West Bank. Gazing out from an agricultural Palestinian village, we could see two unauthorized Israeli “outpost” settlements, recently erected a few hundred feet away. We saw the outposts’ electrical system and learned they’d been hooked up to a water supply; the Palestinian villagers had neither. This was the face of inequity in Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank.

Twenty years ago, the Oslo Accords divided the West Bank into three parts. On nearly two-thirds of the land, designated as Area C, Israel retained full control—and with that full responsibility for the Palestinians living there. But those Palestinians, who make up about five percent of the territory’s population, do not receive the same services as their Jewish neighbors, who’ve moved in droves into the Israeli settlements that now dot the area. Over the past twenty years, in short, the state of Israel has shirked its responsibilities.

Last month, B’Tselem, an Israeli rights group working in the West Bank, published a new report entitled “Acting the Landlord: Israel’s Policy in Area C, The West Bank.”The report points to a wider effect of Israel’s policies in the areas it controls. “In theory, Israel retains full control in the West Bank only of Area C,” a release for the report said. “In practice, Israel’s control of Area C adversely affects all Palestinian West Bank residents.”

According to B’Tselem, Israeli policy works to serve the water and land needs of Israelis at the expense of the Palestinians. As the group sees it, Israel created a de facto annexation of Area C, and now works to make that a permanent reality through the expansion of settlements.

But water and power are only two concerns: the report also covers the continuing expulsion of Palestinians from their homes. Citing residents who live in South Hebron Hills that the IDF Civil Administration—the Israeli military authority for West Bank Palestinians—refuses to formally recognize, the report states, “Over 1,000 people… currently live under the perpetual threat of expulsion on the grounds of residing in a ‘firing zone.’”

According to Haaretz, the High Court of Justice is now due to consider Israel’s demand to annul a 13-year-old temporary injunction which allowed farmers in the South Hebron Hills to remain in their homes. Israel demanded the expulsion of approximately 1,300 Palestinians, arguing that the IDF needs that land to train in what they designate as “Firing Zone 918.”

This firing zone rationale is a major threat for Palestinians living in Area C. In July 2012, Defense Minister Ehud Barak stated that the area was essential for the IDF’s training, and that Palestinian residents living in eight out of 12 villages must evacuate their homes. The four other villages, located next to illegal Israeli settlement outposts, like the one I visited, were not ordered to evacuate. ACRI, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, filed a petition in response to Barak’s demand.

“It is inconceivable that 1,000 people should be evicted for the sake of military exercises. These evictions, which are tantamount to forced displacement, deny the villagers their livelihood and seize the property of people whose very existence depends upon the land they cultivate,” said Tamar Feldman, an attorney with ACRI, in a statement in January.

Due to the work of ACRI and others, Palestinian villagers won a temporary reprieve from the large-scale eviction. However, their quality of life is highly restricted. The Civil Administration forbids all forms of development, including projects like securing water and electrical systems, setting up additional tents, and digging for water wells.

NGO’s do what they can. COMET-ME is one that helps provide solar and wind power to Palestinians in these areas—but restrictions and changes in status make their work precarious. Without building permits, their projects stand to be wiped away at any moment. That’s because Israel rarely issues such. A study conducted by Peace Now found that, between 2000-2007, 94 percent of Palestinian building permit applications were turned down.

Traveling in the South Hebron Hills, I saw for myself the indefensible conditions in which these Palestinians live, adjacent to Israelis with full water and electricity access. Those who claim liberal outlets like Haaretz and rights groups like B’Tselem take too dour a view of Israeli motives and goals, should see it for themselves, too. Because when one looks over at the land, it’s impossible to ignore the inequities of Israel’s occupation.