A mock bomb shelter was set up in Washington Square Park Monday afternoon by a number of local Zionist groups in an attempt to demonstrate the terrorized lives of innocent Israelis living under the menacing specter of Palestinian rocket attacks (with no mention ever made of ethnic cleansing, collective punishment, military occupation, illegal blockade, or constant F16, drone, and Apache air strikes, of course). I attended the multi-media installation, which was produced in conjunction with a few New York graffiti artists with connections to the Zionist outfits, and had some lengthy talks with a number of Israel-supporters. Though definitely frustrating, the conversations were by and large calm and non-combative.*
The single most repeated statement I heard from the young Zionists was: "Israel has shown unprecedented restraint and has never ever targeted civilians." Any mention of the Goldstone Report and its findings, along with all other presentation of the basic facts of the occupation, Israeli/Palestinian history, or Israeli military protocol (such as the Dahiya Doctrine, for example) was met with incredulity and dismissed with a scoff.
"War is hell" was another repeated message, along with the notion that, since Jews had successfully "conquered" the land, it was theirs to do with as they wished. The loss and denial of Palestinian sovereignty and self-determination was all a "sad fact of history." No mention of international law, Geneva Conventions or otherwise, swayed anyone's thinking.
I also heard that "at some point or another in history, everyone has been occupied and oppressed," which was said as a way to justify the suffering of the Palestinians without any hint of remorse or empathy. When the Holocaust was brought up in an effort to make an analogy about human suffering, ethnic cleansing, and military aggression (as well as resistance with regard to the Warsaw Ghetto), the young Zionists refused to accept the comparison. "It's totally different," they said.
The contingent of protesters - few in number, but determined to be heard - chanted "Free, Free Palestine!" and "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free." One pro-Israel attendee, viewing the protest from afar, angrily muttered the word "Nazis" under his breath. Another viewed the protesters with what seemed almost like pity. He explained to a man standing next to him, "These people don't even know what they're saying. 'Palestine' was a name given to Israel by the Romans after forcing the Jews into exile. It comes from the word Philistine. What idiots." A tall, middle-aged man with a handlebar mustache summed up his perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this way: "I'm a military man, so I know, the point of a war is to conquer the other side. Israel won. End of story."
Walking past a group of the young NYU Zionists responsible for putting the bomb shelter together, I heard one of them justify the Israeli destruction of civilian infrastructure and civilian deaths in Gaza by saying, "Hamas sends people where they have weapons caches. So they're killing their own people so they can have good PR against Israel. Yeah, yeah, they purposely kill their own people so they can blame Israel."
Flyers distributed by young female students proclaimed this day "Bomb Day at NYU," and stated, "New Yorkers have snow days. Israelis have bomb days." After noting that rockets from Gaza and Lebanon target civilian communities in Israel, the flyer explained, "There is no military or political purpose to these rockets, only genocidal. As Hamas and Hezbollah say, their goal is to destroy Israel, NOT to achieve peace."
Additionally, the flyer noted that "The bomb shelter is a consequence of hate. And Israeli kids aren't the only victims. STOP HATE." It continued:
"Palestinian media, schools, and mosques teach that Jews are evil and killing Israelis is the highest honor. Trained to be suicide bombers, shoot rockets at Israeli towns, or stand next to those who do, kids are thrown in the line of fire in a vicious war against Israel. Whether they kill Israelis or are killed when Israel responds in self-defense, the Palestinian body count rises. 'Israeli massacres' are reported widely and UN condemnations follow. This horrific calculus is what Palestinian leaders and self-proclaimed Palestinian advocates rely on to demonize Israel. Since 2001, ten thousand rockets have been fired from Gaza at Israelis."The flyer credited the groups Artists 4 Israel, Birthright Israel Alumni Community, and Take Back Zionism for the bomb shelter installation.
"Israelis have been killed sitting in class, driving their cars, and sleeping in their beds. This is hate, pure and simple."
"You've seen this hate here in Washington Square Park, as anti-Israel activists defame Israel, and spread hatred of a people."
I overheard one young Zionist telling an older man that "the number of Israelis killed by Palestinians far outnumbers the number of Palestinians killed by Israel." When the man noted that this didn't sound correct, the speaker held his ground: "No, it's a fact. You can look it up. Actually, it's not even close." I couldn't help myself from interjecting. "Excuse me, sir," I said, "I hate to interrupt, but what you are saying simply isn't true. In 22 days alone during the assault on Gaza in 2008-2009, over 1400 Palestinians were killed by Israeli missiles, mortars, and bullets. That number of Israelis hasn't even been killed in the past twenty years."
The young man shrugged his shoulders and nodded his head. "Yeah, that's a fair point, I guess, if you look at it like that," he said, "You're right."
As I walked away, I heard the older man speak up. "You lied to me, you bastard!," he yelled at the exposed hasbarist.
Most there in support of the installation were of the Anthony Weiner ilk - deny deny deny. There's no collective punishment, there's no occupation, there's no partner for peace, there's no Palestine. Israel never attacks, it only responds - and with great restraint and care for civilians. I heard about human shields, rockets fired from hospitals, mosques and homes, leaflets dropped from the sky. The propaganda was nearly impenetrable.
Nearly. There was one young student who was distraught that protesters had shown up. He thought the bomb shelter installation showed the conflict as it related to children - not to politicians. He hoped that one could take away that the children of Gaza were suffering in addition to those in Sderot. When asked whether the installation provided any context as to "why" rockets might be fired - justifiably or not - from Gaza, he considered the question, then hung his head and admitted, "No." When asked whether the term "occupation" was used anywhere within the installation as a means of educating those who entered, he again said, "No."
This young man, Danny, was quick to condemn the settlements and stated that they should be dismantled immediately. Cast Lead, he said, was a mistake that he hoped would never be repeated. He believed the call for divestment, as he put it, was wrong-headed since it alienated those in Israel who were critical of the governmental policies and who worked for peace and understanding. He told me of a semester he spent as a student at Tel Aviv University, learning about Palestinian identity and historical narrative from his Israeli and Palestinian professors. He credited these academics with opening his mind to "the other side of the story" he had grown up within his "very conservative" Jewish family.
Danny even corrected his Zionist friends when they tried to interject with heavy-handed hasbara. When a young Zionist wearing a yarmulke entered the conversation and began speaking of the legitimacy of the settlements, Danny was quick to point out that every single one of them were "past the Green Line" and therefore illegal under international law, a fact that surprised our new interlocutor. "Really," he said, "they're all illegal? Oh, I didn't know that."
Danny also said that - if he had to choose - he would rather live in Sderot under threat of rocket attacks than live in Gaza as a Palestinian. The suffering of Gaza as opposed to Israel, he said, was "incomparable" and it was undeniable that the Palestinians were far worse off. "It's horrible, horrible," he said. "It's unbelievable what they go through." Danny credited the suffering not only to the Israeli blockade and air strikes, but also to the repression and religious doctrine of Hamas.
Nevertheless, he viewed the bomb shelter installation as a humanitarian teaching tool, rather than a piece of Zionist or anti-Palestinian propaganda. He suggested that a better form of protest against the bomb shelter exhibit would have been if a checkpoint had been set up at the entrance of the park by protesters to show what Palestinians go through, rather than just holding signs and chanting against Israeli apartheid. He thought that would have been a more effective way to provide context. I was inclined to agree (not being a fan of chants myself), though I do think that dropping white phosphorous on passers-by and preventing them from seeking shelter anywhere might have been a more realistic way of demonstrating what life in Gaza is like.
At one point, I spotted Danny absent-mindedly mouthing along to some of the chants himself. As protesters cried out, "Resistance is justified," Danny's lips mouthed the words "when people are occupied." I don't think he realized he was doing it.
* With one notable exception:
Also, not all interactions between the installation supporters and protesters were civil. Many of the young Zionists periodically approached the chanting protesters with the intent of instigating confrontations. Jewish protesters were routinely accused of being "traitors" and a "disgrace to [their] people."
At one point, the Israel-promoting NYU students mocked an older protester about his age during a discussion about the accuracy of biblical history: "I guess you'd know more about what happened back then, considering you were there."
Hey, no one ever accused Zionists of having class. Or a good sense of humor.
An edited version of this article was originally posted on Mondoweiss.