Part of a movement developing nationally on behalf of Palestinians, this is one of many events leading up to a scheduled June 10-11 protest in Washington, D.C., dubbed, "The World Says NO to Israeli Occupation!" In what was a one-sided day of criticism of Israel's treatment of Palestinians and advocacy for divestment, including Arab, Jewish and Christian speakers, the event drew a small crowd of roughly 100 guests to a humanities lecture hall on the UCLA campus. The group ranged in age, though most appeared to be middle-aged, and they came from within and beyond the UCLA community.
Greeting attendees was extensive literature on the topics of occupation, Marxism, socialism, feminism and more set out on tables run by the American Friends Service Committee, the student leg of the Socialist Party, a national group called Radical Women and others.
With a guard at the door at all times, the event kicked off with a speech by Zahi Damuni, co-founder of Al-Awda: The Palestinian Right to Return Coalition, an association of activists and students. Damuni's speech, titled, "The Consequences of Zionism: The Inherent Inequalities of the Jewish State," raised the question of a Palestinian homeland, asking, "Why must we advocate for a fundamental right to return home?"
Damuni spent much time outlining a history of the Jewish people, with many inaccuracies. He described sympathy for "Jewish oppression," which he used, unconvincingly, as a tool to imply sensitivity and an ability to see both sides.
He outlined the oppression of Jews in Europe beginning in the mid-19th century and ending, with pogroms, with no mention of the Holocaust.
"Zionism," Damuni said, "developed because of a huge amount of discrimination that restricted their movements. The Palestinian cause is a direct consequence of Zionism."
Appearing increasingly angry and red in the face, Damuni referred to the "exclusive Zionist state of Israel" as a "colonial project," rooted in racism, that could have been established in three ways: 1) expel the people, 2) kill them or 3) slow transfer. Slow transfer, as he described what he believes has occurred in Israel, consists of the squeezing of a people. It has resulted, in his words, in "ethnic cleansing."
"Although personally," he said, "I don't see what's so clean about it."
"We must be aware of our own power to make change," Damuni said. "Boycotts, divestment and sanctions led to the dismemberment of apartheid in South Africa."
Damuni advocated for these in America, although precisely "how" was yet to be determined.
Damuni is an Arab Israeli citizen from Haifa who identifies as Palestinian. His wife is from the village of Petunya. They cannot live together in their home, he said, because of the geographic division of their roots.
"But," he said with clear derision, "I am a citizen. A happy-go-lucky citizen of Israel."
Paul Hershfield of the CEIA followed Damuni with a short speech on "The Misuse of Anti-Semitism."
A tall, thin man, Hershfield wore a black T-shirt and black pants, had a tattoo peeking out from under his sleeve, and addressed a question from the audience, "What is the difference between a Zionist, an Israeli and a Jew?"
He described how he was raised in a middle-class Jewish household. Born a Jew, he said he hopes to die "a human being." He said he is more interested in humanity than racial/ethnic identity. For this choice, Hershfield described how Jews and Zionists often label him a "self-hating Jew" and discredit his voice on the topic of Israel. Because he criticizes Israel, he is often, he said, deemed an anti-Semite.
"Anti-Semitism," Hershfield said, "is the hatred of Jews for no reason."
He argued that in his opposition to Israel, "we know what our motivations are.
If it's for justice -- it is not racist to oppose a racist ideology."
Introducing the next speaker was Barry Weiss of the CEIA, a descendant of Holocaust survivors. Weiss explained his Holocaust roots as "all the more reason why I oppose Israel's policy of oppression on another people." Appearing solid and peaceful in his belief that Israel should not echo the oppressive past inflicted upon his ancestors, Weiss was the most convincing in his arguments.
Weiss introduced Samuel A. Paul, an ordained Pentecostal minister who holds a doctorate in religious and public policy from Fuller Theological Seminary and was active in the 1980s student movement in South Africa.
In his speech, "Lessons From South Africa," Paul described the demise of apartheid in South Africa in 1994. It was the first time in the history of his nation, he said, "that white and black joined to find solutions."
"Out of the struggle for revolution," Paul explained, "came liberation for all."
A South African Christian of Indian descent, Paul is not a citizen of India, he explained, but also not white, so he was not allowed to be considered South African under the apartheid rules. Despite the fact that he is Christian, he said, his color negated his inclusion in that group, as well. This changed in 1994 under the new regime, when he was finally deemed a South African citizen.
Paul's presentation reached near-gospel outbursts that came at unexpected and often flat moments. His optimism about South Africa today preserved the idealism of the "rainbow nation" while negating the large gap between upper and lower classes, neglected and impoverished townships, and unemployment that continues in his country. To bolster his argument, he painted things prettier and more equal than what has been depicted of today's South Africa in news and other accounts. Paul created a simplistic recipe for change, attributing negotiations and compromise as having been the solo means of reform in South Africa.
"Dialogability," he explained, "only survives under positive intellectual pluralism." Apartheid government was anti-dialogue, he said. "Speechlessness," he posited, "is part of power and obedience."
"Israel," he then argued, "is not thinking of a state, but of segregation, to keep the Jewish state Jewish."
Harshly adopting the language of Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa he spoke of "the Jewish purity of Israel."
Abstractly advocating boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, he concluded with a quote by Chaim Weissman, first president of Israel: "I am certain the world will judge the Jewish state by how it will treat the Arabs."
Cardboard boxes were passed around the room for donations during lunch. The American Friends Service Committee sold Palestinian olive oil.
Afterward, Dr. Leila Al-Marayati, spokesperson and past president of the Muslim Women's League, Kinder USA chair and Muslim Public Affairs Committee board member, followed, speaking on "The Nature of Israel as an Apartheid State."
With the assistance of photos and a PowerPoint presentation, Al-Marayati, an OB-GYN in the Los Angeles area, illustrated her vision of Palestinian life today.
Referring to B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization advocating for the inhabitants of the disputed territories, Al-Marayati described what she saw as policies of discrimination.
"This is first and foremost about people like you and me who are discriminated against in violation of basic human rights because of where they are and who they are not," Al-Marayati said.
From the need for passes and papers, the poor infant mortality rate, and toxicity in the water all the way to extensive road blocking, Al-Marayati described what she sees as a principle of separation through discrimination.
"Violence is the idiom of the region," she said.
"Violence begets violence," said Al-Marayati, frowning on the statement: "There are so many Arabs you can live anywhere."
"This," she explained, "is the racist supposition that all Arabs are the same, and further, that the Palestinian people have no identity nor identification with where they are from."
She concluded, "We should be able to talk about this without being threatened. We need open debate of these issues in the media. In the future, peace and prosperity will come only when we cherish the lives of all children equally."
Further, she argued, "the existence of one should not have to mean the extinction of another."
The forum concluded with a student speaker, Khalid Hussein, co-president of the UCLA branch of Students for Justice in Palestine. He spoke about the University Divestment Campaign. Appearing the most confident of the day's presenters, the least afraid of his own words, there was assuredness in his voice, no anger or apparent manipulation.
"Start with education," he said, "spreading the truth of the situation."