by Mark Bergen
It was an event in which egotistical agitators provoked the fragile, isolated state of Israel. Or it was a case of baldly shameless Israeli commandos attacking ambassadors of humanity. Or a little of both. Or, maybe, neither. It all depends on where you stand. The attempt of the Mavi Marmara ship to pass through the Gaza blockade ballooned an already intractable conflict, one that has been waging for years and years.
And for a couple hours last Thursday evening, motivated New Yorkers stood firmly on the sidewalks of Atlantic Avenue, entrenched on their respective sides.
Al-Awda New York, a grassroots group dedicated the incomprehensibly complicated notion of “Palestinian return,” invited a group of activists who were on the Mavi Marmara to speak. To tell the real story. More than a hundred arrived to the small strip of downtown Brooklyn that is sprinkled with Islamic stores. It was held inside the House of the Lords Church, a charismatic Pentecostal congregation, which the event organizer’s praised as a gracious, brave host.
Natasha Rivera did not agree. “They’re fake Christians,” she said of the church, standing on the opposite side of the street behind a small police barricade. A lithe brunette, Rivera came out to protest this “so-called church” and the people therein who “support terrorists and terrorism.” Rivera, she told me right off the bat, “is a Christian.” She heard about the event from Stand With Us, a fervently pro-Israel group. She could safely be called part of Christian Zionism, a multifarious movement of Evangelicals that offer unconditional support for the sole Jewish state. She held up a sign that accused Hamas of sending rockets from Mosques. A few dozen joined her, some wearing yarmulkes, and raising Israeli flags and placards that read: “Peace Activists Don’t Use Knives and Clubs.”
“[It’s] a con job long time in the making,” Dan Brooks said of the church’s event. A Jewish protester, Brooks claims to be one of the brains behind “We Con the World,” the snarky viral video that lambasted the world’s reproach of Israel after the flotilla. He sees it as his duty to “be on the scene at every radical event,” as he was last night. Brooks accused Hamas and their supporters of being needlessly inflexible. They offered “no compromise,” he said, and refuse to promote a two-state solution.
Brooks is an artist. And he sees his strongest role for his beloved nation as educating people about the country through his aptly named group, “Artists for Israel.” At earlier events, he noted, he and his cohorts set up “brainwashing stations,” dramatic reenactments to demonstrate that “they’re just brainwashing people” Who? I asked. “The Palestinian movement in general.”
Brooks’ counterpart inside the church was Iara Lee, a a soft-spoken, Brazilian-born documentarian who recorded footage aboard the Mavi Marmara. Her artistic mission, she told the audience, was to “show people can use creativity to resist war.” She showed her roughshod, cinema verite clips of the scene onboard the famed ship. Before Lee in the “so-called church,” came Kevin Overdon who railed against the “so-called impartial inquiry” on the flotilla raid Israel set in place. (He mentioned David Trimble, an Irishman assigned to the inquiry who, two month prior, had started a “Friends of Israel” group.) Overdon, a British activist, was a provocative speaker. “Their blood,” he said of the nine killed aboard the ship, “is now lapping on the shores of Gaza. But their blood has not shed in vain, because the tide has turned.” The blockade would be removed, Overdon promised. And the flotilla event was the catalyst for his movement’s eventual triumph.
Al-Awda had invited Ahmet Unsal, a former member of the Turkish Parliament who was on the ship, to speak. He is also a member of member of IHH, an international non-governmental organization based out of Turkey, otherwise exhaustively known as The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief. Unsal, however, did not make the event. He was apparently restricted by the successful efforts of several NY politicians who teamed up with a high-profile Jewish organization to keep him out. They claimed the IHH is tied to Hamas. The State Department, however, did not validate the claim. But Unsal, the organizer’s said, was still unable to obtain a visa.
This did not go unnoticed inside.
One of the speakers prompted the audience “to stand up to the new McCarthyism,” a slight against the legislators who attempted to blacklist Unsal. Each local politico was called out by name to a chorus of boos. Quinn. Boo! Stringer. Boo! Nadler. Boo! Rangel. Boo! (David) Weprin. Boo! One woman in the back row of the balcony heaved a resonating “Shaaaaame!” “It’s no exaggeration,” the speaker asserted, “to say their hands are dripping with blood.”
But the harshest language was reserved for NY’s Democratic chieftain, Chuck Schumer. “When you look up ‘weasal’ in the dictionary,” the speaker said of our senior Senator, “his name is there.” Schumer recently drew attention for a speech at the Orthodox Union where he called for action to “strangle [Gaza] economically.”
As the speaker concluded, he introduced a man most definitely “not a politician,” but a revolutionary. City Councilman, former Blank Panther and recently declared gubernatorial candidate Charles Barron stepped to the pulpit, leading the crowd with cheers of “Free Palestine!” His speech quickly morphed into a campaign stump, where he blasted his party for its all white slate. He heralded a strange call-and-response to rub this point in. “Cuomo?” “White!” Both Barron and Ovenden framed their cause squarely in line with black liberation movements, drawing parallels with South African apartheid and dropping Steve Biko’s name. (At one point Ovenden summoned Malcolm X: “Perhaps he would say, ‘We didn’t land on Israel. Israeli landed on us.’”)
One city politician who was not mentioned was standing across the street. Dov Hikind, a Democratic Assemblyman who represents the swaths of Orthodox Jewish communities in Borough Park, called the flotilla deaths a “tragedy without question.” But the “people responsible,” he told me, “were the people from IHH.” He claimed that IHH had funded the ship, and “organized the violence; the confrontation with Israelis.” His position is more or less aligned with 85 U.S. Senators.
The most strikingly bizarre thing about the whole messy affair is where the two sides agreed. When I asked Hikind about the response in his district to the flotilla incident, he responded that “everyone was upset.” Naturally. But they were mainly peeved about the “one-sided coverage.” He cited CNN’s unfair blame of Israel in the immediate aftermath, as the facts where still trickling out. Inside the church, Lee prefaced her footage as images the Israeli government tried to block. They “didn’t want the world to know.” Likewise, Brooks saw his role as combating dangerous myths about Israel perpetrated in-where else?-the media.
Both sides’ outsized ire toward the media-an industry that we are told is increasingly dying, fractured, and decidedly not authoritative-seemed odd, given the actual issues at stake. But I can see how people in the city who care passionately about Israel-Palestine, or have loved ones one either side, might be overwhelmed by futility. The easiest option is probably to hurl insults at cable news.
And so I left with a bit of renewed gratitude that I don’t, in my daily life, have to deal with a right-wing Israeli government, or Hezbollah rockets, or a U.S. funded IDF, or a nuclear Iran. I only have to contend with Wolf Blitzer.
Mark Bergen has mixed feelings.