Sunday, August 10, 2014

Adventures with Zionists

An experience not to be missed

The last six weeks of escalating Palestinian-Israeli calamity has introduced me to a whole new adrenaline-driven experience, to wit, confronting others on Facebook with whom I have a fundamental disagreement about what Israel has been doing to Palestinians since its founding.

I won't say that the sometimes intractable nature of my differences with others persuades me that there is no hope, but it has convinced me that I don't have the skills to negotiate some of the vast differences of opinion that I've encountered.  I'd like to keep responding to their arguments, but by now I have the feeling that with some of them a lot of what I say is falling on deaf ears. I can't deny that our continuing and repetitious verbal disputes are tiring.

Perhaps I flatter myself excessively when I say that I think I'm pretty good at focusing on substance, but I am aware that many of the people with whom I disagree feel that I'm the problem. Some have quite purple feelings about who I am and what the f*ck I'm saying. But it's not like I haven't run into an absolute buzz saw of opposition before about my position in favor of Palestinian self-determination.

Natan Sharansky comes to town

In Ann Arbor years ago--the summer of 1986 to be exact--I was approached by a representative of the UM-campus branch of Hillel, a national Jewish youth organization which could legitimately be described as Zionist. He wanted me to participate in a program featuring Natan Sharansky, at the time (and forever after) the most famous of Russian refuseniks.

Sharansky was regarded by the Reagan administration and by many American Jews as both a symbol and exemplar of human rights activism. He had suffered through harassment and long imprisonment in the Soviet Union and had finally been released and allowed to leave that country in February, 1986.

American Jewish organizations had managed to get Sharansky to tour the U.S. and appear in a months-long series of events designed to focus on the plight of Russian Jews as an international human rights issue and to highlight Israel's willingness to accept any number of Russian Jews who might be willing to make a new home there. It seems a safe assumption that the sponsoring organizations also believed that Sharansky's story would play well in the media, in general, and keep the mainstream of American Jewry invested in Israel as a second home for Jews around the world.

As a member of the Ann Arbor City Council at the time, and a staff member of the American Friends Service Committee, I was publicly identified with a wide variety of human rights issues, among them equal rights for lesbians and gay men, free access to reproductive services for low-income women, and an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. My version of human rights seemed unlikely to win friends among an audience gathered to greet Sharansky. I said so to the young man from Hillel who invited me to the event.

Under almost any circumstances, I should have been pretty low on the list of likely suspects for introducing Sharansky. But it was summer, and Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Don Riegle were out of the state at the time. Equally unwilling to help was Ann Arbor's representative in the House, Republican Carl Purcell, whose staff didn't know who Sharansky was and who were easily alarmed by phrases like "human rights."

In desperation, the well-intentioned Hillel kid had called the mayor of Ann Arbor, Jerry Jernigan, another Republican. Given that Sharansky had celebrity bona fides on an international scale, the mayor's office was pretty much the bottom of the celebrity barrel. But when the kid mentioned human rights, Jernigan couldn't see his way clear to help out, either. "Epton," Jernigan said. "You need Epton. He's into that stuff."

So there it was. I tried to explain to the young man, who was shouldering the organizing load for the event because Hillel's director was also out of town, that his idea of pairing me with Sharansky wasn't going to work out well, but he insisted. "I think the Jewish community is mature enough to respect differences of opinion about human rights," he said.

I told him that I didn't think he fully understood what might happen and invited him to my house for a beer and a more detailed discussion about the can of worms he proposed to open. He accepted the invitation, showing up with a second member of his group. We made a congenial threesome and drinking steadily and to great and positive effect--I was anyway--I repeated in detail what I had told him before. My recitation went something like this:

"The audience that's going to show up to see Natan Sharansky, is not only not going to be interested in me or my expansive definition of human rights, they're going to be pissed off by a lot of what I say, and they're going to be pissed off that I'm standing there between them and Natan Sharansky and pissed off that they're not going to see him or hear him until I shut up and go away."

The rest of the conversation went more or less like this: me, socialist and avid supporter of Palestinian self-determination; Sharansky, refusenik, also Zionist hero and, in my humble opinion, Reaganite tool.

The kid, who was actually the president of the Hillel U-M campus chapter, was cheerful, positive and optimistic. He seemed to love how worked up I was, though it was obvious that neither he nor his friend had not heard all that many dissenting views about Israel from other Jews. He insisted that  Sharansky and I, our political differences and shared values, would be great for fostering discussion within the local Jewish community. His buddy concurred.

"Okay, then."

I came up with a speech 12 minutes long. It was going to exceed my slot on the agenda by two minutes, but I figured I would get away with it. I was wrong.

At the appointed time I appeared on the stage at U-M's Hill auditorium and began speaking. I had gotten about as far as "the concept of human rights should be seamless..." maybe two minutes into my speech when a scattering of coughs erupted around the theater. A little confused by the interruption, I stopped, but the coughing grew and spread. An epidemic.

I kept speaking, even backtracked out of a concern that some in the audience might have missed what I had been saying. That this was a completely clueless assessment of the situation became entirely obvious within the next minute as some people in the audience began standing and yelling for me to get off the stage.

Finally tuned in to the fact that reactions I had predicted earlier had manifested, I was still mildly surprised. At that point, after all, I hadn't yet mentioned Palestinians. I was still building a case for a definition of universal human rights, but the crowd had already accurately intuited where I was heading.

Someone approached me from behind as I stood at the podium. It was the Hillel kid. "You should wrap it up," he said, in a polite indoor voice. I could hear him, but the crowd had come down with a coughing fit and wouldn't have heard him if he had been screaming at me.

"You invited me to be here. You should be telling them to be more courteous," I said as he turned and walked away.

Looking back out at the audience, which had already transitioned to crowd on its way to becoming a mob, I jumped ahead to my commitment to self-determination for Palestinians and my belief that no definition of human rights that included Soviet Jews and excluded Palestinians was valid. At this point, the mob was screaming for metaphorical blood, people were standing. Faces contorted with anger, they were shaking their fists.

I wasn't frightened; I felt oddly detached, but also believed that even though the rage in the auditorium was a palpable thing, I was in no real danger. I recognized a Hillel board member who had legally changed his name to an Israeli-style name intended to convey his fierceness and his descent from Judah Maccabee, or some other legendary Jewish fighter. In the performance unfolding before me, he was definitely a lead actor.

I was again approached from behind. "You should leave," someone said.

I did. I walked off the stage into the audience. The crowd quieted, parted enough to let me through, and watched me leave.

Outside, it was still summer, still light. The broad stone stairway down from Hill Auditorium was empty. I felt somehow liberated. Three friends, who had been in the auditorium but had left before me were waiting at the bottom of the stairs. One of them, Rose Hochman, was crying. She hugged me. We all agreed that I had done what I had to do.

The next day, the debacle was a front-page story (below the fold) in the Ann Arbor News. I do regret that I never saved a copy of the story, or of the headline, at least. I'd like to get a t-shirt made emblazoned with "Epton driven from lion's den" positioned dead center on the shirt.

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