Staff writer and former daily editor, Leo Bevilacqua, offers his account of last night’s panel hosted by the Center for Palestine Studies, which spotlighted journalist Ben Ehrenreich’s experiences in the West Bank. Read on to see how Israeli-Palestinian discourse, in Leo’s interpretation, can be improved and why he believes demonizing the enemy does not function as an effective strategy in raising support for an oppressed body.
A fairly homogenous crowd at the Center for Palestine Studies (CPS) first event of the semester, “The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine”, piled into the World Room at Pulitzer Hall. Suddenly, co-director of the CPS, Rashid Khalidi, made his way to the podium at the front of the room. His introduction discussed the importance of hearing different narratives in light of the current U.S. administration, which he referred to as a ‘regime’. He then brought up CPS as one of a kind in the Americas before shifting to a litany of organizations, including “Jewish” ones, threatening its existence, which he also referred to as ‘regimes’.
Ben Ehrenreich, upon introducing the guest of honor, walked in accompanied by panelist Colm Tóibín beside a table with more than just a couple water bottles dotting it, a clear indication, if any, of the night’s contentious topic. However, Ehrenreich would barely reach for a single bottle of water for the remainder of the night and would maintain his quiet composure and cool, smug smile. His content manner foreshadowed the night’s proceedings and mirrored the almost universal head nodding that commenced during Ehrenreich’s primarily anecdotal account of his travels in Palestine. Suddenly, Obama’s farewell address warning against confirmation bias and convenient narratives became abundantly clear. Many in the crowd were excited to hear Ehrenreich discuss his new, celebrated book, however a female student beside me could not help feel that the self-congratulatory nature of the presentation was off-putting.
Tóibín pressed Ehrenreich for clarification of some of his terminology, particularly his use of the term “incremental genocide” in reference to Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank. He continued to press Ehrenreich further, inquiring whether referring to Israelis, descendants of Holocaust survivors, as Genocidists was justified. Tóibín’s attempts to distance Ehrenreich from his own ideology and speak plainly was lost on the ears of a crowd that were equally attached to the same ideology, of Israel as an apartheid state. The event called into question the meaning of an academic forum with no contention, no argument, and no dialogue. Ehrenreich cleansed the Palestinians of any fault or error by leaving out discussion of the intifadahs and justifying all Palestinian resistance. The forum, which more resembled a rally, reached a fever pitch when one audience member asked if Israel can be referred to as ‘fascist,’ which prompted another audience member to attempt to co-opt the narrative of African Americans in America and apply it to Israel and Palestine. Murmurings that current Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu’s father was a fascist could be heard in the now excited audience.
Again, the most fascinating aspect of the forum was the list of facts that the venerated yet cynical journalist Ehrenreich left out. Referring to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as “legendary” and leaving out the education and hospitals that Israel allows the Palestinians access to erased all of Israel’s support. One such erasure of Israeli support was when Tóibín probed Ehrenreich for knowledge of the Palestinian educational system sponsored by Israel. Ehrenreich replied that he did not know of their existence. On the whole, Ehrenreich’s answers were brief and rehearsed. One woman approached the microphone timidly and asked whether any Israeli activity or organizations within Palestine had justification, to which he replied with a simple “No.”
Shying away from calling Israel a democracy and referring to it as a settler-colonialist society on the road to genocide only polarized his argument. Devoid of evidence besides vague descriptions and anecdotes such as his simple “No” in reply to one audience member, Ehrenreich spun a dangerously black and white narrative that spurred the crowd into a frenzy, something that should alarm any member of the Columbia community no matter their personal criticisms of the Israeli government.
Ehrenreich’s anecdotes that criticized the Israeli people were uniform in that that he painted Israelis as hedonistic, capitalistic, and capricious bodies. Comments like Israel courtrooms lack any of the “decorum” of their U.S. counterparts undermined Israeli democracy. Stories describing young Israeli soldiers stationed at checkpoints preoccupied on their phones and Facebook stole away the identities of Israeli soldiers and delegitimized their own sacrifice. His accounts of court translators that were also on their phones unmoved to the sentencing of Palestinians they were meant to represent recalled early stereotypes of Jews in Eastern Europe as greedy and selfish. demonized his opponent: Israel. One such term that spoke to the hypocrisy in the way in which Ehrenreich went about his righteous portrayal of the downtrodden Palestinians was the way he referred to Tel Aviv society, particularly its Nightlife, as “brutally hedonist”. Tel Aviv night life is geared in part to the LGBTQIA community, which puts the city on the map as a haven of inclusivity and liberalism. Interestingly, Israel’s progressivism stands in stark contrast to its surrounding societies in the Middle East. A fact the elderly, caucasian woman donning a kafiyah in the third row was no doubt ignorant of. Ehrenreich’s ideology like all ideology is too technical for an issue so complex and rife with such strong emotions. While hearing Ehrenreich’s phrase, “brutally hedonist”, reverberate from the microphone, I was reminded of the immortal words of the late president John Fitzgerald Kennedy, “[Israel] can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success.”
Ehrenreich’s invective and injurious portrayal of Israelis will not help the plight of the Palestinians but maintain the same divisive rhetoric that has rendered the Israeli Palestinian conflict a stalemate for decades. As future lawyers, actors, writers, CEO’s, artists, doctors, entrepreneurs, business owners, academics, and citizens of the world, we have to hold all discourse to a higher standard whereby we can tame, to quote the immortally wise Aeschylus, “the savageness of man.”