Monday, February 16, 2009

My Report on "Whither the Levant" (Uncondensed)

"Who let the skunks in?"

What follows below is my complete report on the conference held at UC-Irvine on January 31, 2009 entitled; "Whither the Levant". This, as stated previously, was a full day and evening of non-stop Israel-bashing. A condensed and edited version appeared in Frontpage blog and Campus Watch.

On January 31, 2009, I attended an all-day conference at the University of California at Irvine entitled; Whither the Levant-The Crisis of the Nation State: Lebanon, Israel, Palestine. This event was organized by the Levantine Cultural Center of Los Angeles and the Middle East Studies Student Initiative at UCI and co-sponsored by the Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies at UCI, the America Friends Service Committee and LA Jews for Peace. Other individual co-sponsors were Diane Shammas, Jeanette Shammas, Asda Farah, Kanan Hamzeh, Bana Hilal, Lawrence Joseph, Casey Kasem, the Sallam-Shalom Educational Foundation and the Magic Lamp Restaurant of Long Beach (which provided catering.) . The event lasted from 11 am to past 8 pm and consisted of three panel discussions and two films on Lebanon during the war between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. Depending on which event was on-going at the time, attendance was anywhere from 50 to 150 people by my estimation. The audience was overwhelmingly to almost completely anti-Israel. (There may have been a few Jewish students present, but I am not sure.) What follows below is a chronological account of the events. It should be underlined at the outset that this was a completely one-sided conference which condemned the State of Israel. I was the only person in the audience who spoke up and defended Israel. (It was a long and lonely day.)

The day began with a film entitled; Lebanon, Summer 2006, produced by Cedric Troadec, a young Frenchman living in Los Angeles, who had traveled to Lebanon during that period to visit family members and returned to record personal testimonies of Lebanese who had experienced the war. Initial introductions and the film were introduced by Lina Haddad Kreidie, Professor of Middle Eastern History at UCI. Troadec and Jordan Elgrably, a member of the board of the Levantine Cultural Center, then introduced the film. Elgrably stated at the outset that the film was one-sided since they had not been able to interview any Israelis about the war, and that if anyone wanted to hear the other side, they would have to find an Israeli film.

The film, which was about an hour long, began with the caption that on July 12, 2006, Hezbollah had captured two Israeli soldiers on the Israel-Lebanon border, and that Israel responded with a blockade and bombing. What followed was scenes of destruction, drawings of the destruction and death of civilians by Lebanese children and the accounts of Lebanese who experienced the war. As stated, the film was completely one-sided against Israel. Statements were made by those interviewed to the effect that the capture of the two soldiers was a “pretext” for Israel to attack Hezbollah. The idea put forth was that Israel and Hezbollah have been capturing each others’ soldiers for years, and that the attack by Israel was according to a “premeditated plan”. “It wasn’t about the two soldiers.“ In addition, there were critical references to America’s support for Israel. It was also stated in the film by interviewees that Israel had used white phosphorous weapons against civilians, had used Lebanon as a testing ground to try out new weapons produced by “industrialized powers”, and further, that Israel would drop leaflets warning civilians to evacuate and then bomb the evacuation routs. It was also charged by one interviewee that Israel had used cluster bombs as they left Lebanon. Other statements made by interviewees:

“Americans are war criminals in all their wars”
“Hezbollah is not terrorist and never has been”.

In general, the film was quite complimentary to Hezbollah as “having restored Arab honor”, as being a social movement that provided services to the people, etc.

During the question and answer session after the film, I asked Troadec what had happened to the two Israeli soldiers since the film did not address that issue. He stated that their bodies were returned to Israel after the hostilities, and they had been “killed in action”. I stated that according to Israeli reports, the remains had shown signs of “extreme torture”, which Troadec professed no knowledge of . (he later told me privately that Hezbollah never tortured its prisoners.)

In a subsequent question, I asked him if any of his interviewees had expressed any anger toward Hezbollah for its role in the war and if there might have been fewer civilian casualties had Hezbollah not inserted itself in the civilian centers when fighting. I referred to the areas of open land shown in the film on the border. At this point, I had incurred the wrath of the crowd, and when Troadec replied that wars these days are not fought in open spaces like the old British and French wars, the crowd applauded. Subsequent statements from the audience got heated and one lady angrily addressed her comments to me stating that Israel was using American-made weapons to bomb civilians and that as an American, she was ashamed. I replied to her that she could be ashamed all she wanted, I was not (ashamed). I also reminded the speaker that Hezbollah was the same organization that was responsible for killing over 200 US marines in the barracks bombing. (I didn’t get any support there either.) One woman replied, they (the Marines) were invading their country. Generally, I got the impression Hezbollah enjoyed support from the audience.

At this, the first session was concluded, and the audience and organizers adjourned for a Middle Eastern meal next door. (I passed in favor of finding a nearby restaurant figuring no one wanted to eat with me. I had already established myself as the skunk at the garden party.)

After lunch, the crowd grew to about 150 as the first panel discussion took place. The participants were;

Dr. As’ad Abukhalil, a Lebanese professor at California State University at Stanislaus and editor of a blog entitled; “The Angry Arab“.

Dr Nubar Hovsepian, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Chapman University.

Norman Finklestein an independent scholar of Middle East issues and political science, formerly of DePaul University, Finklestein is a controversial opponent of Israel, who left DePaul when he was denied tenure.

Lina Haddad Kreidie moderated. The topic was ; Regional Forces: Lebanon, Israel, Palestine

Norman Finklestein spoke first. He spoke for 35 minutes, going over his allotted time, not unexpected since he is known for long speeches. He began by talking about the latest fighting in Gaza, which he called a massacre. According to Finklestein, Israel had two reasons for going into Gaza:

1 to restore its deterrent capacity and
2 to head off another “Palestinian peace offensive” !!??!

Finklestein then went on to blame the 1967 war on Israel, stating that it all began with Israel’s initial plans to attack Syria. Why according to Finklestein? It was all because Israel had to maintain its deterrent capacity, which he translated as a “fear of Israel”.

He then went on to describe Israel’s “ignominious defeats” at the hands of Hezbollah in recent years, then stating that “Israel had to find a defenseless country to annihilate” That became Gaza, which he described as an “Israeli shooting gallery”. He went on to quote from various Israeli officials , some named, others not as advocating the “punishment of Palestinian civilians“. According to Finklestein, a raid in which 70 Gazan police graduates were killed had been planned well in advance. He referred to author historian Benny Morris as a “full-time propagandist”. He took a side shot at the US Army War College as an entity that “doesn’t believe in human rights“. He claimed that Israel wanted to attack Hamas because they (Hamas) were becoming “too moderate” and a “trustworthy partner for peace“. He also charged Israel with purposely targeting civilians.

I should insert at this point that Finklestein (who is Jewish-born) is not regarded as a serious figure by many because of his historical views and personal agenda against the State of Israel. Certainly, he has his admirers in academia as well (UCI for example). As his reputation attests, Finklestein, when speaking, oozes and reeks of arrogance and condescension. He has a ready litany of colorful little insults to refer to his critics and those who disagree with him. I will come back to this point later. Suffice to say here that having to endure his prolonged monologues is no day at beach.

Next came As’ad Abukhalil, who called Israel a “bloody regime”. In discussing Lebanese history, he charged that Israel had engineered a split between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon. He referred to Pierre Gemayel and his Falangist Party, whom he called “Brown-shirts”. He described the founder of the Falangists as one who had come away from the Berlin Olympics so impressed that he wanted to establish a Nazi equivalent in Lebanon. In referring to Bashir Gemayel, Abukhalil stated that “fortunately, he was assassinated before he could take over the presidency of Lebanon“. He also stated that civilian casualties inflicted by Israel are “never accidental.” He referred to publisher A.M. Rosenthal as “the famous Zionist”.

Abukhalil was followed by Nubar Hovsepian, who echoed the theme of the “massacre in Gaza” by “Israeli terrorist soldiers”. He held up an IDF leaflet which warned civilians to leave their locations-not warning them they would be bombed on the way out. (My recollection is that this leaflet was from the 2006 conflict in Lebanon-I could be in error.)

Hovsepian then went on to talk about how the US tried to destroy the Iranian Revolution and how the authoritarian government of Algeria faced an opposition that resulted in 100,000 deaths in that nation.


Unlike the morning session, audience members had to pass their questions up front on index cards, thus there was no back and forth. I passed up the following question:

Do you condemn recent statements and chants heard at recent demonstrations in LA, Ft Lauderdale and Toronto, in which the following has been said:

“Go back to the ovens”
“You need a bigger oven”
“Go Hitler”
“Long live Hitler”
‘Go Nazi Germany”

Further, do you feel that such statements hurt your cause?

My questions went to Finklestein. First, he stated that “it isn’t my cause”. He said he had never heard of it. Then he went on to state that in his view, such reports were “wildly inflated”. They were “99% per cent made up“. He also stated that they were “a pretext or excuse to change the subject”. He added that such statements were rare or chanted by Israeli provocateurs. He also added that in his experience, his Muslim audiences try to avoid such expressions. Finally, he stated that this was not the issue and referred to people asking him about pogroms in Russia, to which he replies that they should “pull themselves out of their navels”. Finklestein never condemned such statements in his answer, and for this arrogant, dismissive, and false reply, the audience applauded.

Abukhalil also chimed in that in the Florida incident (apparently referring to Ft Lauderdale), a 14-15 year old girl in Muslim headdress was responding to pro-Israel demonstrators who, according to him,
had been shouting, “Death to Arabs”, and “We will burn Gaza”. He dismissed the whole thing as Zionist propaganda.

Another question from the audience had to do with the comments by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about wiping Israel off the face of the map as well as Iranian funding to Hezbollah and Hamas. Hovsepian responded that while he disowned Ahmadinejad’s statements, it was a case of changing the subject. He added that the comments were stupid, but that he (Hovsepian) refused to change the subject. Finklestein also described the comment as stupid, but that it was being used for opportunistic purposes. He also made a gratuitous attack on Condoleeza Rice and drew applause with some reference to “stooges of the US”.

Abukhalil also made a reference to anti -Semitism coming out of our ally Saudi Arabia.(I think I even gave polite applause to that statement.)

The second panel discussion was entitled; Israel, Palestine and the Two-State vs. One State Solution. The panel participants were;

Saree Makdisi, who teaches English and Comparative Literature at UCLA. He is the author of a book entitled; Palestine Inside Out: an Everyday Occupation.

Chuck O’Connell a sociology lecture at UCI, where he teaches courses on race-ethnicity-nationality and the US war on terrorism.

Gabriel Piterberg, Associate Professor of History at UCLA. He is an Israeli Jew who supports the Palestinian cause.

David Theo Goldberg-Director of University of California Humanities Research Institute.

The moderator was Mark LeVine- Professor of Middle Eastern History at UC Irvine.

The first speaker was Dr Makdisi, who, in my opinion, was the most impressive of any of the participants. He is articulate And makes his arguments well. His main idea was that a two-state solution would not work for a variety of reasons. For one, he argued that the populations (Jews/Palestinians are too mixed geographically throughout the area. He also mentioned the “Right of Return” of Palestinians who left the region in 1948 (which, of course would eliminate any notion of a Jewish state.)

Makdisi suggested a one-state solution with everyone staying in their place. (In the Q&A, which again was designed for the audience to submit written questions, I addressed a question specifically to Makdisi which was; In your vision of one state, could Jews live in peace and security after everything that has happened?
His answer was that, of course, it would be messy, but like Europeans and other populations who had fought, it would probably work itself out in the long run. Of course, the issue of Hamas and their charter was not mentioned-nor was it ever mentioned at all by anyone.)

Then Chuck O’Connell took the podium for his presentation, which was quite rambling and disorganized. He talked about racism , nationality and what he termed “ethno-nationalism” as a form of racism. He talked about the distribution of wealth in the US. He mentioned the separation of the peoples by the US-Mexican border. He talked about labor unions, minimum wage laws, trade pacts with Middle Eastern countries that leave the workers under the ruling classes.

A little more on topic, he mentioned a Jewish friend who was critical of Israel in the Gaza crisis but was afraid to express his views with other Jews.

At this point, he seemed to lose his way with his notes, ran over his allotted time and stated that this wasn’t the talk he had planned to give, but it was the talk we (the audience) got .

(In the margin of my notes, I made a notation; no lesson plan.)

Gabriel Piterberg spoke of other countries where “settlers” wiped out indigenous populations. He was also against the idea of a 2 state solution since he felt it would give Israel the possibility of continuing to grow and act as a “settler state”.

He also made a reference to (Israel) dancing on the blood of Palestinian children”, and expressed his hope that the (Israeli) war criminals were brought to justice.

David Theo Goldberg was also against the two-state solution. He favors one secularized, multi-ethnic state.

In his talk, he spoke of the notion of “Jewish superiority”-in other words, Jews-especially European Jews-as racist. He said that Jews were referring to Palestinians as “vermin, rats and worms”. Last week, said Goldberg, a Jewish woman at UCLA screamed at him and his supporters, “You’re killers, you’re scum!” He also felt that initially, the relationship between Jews and Arabs in a new state would be difficult but could be worked out.

I would like to interject at this point that during one of the breaks, Mr. Troadec approached me and asked me my views since I was obviously not in agreement with what was being presented. We had a very pleasant conversation and exchanged many views, most of which we disagreed on. He asked me if I thought his film was one-sided, to which I responded in the affirmative. I told him that I supported Israel’s right to exist and defend itself, and he seemed to agree with that much. I also pointed out to him that not one of the participants was a defender of Israel, thus the entire affair was one-sided.

In an interesting side note, Troadec expressed shame as a Frenchman that his nation had given up its Jews to the Nazis in World War II.

As for the present conflict, I told him that I had no doubt that the Palestinian people had historical grievances, but that, in my opinion, if they had made their case peacefully, they would have had their state decades ago. I also expressed to him my number one concern, which was anti-Semitism in general. While we disagreed on many points, he respected my point of view.

There was also an announcement of an up-coming meeting in the local area between some Palestinian women’s; group and Cynthia McKinney, the anti-Semitic ex-congresswoman who recently ran ashore on a boat trying to deliver who knows what to Gaza. I didn’t catch the date, so I guess I’ll have to miss it.

In the evening (about 5 pm), there was a final panel discussion featuring Abukhalil, Finklestein,Hovsepian, Goldberg, O’Connell, Makdisi and Piterberg. It was moderated by Mark Levine. The topic was if there would be a change in our foreign policy under Obama.

There were some comments that I think are worth quoting. O’Connell made a reference to George Bush as “that idiot from a village in Texas”. LeVine followed that up with, “Does anyone out there want to disagree with that point?” I raised my hand from the back and volunteered the name of Saddam Hussein. I was ignored.

Later Goldberg referred to Bush as an “:idiot savant.”

Piterberg stated, “Obama is Clinton in black skin.” He added that Obama’s cabinet is right out of AIPEC’s wish list”.

O’Connell then drifted off-topic again by talking about the 1960s and campus unrest. He talked about “economic justice.” In the Q&A, he responded to a question about Obama ending US imperialist wars by referring to previous wars when we sent soldiers to kill Asians like Koreans and Vietnamese-then added something about “that was John McCain told us”. (I believe those were his exact words.) He then added that now we are killing Arabs, made a reference to “imperial domination” and talked about ex-soldiers in his classes who have returned against the war.

Then there was the insufferable Mr Finklestein. Once again, when handed the microphone, he went off on a rambling discourse. He was asked a question from someone in the audience (again by index cards) if he had read a certain book by a certain author whose name I did not catch. At this point, there was a loud exchange between Finklestein and a man in the front row. I could not catch the point since LeVine was trying to restore order. Then Finklestein continued . He talked about people like Cheney and Rumsfeld and some other people they appointed like Paul Wolfowitz and a couple of others I don’t recall. He called Cheney a “thug”, a “murderer” and someone you want to baby sit for you. He spoke of Bush “being in his room with Play Station 3” while Cheney and the others were plotting war. At one point, Finklestein continued to ramble on to the obvious annoyance of the other panelists. Then, as he began a new topic; “It was very interesting….” LeVine cut him off to give some else a chance to talk. Finklestein put his chin in the palm of his hand and sulked in silence.

Piterberg added that they (Bush, Cheney, et al) are “evil-not stupid”. He also referred to Israeli infiltration of the US to the point where one can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.

After that event finished, there was a film entitled, Under the Bombs”, a French-Lebanese fictional film about an Arab mother trying to find her missing son in Southern Lebanon in the wake of the 2006 war between Israel and Hamas.

Final observations.

First of all, the entire event was totally one-sided against Israel. There was not one single participant who spoke in defense of Israel or even acknowledged its right to exist. Many of the speakers, as I have outlined, have a visceral hatred for Israel.

In addition, there wasn’t a lot of love expressed for our own country. America was generally portrayed as a willing imperialistic accomplice in the “Israeli campaign of death and destruction against the Palestinian people. “

Personally, I found the ad hominem attacks on people like President George Bush, Dick Cheney and even John McCain as a soldier to be offensive and unprofessional for people who call themselves professors. They have, of course, every right to express their opinions, which are shared by many. However, the fact that there were many young students in that audience made it seem unprofessional to me.

I heard a lot of talk about peace during the day. Yet, no one talked about the right of Israelis to live in peace and be left alone within their own borders. There was also a lot of talk about the killing of innocents. Rocket attacks and suicide bombings against Israeli civilians were not on the agenda, however.

No one spoke out against Hezbollah and Hamas. Hezbollah, in particular, came across as “good guys”. In talking about a one-state solution, in which the Jews and Arabs would learn to live together, no one mentioned the Hamas charter, which rejects treaties or negotiation and calls for the imposition of an Islamic Palestinian state. That never came up.

No one discussed the question of where Hezbollah and Hamas rockets were being aimed at. The answer, of course, is innocent civilians.

None of the people expressed any support for a two-state solution. Do they really envision reconciliation-or do they simply “want it all”? How many people there think that Israel has a right to even exist?

There was no attention given to that 800 pound gorilla in the room-the entire question of Islamic terrorism and Jihad worldwide.

I think the Levantine Center made a strategic mistake in inviting Mr Finklestein, who is an obvious ideologue with no sense of objectivity whatsoever. They could have made their points much more persuasively with more speakers like Makdisi. Instead, they loaded up their panels with speakers who were not only anti-Israel, but showed a disdain for America as well. And as for O’Connell, he talked as if he had walked into the wrong conference room.

Finally, I would hope that if UCI is going to put its imprimatur on an event, it would not be so one-sided.


Anonymous said...

You know, I can't really say much because I wasn't there, but I want to comment on it being "one-sided." That is the the very nature of conferences, Gary. This was billed as a conference, not a debate. So I don't really view that as a valid criticism.

Gary Fouse said...

Thanks, Bryan,
Your criticism is much more thoughtful than the other two guys. (See The 3 Little Pigs)

Gary Fouse said...


This gets into legalistics, but the university allowed its seal to be used on the event's promotion, which they had to quickly remove because it was improper. The event was sponsored in part by the Middle East Studies Student Initiative (History Dept). Is it the official position of the University of California that Israel is the bad guy and that Bush is an idiot?