Anti-Semitism Vs. Criticizing Israel

Cecilie Surasky is no stranger to being misunderstood, having her faith questioned, and giving the world her two cents. The Philadelphia native was raised in the city of brotherly love, and now she’s in the business of joining two seemingly irreconcilable peoples by stopping historically unchecked hatred and some of the worst violence human beings have committed.

Anti-Semitism Vs. Criticizing Israel

Surasky is the director of communications for Jewish Voice for Peace, a San Francisco organization that calls for (gasp!) both Israeli and Palestinian concessions in order to bring about long-term peace. As often happens to those willing to compromise, Surasky and Jewish Voice for Peace are often the target of organizations and individuals with unyielding opinions on violence, sovereignty, and religion. But she weathers the criticism for what she considers the ultimate cause. “It's like the biggest topic ever!” she says of the conflict. On Thursday Surasky will bring her and JVP’s call for peace to Macalester College with a speech titled “Silencing Peacemakers in the Middle East: Anti-Semitism Vs. Criticizing Israel.”

CP: What was it about St. Thomas University’s canceling Desmond Tutu’s speech that made you so angry, that prompted you to take action?

Cecilie Surasky: There are a couple of things. Certainly Archbishop Desmond Tutu is one of the great peacemakers of our time, bar none. And he’s certainly been outspoken on human rights. The idea that he was being banned from campus and being called anti-Semitic for saying things that were documented by international human rights organizations and Israeli human rights organizations was an outrage. And it was further upsetting that there was no campaign from the Jewish community to have him banned from the university. It seemed that University of St. Thomas Fr. Dennis President Dease took this action to preemptively censor him. But the message people got was that Jews even want Tutu off campus. So that was also upsetting. In the end it actually creates more anti-Semitism and it diminishes the chances for peace to bar peacemakers from dialogue. We absolutely support dialogue, but part of what’s happening isn’t barring people and calling people anti-Semites. They’re people we desperately need to help move the peace process. And those are the people being attacked and called anti-Semites. The other piece of it is that one of the primary pieces of evidence used to condemn Archbishop Tutu was a lie. He was smeared. He was quoted as comparing Israel to Hitler and we knew that was wrong, we knew that it came from the head of a Zionist association, and we knew he never said that. And it appeared over and over again as proof that he was an anti-Semite. It’s stunning to see how this happens, but it does.

CP: What is the single action that the U.S, Palestinians or Israelis could take that would lead to increased peace?

CS: We believe that if the US suspended our military aid of three billion a year until Israel ended its occupation, that would give us the leverage for Israel to back out. Israel should just pull out to its 1967 borders. I don’t think people realize that they’re just building colonies, houses on land that isn’t theirs. It’s astounding. Imagine somebody building a walled fortress with green lawns and sometime swimming pools on your family farm. And there is nothing they can do about it. There is no compensation for people. And the Israelis are not just taking your land--they’re taking your water. The very first thing, no question, is to stop launching Quassam rockets outside of Gaza. That is their primary mechanism for terrorizing Israelis. And I would just say put a ban on killing and harming civilians for both Palestinians and Israelis. The JVP is filled with rabbis, orthodox Jews, former Israeli military--we are from the same family, the same communities, and we might have sat next to them at the same Seder. We are in every single family already, I know it.

CP: Your speech is titled “Silencing Peacemakers in the Middle East: Anti-Semitism Vs. Criticizing Israel.” Explain that a little bit. Do people confuse Jewish Voice for Peace’s stances with anti-Semitism?

CS: Most people when we get out to talk about a just and lasting peace get it. They say ‘Look, Israel is a state like the United States is a state, and they have to abide by certain laws and certain behavior.’ It’s a relatively small group and loose network that call themselves the pro-Israel lobby which is a misnomer. This is a conflict about land, and both sides need to make concessions. They think the best way to support Israel is to make sure they make no concessions. And you see this happening time and time again. There are efforts to torpedo diplomatic relations. They say this is a terrible thing for Israel. And what they’re doing is dooming Israelis and Palestinians to another hundred years of fighting. Many Israelis understand this. So what happens is this charge of ant-Semitism is used to silence people who are working for peace. This happens to people who see that it’s impossible to have a peace based on checkpoints and assassinations. You can not have peace based on that. You can’t bring peace through total submission from military domination--which is what’s happening now. So when people like Tutu and Jimmy Carter speak up about this, they level charges that you’re an anti-Semite, that you’re a self-hating Jew, you’re a terrorist. You hear these things time and time again, and they’re doing Jews a great disservice because they’ve cheapened the charge. It’s the boy who cried wolf. There’s a fear that the charge has been cheapened. There are anti-Semites out there, and it is an issue. And it makes it impossible to deal with it when you open your mouth and are called an anti-Semite. Polls show that most American Jews want concessions on both sides. What is equally pernicious is the campaign to demonize Muslims. The people we should support, who want a pluralistic society and moderate Islam--even those people are being demonized because this battle over there has been brought here to the United States. There’s this fear that any Muslim or Arab is a terrorist, and that’s dangerous. Having a difference of opinions, that’s the American way, and it’s the Israeli way. But silencing dialogue is not.

CP: What does the American Jewish population at large think of JVP? Do they see you as something of a traitor, or are you seeing more and more American Jews wanting political changes similar to those JVP is calling for? CS: If you followed us by what American Israeli Public Affairs Committee and other groups show us to be, you’d think American Jews wanted to go to war in Iraq, and want to bomb Iran. We’re the largest religious group to oppose the War in Iraq--70 percent of Jews opposed it. A plurality of American Jews say we need to make concessions. There is a huge chasm between what American Jews think and what those who say they represent them. It’s a terrible thing that with some people, especially older generations, even saying ‘Palestinian’ or acknowledging that they exist is very emotional. I have spent time with people of every stripe politically, and we can get to a certain place politically where we agree. Nobody wants Israel to be at war forever. People think they’ve been fighting forever, but it’s a conflict over a piece of land. And that’s why it can be resolved. It has taken on religious overtones, no question, but that’s not what it’s about at the root. Yes, it’s uphill battle because it’s such an emotional issue. And JVP is growing, it used to be all-volunteer, and there are other peace groups too that are growing.

CP:Are you hopeful about the new peace talks that just started, or will this amount to one more half-hearted attempt that ultimately will be meaningless?

CS:Well, it’s absolutely easy to assume that it will fail. That’s why those of us that are deeply committed to real peace not just in name only that exploits people, have to do what we can to support it. It’s too early to say. Palestinians have been waiting generations to get out refugee camps, and Israelis have been waiting generations for some kind of sense of peace and an ability to live their lives. So we have no choice but to continue on. Yes, we have many reasons to be cynical--younger Jews are even more willing to make concessions. Our parents and grandparents’ generations have a lot of trauma, as we all do. We have fear from our experiences, and the idea of making concessions is terrifying. Younger Jews, across the board, show significant generational shifts happening. Younger Jews are much more interested in a peace that allows Palestinians to be self-determining as well as the Israelis. I am extremely hopeful about that, it’s changing and will change. It’s a big year. People are talking about negotiations, and that’s good. That’s better than when they’re not. This is our year. I would say it’s an opportunity.

CP: What do you think Americans on the whole don’t understand about the fighting in Israel? What’s the point that we just miss? Or what is the press not telling us?

CS: The no. 1 myth is that people believe that Muslims and Jews have been fighting for thousands of years--nothing could be further from the truth. What they don’t understand is that Israel is occupying land that is in a conflict. In 1967, they got it, they took possession of it, and it’s much more land that the UN charter gave them. They know they can’t annex it--they can’t legally just take it. If they took it, they’d have to give Palestinians legal rights, and they don’t want to do that because they fear they would lose the Jewish character. They’d rather have the Palestinians leave. They’ve made life there increasingly unbearable. They can come in at any time and take your home while you’re standing there screaming with your children. They have checkpoints not for safety but to make life miserable. We hear about this wall on the de facto border, which isn’t real because Israel hasn’t declared its borders. But it’s not built on the border--parts of it are built on Palestinian land, keeping some people from their own farmland. Americans know people are fighting, but they don’t realize that it’s essentially about stolen land. If people did one thing to educate themselves, they should read an Israeli newspaper for a week, read the Haaretz, it’s like the New York Times of Israel. You would be stunned to read what people openly talk about. Read it everyday for a week, and you will never see this conflict in the same way. You will feel betrayed. The American media only lets us know that people are fighting, not why. The good news is that this is not a conflict about religion; it’s about land. And if you realize that it’s about land, you realize there is a resolution. This will not go on forever.

CP: Are you optimistic that there will be peace in the region within ten years, or will it take longer? How much longer?

CS: I can’t say. Things happen overnight as we’ve learned in. In South Africa, we learned that things happen overnight, but as we also learned in South Africa, changes take decades. It’s typically American for us to get excited for a few years, and if it doesn’t happen, we move on. Palestinians and Israelis have been waiting for a solution for years, and there is no question that it is one of the biggest issues today and it will continue to impact the world until we come together and stop it. Our government has clearly failed us. We have to push them to do the right thing. What we do is important--the U.S. is so important. We’re the key to the puzzle. If we said tomorrow that we would not give Israel any money for weapons until they stop the occupation, they would have no choice but the stop. The U.S. supports the worst part of the Israeli government with massive amounts of military aid. It’s a sick process that feeds our military industry, then we dump all these weapons on Israel.

Surasky will speak at Macalester Plymouth United Church on Thursday. Her speech is sponsored by the Mideast Committee of Women Against Military Madness, and the Minnesota Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Free; donations accepted. 7:00 p.m. 1658 Lincoln Ave., St. Paul; 612.379.3565.

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