ZOA’s Klein and pro-Palestinian advocate, debate the issues
At first glance, the fact that the Michigan Student Zionists and the campus chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) cooperated to bring two spokesmen on the Israeli-Arab crisis to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor appeared to be a positive sign.
However, those attending the Michigan Union debate Jan. 21 between Morton Klein, the Philadelphia-based national president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), and Chicagoan Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada Web site, didn’t see understandings reached or bridges built.
Klein took the podium first in the debate.
“I want peace with all my heart and with all my soul,” he said, adding that he was hurt by e-mails sent by ADC supporters branding him a “bigot and a racist.”
“I lost virtually my entire family due to racism and bigotry” (referencing the Holocaust).
Klein then proceeded to delineate how the Palestinian Authority taught hatred and bigotry through their news media, their schools and a whole range of institutions.
“They teach Jews are evil, Jews are fanatics, Jews are treacherous, and there is no alternative to destroying Israel,” he said. “They claim Israel causes cancer and causes mad cow disease.”
Klein asked the audience to “fight against naming streets, intersections and schools for killers” and to “end 90 children’s camps teaching how to be suicide bombers and that Israeli must be destroyed.”
Ridiculing the charge that Israel carries out “genocide” against Palestinians, he noted that the Palestinian Arab population in Israel was 150,000 in 1948, and is now several million. “Whoever is in charge of the genocide program needs to be fired immediately!”
Citing the P.A.’s “persecution and torture” of Christians, its non-recognition of Israel, the small size of the Jewish state and the history of Arab non-recognition and warfare against Israel, he appealed for “moral clarity” that “terrorism is never justified” as well as the “strategic clarity” of fighting, not rewarding terrorism.
“We must stop appeasing the Palestinian Authority, stop funding Yasser Arafat’s regime, put Fatah [Arafat’s political and military faction] on the terrorist list, and bring murderers to justice.”
As opposed to Klein’s lengthy introduction that mentioned the “Arab-Israeli conflict,” Ali Abunimah got a brief introduction by his sponsors mentioning the “Palestinian-Israeli conflict.” When Abunimah spoke, he worked to reframe the issue in just that way.
“Mr. Klein defended himself very well against charges of racism,” he said with some sarcasm, before saying Klein was advocating “ethnic cleansing.” He showed pictures of Israeli children with guns in an attempt to blunt Klein’s statistics about terrorism training for Palestinian children. He claimed Israeli children were also taught “hatred, ethnic cleansing, and how to use weaponry.”
After saying “the vast majority” of Palestinians who have been killed were “unarmed civilians,” including 400 children, he ridiculed Israel’s claim of accidental killings, asking how Israel could “kill hundreds of children by accident.”
He dismissed Klein’s charge of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel indoctrination in Palestinian textbooks by alleging “all his facts are wrong.”
Then Abunimah advanced a theme he would carry throughout the evening and use to belittle Klein’s positions.
According to Abunimah, Israel’s supporters use a “racist theory” that divides people into good and bad “to explain everything.” Alluding to economic divisions in the United States, and comparing Israel to South African apartheid, Abunimah said, “In any time, in any place, where one group enjoys the benefits of economic and military power, you will have conflict.”
Claiming that Zionists were the “original Middle East terrorists who pioneered techniques used against Israeli civilians,” he charged that Israel fired “more than one million bullets” before any Israelis were killed in the current crisis dating to September 2000.
Abunimah ended by defending charges of genocide against Israel and advocating a solution that “must take power from the strong and give it to the weak,” calling it “a simple thing called justice.”
“Israel can’t have it both ways” he said. Either “Israel can withdraw and set up two states for two peoples” or “Israel can have one state for all [Jews and Arabs].”
During their rebuttal periods, Klein supported his previous points and expanded on his understanding of the history of the conflict and the region, while Abuminah again dismissed Klein’s points as “the theory of badness” that ascribed all problems to the Palestinians, and described Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a “notorious war criminal.”
The 400-plus people in the audience were generally well behaved, though Abuminah’s partisans cheered him, made audible remarks during Klein’s presentations and, at one point, began chanting against Israel.
“It was what I expected, a lot of distortions by the Arabs,” said Rae Sharfman of West Bloomfield, who came with one of the carpools organized by ZOA supporters. “They forgot the facts or don’t want to know what they are, and they didn’t answer questions directly. All [Abuminah] wanted to talk about was the ‘occupation.’ Where are all the people screaming against the murders [of Israelis]?”
Rick Dorfman of West Bloomfield, co-chair of the Michigan Student Zionists, thought the program succeeded though “it was not a pleasure working with the ‘other side,’” calling their attitude toward Klein “disrespectful” and “obnoxious.”
“There was some heated discussion that polarized a segment of the room, but there was some really nice dialogue that took place after the debate concluded,” he said. “Most of Klein’s positions were new to the campus community, as U-M has not had a major speaker who came from the right in many years.
“The pro-Israel community is now on record as being the first to reach out to the other in attempts for dialogue. Whether or not it is warmly received by the other side is out of my hands.”
Repeated attempts by the Jewish News to reach the campus ADC chairperson were unsuccessful.