Sole protester greets otherwise unchallenged Lieberman

Harold Tanner, Avigdor Lieberman, Malcolm Hoenlein at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations off-the-record session. (Conference of Presidents)

Every once in a while I end up at precisely the right spot at precisely the right time. Sunday 10 December 2006 was one such instance. I raced over that morning to the Ritz-Carlton at 22nd and M Street in Washington, DC with the hope that Member of Knesset Avigdor Lieberman was indeed speaking at 8:30 am.

I parked, charged up the stairs, and then calmly walked in. I was sporting my wedding suit and a classy yellow tie. Hair cut short. Other than the touch long beard and some scuffs on my black dress shoes, I very much looked as though I belonged. And, in fact, it’s a shame I was not invited to the Saban Forum 2006 on “America and Israel: Confronting a Middle East in Turmoil.”

I would have liked the opportunity to stand up and ask how attendees plan to confront a region in turmoil with a racist like Lieberman at their side. I would have liked to question Lieberman directly on his bigotry. The transcript has not been posted to the Saban Center for Middle East Policy website as of yet and so it’s unclear to me whether anybody participating in the conference had the integrity to do so.

Do I hold out hope that Lieberman could change? Yes, of course, such things have happened on rare occasions and I hope this will be one, but there is little prospect of it when members of Congress and other officials fail to call Lieberman to account.

At the bottom of an interior set of steps in the Ritz-Carlton I encountered Rep. Tom Lantos. I had seen Lantos on Friday evening (in front of the State Department when I was holding a one-man demo/vigil and asking Saban Forum guests to speak out against Lieberman’s racism) and so this was the second time I was asking him to challenge Lieberman’s viewpoint. He quickly moved away without saying a word. That was a shame because Rep. Lantos is a man who should be speaking out strongly against Lieberman. Congressman Lantos is a determined defender of Israel, though all too often he defends practices that ought not be defended.

Still, I had very much hoped MK Lieberman would prove to be a proponent of views too bigoted for Lantos. If they are, Lantos certainly is not saying. This is doubly troubling as Lantos is now the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. His opinion counts more than ever and yet when it comes to oppression administered by the Israeli government he is silent.

After my encounter with Lantos I paused to consider my options. I clearly was not getting into the conference room. I decided to head back up the steps to see if anybody was milling around at the top. I had just gone a few steps when suddenly I saw Avigdor Lieberman descending. This was a stroke of tremendous good fortune. Yet despite this encounter having been my fervent hope, I quickly realized I had not prepared for the moment as fully as I might have.

As I had not thought through what I would say I simply blurted out what was most on my mind and what ought to have been on the minds of all the Saban Forum participants. This man is a racist. And so that’s what I said.

You are a racist. You are a racist and your views are not welcome here. He looked fairly taken aback. I presume he had not anticipated such a response at Saban. We were just feet away. I am not sure if it was his entourage and security with him or not, but I suspect it was. In any event, the former bouncer did not attempt to bounce me down the steps and, in fact, nobody said a word. I continued, projecting my generally soft-spoken voice as best I could without shouting. He was quickly out of sight.

As a consequence of this encounter, I know that at least one person confronted him. But did anybody else?

As a consequence of this encounter, I know that at least one person confronted him. But did anybody else? Did any members of the House or Senate attending the forum challenge him later that morning? Sen. Joe Lieberman was the scheduled respondent to MK Lieberman’s talk. Did he challenge him on his infamous anti-Arab statements and his proposals for land swaps that amount to ethnic cleansing of Arabs from Israel? How about James Wolfensohn and Ami Ayalon? The Clintons? Rep. Jane Harman? Saban’s Martin Indyk? The New York Times’s Thomas Friedman? The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl?

Amb. Dennis Ross? In fact, I am most doubtful about Amb. Ross. Later that same week Amb. Ross countered Hisham Melhem in a radio interview with Diane Rehm by saying that, in fact, he had just heard MK Lieberman and that he does not back ethnic cleansing but rather redrawing the map. Left unsaid by Ross was that it amounted to the same thing as it would strip thousands of Arabs living in Israel of citizenship without their approval and consign them to a Bantustan of a Palestinian state under the threat or reality of constant domination by Israel.

After I had said my piece to MK Lieberman I was escorted out. Later, across the street, three federal agents interrogated me. I told them that if they wanted to know where I was coming from on these issues and on my commitment to nonviolence that they should know I used to be the executive director of Partners for Peace. I thought, wrongly, that this and reference to my Quaker upbringing might allay their concerns. It did not. They asked me to open my jacket and lift my pant legs. I complied. When asked, I gave them a large hint as to my name (please don’t confuse me with the Michael Brown who made such a mess of things with FEMA) and they got it. Later, they referred to me as Mr. Brown. When I left it was clear that an agent was following me. I crossed the street and doubled back to him to inquire. There was no denying it and so he did not. I asked him if he planned to follow me all the way home and he said no. I think he told me the truth.

It was troubling to be made to stand on the far side of the street when the other sidewalk was used by anybody happening to pass by. I was told it was private property. I could understand inside the hotel, but I did not take kindly to being forced off a sidewalk for political speech. I have contacted the ACLU.

The ACLU lawyer asserted I might have a case on free speech concerns, but that there was little I could do about the FBI harassment that came on 12 December, just two days after my encounter with MK Lieberman.

The ACLU lawyer asserted I might have a case on free speech concerns, but that there was little I could do about the FBI harassment that came on 12 December, just two days after my encounter with MK Lieberman. I got a call from Partners for Peace, my employer from 2001-2005, saying the FBI had just called and had asked if they knew I was saying things about Sen. Lieberman. Fortunately, the intern there could correct them and note that they were conflating Sen. Lieberman with MK Lieberman. Certainly, this does not instill confidence in government. When I called Sen. Lieberman’s office for help in sorting this out, they advised instead that I call my own member of Congress. I did so.

Just over a month has passed since the run-in with MK Lieberman. I have not to my knowledge been further tracked by the FBI though I have yet to board a plane or attend a hearing on Capitol Hill.

MK Lieberman has certainly not reined in his racism and in fact is backing his colleague, MK Esterina Tartman, in her anti-Arab bigotry. On 11 January Tartman blasted the decision of Labor MK Amir Peretz to appoint Israel’s first Arab minister, MK Raleb Majadele. She dubbed it “a lethal blow to Zionism” that would harm “Israel’s character as a Jewish state.” In a frenzy of racist hatred she declared, “We need to destroy this affliction from within ourselves. God willing, God will come to our help.”

The racism of Yisrael Beiteinu reached a feverish pitch before both MKs Tartman and Lieberman backed down and said they would vote for Majadele (presumably following considerable pressure and consternation at such open racism).

Nevertheless, it is time for the participants in a December 2006 off-the-record session with MK Lieberman hosted by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, “the coordinating body on international Jewish concerns for 52 national Jewish organizations [51 listed on website],” to release any comments they made denouncing or supporting MK Lieberman. They need not further report on what Lieberman said or others stated, but they should have the courage to say what, if anything, they themselves said to Lieberman about his racist outlook.

The Conference of Presidents website merely presents a brief summary of what MK Lieberman stated alongside a photograph of Harold Tanner (Chairman of the Conference of Presidents), Avigdor Lieberman, and Malcolm Hoenlein (Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents). No indication is provided that either Tanner or Hoenlein did the right thing and called MK Lieberman to account for his explicitly racist views.

Instead, his presentation was summarized as follows:

“Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman addressed the Conference of Presidents in an off-the-record session, and spoke about Iran, Israeli-Palestinian relations, and the Israeli-Arab community. The Iranian threat is directed not only towards Israel, but to the international community as a whole. Comparing Ahmadinejad to Hitler, Minister Lieberman said that should Iran acquire nuclear weapon capacity, this would lead to a regional nuclear arms race.” [My note: Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric certainly is vile. Apparently the Anti-Defamation League agrees with Lieberman’s comparing Ahmadinejad to Hitler as it has not stepped in and criticized such language as it usually does with Hitler and Nazi comparisons. It is also the case that Israel already started this regional nuclear arms race decades ago.]
The document continues:
“He also spoke about the Oslo Accords, and said that the process was based on three misconceptions:

1. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the main cause of violence in the Middle East. 2. The conflict is a dispute over territory. 3. The conflict is limited to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. In fact, he said, it includes the Israeli-Arab community as well.

He advocated an exchange between Israel and the PA of territory with Jewish and Arab populations, which he referred to as the Cyprus model. There is a clash of civilizations - a conflict of values - between Jews and Arabs, and there can only be peace if there is separation between them.”

The final paragraph here should be well noted. Here is a major Israeli official speaking directly of separation between Jews and Arabs — referred to in different world circumstances as a component of apartheid, Jim Crow, or ethnic cleansing — without being roundly condemned as a racist. Are the organizations that comprise the Conference of Presidents prepared to stand by and accept such bigoted notions from a prominent Israeli Member of Knesset? He is, after all, suggesting that nearly 20 percent of Israel’s population ought not to be included in Israel.

Debra DeLee of Americans for Peace Now, a member organization of the Conference of Presidents, has vigorously challenged MK Lieberman in the Jerusalem Post. She stated in her article: “ ‘In my opinion [Lieberman’s], the main problem, the obstacle, are [sic] Israel’s Arabs,’ Lieberman told a reporter in 2002, asserting that ‘90 percent of Israel’s Arabs will have to find themselves in the Arab entity that will be established there,’ not within Israel. ‘It may seem brutal and sound brutal, but there is no other solution,’ he said. ‘They have no place here. Let them take their packages and go to hell,’ he added, using a Hebrew slang profanity borrowed from his native Russian.”

The position of Americans for Peace Now is clear, but what about the other 51 member organizations such as AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, JINSA, and the ZOA?

The position of Americans for Peace Now is clear, but what about the other 51 member organizations such as AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, JINSA, and the ZOA? Did they speak out and if so what did they say? Did the organization members uphold basic human rights, common decency, and the values DeLee, for her part, put forward so powerfully?

MK Lieberman is not going away and appears not to be moderating his views. As the second most popular politician in Israel — after the demagogic Binyamin Netanyahu — serious thought must be given to the prospect of Lieberman as a future prime minister of Israel. Are organizations that could challenge Lieberman on his racism doing so or are they standing quietly by and being used as Lieberman climbs to power?

The same question ought to be put to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who reportedly met with Lieberman during the same visit and took advantage of the opportunity to practice her Russian. Whether she called him out for racism in English or Russian is not the issue. What is important is that she expressed deep reservations in one language or the other about his bigoted rhetoric.

As for the mainstream news media, it is inexcusable that they allowed the Lieberman visit to come and go with no coverage of the man and his views. With Yisrael Beiteinu back in the news this week, journalists ought to contact the Conference of Presidents to find out whether organizations denounced him or decided to go along with him in order to help mainstream this unapologetic bigot.

At the moment, Lieberman continues to rise in Israel as a political star. Those who hope one day to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a just manner ought to be deeply concerned.

Postscript: There was an important demonstration outside Brookings’s Saban Center on Dec. 8 to protest Lieberman’s visit.

Michael F. Brown is a Board member of Interfaith Peace-Builders. Previously, he was executive director of Partners for Peace and Washington correspondent for Middle East International.

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