One might have expected the Birzeit Society’s 11th annual convention in Burlingame, with its schedule of family outings and festivities, to be a pleasant family affair. The society, established 25 years ago for Palestinians from the village of Birzeit who now live in the U.S., attracted approximately 700 people to its five-day gathering in early July.
But instead of a warm family atmosphere, I witnessed chilling anti-Israel extremism. Children were indoctrinated with anti-Israel and intolerant rhetoric. An emerging generation of activists was trained to proudly use deceit and manipulation to promote a “one-state” solution that has no room for Israel.
At the panel “Palestine: One State vs. Two State Solution,” criticism was heaped on the Palestinian Authority, not for its corruption but rather for normalizing relations with Israel. Mai al Kaila, the P.A.’s ambassador to Chile, tried to win over the crowd by commiserating about the difficulty of establishing Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and by emphasizing that the P.A.’s goal is that “all refugees living in the diaspora have their lands in Haifa, Jaffa and everything.”
She tried to justify the P.A.’s promotion of a two-state solution as a necessary compromise. “What can we do when we don’t have a military power … or a nuclear power?” she asked. The crowd grumbled. “Our strategy now … is nonviolence.” The grumbling grew louder. The audience seemed unable to tolerate the idea of two peaceful states for two peoples. When she sat down, a man declared that “we need an intifada.”
The panel’s featured speakers were the Rev. Naim Ateek and the Rev. Don Wagner, both from Sabeel, a Jerusalem-based ecumenical Christian group known for its hostility to Israel. Panel moderator Ramiz Rafeedie called all supporters of Israel “your enemies.” He warned that advocating a one-state solution could alienate potential allies because it attacks the legitimacy of Zionism, so he advised audience members to refine their arguments to win supporters.
Ateek described a future Palestinian confederation with Jordan and Lebanon as a remedy for a two-state stalemate. “We need to have a third intifada,” he stated, adding that it should be “totally nonviolent.” Wagner contributed classic anti-Semitic canards, saying that Congress is “sewn up” by Zionists. Ateek’s closing statements summed up the tone of the convention: “We say no. We adamantly reject the two-state solution at any price.”
The audience response to these statements was the most disturbing aspect to me. The panel attracted an audience of more than 200, primarily families, including youngsters. They responded enthusiastically to calls for a third intifada, with children as young as 7 applauding with their parents.
A second panel, “BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) on American Campuses,” was equally extreme. Dina Omar, a Berkeley graduate and student at Columbia, joined Nora Barrows-Friedman, who writes for Electronic Intifada and al Jazeera, in laying out BDS strategies and goals.
Omar urged the audience to get BDS branded as “just one piece of a larger question of social justice.” She advocated outreach to any and all religious, racial and ethnic groups, economic justice groups, and environmentalists to insert BDS — the collective punishment of Israel — into all progressive causes. Displaying Occupy Wall Street and Free Tibet flyers emblazoned with BDS slogans, Omar urged students to “use your institutions’ symbols, rhetoric, and propaganda … to turn or flip the message or to insert your message in however subversive a way you can.”
Barrows-Friedman called the message that “people just … need to get along” an Israeli plot against Palestinians.
The speakers advised against reaching out to pro-Israel students, especially if they are Jewish. When asked whether there are any Jewish groups with whom BDS activists can work, Barrows-Friedman, who is Jewish, responded, “It depends on your level of tolerance.” After a pause, Omar answered that the group Jewish Voice for Peace may be acceptable.
In fact, the BDS movement frequently uses token Jews to make its case and deflect charges of anti-Semitism. Barrows-Friedman awkwardly sidestepped an anti-Semitic comment from an audience member, making light of a canard about the “Jewish-controlled” global financial system.
That a P.A. official who supports normalization with Israel was criticized for being too moderate reflected the tone of the conference and should be cause for serious concern. A new generation of youth is being carefully groomed to reject peace and the existence of the Jewish state.
Guy Herschmann, a recent graduate of U.C. Santa Cruz, is a campus coordinator for the Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs in Northern California and western Canada. He attended two days of the conference.