Saturday, March 11, 2006

Occupied Lands, Closed Minds

PURIM is normally a time for revelry and fancy
dress, but next week in London it will be an occasion
for revealing what's behind some masks.
Next Tuesday March 14th at 7.30pm, Yehudit Keshet and Arthur Neslen are introducing their books at a meeting arranged by European Jews for Just Peace under the title The Unheard Voices of Israel.

Yehudit Keshet has been an activist in Machsom Watch, a group of Israeli women, from young students to grandmas, who go along to monitor what is going on at Israeli military checkpoints in the Occupied Territories. They figure young conscripts or reservists who are harassing and bullying some poor Palestinian worker, or stopping some woman trying to reach maternity hospital, may be shamed into behaving more decently if they think someone is watching and noting their conduct - especially if the person watching them looks like - or even is - a female relative. Sometimes it works.
This form of solidarity does not remove the nuisance of the checkpoints, which can make a half hour journey last four hours, but it reduces some of the brutality and humiliation, or makes sure it is known, and lets Palestinian sisters know they are not alone. Her book Checkpoint Watch, published by Zed Books, brings first-hand testimony from this front line.

Arthur Neslen cut his political teeth outside South Africa House in the Anti-Apartheid movement, took a beating from BNP fascists which has not deterred him from anti-racist campaigning, and having gone from teaching to journalism, has worked for both the BBC and al-Jazeera, as well as writing for the Guardian, New Statesman and Red Pepper. His book "Occupied Minds, a Journey Through the Israeli Psyche", published by Pluto Press, introduces us to more than 50 Israeli soldiers, settlers, sex workers and victims of suicide attacks, probing behind the usual cardboard inages and cliches to the hidden realities and dimensions of being an occupier.

Chaired by Michael Kustow, the meeting will take place at The Montcalm Hotel, 34-40 Great Cumberland Place, London W1 (near Marble Arch).

If some of these voices have been seldom or never heard, it seems some minor powers-that-be would prefer to keep it that way. The meeting had originally been booked in at the West London Synagogue. Purim wasn't a problem. The booking was confirmed and leaflets were printed and distributed. Then a week or so ago European Jews for Just Peace (EJJP) were suddenly told that their organisation was not welcome at the synagogue, on account of their political views, that their booking was cancelled and they should find another venue.

West London synagogue used to be a fairly liberal sort of place, but it seemed someone had got at them. Words like "boycott" were mentioned, and EJJP were unable to mollify the officials.

For those of us who remember the time when the Jewish Socialists' Group could not get into Jewish venues it almost brings a tinge of nostalgia. We used to joke that the Board of Deputies of British Jews might recognise the PLO one day but the JSG? -never! After Oslo it proved almost true. But now after a period when barriers had begun to come down, the closures, Anglo-Jewry style, have resumed. It isn't just synagogue halls.

On March 3rd a member of European Jews for Just Peace sent an e-mail to
the Jewish Chronicle listings page, "7 days" about the book launch meeting.
But the event has not made the paper's listings. Still, the barred meeting has been reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency's ace reporter Daniella Peled under the headline "Shul bars Jews who back Palestinians" . That ought to pull in more people. Only trouble is she gives the date for the meeting as March 16. Surely an accidental mistake?

As the number of Jewish individuals and groups differing from the right-wing Establishment has widened, so evidently has the blacklist lengthened, of those considered persona non grata . ".... without fail the JC describes our groups as either 'anti-Israel' or 'pro-Palestinians' ", observes a member of Joint Action for Israel-Palestinian Peace, one of EJJP's UK affiliates, along with the Jewish Socialists Group, Just Peace UK, and Jews for Justice for Palestinians.

An old friend who gets invited to speak at various community and cultural events keeps assuring me that people are more open to ideas today, and that this includes many Zionists. Maybe. Not believing in pigeonholing anyone, let alone writing them off, I'm happy to hear it. But how many of these open-minded people with sincere views hold office, and can they outweigh those seeking to police us?

We've seen how the campaign to get London mayor Ken Livingstone for being nasty to a reporter - expanded by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre into an attack on Livingstone's allegedly "antisemitic and anti-Israel views" - has caught a leading member of the Manchester Jewish community in its colateral fire. Henry Guterman, OBE who witnessed real antisemitism first-hand as a child in Nazi Germany, was condemned for defending Livingstone after appearing with him at a Unite Against Fascism conference rally. "Members of the Jewish community who seek to defend Ken Livingstone have fofeited the right to hold office on representative bodies", declared Dr.Irene Lancaster, who lectures at Manchester and serves as adviser to Anglicans for Israel.

So I was intrigued to see an item about "freedom of speech" in the Manchester Jewish Telegraph (March 10):

FREEDOM of speech is an imperative part of British society, and it must stay that way. That message was conveyed by the outspoken Euro MP Robert Kilroy-Silk at the annual Magen David Adom dinner, which raised more than £300,000.
He told guests at Mere Golf and Country Club: "There is a growing insidious belief in Britain that we can't say what we want. "Free speech is paramount to a democratic state." Mr Kilroy-Silk also criticised Muslim states for their backward laws. He said: "They cut people's hands off, they behead people and they behave abominably towards women."
But the former talkshow host was full of praise for Israel. "It's the only democratic state in a region of tyranny," he said.

It was prejudiced remarks like this, as well being a generally obnoxious bastard, that turned Kilroy-Silk into a former talkshow host. I'm proud to say I wrote to the BBC on behalf of the Jewish Socialists' Group saying they should get rid of him for being anti-Muslim. This did not stop the cranky United Kingdom Independence Party adopting him as candidate, although once in, bighead quit them to launch his own party. Wonder who'll be welcome at one of these white-tie dinners next, Nick Griffin?

So long as he's not left-wing, does not support rights for Palestinians or respect for Muslims (Henry Guterman is amember of both the Council of Christians and Jews and the Muslim-Jewish Forum), and does not defend Ken Livingstone.
Freedom of speech is paramount!



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