Sign In Forgot Password

Remarks at AJC Dinner

05/25/2010 09:25:17 AM


Jeffrey Robbins

I’d like to talk a bit about this wonderful, venerable organization that is the real reason we are here tonight, the American Jewish Committee. As David Harris illustrates, when it comes to the cause of Israel, the cause of human rights in the Middle East and the cause of peace, there is no organization more important than the AJC.

Unfortunately, as David points out, the challenges to Israel, to human rights in the Middle East and to peace have never been more severe, or more dispiriting. It is a time when nonsense gets spouted as truth, and the truth gets buried as unfashionable, and it sometimes seems as though what gets said is one part Kafka, one part Orwell and one part Lewis Carroll. Which makes the work of the AJC that much more crucial.

Let me give you some examples of the problem. From 2000 to 2004 Palestinian children were used as human bombs to kill both themselves and 1,100 Israeli men, women and children whose crime was simply to be riding the wrong bus at the wrong time, or sitting in the wrong café on the wrong evening, and 2 years after this bombing campaign begins, Israel actually begins to construct a security fence to keep this from happening. But it turns out that it is not the bombing campaign that is the human rights violation, it’s the fence finally erected by Israel to keep the bombers from blowing up innocent civilians.

Similarly, from 2000 to late 2008 the working class families of southern Israel are subjected to 8,000 to 10,000 rockets, bombs and missiles from Gaza, intended to kill or maim or at least terrify families who are just trying to live their lives. But that’s not the human rights violation. The Israelis finally act to stop it and, according to the former British Commander in Afghanistan, Colonel Kemp, “I don’t think there has ever been a time in the history of warfare when any army has made more efforts to reduce civilian casualties and deaths of innocent people than the Israel Defense Forces is doing today in Gaza.” The human rights violation, it turns out, is when, after 8 years, the Israelis finally decide they have to do something to stop it. Come to find out, that’s the human rights violation.

You get the idea. It’s easy, once you get the hang of it.

So, the Israeli families of southern Israel are just trying to educate their kids, take care of the elderly and send their children off to school in the morning with some hope that they will return in the afternoon. They’re not hurting anyone. And yet they have been subjected to these rocket attacks on a daily basis, year after year, by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It isn’t settlements which are at issue - - there aren’t any Jewish settlements in Gaza. So evidently it is something else that is responsible for those rocket attacks.

But passing that by, what about the human rights of the tens of thousands of Israelis subjected to these attacks, and the hundreds of thousands more within range of Hamas missiles. Who is going to stand up for them?

I had described the fact that from 2000 to 2004 the leadership in the West Bank launched a program of bombings of buses and discos and pizzerias and Passover Seders that left 1,100 Israelis blown to pieces and 5,000 more maimed or merely wounded. That’s the proportional equivalent of 55,000 Americans blown to pieces and 250,000 Americans maimed or wounded. And thousands of Israeli families permanently scarred emotionally, and a population living in terror. It wasn’t the settlements that were at issue, because this was just after the Palestinian leadership had, once again, rejected a 2-state solution, consisting of all of Gaza, virtually all of the West Bank and a capital in East Jerusalem. So evidently something else underlay these attacks.

But passing that by, what about the human rights of the hundreds of thousands of Israelis, the millions of Israelis, really, who were subjected to these attacks or the threat of these attacks. Who’s going to stand up for them?

So we’ve mentioned Gaza in the south. We’ve mentioned the West Bank to the east. To the west, there is the Mediterranean Sea; they’ve been fine. From Lebanon in the north, Hezbollah treated a million Israeli citizens to 4,000 rockets just 4 summers ago, in 2006. A million Israelis had to spend several weeks underground or flee to the south to escape these rockets. A million men, women and children terrified or worse.

Now, it isn’t settlements that were responsible for these rocket attacks, or which are responsible for Hezbollah’s daily threats to annihilate Israel. There are no settlements in Lebanon. So, evidently, it is something else.

But passing that by, what about the Israelis who had to take refuge from 4,000 Hezbollah rockets, and who now face 40,000 more? What about their human rights? Who’s going to stand up for them?

About 15 months ago, I was invited to speak at York University, about 2 hours outside of Toronto, in early March, and so naturally it was hard to resist. I was invited to speak at an event hosted by a pro-Israel student group, and as befits my decidedly non-Bono-like status, there was a decidedly non-Bono-like sized audience, of no more than 50 students.

A few weeks earlier there had been a disturbing episode at York. Some Jewish students had been trying to hold a pro-Israel meeting, and had been quite literally chased into the Hillel and had to seek refuge there, by a swearing, threatening fist-waving mob. They ultimately had to be escorted out of the Hillel by security, to their great humiliation. Any my talk was only weeks after that.

After my talk was over, the students came up to me one by one to thank me for coming. They could not have been more genuine, or sweeter in their thanks, but each expression of thanks was more painful to me than the prior one, as you can imagine.

The last student to come up to me was a young woman with a slight accent. I asked her where she was from. It turned out that she was from Tel Aviv. Her family had moved from Israel to Ontario, Canada in 2002, right in the middle of the bombing campaign that I alluded to earlier. And she told me that her mother and father, after watching buses explode and pizzerias explode and people blown to pieces by these bombs, decided that they were going to leave, the other side had won, they were, in fact, officially terrorized, we “give,” they said, and they took their daughter and they moved to Ontario to be safe. And then she finished high school, went to York University and ended up taking refuge in a Hillel while anti-Israel demonstrators pounded the door and shrieked outside, and she and her fellow students were barricaded in the Hillel, in fear.

So, the question is: What about her human rights? What about the human rights of her family and the families of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and Haifa, who have been subjected to this? Who’s going to stand up for them?

It is, as David Harris says, a dangerous time, and it is a historic one. It may not be melodramatic to say that our kids and their kids and others looking back may ask: Did we fold? Did we stay silent? Did we preoccupy ourselves with other things? Did we permit ourselves to grow discouraged? Did we trim our consciences to fit this year’s fashion, as Lillian Hellman said?

It isn’t as though there isn’t perfectly good reason to be dispirited. A couple of months ago, Lady Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy minister, conducted what was billed as a fact finding tour of Gaza, during which one of these rockets that gets fired from Gaza into Israel all the time killed a 34-year old agricultural worker in southern Israel. Lady Ashton pronounced herself “extremely shocked” that rockets were being fired from Gaza into Israel. Not merely “shocked,” but “extremely shocked.” Now, the phenomenon of rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel is one of long-standing and it has gotten a certain amount of publicity, and so one might imagine that the fact that Israeli civilian areas were being subjected to rocket attacks might have been noted and even been the subject of some briefing within Lady Ashton’s office, but alas that did not occur, evidently, hence her surprise.

You will all remember the famous police prefect in Casablanca, played so superbly by Claude Rains, who was “shocked” to learn that gambling was taking place at the casino. Well, he was only “shocked.” Lady Ashton was “extremely shocked.” One supposes that that makes Lady Ashton less astute than Claude Rains, relatively speaking, or less honest, which one would have thought would be a feat.

In a similar vein, although one never wants to speak other than entirely reverentially about a judge in front of the sort of distinguished judges that we are fortunate enough to have here tonight, one cannot help being bemused by the Goldstone Report. These 8,000 to 10,000 rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad into southern Israel over the last 10 years have virtually all been fired from residences, apartment complexes, community centers and civilian structures or right next to them. Innocent Palestinian civilians were used as human shields to launch missiles at innocent Israeli civilians. This, then, was truly the Daily Double of human rights violations.

But even though virtually all of the rockets were fired at Israel from civilian neighborhoods, Judge Goldstone and the Human Rights Commission team reported that it had been unable to locate any evidence that that was the case, presumably because of the inadequate resources of the Untied Nations. It was hardly as though the services of Sherlock Holmes were required to find such evidence, inasmuch as Peter Sellers would have been able to do so.

The Goldstone team first concluded that Israel had violated Gaza’s human rights and then commenced its investigation. This is not the classic method of conducting an investigation; more typically it is the investigation which occurs first and then the conclusion that follows, but why quibble? To his credit, when he debated Ambassador Gold at Brandeis at Brandeis and was shown all manner of documentary evidence that in fact the Hamas rockets were launched from civilian neighborhoods, he conceded that this was significant evidence and he wished he had known about it before his team issued its report, and he was grateful for the information and would certainly take it back to his colleagues at the United Nations.

So David is right. These are difficult times, and times that provoke a certain head-scratching.

But after the head-scratching is done, here is where we are left, and here is what the inspiring work of the AJC teaches us.

We do not have the luxury of being discouraged, or of leaving it to others to do this work. It is up to us to say quite clearly: “Not on our watch. Not while we have a voice with which to speak and fingers with which to type. Those who are bullied, or who are vulnerable, whether the brave people of Israel or people like our friends Lamaranah Bah and Nasser Weddady are not going to be left vulnerable, are not going to be left to fend for themselves, are not going to be abandoned.”

That’s the work of the AJC. My thanks go to it, for the work that it does, and to those of you who were generous enough to support it by coming tonight.

Sat, December 4 2021 30 Kislev 5782