An announcement for Adi Koll's J Street event in Philadelphia. (Image: J Street)
Logic and prior experience could have suggested that there is very little new or unexpected to be gained from going to such an event. But finally having the luxury of time in the summer, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to hear from the MK who stirred up controversy over Facebook, and I’m glad I didn’t.
The newly-elected MK Koll started by telling us to lean in closer because the members of her party Yesh Atid “have a spark in the eye.” She proceeded to give the audience a short history of her new party and imparted some juicy gossip about the founder, Yair Lapid, and his daily beauty regimen. She talked about her involvement in the social “justice” movements sweeping Israel, concerned with everything from education to the cost of apartments in Tel Aviv, but strangely never their neighbors, the Palestinian people, living under Israel’s system of apartheid. She did reiterate that Israelis now just “ignore the Palestinian issue,” even as she claimed that 80% of them support the two-state solution.
As she finally moved to what we had all had come to hear her talk about, I could not help but begin to wonder what exactly that "spark" she mentioned actually was. As she described her recent trip to Ramallah, she told us that the Palestinians she saw in refugee camps around Ramallah do not want to go back to their homes. They would just be happy with a new apartment, she claimed, an escape from the desolation that she was so struck by.
In regards to the right of return-- which she apparently thinks her Ph.D. in law from Columbia University gives her a right to adjudicate on behalf of the Palestinians to whom it is owed-- she had this to say about the fact that Palestinian refugees in Ramallah now have children and grandchildren: “This is what we have been waiting for, for more and more of them to die.” My jaw almost hit the ground as I furiously recorded this statement in my notebook. I know that Israelis do not now even make an attempt to hide this kind of thinking, revealing Israel’s real intention to rid Palestine/Israel of Palestinians. I was not, however, expecting to hear something like this from someone who claims to be on the Left, even as distorted and farcical of a label we know that is in Israel. Looking around, it appeared that no one else was even perturbed by this statement.
In response to my question/comment (as an increasingly frequent moderator of Q & A sessions myself, I will admit that I skirted that edge) of how exactly this whole negotiation thing is supposed to work, given the fact that the Palestinian Authority is Israel’s puppet and Palestinians view it as an institution of their oppression, she didn’t have much to say.
I brought up the Nelson Mandela quote that you can probably find in many places along Israel’s Apartheid Wall: “Only free men can negotiate.” To that she responded with a rhetorical question of whether any of us are really free. She asked why the Palestinians don’t have something like Yesh Atid, why they aren’t doing anything to change their system. And this is where I had to detach myself.
For me, the event was yet another confirmation that a just peace will not come from inside Israel. The small minority of Jewish Israelis who stand in true solidarity with the Palestinian people will be crucial allies in helping this change come about, to be sure. But it will not come from inside Israel, no matter how many testimonies Breaking the Silence can collect. Koll is supposedly touring the U.S. as a representative of a new generation of Israeli leaders focused on the two-state solution, but Koll's own comments make clear that there is no room in the Israeli political class for acknowledging and honoring Palestinian human rights. In addition, listening to Koll talk it is clear that Israel will continue to have zero accountability for anything that they do to Palestinians, even from the majority of the Israeli left. That’s the reality. That’s why Palestinian society is calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel. That’s why we need to stand in solidarity with Palestinians on BDS.
Before I went to Palestine/Israel with 33 other Americans with Interfaith Peace-Builders a few weeks ago, I would have been intimidated in that audience and probably would have lost my nerve to ask my question in the first place and call her out, rather than to raise my hand and keep it raised as soon as she finished her talk. I would have assumed that this would be a hostile audience and that I wouldn’t be prepared or able to back myself up. I would have left somehow feeling-- however irrationally-- single-handedly responsible for my fellow audience members leaving with their opinions and views on this unchanged. But that night, I left feeling pretty secure in knowing that the world is awakening to the fact that Palestinians are doing what they need to be doing by living, by existing and by asking the world to join them in solidarity in boycotting, divesting and sanctioning Israel.
Palestinians have been doing this for a pretty long time, too. And the world is finally beginning to listen. After the Israeli consulate official whisked MK Koll away, I stayed to give a young man working with a program that takes college students to the South to learn about Jewish solidarity with the Civil Rights movement info on how he could look up what the Dorothy Cotton Institute is doing. He asked about black solidarity with Palestinians.
In the middle of that, a J Streeter came up to me to ask for my email address to meet up when I’m in Ramallah in the fall and he on a visit to Israel. He said he didn’t want to take a J Street tour of the South Hebron Hills but rather to meet and hear from Palestinians (He certainly shouldn’t have to visit me to do this, but it’s better than not meeting any Palestinians at all, I suppose.). If this was my experience at a random J Street event, allies in the struggle for justice and peace for Palestinians might be in the making all around us, in pretty unexpected places.