NOVEMBER 12, 2015

Event:  "Conversation About Israel/Palestine" - a "Dialogue and Engagement Across Differences," Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015, Rockefeller 300 with Prof. Yehezkel Landau from Hartford Seminary and Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University.

Sponsored by:  Office of President, Office of Religious & Spiritual Life (RSL), , the RSL Forum for Inter-Religious Dialogue, Africana Studies, Jewish Studies, the Department of Religion.

Introduction by:  Sam Speers, Director of Religious and Spiritual Life, who set the tone calling this a beginning effort to come together, a time of listening.  He referred to “cycles of violence” and “struggles for dignity and justice” in the Middle East and linked this struggle to other struggles, among them the situation at the U. of Missouri and racial and economic injustice within U.S. borders.

Moderator:  Mia Mask, Assoc.  Prof. of Film whose role was to handle the Q & A


The event was called a “Dialogue Across Differences.”  This was a misnomer.  The Turkish Muslim Antepli, who refers to himself as a recovering rabid antisemite (growing up, the first book he read about Jews and Judaism (at age 12) was the child’s version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion), and Yehezkel Landau, the Jew with American and Israeli citizenship, someone who has spent most of his adult life working with peace groups and doing outreach to Palestinians, agreed on virtually everything.  They called each other “soul brothers.”

·    Landau, and to a degree Antepli, referred to Israel as the hyphenated state “Israel-Palestine” (Speers used this term as well) and repeatedly expressed concern for the injustice and violence being perpetuated by the Israelis.

·    Antepli, when discussing his previous antisemitism, said that it is understandable that Muslims are antisemitic considering the misery and plight of their existence.  He said that he couldn’t fully expunge his antisemitism, just as Americans can’t fully remove their inherent racism.

·    Antepli introduced the idea that we can’t have a dialogue about Israel and Palestine in the Middle East or Europe because of the extreme polarization, but we can do so here in American between Muslims and Jews.  To do so, he said that we must eliminate the polarization, the black and white perspective, the “villains and victims” approach.  Despite Landau’s suggestion to avoid using charged words like “ethnic cleansing” because they are alienating, both men proceeded to frequently use politically charged terms like “illegal occupation,” “settlers, “settlements,” “occupation,” “expulsion of the Palestinians,” and “Nakba” throughout the remainder of their presentations.  They seemed to be oblivious to their complete dismissiveness of and indifference to those who hold a different perspective regarding the conflict. Their comments clearly labeled the villain and the victim.

·    Landau stated that half of the Palestinians in 1948 were ”expelled at gunpoint.”  He recognized that the Jews were pursuing their self-determination, but said that it was at great cost to the Palestinians, “imposing a collective injustice on one people in order to rectify a worldwide injustice to another.”  Both speakers called for Israel to repent for its sins against the Palestinians.  There were no calls for Palestinian repentance.

·    Landau said that the Palestinians view Israel as a Goliath and the Palestinians as a David and he said that, while skewed, there is some truth to that, which he takes seriously in terms of the “oppressive policies” of the Israeli government.  He believes that most Israelis see the conflict in terms of an existential threat in that Israel is worried not solely about the Palestinians, but also about all the surrounding enemies and terrorists.  For Landau, Israel does harmful things because of its excessive focus and fixation on security.  He proposed that Jerusalem be divided and suggested that there be a right of return of Palestinians to Israel and the so-called West Bank and that there should be 3 states established:  Israel with its Arab minority, Gaza, Palestine (referred to as the West Bank) in a confederation with Jordan.  He also suggested that there should be a limited right of return for Palestinians to Israel and that maybe some of the “417 [Arab] villages that were wiped off the face of the map” could be “rebuilt on empty kibbutz land.”  Landau said that the Palestinians should be compensated for the Nakba (his term), and suggested that the same should be done for the Sephardic Jews who were forced from Arab lands.  Antepli disagreed and said that the Palestinian suffering of 5 million refugees shouldn’t be compared with Jewish suffering because there is no Jewish suffering today. Landau then agreed in part, but Antepli described this as remaining a “powerful difference” (the only one of the evening) between them.

·    Landau said that he has been involved in religious peace movements to fight the injustices perpetrated on the Palestinians, restore their dignity and remove their feeling of trauma from the Nakba.  He postulated that only through sacrifice would come forgiveness and, therefore, each side must make sacrifices for peace.   The Imam added that people must turn grief into cooperation through sacrifice (what he envisions that the Palestinians should sacrifice, he didn’t say).

·    Despite Landau’s referring to “Israel-Palestine” as the “Holy Land,” both insisted that the conflict is not a religious problem; it’s fundamentally political.  Religious language is used, but they believe that it is really a question of land and Israel needs to sacrifice land for a resolution of the problem.  No mention was made of the Arab rejection of partition and the prior offers of land for peace by Israel.  Both disparaged the “settlers” as religious zealots causing much alienation.

·    Antepli admitted that there is room for improvement in the Muslim community regarding violence and that community should be more open to what Israelis are saying. They must understand the Jewish/Israeli narrative, as there is some truth about a Jewish connection to the land.  He felt that the connection is not entirely “a post-WWII–made reality.”  He believes that as they demand a Palestinian state, Palestinians must accept the legitimacy of a Jewish State.

·    Landau claimed that Jews get too defensive when Israel is attacked and criticized and they accuse the attackers of being antisemitic.  He agreed that one should use the “double standard test” to identify antisemitism. Yet he demanded moral and ethical behavior from Israel without demanding the same from the Palestinians. It’s interesting to note that in my discussion with him after the program ended, Landau insisted that Israel must be expected to behave according to the high moral and ethical standards of Judaism.  He admitted that he would not expect such behavior from other nation-states.  When I pointed out the double standard, he just smiled. Antepli said that there is “not too much space between criticizing the indefensible occupation and antisemitism,” but Landau may have disagreed.

·    Landau called himself a “Jewman being” (rather than a “Jew” or a human as he considers himself responsible for all humanity), and repeatedly claimed, much to the pleasure of many students in the room, that Israel has serious flaws and is perpetuating injustices.

·    Landau believed that people like Daniel Pipes, Pamela Geller, David Horowitz and David Yerushalmi, are Jewish Islamophobes and must be publicly denounced by the Jewish community and Antepli criticized Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Zuhdi Jasser, Irshad Manjis (a well-know critic of mainstream Islam and advocate for reform) and Mosab Hassan Yousef (a Hamas member who spied for Israel) as renegade Islamophobes that hurt the cause of peace.  Then, said Landau, “Muslims will trust us more.”  Both urged people to invest in mainstream leaders, many of whom are in the peace movement.

·    Landau vilified the current Israeli government as the worst ever.  He said that “we now have the worst Israeli government in response, largely to the second intifada and three wars with Hamas.”

·    Landau stated that there were elements of colonialism/nationalism in Zionism, particularly among “the settlers and the right wing secular people in the government.”  He talked about Arab pain, saying that you must have the ability to understand the suffering of both sides.  However, neither man ever mentioned examples of Israeli trauma or pain. Neither ever talked about the impact of the conflict on Israelis and their suffering. These men consistently painted the Palestinians as helpless victims and Landau attributed this situation to the Israeli neurosis regarding security.

·    The Imam remarked that to Muslims, Zionism is a painful form of racism. In response to a question, he said that SJP supporters aren’t racist and he identifies with many of their points (finger snaps).  Zionism is the Jewish nationalism, which, if taken to the extreme, is racist.  And there are Israelis who take it to the extreme.

·    Landau chimed in that the return to Zion is a tragedy because of the conquering of another people and the expropriation of their land.  He insisted that Zionism is good, but it’s been executed in bad and oppressive ways.  He said that “the land and the state are meaningless and that “some Zionisms are unkosher,” and that Israel has been “stuck for decades” in a “war mentality or pre-emptive strike mentality.”  The Imam added that the ethical and moral failures of Israel should be criticized, but not the failures of Zionism (one of only two slight differences of opinion between the two).

·    They claimed that if Israel and the Palestinians make peace, ISIS and other terrorist forces would melt away.  They believe that the conflict is one of the biggest recruitment tools for terrorist groups.

·    When asked whether they believe in a right of return, Landau initially insisted that both exiled peoples have valid rights of return.   He commented that a negotiated number of Palestinians should be allowed back into Israel proper and others to the disputed territories (my term) and Gaza.

·    Both men talked about the oppressive occupation of Palestinian land and that Jews should feel guilt about that.  Palestinians, they said, deserve better. Palestinians were described as “righteous victims.” They contended that Israelis should not have voted for an immoral and unethical government that places hardships on Palestinians.  Although each acknowledged the right of Israel to exist, neither addressed the intransigent Arab opposition to acceptance of Israel.

·    On BDS, both men supported it in theory.  Landau said he does believe that BDS followers have “commendable aspirations,” but feels that the effort is not productive and hurts the Palestinians more than the Israelis.  Antepli supports BDS in principle because it represents non-violent protest to overturn the terrible, illegal occupation.  However, he supports only BDS directed at the “occupied” territories, not at Israel proper.  In actuality, he, too, agrees that it is self- defeating, but then offered the comment that Israel needs some “tough love.”  He never mentioned “tough love” for the Palestinians.  When I asked him why, he shrugged that off.

·    Throughout the program, Landau denigrated the importance of Israeli security, saying Israel has an obsession with it, and the result is their cruel oppression of the Palestinians.

·    During this entire event, there was no outright criticism of the Palestinians; they were the victims of a harsh Israel.  However, there was repeated and consistent criticism of Israel and its “right-wing” government. There was also criticism of the surrounding Arab states and lots of digs at the U.S. (met with cheers from the students). They referred to the oppression and treatment of Blacks and Native Americans as the greatest sin (even greater than the oppression of the Palestinians), thus coupling the Palestinian issue with the plight of Brown and Black bodies. Never once did they mention that the Jews either agreed to, or themselves offered the Arabs, a Palestine state in 1937, 1947, 2000 and 2008, only to see Arab rejectionism and intensified violence.


It is my opinion that Vassar’s intention in presenting this program was to offer an approach in which individuals can come together to listen to each other’s narratives and in this way model a technique for discussion around contentious issues. The fundamental flaw was that these two, while differing in nationality, religion and life history, held virtually the same perspectives and opinions on the conflict - the Palestinians are the innocent victims and Israel is the oppressor and should sacrifice to make amends (Vassar’s messaging on the conflict for years). This “dialogue” was a fantasy, in no way reflecting reality where there are harsh differences of opinion.  This program was designed to be totally within Vassar’s comfort zone.  It wasn’t a model for discussing contentious issues between people who hold very different opinions.  It’s easy to talk with those with whom you completely agree.  There was no conflict resolution.   This was a sham.

What this event did do was to reinforce the Vassar anti-Israel narrative. The Vassar audience appeared happy to have confirmation that Israel is evil and in need of reform and that the Palestinians are long-suffering victims abused by an unjust Jewish nation.  They seemed comforted by talk of “peace,” “justice,” “suffering” and “victimhood.” The anti-Israel messaging that dominated this presentation came with a stamp of approval from the President’s Office, Spiritual Life, Jewish Studies etc.  Given the sponsors, the speakers and the fact that this was Pres. Hill’s inaugural event of her signature project, Dialogue and Engagement Across Differences, this program, at a certain level, is more harmful than the blatantly antisemitic Blumenthal-Abunimah event.

My guess is that Vassar will tout this “dialogue’ between an observant Israeli/American Jew wearing a yarmulke and a Turkish Muslim to its alums as an example of a fair and balanced presentation regarding Israel in a civil and constructive setting – a model for future discussions.   In my opinion, this program isn’t a model.  It’s a fraud, a chance to support the Palestinians at the expense of what they consider a morally deficient Israel, and another missed opportunity.