Sunday, February 20, 2011

Zochrot at Gaza-Sderot

A controversial 4-day  conference took place last week at Sapir College in Sderot, the often bombarded town near the border with Gaza. The theme was "moving from crisis to sustainability", from war to peace, which is a general concept most people would agree on. The question is how to reach it. That's where the controversy starts. Right wing groups tried to call off the conference, and tried to persuade different people to boycott it, criticizing the fact that groups they see as anti-Israel, such as Zochrot, UNRWA and Doctors for Human Rights, were participating. The mayor of Sderot was the only official who boycotted the conference.

Perhaps the most controversial participant was Zochrot, whose representatives spoke about implementing the right of return. Unfortunately, I could not attend, but I've heard from people who attended their panel. There's a saying in Hebrew - "they convinced the convinced". In other words, people didn't change their minds after hearing them.

The people of Zochrot did not answer the difficult questions about ethnic strife and avoided the question of how many people would return by claiming that is a racist question. Apparently, anything but the full right of return would not be enough, with any agreement capping the number of returnees being a joke. Also, they contradicted themselves. They said the return of refugees would not require Israelis to leave their homes, but who owns houses that existed before 1948 would have to be worked out.

The panel wasn't one-sided, though. The panel chair said she wasn't sure about the right of return, and another lecturer, who spoke about effective dialogue, said that she is threatened by all the points on the map where Arab villages once existed and to which refugees want to return. She said it is important for patriotic Zionist Israelis to speak with Palestinians. I think she meant the Zionist left should not leave Jewish-Palestinian interaction to Anti-Zionists.

If I had been there, I would have asked the Zochrot people a question inspired by the events in Egypt: You claim Israel should be a democracy, with complete equal rights for all, but how can you guarantee that a post-return Israel would be at least as much a liberal democracy as it is now? Most of the refugees don't live in democratic and/or liberal countries. Why would they care to make sure the rights of their former enemies (which some may see as current enemies) are not taken away?

Zochrot's participation is not a "boycottable" offense. In fact, it is better for them to be heard in the general public, so they can be confronted with the difficult questions they tend to avoid when they only meet with like-minded people, and so people who hear them can see that they don't have good answers to the agruments that don't fit their agenda.

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