It was shocking enough to read that a protest against Islamophobia was being organized at Portland State University. When I found out that a pro-Israel group had invited the speaker being protested, my jaw dropped.
I’m on a Middle East Studies listserv at school. During May, I received an e-mail inviting me to attend the protest of an appearance by ultra-right-wing Christian Broadcast Network pundit Erick Stakelbeck.
Stakelbeck’s blog and articles are overwhelmingly anti-Islamic. He once called Dearborn, Michigan “Dearbornistan” because of its large Muslim minority. It was also disturbing that Stakelbeck’s appearance was sponsored by a pro-Israel group, Christians United for Israel. CUFI is an evangelical Christian Zionist group; Stakelbeck holds similar views. Stakelbeck uses the Jewish people and our home, Israel, as a platform for his discriminatory, vitriolic position.
I thought that joining this protest would be a great opportunity for a new kind of hasbara—one where we challenge the associations between pro-Israel and the far right. We could show the other liberal groups on campus and in the community that there are pro-Israel activists and Jews who, like them, are left-wing and favor a two-state solution. I did not want to let CUFI and the views of their ultra-conservative speaker define pro-Israel activism on campus.
I contacted officers from Hillel and the Jewish Student Union at PSU, as well as the Young Adult Supporters of Israel (YASI) group in Portland about this hasbara opportunity. I also posted about the protest on the Facebook pages of each of the groups. Since With Israel, another pro-Israel student group at PSU, was putting up signs for the event, I assumed they did not want to be involved in the protest.
Not one of the groups joined me in the Stakelbeck protest.
Two of my friends from the Jewish community accepted my invitation. There were about 50 protesters in all. Members of the International Socialist Organization, Jewish Voice for Peace and Supporters of Palestinian Equal Rights (SUPER) were represented at the protest. Many unaffiliated protesters, like me, attended the silent protest on our own.
We entered the room about 15 minutes before the talk was scheduled to begin. I walked in, mouth taped, holding my “Pro-Israel Against Racism” sign, and was told by a familiar face at the door that my bags had to be searched and that signs weren’t allowed into the main event space. This command was followed by, “By the way, hi, Robyn.” I nodded back and went to stand alongside my fellow sign-holding protesters by the door.
A middle aged blond woman walked past the row of sign-wielding protesters. When she got to our “Pro-Israel Against Racism” signs she paused. “You should be ashamed of yourselves,” she said with disgust. Then she snapped a picture with her smartphone.
The first person to go on stage was the head of CUFI at PSU. There was a stark contrast between him and us – him, in a suit and tie with perfectly gelled hair; and us, a “motley bunch of hijab-and skullcap-clad Muslims, aging ex-hippies and tie-dyed stragglers who looked as if they just rolled in from the local Occupy protest” (as Stakelbeck called us in his after-speech recap.)
In response to the presence of the protesters, the head of CUFI told the audience that supporting Israel does not make one racist. Erick Stakelbeck is racist because of his numerous, blatantly racist, anti-Muslim comments—not his pro-Israel position. Because Stakelbeck intertwines these racist views with his support of Israel, people in the room will equate a pro-Israel position with being racist. That’s the problem.
The “racist” spin is an important part of Stakelbeck and CUFI’s agenda. The description of the event on CUFI’s website stated, “the pure hatred which faced the CUFI on Campus chapter at Portland State University during a recent event demonstrates the shocking levels of anti-Semitism simmering just underneath the surface on many of America’s leading universities.”
In other words, if you’re against CUFI, you must be anti-Semitic. This you’re-either-with us-or-against-us rhetoric is detrimental to pro-Israel advocacy because it alienates potential allies with diverse views. This tactic paints a large and complex group of people with broad strokes. CUFI and Stakelbeck had their paintbrushes at the ready.
Responding to an event poster defaced with a swastika, the head of CUFI’s PSU chapter, Stakelbeck, and officers of With Israel explained to the audience the significance of a swastika drawn alongside an image of the Star of David. After this mundane history of the Holocaust, each of the three speakers accused us—myself and my fellow protesters—of drawing the swastika.
One of the saddest parts of this display was seeing a friend (a With Israel officer) on stage supporting CUFI’s promotion of far-right extremism and pro-Israel advocacy. We’d had Shabbat dinners together and shared beers after class. I felt the tears start to well up as I looked at my Jewish friend standing silently as I was accused once more of drawing the swastika.
When Stakelbeck got on stage for his talk he proceeded to mock the protesters and egg us on for a debate. What more could we say? Stakelbeck has already exposed himself as a far right-wing, racist, Islamophobe who takes the Bible as literal fact.
Just when I thought I couldn’t listen to Stakelbeck for one more second, it was time for the walk-out. We exited to a private room amid jeers and insults from Stakelbeck and the crowd. It was awful. These are the pro-Israel people, my people, and they are taunting people who oppose racism and far right-wing views.
The post-protest recap was an impassioned discussion. I stayed for a while after the group dismantled and had a long conversation with one of the organizers of SUPER events. We talked about the Middle East, SUPER’s upcoming anti-Semitism event and our own experiences with prejudice. When discussing Israel, our points of disagreement were a civil part of the discourse.
For instance, I explained to her why I think Israel’s stance on gay rights is worth mentioning (Israel advocates are often accused of “pinkwashing”—pointing out Israel’s record on gay rights in response to detractors). I told her how I’m not just for the end of Palestinian oppression in Israel, but I’m against the oppression of Palestinians in all Middle Eastern countries. I explained that to me, the Palestinian situation goes beyond Israel. It was a great conversation on both ends—a rare opportunity for dialogue in which I was very lucky to partake.
However, it appears that Portland’s pro-Israel groups are heading in the opposite direction of dialogue and exchange. For example, the head of the pro-Israel YASI group posted an op-ed from the New York Times on SUPER’s Facebook page. The attached comment: “Read it and weep…the ball is in the Palestinian’s court.” To all those who might buy into a paradigm of “they did it first,” I ask one question: Why not combine a moral victory with a pragmatic one?
We need to make connections with people who don’t hold explicit pro-Israel positions. This isn’t accomplished by insulting those with a difference of opinion. The failure is in alienating Jews and non-Jews due to associations with the far-right. These are the people we need to worry about disenfranchising, not those like CUFI who are already in the pro-Israel camp. If pro-Israel groups continue to align themselves with the far-right (e.g. CUFI), then it’s no wonder the left often holds opposing views.
Robyn Gottlieb is a student at Portland State University. She is currently working on her B.S. in Political Science and Environmental Studies.