I Debated an Iranian Dude and All I Got Was This Crappy T-shirt

Hello, my loyal readers, from the land of free refills. I’ve been bouncing all over the country for the last couple of weeks and I’m thrilled to call myself a member of the Boingo club. With all my traveling this month, it was a no-brainer to plunk down ten measly dollars for unlimited wifi access at America’s airports. Considering I once paid around $5 for an hour of usage, that’s quite a deal. Speaking of unlimited airport wifi, what designer of the information superhighway decided it was ok for internet companies to have such ridiculous names? Proctor and Gamble….Johnson and Johnson…..BOINGO!

Yahoooooo!

So far, I’ve spent a relaxing weekend in New York, a couple of days in St. Louis, a day in Austin, four days in Portland, and five in California, three in New Orleans, and five in Houston. Aside from seeing old friends, as I’m used to on these visits to America, I haven’t had much time to sightsee or, you know, do stuff. It’s crazy how often I come to New York. After living there for a few years and having returned a couple of times a year, I forget to even realize, “hey, I’m in Manhattan. Be impressed or something.”

The shows are going well but I must say, more enjoyable than the time I spend in front of the students making fun of Israeli movie translations is the time I spend speaking to them about Israel afterwards. I always ask if anyone has any questions about aliyah, politics, Masa or Birthright programs, any jokes I made which they didn’t understand, etc. If there’s only one question, it’s always “why did you move to Israel?” And because we olim have our classic answers to all the typical questions which we’ve answered a thousand times, and because I’m also trying to deliver a positive message about Israel (I guess I’d call myself a volunteer shaliach), any question usually sets me off on a three-hour tangent about the awesomeness of Jewish holidays, how Americans are just as crazy as Israel, and why everyone to whom being Jewish means even a little bit should spend a year in Israel (cough, MASA!)

A week ago, I met a couple in San Francisco who are about to spend a couple of years in Haifa while one (or both) does a post-doc. The wife reads my blog and drove 45 minutes to see the show. The husband is looking for a biotech job and (get this) has never been to Israel. I asked him with a smile, “what are you, crazy???” We talked for around ten minutes as I gave some them some tips and advised them, as I do most people who are spending a year or two in Israel, to make aliyah (cough, Nefesh B’Nefesh!) Anyone with connections in biotech, you know where to find me.

I’ve often wondered when some anti-Israel groups are going to come protest me. Not because I’m important enough to be protested, but since when did some of the anti-Israel nutjobs out there care about logic and reason? I’m just waiting for someone to see “Israeli comedian coming to campus” and decide to show up screaming about “Israeli apartheid.” Hasn’t happened yet. Although I did have an interesting experience at my alma mater in Texas recently.

Taking just a few minutes to do some walking outdoors (not something to take for granted in the typical American sprawl), I walked around the university through the center of campus, the West Mall, where students congregate to sit at organization tables. Around 5 PM, there weren’t any remaining, save for one: the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, advertising the message “End the Occupation”. OK, why not stop by to check it out? There was one Arab-looking guy there speaking to a student so I approached them and began to take it in. There was no way in hell I was going to allow myself to get wound up in any kind of fight or yelling match with this guy. I felt like my age would allow me to avoid getting overly emotional or upset as an undergraduate might (you know, because I’m 25), but then again, I never in a million years would have even engaged with anyone like that (basically, I didn’t really know squat at 18, at least not more than the average Young Judaea graduate. Those were the good old days, before we were the world’s pariah, when we didn’t all have to be hasbara experts.)

I stood there listening for about 10 minutes, while the guy rattled off a speech about the local BDS movement, peace, and Israel while this blank slate of a college kid took it all in. “I’m against all kinds of war. So if I sign this petition, this is pro-peace?” Yikes.

Determined to stand by the sidelines for as long as I could, the guy finally said something egregious enough where I felt compelled to intervene, that Israel was created because of the Holocaust. Ok, fine, he conceded, there was the Balfour Declaration. Not feeling the need to reveal that I live in Israel (at least not until later), we proceeded to debate for about 30 minutes in completely calm and cool voices until I eventually realized that I needed to leave. My conclusions were the following:

  • Maybe it’s not fair to generalize about the entire “other side” (so clearly I’m about to) but this interaction on top of other experiences made me feel that the other side doesn’t listen. He didn’t really acknowledge any points I made about the rejection of the Partition Plan, the rejection at Camp David, rockets onto Sderot….the guy had a million facts and dates to throw back at me. It is possible to get too caught up in tit-for-tat. I said, “let me boil it down to one sentence: Israel pulled out of Gaza, the rockets began, and we blockaded it to keep weapons out. What were we supposed to do?” I conceded that some of the banned items are idiotic, that surely we have individuals in the government who have said dumb things or want to collectively punish the Palestinians, but go back to the beginning. He had an answer for everything I said. We can spew out dates, quotes, facts forever but he was unable to admit any wrongdoing. I just don’t think he could possibly acknowledge ANY of the Israeli narrative, leading to this observation:
  • He wasn’t at all self-critical. Is anyone more self-critical than Jews? I admitted that lots of bad bleep goes on in the West Bank, that certain actions by the government are not always in our best interests, but that at the end of the day, I don’t believe that those things are the root cause of the conflict. I said that most Israelis do want two states but that the hard part is getting there (I refused to say something as attacking as “it’s because you shawarma-for-brains aren’t interested and keep sabotaging it.”) But this guy didn’t concede to anything. Not rejection of the Partition Plan nor Israeli offers, nothing. His version was that they rejected the Partition Plan because they were upset at being displaced from their lands. I have always felt, if you are talking to a party who never ever admits any wrongdoing whatsoever…I mean, doesn’t that indicate who’s wrong and who’s right (if I can be too black, white, and judicial)? What compromise did this guy want to reach if there is in fact no compromise? No compromise, I guess-just an imposing of a decision, maybe. And….
  • His arguments relied heavily on the beliefs of the international community. I hadn’t thought about this one so much before. If I were an unknowing third party and someone told me that Israel continually violates international law created by the international community, it would be extremely hard for me to not hold Israel at fault. “Israel’s building is illegal, stopping aid ships into Gaza is illegal, THE GOLDSTONE REPORT FOUND THAT ISRAEL INDISCRIMINATELY TARGETED INNOCENT CIVILIANS….” I mean, what can you say that’s going to convince that third party? “Well, from the Israeli perspective, to be frank, we kind of think the international community is full of horse caca.” That’s what I said (without the “horse caca” reference.) Aaaaand finally….
  • When he asked me if I thought the occupation was the root cause of the conflict, I said, “well, if the occupation dates back to 1967 and there were Arabs trying to push the Jews into the sea before that, then how could that be?” He then said something to the effect of the occupation going back to 1949. Huh? Wait a second, they’re allowed to admit that? I thought that was one of those things that we believed about them but that surely they wouldn’t admit in a debate or to the undecideds. In retrospect, now I’m confused. If he considers us to be at fault for an occupation since ’49, then why is he in support of a two-state solution? Or in other words, if we’re entitled to a state within the ’67 borders, then why is our being there for the last 62 years the root of all the problems? I don’t get it.

As I was leaving, I thanked the guy for being able to carry on this conversation as civilized people, although I doubt on a college campus he finds too many students who are able to engage with him in the same way. When someone always has a fact to make your side look bad, yet is unwilling to address your facts, what can you do? I tried to be conciliatory, admitting some of Israel’s wrongs, with no reciprocation from him. While he continued to spit out claims like a robot even as I was trying to leave, I said, “I invite you to try to find other Jews like me to talk to and to try to listen to what they say, to try to understand their narrative a bit.” Because I did try to understand his, at least the (few) parts I could/was willing to swallow.

“Am I being fair?” I asked myself later. Was I listening or am I no different, just throwing my version at him as he was at me? I believe I am different and this blog post proves it to me. By being self-critical and by being able to make critical observations from our interactions…I mean, could a robot do that? Did he? Though I can’t know, our conversation gave no reason that he would.

Anyway, I feel proud to have not just stood there without challenging the guy (who it turns out is a 32 year-old Iranian who was born in Italy.) Hopefully I gave this guy something to think about, if not about the actions of the two nations, then at least about the kind of people Jews can be and what kind of person he could find himself arguing with (or talking to in calm voices) in the future.

But I’m afraid I didn’t.

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