Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Feeling the hate at an American festival for Israel

On Sunday, I stopped by the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia’s annual Israel Street Festival. This year’s celebration took place in the Mosaic District, an up-and-coming commercialized retail spot located about 30 minutes outside Washington DC. 
Having grown up in Northern Virginia, where activism is scarce and support for Israel is the norm, I was pleasantly surprised to find more than a dozen Palestine solidarity activists stationed near the entrance of the festival holding up giant banners that read, “Israel is an apartheid state.” 
The activists hailed from DMV Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a coalition of Palestine solidarity organizations from college campuses across the DC, Maryland and Virginia metropolitan area. 
As soon as DMV SJP got word of the festival, it released an open letter imploring festival participants to consider what celebrating Israel means for the millions of Palestinians Israel has forcibly displaced and subjected to a brutal occupation. DMV SJP followed up with a small counter demonstration at the festival, where it was met with hostility, bigotry and hate from pro-Israel ideologues.
Tareq Radi, a Palestinian-American activist and founding member of George Mason University’s Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), was at the protest and filmed hours of aggressive encounters between Zionists and Palestine solidarity activists, which he condensed into a 10 minute video montage (posted above). 

No Palestinians allowed

The video opens with Mosaic District security personnel refusing to allow Radi and his friends into the festival, which was open to the public, because they were sporting Palestinian flags and kuffiyehs (checkered scarves). One of the security officers went so far as to equate symbols of Palestine with derogatory epithets. 
“If you were at home and I walked in your yard with a shirt that says something derogatory towards Palestinians, would you allow me to stay in your yard?” said the security guard. 
The activists later informed me that even after one of them offered to remove her Palestine paraphernalia, she was still denied entry to the festival. 
Protesters were instead confined to the corner across the street from the festival’s entrance, turning the crosswalk that divided the counter demonstration and the Israel festival into an unofficial separation barrier that only Israel supporters could travel across freely.  
Mosaic security also restricted the movement of activists’ cars decorated with “Israel is an apartheid state” banners after they realized activists were driving them on the street adjacent to the festival. 
Radi was eventually permitted to enter very briefly to film the festival, but he told me he was threatened with arrest if he caused any disturbances. 
While inside, Radi was approached by a man who was incensed by Radi’s Students Against Israeli Apartheid t-shirt. The man embarked on an incoherent rant about Palestinian inferiority, which begins at the 3:00 minute mark in the video. When Radi challenged one of his absurd claims, the man shot back, “Maybe you have trouble with the English language” — a jibe at Radi’s ethnicity.
Meanwhile, back at the festival’s entrance, DMV SJP activists were handing out educational brochures about the Nakba, the pre-meditated ethnic cleansing of 750,000 indigenous Palestinians by Zionist militias in 1948, without which Israel could not be a majority Jewish state. 
This did not go over well with the festival-goers, who confronted the demonstrators throughout the day to express their hatred of Palestinians and Arabs more generally. 
Around the 5:30 minute mark, a younger man with an Israeli accent informs a Palestinian-American activist that Palestinians “are not even people.” An even more charming fella, who appears at the 7:42 minute mark, stops his car on the side of the road for the sole purpose of yelling “suck my dick” and “Muslims are terrorists” at the demonstrators. 

In front of their kids

One couple brought their three small children along to watch them antagonize the demonstrators. I was present during this encounter and recorded most of the exchange.
The mother shouted, among other things, “kus immik” (“fuck your mother” in Arabic) at the demonstrators after tearing up their fliers. “This is our festival,” she bellowed, demanding the activists “go back to Palestine.”
As she cursed at, threatened and shoved the activists, her husband, who was holding their baby, proceeded to shout over her about dead Syrians and the “schizophrenic” Arab mind.
“Israel is your friend,” he roared over and over again in a headache-inducing tirade that seemed to have no end. 
When his wife realized I was recording her with my iPhone, she shoved me and tried to slap the device out of my hand, which made her threats to summon the police quite ironic. 
Eventually a security guard came over to see what all the commotion was about and was forced to explain to the woman the meaning of free speech. Nevertheless, she continued to argue that leafleting and “taking pictures” did not qualify as free speech and then pointed to my camera and said, “This is the only thing they know how to do,” referring to the increasing use of recording devices by Palestinians to document the crimes committed against them by Israeli soldiers and settlers with absolute impunity.
The couple’s behavior was so repugnant, a complete stranger felt compelled to interject, reminding them that “this is America,” where free speech is a basic right. 
Though this loving couple appears in GMU SAIA’s video (around the 6:05 minute mark) my iPhone recording offers a more revealing angle of their assault:

Family-friendly colonialism

Prior to my encounter with the angry couple, I spent about an hour inside the festival, where people were much friendlier. Consequently I was overcome with confusion from trying to reconcile the seemingly pleasant family-friendly atmosphere with the violent settler colonialism those in attendance had gathered to celebrate. 
The laughter of children echoed throughout the festival, emanating from a carousel-shaped bouncy house parked in front of a booth promoting Friends of the IDF, an organization that raises funds for the Israeli military. On the opposite end of the festival there was a mobile petting zoo for children to enjoy while their parents perused a nearby table of Ahavacosmetics. 
Ahava is a notorious occupation profiteer that manufactures beauty products in an illegal Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank, using stolen Palestinian natural resources. 
When the man behind the Ahava counter saw me reading the ingredients on the back of a bottle of lotion, he asked, with delight, if I needed any help.
“Why does this say it was made in Israel if it was produced in an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank?” I asked. His smile instantly transformed into a silent scowl, so I repeated the question. He eventually retorted, “I’m not here to debate where it’s made,” and stormed off. 
Poster at Israel Street Festival declaring Jerusalem the “capital of Israel.”
 (Rania Khalek)
Almost every booth was decorated with a poster that profiled a city or region under Israeli control. None mentioned Palestine, Palestinians or the occupation. The Golan Heights, for example, was advertised as part of Israel, when it is actually part of Syria which Israel has illegally occupied since 1967. Jerusalem was declared to be Israel’s capital, although most states officially do not recognize this claim, including the US.


“Map of Israel” by the Alexander Muss High School. (click for higher resolution)
 (Rania Khalek)
In the booth promoting the Alexander Muss High School in Israel — a Jewish National Fund-affiliated study abroad program for high school students — there stood a giant “Map of Israel” that included all of historic Palestine, with the West Bank labeled “Judea and Samaria,” the biblical terms Israel employs to bolster its imaginary claim over the occupied West Bank. 
As far as the festival was concerned, there was no such thing as Palestine or Palestinians, but this may have had more to do with appealing to the broader non-Jewish public. 
Rather than promoting Jewish-only Birthright Israel trips and immigration to Israel, the main attractions were booths advertising and recruiting for programs that are theoretically available to all Americans, like the study abroad program and Volunteers for Israel (VFI).

“Sexy Israeli soldiers are waiting for you” 

When I approached the VFI booth, it was being staffed by a couple that looked to be in their sixties. Their eyes lit up when I requested a brochure. 
“If you volunteer,” said the man, “the airline ticket is free!”
“That’s not the only reason you should go,” the woman interrupted, flirtatiously. “Those sexy Israeli soldiers are waiting for you!” 
I went back to the VFI booth about twenty minutes later to inquire about the program. This time a middle-aged American recruiter droned on about how incredibly fulfilling the program was. He added that anyone, Jews and non-Jews alike, could volunteer, at which point I challenged him.
“Anyone?” I said.
“Well that depends,” he replied with growing suspicion. “What do you mean by ‘anyone’?” 
“Well, what if I’m Palestinian?” I asked. 
Uncomfortable with where the conversation was headed, he stuttered, “W-w-well, there’s an interview process and not everyone passes. Even Jews, if they’re jerks, can be rejected.”
Irritated with my prodding, he added, “Are you really interested in volunteering, or are you just trying to start something?” I responded that I was genuinely interested and thanked him for his time. He did not look pleased. 
Despite the hatred on display in GMU SAIA’s video, I came away from the event inspired by DMV SJP’s action. Though it was small and took place in a politically apathetic suburban environment, their counter demonstration had a positive and educational impact. In between the hateful tirades were lengthy and productive conversations with people from inside and outside the festival about Israeli apartheid and Palestinian suffering. 
Moreover, we have reached a point where Zionists can no longer publicly celebrate their ethnocracy, even in a pro-Israel stronghold like Northern Virginia, without being challenged.  
As Radi told me after the festival, “Any time they have a presence, our presence needs to be there. Anytime they have a celebration, they need to know there will be some resistance.” 
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