By Saul Golubcow
On Tuesday, I was part of the overflow audience of a few hundred at Takoma Park Community Center to watch the disturbing documentary “The Occupation of the American Mind.” What I saw was Israel portrayed as a vicious, illegitimate entity brutally killing and oppressing Palestinians.
Worse, the film promotes a conspiracy theory that from 1948 to the present, Israel and its financial supporters control the media, Congress, and the minds of Americans.
The panel discussion that followed was intended as a forum for the considered exchange of thoughts. That’s not how it turned out. Taher Herzallah, of American Muslims for Palestine, monopolized the discussion. Belligerently, he threw out catch phrases and slogans to demonize Israel. Anyone thinking differently, he insisted, was not worth hearing because “the narrative of the colonizer [meaning Israel] is not a viable narrative.” Asked if he would acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, he flatly refused, exclaiming “not at my expense.”
The other discussant, Matthew Mayers from J Street, did little to slacken my tensions. While at the end he affirmed Israel’s right to exist, his other comments were either timid or critical of Israel calling the film “an advocacy piece” “and one sided,” but not anti-Semitic.
My heart sank as I watched the majority of the audience applauding segments of the movie vilifying Israel and the American Jewish community, laughing and sneering at opposing opinions, and being whipped into voiced approvals by Herzallah’s strident polemics of hate. I looked around at the sneerers and hooters (including a few Jews) and thought, yes, it can happen here.
I left shaken and worried, but I’m glad I went. With white supremacist forms of anti-Semitism, I know what we are facing and how to fight back. But I was horrified, not fully knowing what to make of people who view themselves as fair-minded, wishing to create safe space for a “community learning experience,” but who cheer on the defamation and debasement of a certain segment of a community.
That’s why, feeling myself to be the “enemy,” I was heartened not only by Jewish organizations such as the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington’s refusal to participate in a forum sponsoring blatant anti-Semitism, but also by the actions of eight members of the Montgomery County Council, Comptroller Peter Franchot and individual Maryland legislators across religious and political lines protesting the presentation.
Coming was painful, and so it must have been for a handful of others who spoke truth to bigotry. And by coming, I know the fight will be long and difficult. There will be a next time, and we will need more than a few of us to speak up.
Saul Golubcow writes from Potomac.