When I asked US Congressman Jerrold Nadler at a pro-Israel rally on Monday whether our government bears any culpability for the mounting civilian death toll in Gaza, he called me an “ass” and stormed away.
The brief encounter was instructive. We were talking amid a tense and uncomfortable press conference that had been convened by a delegation of leading New York City Democrats at the steps of City Hall in Lower Manhattan. At least 186 Gazans, including many children, are dead in the latest round of ethnic warfare between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, and while both sides have their share of villains, only Jerusalem receives billions in US military aid each year. This assortment of elected officials had decided to offer a fresh show of support for the aerial and ground bombardment campaign currently being waged by the Israeli government. Most if not all of these politicians identify as ‘progressives’—Nadler belongs to the Congressional Progressive Caucus—but nonetheless posed with a giant placard emblazoned with Israeli Defense Force (IDF)-distributed graphics, created by an official military PR operation in hopes of convincing other nations that the country's actions are justified.
The area at the steps of City Hall, normally freely open to pedestrian traffic, was closed off and guarded by a coterie of NYPD officers. Michael Miller, lead organizer and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council, explained that the general public had been prohibited from attending for “security reasons.” (“Nothing nefarious,” he insisted.) Initially, an officer manning one of the entrances to City Hall’s pavilion area informed me that I would be barred entry without displaying an official City-issued press pass, which are often ridiculously difficult to obtain. When I replied that every other time I had attended events at this location no press pass had been required, the (now agitated) officer advised that he was “under direct orders” to impose stringent regulations, and denied me entry. (The officer presiding over a different entrance proved more amenable, and I was allowed in.)
Plainclothes NYPD personnel scoured the event, suddenly springing into action at one point when a woman, Tammy Gold, who had somehow found her way behind the press conference podium among the assembled dignitaries, held up a sign denouncing the Gaza assault. She was forcibly escorted away by an individual who self-identified as “Detective Berkowitz” but would not spell his name. A second individual who claimed to work in some police capacity refused to identify himself whatsoever. Jennifer Pastrich of Rubenstein Communications, a PR firm, distributed copies of talking points to journalists in the hopes they would use them to frame their stories. When asked to provide her name, she appeared uncomfortable, at first only replying with “Jennifer” and then inquiring why I'd asked who she was.
Almost immediately after the pro-Israel festivities got under way, protesters who’d crowded the outer perimeter of the park drowned out the elected officials’ speeches. As Capital New York's Azi Paybarah noted, the intended “Stand with Israel” message seemed to be supplanted by the dominance of the protesters, as well as the general absurdity of such a tightly regulated affair. The assembled politicians at times appeared really uncomfortable; before the “ass” remark, Rep. Nadler wore a grimacing frown and stared awkwardly at the ground.
But it wasn’t just that the officials saw fit to declare their allegiance with a warring foreign government, or that their sympathies were with Israel—neither of these things would be particularly remarkable on their own. What struck me more was their jarring resistance to assessing the conflict with even an iota of skepticism toward the actions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his generals. One by one, these officials uncritically repeated talking points disseminated by the Israeli government. Perhaps the most widely used example goes something like this: Israel is making every effort to minimize civilian casualties and, in fact, should be applauded for engaging in such enlightened bombing tactics.
“Israel has taken extraordinary measures to protect the civilians, much more so than I’ve ever seen any other country in a warlike situation take,” Nadler proclaimed at one point.
Missing from his analysis is that the most effective civilian-casualty-minimization strategy would be to, you know, refrain from bombing areas that are heavily concentrated with civilians. The Gaza Strip is more densely populated than London. The idea that ostensibly not targeting civilians somehow legitimizes any kind of attack the Israeli government should see fit to carry out—that just seems nuts. (VICE News’s Danny Gold visited one five-year-old Gazan child in the hospital.)
Given the manipulation and deceit that representatives of this foreign government have admitted were employed to create pretext for initiating the bombardment, one would think at least a dose of skepticism toward their claims is, by now, warranted. But not only did these officials uncritically parrot talking points—they amplified them to a greater extent than even many Israelis do. It was truly a weird scene.
“Imagine, if you will, for a moment, that there were hundreds of rockets raining down on the Lower East Side,” offered Mark Levine, chair of the City Council’s Jewish Caucus. This was yet another talking point propagated by Israeli government PR teams, who have created a bevy of slick-looking promotional material asking citizens of various metropolitan areas around the world how they would like it if rockets were falling on their residences.
Levine’s colleague on the Council, emerging NYC power broker David Greenfield, bemoaned the lack of “context” in which the current conflict is depicted by Israel’s critics. Agreeing with the need for additional context, I asked him whether invoking the specter of rockets raining down on Manhattan to justify the current actions of the Israeli government was also devoid of context, given that New York City is not occupying, embargoing, or dropping bombs on a neighboring people.
As Greenfield began to answer the question, a particularly obnoxious New York State Assemblyman, Phillip Goldfeder of Queens, sauntered over. Goldfeder interrupted the conversation by cackling about my concern for Palestinian civilian deaths. When I pointed out that children getting extinguished in the dead of night under questionable pretext is a serious matter, the assemblyman escalated said cackling. Even Councilman Greenfield, who was in the process of defending the Israeli government’s actions and is by all accounts a devout backer of Israel, appeared put off by Goldfeder’s conduct.
None of these liberal politicians expressed even an iota of curiosity as to how recent Israeli bombings of a rehabilitation center for the disabled, a World Cup watch party, and the Gaza police chief’s residence might further Netanyahu's stated goal of curbing rocket attacks. When asked about the assault on the World Cup watching party, New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said simply, “I wasn’t there.” Presumably, he also wasn’t there for the numerous attacks he had just cited as allegedly having been perpetrated by Hamas “terrorists,” but as I’m trying to get across, these people have largely dispensed with logic at this point.
You don’t have to view the Israeli government as uniformly overrun by cold-blooded killers to recognize that their claims demand special scrutiny, especially when the lives of innocent children are being ended. And neither do you have to accept Hamas as blameless agents in order to recognize that a state-of-the-art military apparatus subsidized by the US government is on a wholly different moral playing field than a few rogue Islamist-affiliated young men propelling shoddy rockets into Southern Israel (which as of yet have killed just one Israeli, thanks to their Iron Dome shield).
“If civilians are killed, that’s the fault of Hamas, not the fault of Israel,” Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel told me. Ponder his reasoning for a moment: The people who initiated and launched the attack are absolved of any moral culpability for the results of their actions, according to this formulation. That just seems crazy, whatever else you might think about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Hamas is the elected government of Gaza. Does that mean anyone with any kind of affiliation with Hamas is an acceptable target? That would be like saying, in retaliation to the US government’s flagrantly illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, that any American would be a justifiable target for counterattack. It doesn’t make any sense.
“No country can exist if its citizens are under rocket attack day in and day out, year in year out,” Engel continued. He may be right, but the same logic was used to justify Israel’s previous two sustained assaults on Gaza, in 2012 and 2009, neither of which apparently succeeded in stemming rocket attacks for more than a short time. So, purely from a tactical standpoint, the proposition of renewed bombing warrants extra attention. “Hamas wouldn’t allow demonstrators to demonstrate against them,” Engel told me. “They would kill people.” The congressman also invoked 9/11 for some reason, because of course.
NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio was not present but in the past has addressed AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, in meetings that were omitted from his public schedule. “It is our obligation to defend Israel,” he reportedly told one audience.
Curtis Sliwa, the red beret-clad talk radio shock jock of Guardian Angels fame—and partner of Queens Borough President Melinda Katz—was also on hand. I asked if he was troubled by the latest round of Palestinian civilian deaths. “No,” he replied.
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