Israeli Ambassador Grilled on Apartheid in Atlanta

Posted March 2, 2010

By Eskandar and Ryan

The Movement to End Israeli Apartheid-Georgia (MEIA-G) kicked off the first day of Israeli Apartheid Week on Monday by packing a lecture by Israeli ambassador Reda Mansour at Georgia State University (GSU). Students and local activists dominated the question and answer session, challenging the ambassador’s whitewashed narrative of a “vibrant and diverse Israeli democracy” with critical questions about Israeli apartheid. After it had become apparent that Palestinian solidarity activists had hijacked the discussion, the ambassador was forced to end the event early.

Reda Mansour
Ambassador Reda Mansour (left) with Gov. Perdue: “Israel is extremely proud of its close partnership with the Atlanta area and the entire Southeast.”

The aim of Israeli Apartheid Week is to educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system and to build Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns as part of a growing global BDS movement. The BDS movement seeks to isolate Israel, as South Africa was isolated during the apartheid era, until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with international law. The UN International Civil Society Conference adopted the Palestinian call for BDS in 2005. Since then, Zionists have sought to counter the BDS movement and accusations of apartheid by pursuing “dialogue-driven” outreach that highlights the “diversity” and “liberal innovation” of Israeli society. Just as South Africa used black members of the collaborationist Inkatha Freedom Party as foreign emissaries for the apartheid regime, Israel chose Reda Mansour–an Israeli citizen and member of Israel’s relatively privileged Druze Arab minority–to represent its interests.

Ambassador Mansour gave a lecture on the subject of “Israeli politics and identities.” He avoided any discussion of the occupation, and attempted to paint a rosy picture of Israel as a multicultural country where diverse groups of people, including Arab citizens of Israel, live freely and participate in national politics. He made no mention of the fact that minorities within the state of Israel, from Palestinians to Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, face deep and systematic discrimination – a point which was later brought up by a member of the audience.

After speaking for a half hour, Mansour opened the floor to questions, stressing that the question and answer session was to be the main part of the event. Immediately, someone asked why Jews from anywhere in the world were allowed to move to Israel and become citizens, but millions of Palestinians displaced from their homes could not return. Others asked why Israel routinely harasses, beats, and arrests nonviolent Palestinian protesters. When the ambassador suggested that Palestine needed to find its own Gandhi, members of the audience reminded him that plenty of “Palestinian Gandhis” can be found serving time in Israeli prisons. In a last-ditch intimidation effort, Ambassador Mansour stated he was aware that an organized group had come to his lecture with prepared questions, which he had presumably seen on a local e-mail list.

It wasn’t just the organized students drawing attention to the elephant in the room. Thanks to unaffiliated students, the critical questions didn’t stop: Why do even prominent Israeli politicians such as defense minister Ehud Barak agree that Israel is an apartheid state? Why does Israel oppose a one-state solution in which Jews and Palestinians could peacefully co-exist in one country? Not one question was uncritical of Israel’s apartheid policies.

Mansour made some revealing statements in his attempt to answer (or dodge) the questions thrown at him. Immediately after urging the pro-Palestinian audience to be “self-critical,” he made a confounding claim that Israeli Arabs may have “full citizenship,” even if they do not enjoy “full rights.” That was followed by a bizarre comparison of separate states for Israel and Palestine to separate parts of metro Atlanta, such as the majority-white suburb of Alpharetta and the majority-black downtown area. Perhaps the organizers saw him faltering or lost hope that this event would be an “apolitical” appreciation of Israeli diversity. With students eagerly holding their hands in the air, some of them clad in kufiyas, the organizers ended the event a mere 50 minutes after it began. In the frequently long-winded academic world, it’s quite possible that a new record was set for “shortest presentation ever.” The prize, activists hope, is a future reluctance of Israeli officials to return to their campus until apartheid policies are dismantled.

This wasn’t the first activity in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle at GSU, though. MEIA-G and various student groups at GSU have set their sights on a program in their Criminal Justice Department called the “Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange” (GILEE). For reasons obscured to practically all of the 35,000+ students and education workers, their campus is being used to facilitate police cross-trainings between Israeli and Georgia police. Over the last 15 years, delegations of senior Georgia police officers (as well as other state officials and private security executives) have traveled to Israel under the auspices of GILEE to receive so-called “counter-terrorism” training.

Undoubtedly, Israel’s 60 years of experience in suppressing the unflagging Palestinian movement for self-determination has yielded volumes of knowledge. Any state interested in more “efficient,” “comprehensive,” and “integrated” security services–which includes much of the world in an age of rising inequality and strife–is being invited to similar partnerships with Israel. Electronic Intifada writer Jimmy Johnson, in his article “Israel’s export of occupation tactics,” expounds on this international phenomenon beyond the scope of this article. Granted, the state of Georgia, with its Jim Crow past and uneasy present, is no amateur in this regard; through GILEE, they offer to help delegations of Israeli police learn drug law enforcement and so-called “community policing” (anti-brutality and police accountability advocates throughout the state are left scratching their heads at this term).

In line with the BDS call, students and community activists are urging the university administration cut this problematic connection. Universities should be places of critical scholarship, where the roots of problems, like colonial occupation and poverty, are addressed. We cannot afford to continue feeding the growth of an already bloated security state enmeshed in a wrong-headed “global war on terror,” at the expense of real solutions that provide opportunity and meaningful self-determination for people first. To view the statement against GILEE and sign the petition, visit this page. From the grassroots, we can initiate truly purposeful dialogue, free of banalities from any Israeli state mouthpiece, and work toward an end to the occupation.