• Print

By  BERNIE BELLAN Readers of this week’s issue may notice a rather controversial ad and accompanying article about an upcoming appearance in Winnipeg by Jeff Halper, a staunch critic of Israel.

In some ways I was surprised that we were even asked to run an ad of this sort, as I wondered how many of our readers would honestly be interested in hearing what Halper has to say.
It turns out, however, that at least some of this paper’s readers belong to organizations that are generally regarded as “pariahs” by other more main-stream Jewish organizations. Foremost among those pariahs would be “Independent Jewish Voices”, whose members have long been among the fiercest critics of Israeli government policies and who call into question Israel’s right to exist in the first place.
The fact that Independent Jewish Voices would even want to consider advertising in The Jewish Post & News came as a surprise to me, but given my longstanding policy of attempting to provide a forum to as wide a range of views on Israel and Jewish affairs as possible, I told the representative from Independent Jewish Voices who contacted me that I would allow them to advertise Halper’s appearance here.
I was also asked whether I would consider interviewing Halper before a live audience. The reason, I was told, is  that I have a reputation for fairness, even when it comes to discussing issues that might inflame the passions of our readers. I agreed to interview Halper – something that will take place at the Free Press News Café on Monday, February 8, beginning at 7 pm.
At the same time, however, I have become an active participant in a new group about which both Myron Love and I have been reporting, and which is known as the “Israel Advocacy” group. I don’t mind admitting that when certain members of that group heard that I would be involved in anything to do with Independent Jewish Voices, they indicated a certain amount of consternation.
I responded to those members by saying that it was not my intention to let Halper off easily when I interviewed him. I am well aware that he is highly intelligent and extremely well versed in certain aspects of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians. I have no doubt that someone like Halper will be able to quote chapter and verse from instances of alleged “crimes” committed by Israeli authorities over the years. I am also not arrogant enough to think that, if it were a debate with Halper in which I would be participating, that I would be able to best him. But it won’t be a debate; it will be an interview.
Years ago there was a famous debate held between Norman Finkelstein, who is also well-known as one of the fiercest critics of Israeli government policy, and Alan Dershowitz, who is often regarded as one of Israel’s most eloquent defenders. While some may argue that Dershowitz acquitted himself well in that debate, the general consensusl is that Finkelstein won that debate.
But, what if Dershowitz had refused to debate Finkelstein? At least a staunch defense of Israel’s position was put forward when Dershowitz did debate Finkelstein. The fact is that too often Israel’s critics are given free rein when it comes to attacking her. Sure, speakers may be challenged on campuses from time to time by pro-Israel advocates, but let’s be honest: Israel’s critics always control the agenda when it comes to the type of forum in which they appear. Pro-Israel supporters ask questions from a distance, and when they do ask questions, if they have the nerve to do so amidst what are invariably hostile audiences, they are rarely given the opportunity to follow up any response they might receive to their questions with another question.
Jeff Halper has carved out a role as “coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD)”. He is also an advocate for the BDS movement (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions). As well, he is outspoken in his accusation that Israel is engaged in “apartheid” in its policies toward Palestinians. He has appeared in Winnipeg before – in 2009. I note that, during his upcoming visit to Winnipeg this time around he will be speaking at a United Church and at both the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg. While there may be an opportunity to ask questions of Halper at each of those other venues, when I was offered the chance to engage in a full-scale dialogue with him, I jumped at that opportunity. It’s not very often that a group such as Independent Jewish Voices affords defenders of Israel the time to speak out on behalf of Israel at one of their events, never mind engage in a full-scale interview with a fierce critic of Israel before a live audience.
So, I thought, here’s an actual opportunity to challenge a virulent critic of Israel in an ongoing discussion. I will be the one asking the questions and, although I plan on extending every courtesy to Halper during my interview with him, I do intend to hold him to account.
If you were to Google Jeff Halper’s name, however, you would find that by far the vast majority of websites that pop up heap praise on him for the work he has done over the years. Somewhat surprisingly, I could find only a couple of sites that actually criticize Halper.
Of those sites, there were two main themes that I could see when it came to criticizing Halper and others like him who would choose to isolate Israel for its supposed failings: The first is that Israel is far from alone in the way it conducts certain policies, and because Halper has chosen to concentrate on one particular aspect of Israeli policies, i.e. house demolitions, here, for instance, is what Mike Fegelman of Honest Reporting Canada, had to say regarding Halper:
‘…where is Jeff Halper’s outrage for the thousands of homes that Egypt has razed along its border with the Gaza Strip in an effort to thwart terror and smuggling? And where was Halper’s outrage when Hamas in 2010 razed 180 homes in Gaza to erect an Islamic religious centre or when, in 2013, it demolished 75 homes in Gaza it alleged were “illegal”? ‘
The second theme, and one that I found even more fascinating, goes to the heart of whether Israel’s policy of demolishing homes belonging to the families of terrorists is even effective in the first place. There appears to have been a consensus that Israel’s demolition policy hadn’t achieved the desired results. In 2005, in fact, Israel’s then-defense minister, Shaul Mofaz,ended the policy of demolishing the homes of Palestinian terrorists but, in late 2014, Israel announced that it was, in fact, resuming the demolition of homes of suspected terrorists.
A recent study by three academics, however, would seem to suggest that there was some value to demolishing the homes of terrorists, notwithstanding the consensus that appeared to have emerged, even within the Israeli government that it was largely ineffective The authors of the study claim that here were some positive efforcts as a result of the deomolitons policy, although its value was admittedly quite limited. Nonetheless, the authors of the study do agree that, “punitive demolitions led to a significant decrease in terror attacks, between 11.7 and 14.9 percent, in the months immediately following the demolition.”
In contrast though, the authors do distinguish between the demolition of homes for “punitive” reasons and for “precautionary” reasons, e.g. to prevent snipers from using those homes. “Precautionary” demolitions, in fact, were found to have led to an increase in terrorist incidents.
There is the added element of the demolition of Palestinian homes where they are found to be illegally situated. That is an entirely different issue from the one of demolition of homes to deter terrorism, but one with which Halper is also extremely well versed.
My point in writing about Halper prior to his appearance here is to alert readers to the fact that a very articulate and well-schooled critic of Israel will be in Winnipeg in a few days time. Moreover, Jeff Halper is Jewish, lives in Israel, and is an anthropology professor at Ben-Gurion University. No doubt many Jews would label him a “self-hating Jew”, but I categorically resist and detest the use of that label. Heck, I’ve been called that myself.
I would hope that some among you might want to attend one or more of Halper’s speaking engagements here and, if you care to pass along the information about Halper’s schedule to others who may not read this paper, that might be helpful as well. I would hope that anyone attending any of the venues at which he might be appearing would behave respectfully, however; in the past, I have been embarrassed by the behavior of pro-Israel advocates at certain events, when some individuals engage in shouting matches rather than meaningful dialogue. I know that at times it’s difficult to restrain oneself, and that almost no one who would go to hear someone such as Halper in the first place will be there with an open mind, but perhaps, just perhaps, if you are given the opportunity to ask a question, do so without rambling on and making a speech, or without becoming highly emotional.
Let’s be clear about one thing: Winnipeg is not a hotbed of virulent anti-Israel sentiment. There may be some members of certain church groups and other organizations who harbor a deep antagonism toward Israel and there are also members of our own Jewish community who are equally critical of Israeli government policy. In some cases, some of those individuals even call Israel’s right to exist into question – as does Halper. That may be deeply upsetting, but I, for one, welcome the opportunity to question a fierce critic of Israel. Keeping an open mind is what I always strive to do.