Sparks fly as Israeli refusenik makes his case in S.F.

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Emanu-El Rabbi Stephen Pearce moderated the discussion, which was sponsored by the Madeleine Haas Russell Lecture Series and drew approximately 250 people.

Leibowitz prefaced his remarks by saying he did not condone "terrorist tactics" — which he has accused Israel of levying against the Palestinians, while adding that negotiating while under occupation is similar to "a rape victim being asked to negotiate with her attacker." The Tel Aviv criminal defense attorney said the absence of any visible Palestinian peace movement was understandable, given that it would require "being occupied in one's own house, while forced to bargain over the status of the living room."

Rothmann countered that it was the Israeli citizens who have been consistently violated. Noting the death years ago of a longtime Emanu-El congregant in a suicide attack, he said that many Israelis live in mortal fear of merely leaving their houses.

He also cited the intransigence of the Palestinian leadership as the main obstacle to peace, adding that while often derided as hawks, Israeli leaders from Menachem Begin to Yitzhak Rabin and Benjamin Netanyahu have been willing to make painful concessions for peace.

"I want to see the same type of leadership from [Palestinian Authority President] Yasser Arafat," said Rothmann, pounding his fist on a lectern. "I want to see the same type of leadership that [Jordan's] King Hussein showed when, even as he was dying of cancer," he went to Israel to "grieve with each and every family" of the seven Israeli schoolgirls slain in a 1997 attack by a Jordanian soldier. The girls were shot during a school outing to the Island of Peace on the Jordanian border.

Rothmann did not address the legalities or moral ramifications of serving — or not — in the Israeli armed forces. However, he deemed Israeli military service a necessity in light of decades of Arab "sacred hatred," rooted in an unwillingness to see the creation of Israel as anything less than a tragedy of epic proportions.

Leibowitz, however, dwelled on the ambiguous moral issues surrounding service in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and cited his own military service as a cogent example.

As a soldier serving in the West Bank during the first intifada, Leibowitz (who was often interrupted by hecklers) said he witnessed the roundup of hundreds of Palestinian youths and men who were forced to collect all the rocks they might use as weapons and instead use them to "build walls" from scratch. Any Palestinian who refused was beaten, he added.

"I could see the hatred in their eyes. And now that hatred has grown much stronger and more violent than anyone could have predicted."

In addressing a question as to how someone could "pick and choose" which laws to uphold and which to disobey, Leibowitz cited Martin Luther King Jr., saying that "any laws that are unjust are not actually laws at all.

"The Israeli reservists who refuse service in the occupied territories are actually supreme patriots and true Zionists who are on the verge of a new movement," he opined as several members of the audience hissed their disapproval. Leibowitz is a signer of "Courage to Refuse," the official statement of reservists who have balked at service in the territories.

Rothmann suggested that the question of Mideast peace could best be understood as a matter of semantics.

"The Israelis want peace. And groups such as Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, and the Al-Aksa Martyrs also want something similar. Except they spell it 'p-i-e-c-e' and they want more and more of it until Israel ceases to exist."