Sparks fly at union-organized Mideast panel on labors role in helping to resolve the Israeli-Palest

Being a union-sponsored event, the moderator continually referred to the crowd as “brothers and sisters.”

But, unless your idea of a family atmosphere involves the Hatfields and McCoys, the genealogical terms seemed somewhat out of place.

A Thursday, Jan. 29, forum titled “Labor’s Role in Helping to Resolve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict — What Steps Toward Peace?” was a tumultuous affair from the start, and never more so than when Palestinian-born panelist Bishara Costandi announced, “I, myself, am not against suicide bombings.”

After being booed loudly by pro-Israel members of the capacity crowd of roughly 170 at San Francisco’s ILWU Local 34 Building, labor organizer Costandi defiantly shot back, “Boo you!”

“You think dropping nuclear bombs on Japan is not terror? You think demolishing a whole city like Jenin is not terror? Is dropping 1-ton bombs on people’s shacks as they sleep not terror?” he shouted back at his hecklers. “For someone left with no hope, their only weapon is their death.”

For fellow panelist Shlomi Ravid, this was the last straw. From the outset, the founding director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Israel Center announced he had no intention of spending the night trading barbs with the pro-Palestinian panelists.

Yet throughout the two-hour event, both he and panelist Naomi Lauter of AIPAC were on the defensive, as Costandi and Uda Walker of the anti-Zionist Middle East Children’s Alliance tore into Israel as a racist, colonialist nation, an “abhorrent place and immoral state.”

An emotional Ravid broke with the panel’s format to counter Costandi’s comment.

“I have full empathy and feel for every Palestinian, but I have not an inch of sympathy for people who go and decide to intentionally kill” innocent people, said the lifelong kibbutznik and member of Israel’s peace camp. “I feel pain for the death of every innocent Palestinian. I grieve with them and expect the Palestinians to feel the same about Israelis. Human beings should deplore the killing of innocents no matter who they are.”

A visibly agitated Ravid later went on to grumble that he half expected “‘The Elders of Zion’ to be brought out here.”

The slings and arrows of Israeli-Palestinian violence are not exactly the prime interest of Bay Area organized labor. But Howard Wallace, a board member of the San Francisco Labor Council, told the audience that his organization has always been politically conscious and globally active, which is why it co-sponsored the event along with the Vanguard Public Foundation and AFL-CIO.

Yet Ravid’s opening statement that pro-Palestinians and pro-Israelis playing the blame game “has not saved the life of one individual in the region” and plea for constructive dialogue did not fall upon receptive ears.

Walker, who lived in the West Bank and Gaza from 1999 to 2001, described Israel’s occupation as brutal and sadistic, and read a long list of facts and figures relating to Palestinian deaths, economic woes and health conditions.

Union members, she said, doubly supported Israeli tyranny, as union dues are invested in Israel Bonds.

“We need to stand up, take action and stop racism and apartheid. We need to stop the wall and stop the Israeli military’s destruction of Palestinian lives, and we need to do it now,” she said. “We have to oppose racism wherever we see it. In this case, Israel is the No. 1 violator of U.N. Security Council resolutions, and if we don’t stop Israel doing this and other countries creating havoc as Israel has done, we have no one else to blame but ourselves.”

Walker’s speech was met with a long round of applause by the mostly pro-Palestinian crowd, which featured a healthy contingent of International Solidarity Movement members and others proudly wearing kaffiyeh or other symbols of Palestinian nationalism.

Audience members frequently booed, hissed or heckled the speakers, and audibly quarreled with each other; the event resembled nothing so much as a contentious Berkeley City Council meeting — down to the individual members of the audience.

Lauter, a consultant for AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, was heckled the most of all. Audience members shouted and laughed when she made note of the removal of “unauthorized outposts,” and hissed when she claimed that 85 percent of Palestinians killed in the intifada were “armed soldiers.”

As Costandi portrayed Israel as a nation of bourgeois colonizers (a strange notion for the kibbutznik Ravid), and Walker excoriated the audience to “make damn sure you don’t pay for occupation, racism or apartheid any longer,” Ravid and Lauter propped their hands in their heads and rolled their eyes.

In his closing remarks, an angry Ravid questioned the usefulness of the night’s forum.

“I came here because I thought you people wanted to talk to us about how to resolve the crisis and not about how to blame the other side. I could give you an educated lecture blaming the other side. But I don’t think this will lead anywhere,” he said to applause. “If you want to continue this theater of the absurd of blaming each other, I don’t want to play that game. This is too serious. I have actually lived [in Israel] and want the good life for the Palestinians and the good life for my children. I do not want to be part of that game.”

After the event, Ravid told j. he “almost felt set up” and blasted the selection of Costandi and Walker as the pro-Palestinian speakers.

“I’m part of a Jewish-Palestinian dialogue group. There are Palestinians in the Bay Area who are working toward peace, so I’m not sure who arranged for these representatives,” he said.

Recalling Costandi’s suicide-bomber comment, Ravid continued, “If I were Palestinian, I would be embarrassed for the rest of my life that these people spoke on my behalf.”

Standing a few feet away, Costandi mollified his statement somewhat, stating, “Nobody is happy when people die, man.” But he added, “There’s no army for the Palestinians in the sense of a standing army. This is a popular uprising and people fight. Why should a Jew be better than an Arab?”

He went on to audibly mock Ravid to a group of laughing well-wishers, waving his hands in the air while shrieking “I will not play that game! I will not play that game!” in a high-pitched, girlish voice.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.