by Scott McConnell
January 29, 2002
In addition to a massive rebuilding job, rising unemployment, and a budget awash in red ink, New York City has a new issue on its political plate: the proposal by city council member David Weprin to name a Queens street after Rehavam Ze'evi, the extreme right-wing Israeli minister of tourism who was killed last November by Palestinians.
The issue is curious in part because it reverses a long-standing pattern. Heretofore, the majority of American cities which try to carry out their own symbolic foreign policies, in the style of the "People's Republic of Berkeley," have done so by lurching to the Left, with actions like twinning themselves with cities in revolutionary Nicaragua or divesting themselves of companies doing business with South Africa. Under Mayor David Dinkins, a visit by Nelson Mandela brought New York to a virtual halt for three days, so that the South African could avoid being inconvenienced by traffic lights as he made the rounds of receptions and radical chic cocktail parties. Because Mandela really was in a way a great man, most people made a remark or two, smiled, and put up with it.
But the Ze'evi affair is something else. Ze'evi was not your normal right-wing Zionist who believes Arafat is a thug and no peace with the Palestinians is possible any time soon. When he was killed, he was in the process of resigning in protest from the Sharon government, which he accused of appeasement of the Palestinians. Last summer he created a small media stir by describing the Palestinians as illegal aliens who ought to be gotten rid of "the same way you get rid of lice." He was an open advocate of expelling all Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, so Israel could establish an Arab-free state in the entire territory allocated to the two peoples.
Regrettably, the movement to name a New York street after Ze'evi represents not just the feelings of a single city councilman, but the advance of a current of opinion among American Jews that hopes to deny Palestinian Arabs any rights at all in their native territories. Neither the American Jewish Committee nor the Jewish Community Relations Council – both heavyweight organizations – objected to the street-naming idea. As the Forward, a Jewish weekly put it:
"The enthusiasm of some mainstream Jewish organizations for the street-naming proposal may be the latest sign of what communal leaders say is a new era in which it is no longer verboten for American Jews to discuss, or in some cases promote, Ze'evs platform of 'transfer.' The term 'transfer' has come to refer to the mass removal of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to other Arab countries by means that Ze'evi himself was often vague enough. Most mainstream Jewish groups, from left to right, historically have rejected the doctrine as immoral."
"Transfer" is of course a euphemism for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, the forcible removal of several million people. It is the kind of thing the Serbs were accused of doing in Bosnia, which the United States opposed, eventually by starting a war on Serbia and indicting Serbian militants as war criminals before United Nations tribunals. There is a serious argument that holds it is a form of anti-Semitism to hold Israel to more rigorous standards than other countries. What term should we then use for the phenomenon of honoring racist advocates of ethnic cleansing when they happen to be Israeli?
Happily, several prominent Jews have spoken against the Weprin initiative. Congressman Jerry Nadler had perhaps the sanest response; when informed of it, he said simply "God forbid, God forbid." Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations stressed the necessity of reminding Diaspora Jews what Ze'evi actually stood for, saying, "We have to delegitimize him."
For New York City as a whole, adoption of the measure would be an unmitigated disaster; for a city that has developed something of a niche as a world capital would be inexorably (and correctly) viewed as embracing the narrowest kind of bigotry. New York would be saying to the world, in effect, we support equal rights, national self-determination for all people, except we make an exception for the Arabs who live in Palestine. For them, we honor a man who called them lice and wanted to uproot them up from their homes.
At a moment when the entire Palestinian political structure is under military occupation and near collapse, and Arab suicide bombers are committing horrible crimes against Israelis (while doing nothing to advance the Palestinian cause) it can seem futile to hold out for a vision of peace in the Mid East. But a sharing of the Palestine Mandate territory is the only possible decent solution, whether it takes place this year or the next, or five years down the road. The alternative is continued war and terrorism, which will inevitably spread beyond the Holy Land. If the New York City council embraces the bizarre Ze'evi street-naming proposal, it might as well put up a sign that says, "Bring this ugly war here."
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