Saturday, September 02, 2006

One Step Beyond

The complexities, manias, and sorrows of the Middle East have driven many people insane, and in the years of debating and discussing this issue, I've encountered my share (though some would say that I, too, am nuts, and sometimes I feel that's true). But last Wednesday night, I hit the lunatic jackpot. And while I try to never throw words like "lunatic" casually around, in this case it applies -- indeed, it may be an understatement.

As you know, I took part in a debate about the present chaos in the Middle East at the Tarrytown Music Hall. I was teamed with Nada Khader of WESPAC, a Westchester peace group, and we were set to argue against Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America, and Sidney Zion of the New York Daily News. I was a relative outsider to the other three: Nada is Palestinian and has seen the effects of Israeli occupation and aggression in Gaza; Klein and Zion are Jewish-Americans who staunchly side with the Israeli rightwing. Me, I'm just an American goy who became interested in this topic during Israel's blitzkrieg on Lebanon in 1982. I was raised to believe that Israel was a tiny, vulnerable nation fighting to breathe in a toxic wasteland of Arab hatred and violence. This image was shattered in '82, as it was for many people, and I've been putting the pieces back in a more realistic pattern ever since.

The evening actually began in the late afternoon, when the event's coordinator, Scott Pellegrino, and I were driving around Manhattan, waiting for Mort Klein's train to arrive from Philadelphia, where he lives and works. We picked up Steve Rendall, an old friend of mine who works for FAIR, then went to Penn Station to get Klein, who was standing on the corner, large black satchel in hand. Not knowing what to expect, Steve and I sat in the back seat and allowed Klein to ride shotgun. I figured that it would be harder for him and me to argue in the car if he had to keep turning around to talk; plus, Scott is a smooth talker who can relate to just about anyone, and I knew that he'd keep Klein occupied and entertained, which he more or less did.

As we raced up the Henry Hudson toward Tarrytown, many items were bounced around, mostly apolitical ones, but given the make-up in the car, that would last only so long. Having read several items at Mort's ZOA website, I knew that he was far to my right, but this perception was really hammered home once he started in on politics. Among the many things he uttered (having worked on George McGovern's '72 campaign, Klein informed us that the former Senator was a serial adulterer, something that did surprise me), he insisted that the US government, far from being an unconditional supporter of the Israeli state, actually drags its feet and does whatever it can to slow or trip up the Zionist enterprise, a source of recurring frustration for him and his allies. He also claimed that AIPAC, perhaps the best known Israeli lobby of which Mort is an advising member, is too far-left for him.

"AIPAC is leftwing?" I asked in sincere confusion.

"Oh yes," Klein replied, looking at me as if my question came from downsized Pluto.

He went on, telling us that "I hate Jesse Jackson and I hate Al Sharpton"; and when Noam Chomsky came up, Mort denounced him for writing a preface for a Holocaust denier's book (the infamous Robert Faurisson affair). Instead of letting that go, I immediately corrected him, informing him that Chomsky actually wrote an essay about protecting free speech, no matter how crazy or vile, and that the state shouldn't be allowed to determine or legislate historical truth. The essay was given to Chomsky's friend in France, Serge Thion, who did indeed place it as the opening to Faurisson's book. But this essay was in no way a defense of Faurisson's views, only of his right to publish whatever he wanted without being prosecuted for historical deviationism, which he was at the time.

"Hmmm," said Mort. "I didn't know that." He paused, then stated with forefinger raised, "Then Chomsky should denounce that man who put it in that book!"

"Well," I replied, "that's his choice, not yours."

And that was that as we pulled into beautiful Tarrytown, the sun glittering on the Hudson River at the town's edge.

We entered the Music Hall and were greeted by its manager, who showed us to our dressing rooms backstage. The place is majestic, smelling of old wood and seats sat in countless times since the late-19th century. A large table with four mikes sat onstage next to a podium. The sound technician and lighting person were running about, making final adjustments. We had about an hour till showtime, and Mort excused himself to get coffee and prepare for battle. Steve and I found an old pub down the street and had a beer, catching up on each other's lives. While Mort was tense in his private world, I felt completely relaxed as I settled into a familiar debate mindset, soothed even more by a tasty cold Heineken.

Returning to the Music Hall, I finally met my debate partner, Nada, a small, serene woman who spoke softly but very directly. Then the event's moderator, Ron Kuby, arrived, tanned, energetic, and never at a loss for words, as those who listen to his WABC radio show know well. Ron possesses piercing eyes, and when he addresses you, his vibe is instantly shared. As the audience filed in and the show was about to begin, we had to hold for Sidney Zion, who was parked at the bar, waiting for a friend of his to arrive. When Zion finally came backstage, you could smell booze on him, but I thought nothing about it as I shook his hand and introduced myself. That would soon change.

After a 15-minute delay, we were all introduced and brought on stage. Originally, we were to be seated Nada, Mort, me, Zion. But Mort feared being flanked by Nada and myself, saying that we would be able to see his notes. I asked what he thought that either of us would do with his notes -- crib his arguments? But Klein insisted that he and Zion be seated together, with Nada and me at the other end of the table. So before any of us said a word into a mike, we had to be segregated by outlook. This spoke volumes about our opponents' views of those who differ with them, as well as what their concept of a "democratic" Israel should look like.

We each were given five minutes for opening remarks. Nada began with a carefully-worded but strong indictment of Zionism's impact on Palestinian lives. "Oh boy," I thought to myself. "Here we go."

No sooner had Nada completed her statements when Mort kicked into high rhetorical gear. He spoke loudly about "Arab hatred" of Jews, and how "the Arabs" taught their children this hatred. He whipped out a Palestinian poster showing a kid wearing jihadist gear and holding a rifle. He then produced a large map of the Middle East and ranted the usual nonsense about how Israel has always fought "defensive" wars. Through it all, it was "the Arabs!" this and "the Arabs!" that. I wondered how well my arguments would be received if I shouted about "the Jews!" every twenty seconds. But clearly, Mort saw nothing wrong with his presentation.

Kuby then came to me. "First of all," I announced, "I'd like to say that I'm happy to be part of this little love-in." This received the laughs I hoped to get in order to calm the already-charged atmosphere. I then referred to Mort and told the audience that he and I rode up to the gig together, and that despite our differences, he seemed to me like a nice guy. "It's clear that we're gonna bump heads tonight, so I want to warn you Mort -- I have a metal plate in mine." More laughs and an incredulous query from Kuby.

"Dennis, you have a metal plate in your head?"

"Yes. It's from a wrestling accident years ago. I was wearing a mask. That's all I want to say about it."

I then got serious and referred to Israel's long involvement in southern Lebanon, an involvement that stemmed from pre-state Zionist designs on the region. Israel in Lebanon is nothing new, I said, and hoped that we could explore the historical and political reasons for this.

Now it was Zion's turn, and I focused more on his tone rather than his exact words. Zion was loud, belligerent, and appeared to have a seething hatred of Arabs. He then dismissed Nada's "bullshit," and called her a stupid "little girl." Much of the audience booed him on this point, and Zion yelled right back at them. The evening's mood had been definitively set.

From here the "debate" went south in a hurry. Whenever Nada or I tried to make a point or respond to Klein and Zion, one of them, or sometimes both, would interrupt, yelling into the mike in order to drown us out. It was then I noticed that Zion had a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch stashed under the table. In the moments when he wasn't bellowing, he poured himself drink after drink, getting more hammered as the night wore on. And of course the more hammered he got, the more abusive he became.

By now it was nearly impossible to speak without disruption. As I tried to trace the Zionist narrative from the 1920s to now, citing Ze'ev Jabotinsky and David Ben Gurion, Zion went nuts, screaming from his Scotch-reeking mouth, "What the fuck are you talking about?!" and informing the audience that "this son of a bitch is a goddamned liar!" though Zion offered zero proof that this was so. I tried my best to ignore him (tough to do, as Zion trash talked me off-mike as I spoke, suggesting that I wanted to see Jews murdered, etc.) and talk to the audience, which was getting more stirred up by the minute, heckling and shouting back at the stage, mostly at Zion, who naturally told them to shut up and drop dead. I said that if anyone doubted me, they could go online and find these early Zionist documents for themselves. Simply Google the names I mentioned and check the sources that pop up.

Zion yelled, "What is this, a computer class?! What the fuck's going on here?!" He then fell momentarily silent so he could serve himself another drink.

Ron Kuby admitted that he'd lost control of the debate, even though Nada and I did our best to stay within its parameters. It was Klein but especially Zion who were running wild, freely ranting whenever they felt the urge, and openly conceding that they were disrupting Nada and me, and that we had it coming. There was a brief period of time when Nada and myself simply fell silent and watched Zion and Klein argue with the audience. And this was before the Q& A!

A long line formed in the left aisle of the Hall as audience members waited for their turn to speak directly to us. Soon it became clear that most of the questions and criticisms were aimed at Klein and Zion, which they couldn't believe. "Is this audience full of Arabs?!" Zion drunkenly shouted. "We've been set-up!"

In fact, several of their critics were Jewish, including an older man who said he was an Israeli from Haifa who took serious issue with Zion's raving. He followed up a point I'd made earlier about Israel's alliance with Christian Phalangists in southern Lebanon, and how this brutal occupation helped give rise to Hezbollah. ("Brutal?" Zion shouted at me. "Are you fucking crazy?!") The Israeli man noted that Lebanese Christian rightists were in league with the German Nazis during World War II, and how shameful it was for Israel to be associated with them. Zion was so loaded at this point that he thought the man called Israelis Nazis, which of course he hadn't. But reality meant nothing to Zion as he screamed at the man, "Fuck you Jew-boy!" As the man quietly returned to his seat, Zion kept yelling, "Don't you walk away from me, Jew-boy!", undeterred by the audience's open outrage.

I was able to squeeze in one more point before this abortion of an event came to a close. Klein opined that the Gazans deserved to be shelled by Israel since they elected Hamas as their leadership. If you put terrorists in power, he said, then you can't complain when the Apache helicopters swoop down. I immediately responded that if Mort's point applied to Israel as well, then Israelis can't complain about car bombs or rockets since they've put a succession of former terrorist leaders into high office, including the war criminal Ariel Sharon.

"How dare you compare a man like Arik Sharon to a murderous bum like Arafat!" Zion sputtered, though I don't remember mentioning Arafat.

"I don't compare them at all, Sid," I said. "Sharon's killed far more people than did Arafat."

This got applause, which of course sent Zion into further hysterics about the "Arab" audience.

Mercifully, after nearly two-and-a-half hours, the zoo was shut down. I was saddened and surprisingly exhausted as I went backstage to take a leak. When I opened the bathroom door to exit, Zion stood right in front of me and yelled, "Oh, there he is! There he is!" I walked past him without making eye contact and returned to the theater to talk to those who stuck around, including the Israeli man abused by Zion. I was lauded for keeping my cool throughout the evening, which was nice, but did little to cheer me. Then I was informed that a pro-Israeli audience member, who opposed our arguments, had told Nada that not only did we win the debate, but that he thought that Zion and Klein were plants in order to make Jews look crazy. This made me laugh, the first real release I experienced that night. The sorry thing is, people like Zion and Klein are all too real, and the policies and attitudes they espouse are no joke, a reality that is beyond debate.