Disturbing the Peace

The local conversation between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian activists is getting less civil every day. And Lee Kaplan's tactics aren't helping.

Kaplan has obtained footage from an Israeli security camera on the scene, which he says shows that Corrie wasn't protecting a home from demolition, as claimed, but was instead preventing the destruction of a weapons smuggling tunnel. We watch it together in the electronics department of a Walnut Creek Target, as summer shoppers wheel their carts past. "She's standing at the mouth of the tunnel," he says, pointing out that the image shows her low to the ground, as if standing in a ditch. The accounts of Corrie's friends state that she knelt or sat down in front of the bulldozer. But in Kaplan's view, the ponytailed student got what was coming to her. "She was playing chicken with the tractors!" He scoffs at claims that Corrie was a peace activist, insisting that she facilitated terrorism.

Such fervor stems from national security and political concerns, Kaplan insists, stressing that he's not the religious fanatic most people assume him to be. "Twenty minutes in the synagogue is enough for me. I'll go once a year, and that's it," he says. "Actually, what drives me against these people is that I'm fiercely anti-fascist, I'm fiercely anti-totalitarian. And I am against murder and killing and bloodshed by people who would claim to be representing human rights and freedom when they are really representing fascist totalitarianism."

Everything that Kaplan says and writes comes with another side of the story attached, appropriate to the endless argument-counterargument of Middle Eastern politics. Some of Kaplan's targets have published outraged rebuttals, including a vice-president at Duke University, who saw past Kaplan's disguise at a student conference in 2004 and kicked him out. "I have worked with many journalists over the years," wrote the beleaguered administrator in a letter to David Horowitz, "but never have I experienced one whose behavior has been so outside the norms of recognized ethical and journalistic standards as Mr. Kaplan."

Paul Larudee blames Kaplan's writings for his recent detention in Israel.
Paul Larudee blames Kaplan's writings for his recent detention in Israel.
Ehud Appel started a blog criticizing Kaplan.
Ehud Appel started a blog criticizing Kaplan.

Early in Kaplan's rabble-rousing career, some activists believed that no one would take his work seriously: They considered his articles to be minefields of exaggeration, mischaracterization, and quotes taken out of context. As a result, they tried to remain above the fray, disregarding his accusations. But others worried about letting Kaplan define the debate.

"For the first four or five years, people basically just ignored him," says Nadeem Muaddi, a spokesperson for the Palestine Solidarity Movement, a national network of student activists. "It's such an emotional issue that people go to extremes. We're kind of used to that. But he follows this principle that the more he repeats something, the more true it sounds. This past year he got onto the O'Reilly show. It's kind of frightening to see him coming into the mainstream now. When he says these things and we don't refute them, people start to think they're true."

The mainstream Jewish organizations in San Francisco don't seem to embrace Kaplan, and it's not clear what they think about his work and tactics; the local chapters of the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Anti-Defamation League, as well as the Israeli Consulate and San Francisco Hillel, all declined to comment for this article.

They do, however, share some of his concerns about the motives of Palestinian sympathizers. Yitzhak Santis, director of the JCRC's Middle East project, says the vitriol displayed at recent pro-Palestinian rallies has occasionally crossed over into anti-Semitism. Members of the JCRC who speak Arabic recorded a chant, he says, that translates, "Palestine is our homeland, and the Jews are our dogs." At another demonstration, they photographed a man in a kaffiyeh repeatedly giving the Nazi salute. But the larger concern, says Santis, is that the atmosphere of debate has been poisoned by pro-Palestinian groups that take an uncompromising approach. "They don't seek a peace with Israel; they seek peace without Israel," he emphasizes. "They want to fight until one side is left standing — their side — and that approach is a formula for prolonging the conflict." Kaplan sees no reason for compromise, either.

This March, the local conflict found a new venue when two college students at UC Berkeley began Lee Kaplan Watch, a blog that tracks and dissects Kaplan's tactics. The students who started it — Ehud Appel and Yaman Salahi — claim that Kaplan frequently uses fake names to attack them or praise himself on the blog, pointing to the common IP number associated with each entry. They believe he's driven as much by his ego as by his political beliefs, and that he vastly overstates his following and influence.

Appel, who will be a senior next year, is a Jewish member of Students for Justice in Palestine, majoring in Middle Eastern studies. He says he's not worried about the consequences of taking Kaplan on, but professes to be creeped out by his zealotry. "There's something odd about what is fueling him," he says. A few days after Appel posted his first critical piece about Kaplan (and informed him of it via e-mail), Appel checked a Web site dedicated to Kahanism, an aggressive Jewish movement that has been banned in Israel. The American site includes an extensive list of Jewish people it calls "Self-Hating and/or Israel-Threatening" — a SHIT list. Appel found a recent, lengthy write-up on himself, which included his photo and e-mail address and called him a "boot-licking kike," among other slurs.

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