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's expectations were high for what he called the "anti-Israel hate fest." He made his views of the event known, says conference organizer Ramsey Al-Qare, of the General Union of Palestine Students. The group had originally planned to hold the event in an academic building, but the administration got spooked when Kaplan called the dean and published an article accusing the university of using Californians' tax dollars to support terrorist organizations. The group decided to use the student union building instead, because its operations are funded entirely by student fees.

When the foggy Friday night finally arrived, about 100 people filed into a banquet hall and arranged themselves around the tables. Even before the first speaker took the podium, Kaplan had attracted attention. A scrum of conference organizers — identifiable by the bright red sashes tied around their biceps — surrounded his table. They wanted to know if he was there as a journalist, and, if so, who he was writing for. They asked to see ID. Kaplan refused. He was a freelance journalist, he said, but he was also a private citizen who had every right to be there. The two gray-haired women who had sat down at his table picked up their paper plates and fled. "We wound up with the Zionist!" they exclaimed with giddy horror.

The speakers that night talked about the right of return as a basic human right, and dismissed the notion of a two-state solution. They told listeners to keep sight of the goal: establishing a Palestinian state that would offer shelter to all the scattered descendents of the refugees. A dark-haired woman from Al-Awda's New York chapter gave the most rousing talk, and also the most incendiary. "Al-Awda was born of the knowledge that there is no place for Zionism in the Arab world," she said. "This is resistance. This is solidarity. ... This is the bomb on the Israeli barge." She left the stage amid rousing cheers.

Lee Kaplan confronts pro-Palestinian activists at their rallies, conferences, and training sessions.
Lee Kaplan confronts pro-Palestinian activists at their rallies, conferences, and training sessions.
Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli demonstrators face off across Montgomery Street.
Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli demonstrators face off across Montgomery Street.

The next morning started where the previous evening left off. Organizers accused Kaplan of secretly taking pictures — a violation of the conference rules, posted everywhere, which forbid all recording devices and cameras. Al-Qare, a student in his junior year, said the ban on recording was a direct result of the prior actions of Kaplan and his colleagues. "I've had friends who have gone to Palestine-Israel, and when their names are run through the computer at immigration a picture will come up from Malcolm X Plaza at San Francisco State," he said. "How the hell does Israel have pictures of us on our campus?"

Later that day, about two dozen activists gathered for the workshop on student organizing on college campuses. Appel, the Berkeley student who works on Lee Kaplan Watch and one of the workshop's leaders, wasn't surprised when Kaplan strode into the room. Appel keeps a sense of humor about Kaplan's watchfulness: "At least I get to tell people that my archnemesis was on the O'Reilly show," he says. "His archnemesis is just some 21-year-old guy."

At the workshop, Appel and Al-Qare described their campus organizing work in minute detail. Then Appel told a story about an anti-war demonstration in the spring at which the pro-Palestinian contingent was joined by a few strangers waving Palestinian flags — and signs advertising a neo-Nazi Web site. "We need to smash these people and prevent them from infiltrating our group," he said fiercely. When the student organizers finished talking and opened the room to questions, Kaplan's hand shot high in the air. Appel reluctantly recognized him.

"Ehud, you were talking about your objection to Nazism, which sounds like a good thing," Kaplan said. "But I've recently shown that Al-Awda has links to the National Socialist Movement, which is the Nazi party." Kaplan ran through his allegations: A neo-Nazi Web site linked to a Web page calling for the boycott of companies that do business with Israel, a page from a Web site that Kaplan said was registered to the founder of Al-Awda. "If you're serious about your objection to Nazism in your movement, you might want to look into that. Al-Awda was notified about this weeks before this conference," Kaplan declared.

As he spoke, a clamor of voices grew. Then Appel leapt to his feet and dramatically pointed to Kaplan. "You are using guilt by association!" he shouted, and would have gone on, but a conference organizer burst into the room to restore order.

"We won't have debate!" said the organizer. "Each person can ask one question, based on the presentation, and they will get one answer."

Kaplan looked up, unfazed. "OK, here's my question for Ehud. Have you read the Hamas charter?"

The tumult of voices began again. Someone shouted: "Lee Kaplan, you're a racist!" Others yelled, "Next question! Next question!"

Kaplan got no answer, and the workshop leaders tried to go back to the topics at hand, such as how to use MySpace as an organizing tool. But the room vibrated with energy, all of it centered around the hulking interloper. Twice more Kaplan interjected comments, and twice more the group drowned him out in a wave of collective antagonism. A few fresh-faced college students asked questions about how to deal with "disruptive people" who are "obnoxious and annoying," while pointedly averting their eyes from Kaplan. He stayed silent.

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