Members of Santa Barbara’s Jewish Community met today for the second annual Community Wide Teach-in On Israel. The event, sponsored by the Israel committee of Santa Barbara and hosted by Santa Barbara Hillel in Isla Vista, was comprised of a series of lectures and panels aimed at increasing people’s understanding of Israel, its right to exist, and the challenges faced by leaders concerning the peace process in the Middle East.
Lasting from 10 a.m. until nearly 5 p.m., the lectures began with a brief synopsis of Israeli history by Steven Spiegal, who is a professor of political science at UCLA and a former campaign advisor for Bill Clinton. “Israel is very important to the U.S. because it’s a very pro-U.S. state,” he told the audience, “but Palestine has a right to become a state, too.” Spiegal shared many interesting facts, but his main point was that a middle-of-the-road approach to Israel’s problems is the only way to achieve peace in the region. “There are a lot of knee-jerk anti-Israel liberals and a lot of right wing Orthodox Jews who want force over negotiations. Both positions are wrong,” Spiegal said.
He further indicated that Israel has the strength to learn from its diplomatic mistakes, and that other nations can learn from these mistakes as well. “I wish someone in Washington had read British accounts [of management of former Ottoman territories] before we decided to intervene,” Spiegal said. He also stated unequivocally that the U.S. needs more decisive policy dealing with Iran and Pakistan, because they have unstable governments that possess nuclear weapons. Iraq, he said, should be hit with sanctions and embargoes to facilitate compliance from Iraqi leaders who are responsible for setting up a functioning democracy. “Despite their oil resources, they rely on distillates for processing that come from elsewhere,” said Spiegal.
During two afternoon “breakout” sessions, teach-in participants were able to choose between several different seminar topics that covered subjects like Israeli history, American-Israeli relations, terrorism in Israel, Zionism, and included a panel of rabbis who answered questions about the problems faced by Israel today. Panelist Rabbi Mitch Goldstein said that many of the questions asked of the panel were related to the peace process in Palestine. “It comes back to the issue of education,” he said. “I would like to see a general movement called Teach Kids Peace. They’re brainwashing children in Palestine. They have six and seven year old children on TV saying they’ll gladly give their blood to see the blood of Jews running in the streets of Jerusalem. The money they spend on arms should be spent on education and health and social services.”
David Lewis, a producer of documentaries for Frontline, CNN, 60 Minutes, and PBS who has traveled extensively in the Middle East and frequently reports on terrorism in Israel, offered his interpretation of Israel’s situation, beginning by telling the audience that he was going to say some things that they might not agree with at all. “My goal is to urge people here to see these issues from a realistic, rather than an ideological perspective,” he said. “If there’s anything I’ve learned from my travels, it’s not to view the facts the way I would like them to be, but the way they are. Hezbollah is a terrorist group, but whether we like it or not, that’s not all they are.” Lewis explained to the audience that Hezbollah, by creating social programs and services for the people of Lebanon, has enjoyed significant popular support there. Hezbollah’s satellite TV channel boasts a viewership that is second only to Al Jezeera in Lebanon.
Although the speakers had diverse perspectives a common thread ran through every presentation: Israel has the right to exist. “Whether you agree with Zionism or not, Israel does exist, so saying that it shouldn’t exist isn’t the way to look at it,” said Goldstein. “Just think if the American Indians suddenly said that we should all give up our homes. It just wouldn’t work.”
“I am a Zionist, but that turns out not to be the dirty word I thought it was,” said Peter Melnick, one of the co-chairs of the Israel Committee of Santa Barbara. “Zionism is just the belief that there needs to be a place in the world where the Jewish people can be safe. We would feel a lot less secure here if there wasn’t an Israel there.” He went on to explain that, at 50 years old, his is the first generation that hasn’t had to deal with a significant presence of anti-Semitism in the U.S.“We all know the history of anti-Semitism over the last 2,000 years. It’s been a fact of Jewish life forever. I think that anti-Semitism has always come out of a severe misunderstanding of Jews and Jewish culture,” he said, referencing the “blood libels” that were so common during the Middle Ages, and continued in many parts of the world until the 20th century.
Members of the Israel Committee were pleased with the turnout, which stood at nearly 200 people. “I’m thrilled with the turnout and with the diversity of information,” said committee co-chair Gail Teton-Lands. “I think that even a whole day teach-in just begins to scratch the surface. The issues are so old, and many of the dynamics have been there since Biblical times. I got really involved in this because I think that learning is the key to understanding, and the key to understanding is listening.”
Although this year’s teach-in was advertised only in Santa Barbara’s Jewish community, members of the committee are already thinking about next year, and the possibility of opening it up to the community at large. For more information, visit the Israel Committee of Santa Barbara’s website, at www.ic-sb.org.