“Zionism is the failure of the century,” Mubarak Awad, Palestinian founder and director of Nonviolence International, said in a speech Oct. 3 in Milwaukee. “The whole idea of Zionism is the wrong idea.
Awad, who was deported from Israel in 1988 for his role in the riots of the first intifada, said Israel should not survive as a Jewish state. “There should be a divorce between Israel and Zionism,” Awad said. “[Israel] cannot continue to be a Jewish state because there’s going to be a Muslim majority there.”
Awad also said, “I feel there is something wrong with Judaism.” Why, he asked, are there so few Jews and so many more Christians and Muslims?
Further, he said, “As a Christian, I don’t accept that the Jews are the “chosen people.” That gives Jews superiority and license to treat others unfairly, Awad said.
Awad and his associate, Nafez Assaily, founder of Library on Wheels for Nonviolence and Peace (LOWNP), spoke to a group of about 50 at a conference titled “Rebuilding the Road to Peace in the Middle East,” sponsored by the Peace and International Issues Committee of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee.
Rabbi David Cohen, president of the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis and spiritual leader of Congregation Sinai, and Reverend Thomas Mueller of the Orthodox Church of America-St. Cyril and Methodius Parish, were invited to speak in response.
The event, held at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, was part of the 20th reunion of the Gamaliel Chair in peace and justice, a program of the Lutheran Campus Ministry of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The chair “is an interfaith program to inspire students, educators, faith leaders, and community activists to shape a future of peace and reconciliation,” according to the LCM’s web site.
Previous recipients were invited to participate in the almost week-long series of events, which ended last Sunday. Awad and Assaily received the chair in 1988.
‘Really sick people’
Awad began by saying that “We Palestinians and Israelis … are really sick people. When you’re sick you think the only remedy is violence.”
But “we are the children of God. Why do we have to kill the God in us? You have to be in the concept that you are killing a part of God when you kill a person,” he said.
Awad also sharply criticized the U.S. stand against Iraq, for which he received applause. “[Iraqi dictator] Saddam Hussein is a target because we couldn’t find [Al-Qaida leader Osama] Bin Laden,” he said.
“America has no interest in peace in the Middle East,” Awad declared. “You love war. You look around the find an enemy in Islam.”
Awad blamed President Bush for Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat’s renewed popularity. “Because of Bush, Arafat became the person nobody can beat…. That’s a disaster for us,” he said.
Awad also attacked Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. “There would be no peace in Palestine if the settlements continue. The settlers have to leave,” he said.
Calling the founding of Israel an act of colonization, Awad compared it to South Africa and said Israel should learn from what happened there.
During the question session, Cohen called Awad’s criticism of Judaism “medieval canard” and defended Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Cohen also called “disturbing” Awad’s espousal of the notion that violence is strategically and tactically unwise though morally and legally legitimate.
After the event, Cohen told The Chronicle that Awad’s “attacks on Israel’s legitimacy along with his derision of Judaism as a religion, left me wondering: ‘Where is the possibility of hope for a better future?’”
Attendee David Lerman, president of the local chapter of American Friends of Peace Now, also expressed disappointment in Awad’s “trouble with the concept of Zionism. The notion of trying to equate Zionism with racism is very disturbing.”
Marcus White, executive director of the Interfaith Conference, was not present, but told The Chronicle that “what I’ve heard [about Awad’s remarks] is very disturbing and not only should it be disturbing to the Jewish community but to all people of faith. We should not be about questioning the legitimacy of other faith traditions…. It saddens me and angers me.”
Paula Simon, executive director of the Milwaukee Jewish Council for Community Relations, said she was “stunned…. When you use provocative language, when you place all blame and responsibility on one side, that doesn’t make for a situation that can be conciliatory, mediated, compromised,” she said. “And if he represents the Palestinian perspective, then it’s very, very frightening.”
Assaily said his organization distributes and loans books to children in isolated villages and seeks to bring nonviolence into their lives. LOWNP also runs summer camps, puppet shows and young leadership training, all designed to teach cooperation, non-violence and peace, he said. His organization is trying to distribute books in Arabic about leaders of peace and non-violence, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.
Granted the last word of the program, Assaily said, “I’m hoping that one day a Palestinian Gandhi will rise up.”