Mike Rotkin: “Criticism of the RCNV unwarranted.”

By Mike Rotkin
Appeared in the 5/1/11 edition of the Santa Cruz Sentinel


An opinion piece that appeared in the Sentinel two Sundays ago raises concerns about “an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Santa Cruz.” The author explicitly targets the Resource Center for Nonviolence RCNV as contributing to this ostensible problem.

Let me begin by saying that I am not affiliated with the RCNV. I have attended several of their events over the years, occasionally donated money to them, and am friends with several of their staff. I also am Jewish, and although not a religious person, I have deep cultural roots in the Jewish community. Members of my family were exterminated in the Holocaust, my father was a leader in the Jewish community in Washington, D.C., and I identify as a Jew. As someone who grew up in a community where we were the only Jewish family among 300 households, I know a little about anti-Semitism.

I also wish that everyone commenting on the situation in the Middle East offered views that were balanced, offered only accurate information, and, perhaps most importantly to me, did not make the mistake of conflating their views on Israel with Jews in general. However, there are several fundamental problems with this opinion piece.

First, several of the events and individuals that are criticized in the piece have no relationship to the RCNV. There is not room in the brief space of my response to name every inaccuracy I found, but a few examples: The letters about Helen Thomas, whatever their merit, were written by individuals who have no relationship to the RCNV, its programs or staff. The one referenced letter that was written by someone who volunteers at the RCNV, but does not work there or speak for the center, raised questions about a foreign worker rather than Palestinians being responsible for the murder of a Jewish family in the West Bank. It is not anti-Semitic to observe that not every Jewish family murdered in the West Bank must have been killed by Palestinians. This is, apparently, one of the leads being followed by Israeli police.

Scott Kennedy is criticized for attending a meeting at the U.N. with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but the author fails to point out that it was not to support Ahmadinejad’s frequently insane comments, but rather to ask critical questions about Iran’s nuclear program, treatment of women and minorities, and other human rights abuses.

The writer describes a discussion group on the Middle East sponsored by the RCNV in which he had participated and then attributes anti-Semitic quotes to several unnamed participants. As a result of little investigation, I found that nobody else who participated in the group can remember these quotes or anything like them being expressed.

The article criticizes the RCNV for sponsoring two speakers whom the author feels are outside the boundaries of civil and rational discourse. One of them, about whom I happen to share the author’s assessment, Imam Abdul Malik, who claims Jews bombed the World Trade Center, was not sponsored or in any way supported or endorsed by the RCNV.

The other, Norman Finkelstein, a serious scholar, gave a talk that I attended. I was extremely impressed with his documentation of all of his arguments. I felt that many in the audience who had come expecting to gather evidence of an irrational, “self-hating Jew” were pleasantly surprised to hear cogent and persuasive arguments about non-democratic elements of Israeli society and what Finkelstein feels is a self-defeating foreign policy for both Israel and the United States.

The author of this opinion piece has every right to express his views, but he makes exactly the mistake that he urges others to avoid — conflating any criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. I am glad that the RCNV continues to encourage critical discussion and activism about the Middle East, and I see no evidence that they have contributed to anti-Semitism or any other breach of reasonable civil discourse in their work.

Mike Rotkin is a former five-time mayor of Santa Cruz.

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