I arrived in Ben-Gurion Airport via Rome on Wednesday night and had the most routine entry to Israel ever. Not a single question, even after I asked not to have my passport stamped and told the agent I was there to attend a conference until Sunday.
The Haifa International Conference for a Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction (http://wmdfz.org/) began on Thursday morning at the Dan Panorama Hotel overlooking Haifa Harbor from the top of Mount Carmel. I’m estimating around 150 registered delegates, with perhaps 100 or so in the room at any one time. Although the Conference was officially non-partisan it was clearly under the auspices of the Israeli far left, principally the electoral Front for Peace and Democracy (Hadash in Hebrew, Jabha in Arabic, “The Front”), which includes the Israeli Communist Party.
In my experience, the Israeli Left is the only social space in Israel where Arabs and Jews mingle in cordial equality. Here the Palestinians tended to speak Arabic among themselves, but they addressed the Conference in Hebrew.
The crowd was a little on the “gray” side, but not so much as similar gatherings tend to be in the US. And although the Israeli Left is regarded as a small radical fringe by most of the Jewish population, Hadash/Jabha has 4 Knesset members (out of 120) and a strong base principally in the Arab Palestinian communities; Meretz, also represented at the Conference (think DSA), has 5 Knesset members. The mayor of Haifa welcomed the Conference.
I’m staying at the apartment of two elderly Communists in their 80’s. Colman Altman, who met me at the train station, was born in South Africa to Lithuanian parents and emigrated to Israel in he 1950’s. He’s a retired academic physicist. His wife Janina, is a chemist from Lvov, now in Ukraine, but known as the Eastern Polish city of Lviv before the Second World War. (Earlier it was Lemberg in Austrian Galicia, the home of the novelist Joseph Roth.) Janina lost her entire family to the Nazis and came to Israel in 1950—where, ironically, she traded her parents’ Zionist ideal for revolutionary politics. She said the inequality she experienced in Israel and especially the treatment of Arabs was her inspiration.
There were delegates from a number of Foreign countries – perhaps a half-dozen or more from the US, including three from the US Peace Council, two (including myself along with Madeline Hoffman from New Jersey) and a woman representing WILPF; others were from France, Francophone Africa (Senegal?) Germany, Belgium and perhaps other countries I may have missed.
The morning program opened with a very moving address by Prof. Tadatoshi Akiba, the mayor of Hiroshima until 2011. He was introduced by Naomi Chazan, an Israeli academic with a long record of fighting for human rights. (When I spoke with Akiba later, he called Boston his “second home”, having studied for years at MIT.)
Akiba pointed out that if “Official” Israel refused to participate in the movement toward the abolition of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, then is was up to political/progressive people to press the issue. He said he spoke on behalf of the many thousands of “Hibakusha” or nuclear bomb survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who are demanding the complete abolition of nuclear weapons “in their lifetime. (Their average age is in the 70’s.) Their slogan resonates tellingly here in Israel: “Never Again should any people suffer as we did.”
Akiba spoke about some hopeful signs in the struggle to eliminate nuclear weapons:
In October 2013 there was a conference of 56 countries like Sweden, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, “Able But Unwilling” to develop nuclear weapons. That is, they possessed the technical ability and nuclear programs necessary to produce nuclear weapons but chose not to do so. They cited the influence of anti-war domestic politics as the key element opposing weapons development.
In November of this year the signatory nations of The Red Cross/Red Crescent met in Sydney, Australia to reaffirm the same goal of moving the nuclear abolition goal of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Finally, the international “Mayors for Peace” now has almost 6000 members and provides hope that urban and civil society will be able to push their governments. Akiba pointed out that cities, unlike nations, do not have armies.
The goal of the 60,000 surviving Hibakusha is the elimination of nuclear weapons by 2020 – “While we are alive”. Akiba said a goal is “A dream with a deadline” and that for the Hibakusha it meant success “within our lifetime.”
Former Knesset speaker Avrum Burg spoke next about the politics of a Middle East WMDFZ. I’ll report on that in a subsequent post.