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At a Leftist Summit, Cheers For a Separate Mideast Peace
11:54am Fri Feb 7 '03
Billed as a massive international gathering of more than 100,000 critics of corporate globalization, the World Social Forum that began here January 23 was also expected to be a magnet for fierce critics of Israel. But, in an unexpected twist, the highlight of the conference turned out to be a joint peace statement by Israelis and Palestinians that drew tumultuous applause from 20,000 leftists at a sports stadium in this port city in southern Brazil.
The declaration called for "peace, justice, and sovereignty for our peoples, an end to the Israeli occupation of the lands occupied in 1967, the creation of an independent Palestinian state side by side with Israel along the lines of 4 June 1967 with Jerusalem as an open city, the capital of each of the two states, an agreed just and fair solution for the Palestinian refugee problem in accordance with U.N. Resolution 194." It also denounced violence on both sides of the conflict.
The enthusiastic endorsement of the resolution by the crowd was an astonishing climax to the conference. While many Jewish doves would flinch at the Israeli concessions called for in the proposed peace plan, the declaration was nonetheless a powerful pro-Israel statement from the point of view of many activists on the far left prone to rejecting the very legitimacy of the Jewish state.
As tens of thousands of participants marched on the first day of the forum with their banners through the streets of Porto Alegre, some leftists carried hard-line pro-Palestinian placards accusing Israel of state terrorism and calling Ariel Sharon a Nazi. By the end of the five-day conference, however, 20,000 participants in the stadium were crying and cheering as the peace statement was read with the sound system playing John Lennon's "Imagine."
On the stage were three Israelis: former culture minister Shulamit Aloni, Peace Now founder Galia Golan and philosopher Ely Ben-Gal. They were joined by Zyad Abu Zyad, a member of the Palestinian parliament; Alam Jarar, a Palestinian activist, and Lana Nusseibeh, a representative of Middle East citizens groups. The mayor of Porto Alegre and Unesco's representative in Brazil were there as well.
The statement was read in English by Golan, who is also a founder of the Israeli-Palestinian Coalition For Peace, and in Portuguese by Porto Alegre Mayor Joao Verle. Then the eight on the platform stood, hand in hand, arms uplifted, and joined in singing the lyrics to the Lennon song.
It was an unexpected end to the forum, which was first held in January 2001 to counter the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
In stark contrast to the Davos meeting, which featured thousands of top corporate and government officials, the Brazil forum drew environmentalists, human rights advocates, feminists, trade unionists and a panoply of anti-capitalist organizations and critics of neo-liberal globalization. Its speeches and seminars were organized by an international secretariat and also by participating organizations. Its slogan is "A new world is possible."
The specter of such a large, anti-Israel crowd descending on Brazil for the forum worried some of Brazil's 80,000-plus Jews. "When the intifada began, there were demonstrations against Israel and a lot of pressure against Jewish communities all over the world," said Jacques Wainberg, 52, a member of the political committee of the Jewish Federation of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, and a former member of the Zikim kibbutz in Israel run by the Hashomer Hatzair movement. "In Brazil, the left became a sponsor of the Palestinian cause and supported rallies."
Wainberg, a professor of media and journalism at the Pontifical Catholic University in Porto Alegre, said Jews expected anti-Israel leftist groups to dominate the Middle East discussion at the forum.
Roberto Turquenitch, 45, a Porto Alegre Jew who owns a video production company, was worried enough last April to begin a dialogue with local Arab attorney Mohamed Jihad.
Turquenitch and Jihad, 30, decided to organize three days of "Dialogues for Peace" workshops at this year's forum, where Israelis and Palestinians would present their views. In addition to receiving support from the local Jewish and Palestinian communities, the group received financial backing from Unesco and the Workers Party of Brazil's new president, Lula da Silva.
"The Palestinians told us they had no control over other groups of the Palestinian community, that many extremists were coming to agitate in the forum," Wainberg said. "More than 15 workshops were organized by these groups to call for the destruction of Israel."
The opening march could have turned into a showcase for the radical pro-Palestinian forces. But members of the Jewish federation of the state of Rio Grande do Sul also decided to take part.
Chief Rabbi Henry Sobel, an American who has lived in Brazil for more than 20 years, came from Sao Paolo to join dozens of people in blue T-shirts that said "Two people, two states." They sang traditional Jewish songs and a Brazilian samba with lyrics about blue and white, the colors of Israel's flag. People on the sidelines smiled, waved, took photos and joined them.
The dialogues organized by Turquenitch and Jihad were attended mostly by members of the Jewish community. These alternative events were held in a theater at the Catholic University, site of the forum's seminars.
Jewish activists also displayed and distributed materials denouncing terrorism. A banner read: "Terrorism is genocide of innocents." A poster showed pictures of victims of terrorist attacks in Israel. A leaflet declared: "Palestinian terrorism kills peace. Yes to peace. Yes to two neighboring and free states with the right to their existence and security." It also stated, "No to the instigation to racist hatred towards the Jews. No teenager suicide, cheated by their corrupt and false leadership."
After the alternative dialogues, the visiting Israelis and Palestinians spent hours discussing a joint peace declaration. The Palestinians and Israelis made phone calls to the Middle East. An agreement was finally hammered out, and the Middle East delegation asked to address the crowd.
"It was a victory for the peace camp that despite the propaganda and the war machine inside the forum, they won," Wainberg said afterward. He argued that the call for an end to violence was an implicit denunciation of terrorism. "It was an achievement since it went in the opposite direction from those on the extreme left and radicals among the Palestinians who ask for the destruction of Israel."
Wainberg said that he is already thinking about next year's World Social Forum, set to be held in India.
"We've begun to talk about this," Wainberg said. "The forum in India will need a Jewish presence. India demands an international approach, not a local approach. I think American and European Jews must organize a joint delegation to the conference. We are obliged to take part. We need to fight for our space in the world. If a new world is coming, there must be a place for us there."
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