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Israel critics prepare for 60th

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Like this protester at an anti-Israel rally in France on March 29, 2008, some Europeans will participate in events critical of the Jewish state as it celebrates its 60th birthday.   (Francois Bouchet/Creative Commons)

Like this protester at an anti-Israel rally in France on March 29, 2008, some Europeans will participate in events critical of the Jewish state as it celebrates its 60th birthday. (Francois Bouchet/Creative Commons)

PRAGUE (JTA) – As governments, Jewish communities and Israeli embassies across Europe prepare to celebrate Israel’s 60th birthday, a cadre of Israel critics is making a push to be heard.

Muslim organizations across Europe are expected to mark the day as the anniversary of the Nakba – the Arabic term meaning “catastrophe” commonly used to refer to Israel’s independence and subsequent displacement of Palestinian Arabs.

“We expect some kind of demonstration in every European capital,” said Majed Bamya, the assistant to the director of the Palestinian Authority mission to the European Union in Brussels.

Jewish groups critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian-populated territories and treatment of the Palestinians also are planning public events to promote their viewpoints.

“We are definitely going to see more events for Israel at 60 by our supporters,” said Max Wieselmann, a Dutch board member of the anti-occupation group European Jews for a Just Peace.

Despite such activity, pro-Israel celebrations still will dominate in Europe on the anniversary of the Jewish state’s founding in 1948.

Aside from state-sponsored tributes to Israel by top government leaders, Jewish groups are organizing a host of gala events. They include parades in London and Manchester in June, an open-air concert in Paris and numerous communal celebrations in Germany.

“The vast majority of Jewish events in Germany this year are celebrating the birthday of the State of Israel – more than 95 percent,” said Stephan Kramer, the secretary general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

Observers do not expect this year’s decadal anniversary to galvanize larger than usual pro-Palestinian protests for Israel’s Independence Day, and certainly not larger protests than those that surrounded last year’s 40th anniversary of Israel’s conquest of the West Bank, event organizers said.

But the Israel 60 celebrations are prompting some groups to organize alternative ways to mark Israel’s Independence Day for those with more ambivalent feelings about the nation.

“The majority of Jews in Europe who think about Israel want to participate in events that celebrate this anniversary,” said Tony Lehrman, the director of the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research, but “there is a far more significant sector now than before that feels there is nothing to celebrate.”

In Holland, the group A Different Jewish Voice is marking the anniversary by inviting eight Israeli peace activists to a May 7 forum in Amsterdam and a speaking tour of the country. Its Web site says the group “tries to broaden the public debate in the Netherlands about the Middle East conflict and its still one-sided pro-Israel approach.”

The invited activists include Nurit Peled-Elhanan, a founder of the International Committee on Education and Occupation who lost her daughter in a suicide bombing; Esther Goldenberg of Zochrot, which educates the Israeli public about the 1948 Palestinian exodus; and representatives of Combatants for Peace, ex-Israeli soldiers and ex-Palestinian combatants seeking nonviolent solutions to the conflict.

In Germany, perhaps Israel’s strongest European ally, Jewish groups critical of the country’s support for Israel joined with Muslim and Christian protesters outside the Federal Chancellery on the eve of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Jerusalem last month. About 80 protesters turned up.

Organizers for a similar event planned for May 15 include supporters of Jewish Voice for a Just Peace and a German Palestinian group.

Palestinians also expect to hold a Nakba demonstration May 14 at St. Paul’s Church in Frankfurt, which could attract thousands.

In Britain, a coalition of pro-Palestinian organizations led by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign will hold a “Free Palestine” event May 10 in Trafalgar Square. Last year the same coalition organized a rally that drew thousands to the square for a protest of 40 years of Israeli occupation since 1967.

Organizations supporting the demonstration include British trade unions, anti-war groups, Islamists and a Jewish-Marxist association.

Also, the Islamic Human Rights Commission is putting on a conference at the Islamic Centre of England, a group closely associated with the Iranian government, on “Human Rights and Israel.” A description of the May 6 conference reads: “2008 sees the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights and the creation of Israel. This conference discusses the conflicting paths of these projects.”

Calls for boycotts – one of the most widely practiced forms of protest in Europe against Israeli policies – have become a rallying cry at Israel 60 events in Paris and Turin, Italy.

Arab writers led by the Swiss-Egyptian academic Tariq Ramadan launched a boycott last month of the Paris book fair, which honored Israel and was opened by its president, Shimon Peres.

Arab intellectuals and pro-Palestinian Italians from the political left and right have called for a boycott of the Turin Book Fair, where Israel is the featured country. Among the top Israeli authors scheduled to attend the May 7-12 event are A.B. Yehoshua, Meir Shalev, Sami Michael and Aharon Appelfeld, who will present the keynote address opening the fair.

In France, several groups will descend upon the Parc des Expositions in Paris May 17 for Peace Like Palestine – an event consisting of debates, films and exhibits focusing on 60 years of the Palestinian experience. Left-wing Jewish groups are among the event’s sponsors.

The Union of French Jews for Peace held a seminar series last month devoted to Israel’s 60th called “Memory or Amnesia?” Speakers included Amira Hass, the Ramallah-based journalist for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, as well as the revisionist Zionist historian Avi Shlaim.

Ruth Fruchtman, a Jewish Berliner who plans to participate in events criticizing Israel for its human rights record, said she began openly criticizing Israel in 1982 when Israeli officials were found to have enabled a massacre of Palestinians by Christian troops in Lebanon.

“Since then, their treatment of the Palestinians has become barbaric,” Fruchtman said of the Israelis. “I have lost most of my sympathy for Israel; I would like to see it change its behavior.”

Wieselmann, of European Jews for a Just Peace, said it’s important for Jews outside of the mainstream supporters of Israel to express their viewpoints on the Jewish state.

“We are still a minority,” he said, “although a vocal one.”

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