J.J. Surbeck is a San Diego peace activist who serves as the Executive Director of Training and Education About the Middle East (T.E.A.M.). He graduated with a law degree from the University of Geneva, Switzerland. He then worked for sixteen years in the legal and public relations divisions of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the institution that gave the world the Geneva Conventions.
When did you first join T.E.A.M. and what is its mission?
I created T.E.A.M. with a friend of mine, Rita Heller, at the beginning of 2009 to educate people about the historical facts of the Middle East Conflict.
What made you decide to become involved in activism about the Middle East conflict?
At the time I was involved in my own web design company, and I became increasingly irritated by how the media continually repeated the so-called Palestinian narrative without checking the facts. Because of my background in international law and international affairs, I knew that this so-called narrative was and still is intentionally misleading.
The purpose of this Palestinian “narrative” is not to tell the truth but to manipulate audiences. Example: the Palestinians always refer to the beginning of their history as the Nakbah, the Catastrophe, which happened in 1948, when they claim they lost “their land” to the Israelis. What is missing in that narrative, that they never tell audiences, is that the Nakbah occurred because they attacked Israel. Just liked the Germans and the Japanese, who were the aggressors, they had their “Nakbah” when they were defeated by the people they tried to destroy. This is just one of many examples. They also forget to say that they did not have a land called Palestine because it did not exist, not any more than it does today.
What became very obvious to me was the fact that when people do not know the real historical facts surrounding the Middle East conflict, they are easy prey to an emotional narrative crafted to make the Palestinians/Arabs appear as the victims when they were in fact the aggressors. They were the aggressors in 1948 when they tried to destroy Israel, and they were the aggressors when they tried again in 1967 and 1973. They have never stopped being the aggressors ever since. When people know the facts, they are less likely to swallow the Palestinian version without question. That is the purpose of T.E.A.M.
How do you reply to criticisms of so-called Israeli “War Crimes” as a former international attorney who worked for the International Red Cross?
Any accusation of war crimes deserves to be examined and investigated thoroughly. That is exactly what Israel has been doing. By Richard Goldstone’s own admission in his April 1, 2011 article in the Washington Post in which he recognized that Israel had been accused wrongly of war crimes and Hamas not enough, Israel conducted more than 400 investigations for alleged violations of the rules of international law in time of war. That is the way they should do it, and Israel is teaching the world integrity in that respect. They are taking care of business.
Compare that to Hamas, who committed as many war crimes as there were rockets fired over Israel. Each and every one of them was a violation of the fundamental obligation to differentiate between civilian and military objectives, but they have not even bothered to conduct a single investigation. If there is one party that has committed massive amounts of war crimes in this conflict, it is undoubtedly Hamas, and the world should call them on it. Their leaders should be hauled away to The Hague, the seat of the International Criminal Court (ICC), as international war criminals.
Why are so many people who claim to be pro-Palestinian in favor of Hamas and other organizations that oppress the Palestinian people?
Americans traditionally always favor the underdog. For the most part I don’t question the motives of people who support the Palestinians, including Hamas. In most occasions I believe they do it out of the mistaken belief, fed by the “Palestinian narrative,” that the Palestinians are the victims. They either are ignorant or refuse to see the fact that the Palestinians bear most of the responsibility for their fate, and that peace will not come as long as they refuse to face those responsibilities.
But your question raises another interesting point that is harder to explain. How can people who claim to support Human Rights (the rights of women, minorities, homosexuals) … how can these people support an organization that rejects and negates these rights for their own women, homosexuals, and minorities? By its own charter, which calls for the elimination of Israel, Hamas has already violated the 1949 International Convention Against the Crime of Genocide, which bars not only genocide itself, but the mere threat of committing genocide. By all standards, Hamas is an outlaw organization, not willing to abide by the same rules as the rest of the world.
Is it possible to be both Pro-Palestinian and Pro-Israel?
Absolutely! But there is one condition to that, which is that the same rules must apply to both sides. We cannot have the world demand that Israel abide by the highest moral and legal standards and the Palestinians by none. Both populations have the same right to live in peace and security, and to conduct their lives unimpeded by terrorism and hatred.
How do you respond to “claims” made that Israel is an “Apartheid state”?
That claim is based on a dishonest manipulation of some facts. Palestinians and their friends, starting with former President Jimmy Carter, throw that accusation with abandon, assuming correctly that people will conclude that all of Israel and the disputed territories are subjected to a regime of apartheid. But if you press them, and prove to them that Israel in no way resembles the heinous regime of Apartheid, they will reluctantly concede that they were referring to the disputed territories only. They know that Israel has none of the traits of the former apartheid regime of South Africa.
I’ll give you just one example: Can anyone come up with a) the name of a black judge under the Apartheid regime in South Africa with jurisdiction over white people, and b) a case where the same black judge would have presided over a judicial panel to condemn the (white) president of the country for rape? That is unthinkable, and yet that is just what happened in Israel. An Arab Israeli judge with jurisdiction over all Israeli citizens by the name of George Kara presided over a three-judge panel which condemned the former president of Israel, Katsav, on charges of rape.
What they are in fact protesting against are the security measures that Israel has been forced to put in place in the disputed territories in order to protect Israeli citizens from constant attacks by Palestinian extremists. If there were no Palestinian terrorism, there would be no security measures to take, nor incidentally, a security barrier. The Palestinians need to take responsibility for their own actions; terrorism is not the way to go. Anyone who still buys the lie that Israel is an apartheid state should feel embarrassed, because either they do not know what they are talking about and come off looking like they’re not too sharp, or they are plain malicious.
Why has the Palestinian leadership repeatedly turned down the chance at peace with Israel?
The main reason is that they are prisoners of their own myth. After all this time, they still believe that with the help of the outside world they will defeat Israel. Their real agenda is to replace Israel. The pattern of systematic rejection of all peace offers and concessions made by Israel clearly proves that.
One of the demands made at many Pro-Palestine rallies is “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free?” What in fact does this mean, and why do many Americans misunderstand this chant?
All you have to do is look at a map. From the River means from the Jordan River, which separates the West Bank from Jordan. To the sea means extending to the Mediterranean Sea. What’s in between? Israel and the disputed territories. In other words, the Palestinians seek to erase Israel and want to replace it with Palestine. That is not how peace can happen. Palestinians must start by recognizing Israel as a neighbor, and stop making the claim that Israel has no right to exist. Israel does not need their permission to exist anymore than you need my permission to exist or I need your permission to exist. We both exist, period, and no one can negate that reality. If we all had to ask someone for permission to exist, I don’t think there wouldn’t be many people left. So why should Israel need permission to exist any more than all other countries in the world do? It’s a completely absurd statement.
To show their good faith, the Palestinians need to start by changing the charter of both Fatah and Hamas, which currently call for the destruction of Israel. How can you make peace with people who insist that their mission in life is to destroy you?
Middle Eastern states often cry that Israel is the cause of all the problems in the Middle East, yet the recent revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and other protests in the region prove that the autocratic regimes are really at fault. How can pro-Israel advocates promote this fact and show that groups like the Muslim Student Associations (MSA), Students for Justice In Palestine (SJP), and their associated organizations are not really supporters of Human Rights but are only anti-Israel?
What current events demonstrate beyond a doubt is the colossal hypocrisy displayed by all the voices that have been badgering Israel for the last twenty years. It is really remarkable that the same people never said anything against Ben Ali in Tunisia (in power for 24 years), Gaddafi in Libya (in power for the last 42 years), Mubarak in Egypt (in power for the last 30 years), the al-Assad Dynasty in Syria (in power for 43 years), the Saleh dictatorship in Yemen (in power for 33 years), and al-Bashir in Sudan (in power for 22 years), the only head of state indicted twice by the International Criminal Court for charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. In most of these countries, horrific abuses were committed at the cost of thousands of lives (500 thousand in Darfur, 25 thousand in Hama in Syria in 1981, etc), but Israel’s legions of critics could not have been bothered.
In view of these horrific abuses in the Arab world, one cannot help wondering if these people were asleep or clearly showing their hand. They don’t care about abuses in the Arab world, as horrific as they may be. They only want to bash Israel for the slightest excuse, which begs the question: are African and Arab lives worth that much less to them than Palestinian lives? Why should the attention of the world be obsessively focused on the Palestinians alone, eclipsing in the process all the other real victims of oppression? If they’re capable of asking themselves honestly that question, all pro-Palestinian activists should logically conclude that they need to focus instead on the real victims of the world, not just their pet “victims”, which are in fact anything but.
What is the threat of Iran to Israel and should the US government continue to be involved in sanctioning Iran?
Iran remains the biggest and the most destabilizing threat in the entire Middle East. It is a clear threat to Israel, but it is no less a threat to the Sunni Arab world, since it is a Shia’ Muslim country. The US, instead of wasting its time in Libya against a tin pot dictator, should be focusing entirely on Iran, making it very clear that we will not tolerate the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the Mullahs’ regime. It can do so directly, by threatening Iran militarily, or indirectly, by helping to destabilize and overthrow the Syrian regime, the main Iranian ally in the region. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has shown none of the resolve needed to do either and that increases dramatically the risk of a general conflagration instead of reducing it.
Congress should absolutely continue to sanction Iran, and the US should take the lead in taking credible measures that will tell the Iranians unmistakably that they have to let go of their nuclear weapons program. If the US doesn’t do it, no one else will. That may leave Israel with no other options than to take care of business itself alone, as it did in 1981 in Iraq and in 2009 in Syria.
It has been argued that the US should end the institution of foreign aid in part because of the financial crisis. Should the United States continue to give foreign aid to Israel and other countries in the region? Why?
First of all, foreign aid represents less than one percent of the US total budget. With the unconscionable deficit that the administration is running now, plus or minus $3 billion dollars will not make a noticeable difference out of $14 trillion. More importantly, Israel is our only reliable friend and ally in the entire Middle East. Foreign aid to Arab countries would be a good move (something like a Marshall Plan for the Arab world), but it would require stringent controls to make sure that the infusion of large amounts of capital would not be lost to corruption or cronyism. Militarily Israel remains an enormous asset to the United States, and is the only country in the Middle East with whom we share values.
How can Israel do a better job in showing people the truth about the Middle East conflict?
For most of its existence, the State of Israel has taken the view that the rightness of their cause was self-evident enough and there was no need to justify anything, let alone its own existence. That was a mistake, and it’s only recently that the Israeli government has started to allocate resources to roll back the deligitimization attempts that the Arab world and the left have been making relentlessly for years. Another aspect of the problem is that in many Jewish communities, the mantra used to be that Israel was not doing enough in this field… and therefore nothing was done. Today, the realization is clear that waiting for Israel to make up its mind is not an option any more. Students and citizens of all faiths who recognize the democratic character and extraordinarily vibrant nature of Israel are not waiting any more and are taking instead matters in their own hands to repeal the many lies propagated by the Palestinians and their Arab friends.
How should students respond to “Apartheid Week” on their campus and how can this be an opportunity for students?
First, students should respond by asking questions. Whenever you face someone who accuses Israel of being an Apartheid state, keep probing. What is an Apartheid state? What was it like in South Africa when it was enforced? How can it apply to Israel, which is a multiracial, multi-confessional, and multicultural country like the US? They can also ask if instead of Israel, shouldn’t these accusations apply instead to much of the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia, in particular against women and gays?
As for action, pro-Israel students should view this event as a chance to promote the truth about Israel to their peers. Calling Israel an Apartheid state is basically slander and should have no place on campus. Therefore, pro-Israel students should not take this week lying down and should make their voices heard with the administration. It poisons the atmosphere and serves as a hate-fest on campus every year. It antagonizes people and does nothing for peace. Also do not be intimidated by anti-Israel students if they try to threaten you, and make sure to report any threat or act of violence committed against you. Be ready to use your cell phone and film any act of violence or intimidation you witness. That kind of behavior must not be tolerated on an American campus.
This can also serve as an opportunity for pro-Israel students by bringing the pro-Israel community closer together. Thanks to the excesses of the pro-Palestinian campus action in the past two years in particular, the pro-Israel community has grown much stronger and stands behind the students, ready to help.
Finally, how can students fight against Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions (BDS) resolutions on their campus most effectively?
The student government should have no role in passing this type of resolution. There is nothing in their job description allowing for them to take a political stance. Their job is to focuses on improving students’ life. For them to vote on a divestment resolution about a conflict that most senators know little if anything at all is a distortion of their role, and students should tell the Associated Students that they have no business voting resolutions on political statements on behalf of the student body.
How can students get in contact with you and T.E.A.M?
The easiest way is to visit sandiegoteam.org or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We also have a series of radio broadcasts on KCBQ 1170AM called “On the Map: Myths and Reality in the Middle East” on Sundays from 10-11 am. Past episodes can be accessed at www.sandiegoteam.org/audios/onthemap1.mp3 (onthemap2.mp3, etc).