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Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat At The University of Denver

November 4, 2009

Jerusalem Mayor Speaks At The University of Denver…Or The Nir Barkat – Larry Mizel Dog And Pony Show

It was a first class `charm’ offensive. Nir Barkat, Jerusalem’s mayor cuts a handsome figure – trim, articulate in English, and generally relaxed in his delivery. His presentation was, in a word, slick. Empty of much content. but slick.

Barkat’s talk took place on the same day that the US House of Representatives voted 346 to 36 (with 22 voting `present’ and 22 not voting) for a resolution `to oppose unequivocally any endorsement or further consideration of the “Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict” in multilateral fora’, ie – to oppose any further consideration of the Goldstone Report. Jared Polis, Diana De Gette, John Salazar and Ed Perlmutter, all liberal Dems from Colorado all voted with the majority. (For a breakdown on the vote, click here.)

It has not yet dawned upon the representatives that it is not only a crime to commit war crimes, but also to cover them up.

There was, predictably, no mention of either the Goldstone Report last night, nor the Gaza military assault last December, nor were the words `occupation’ or `war crimes’ ever used. Indeed, the level of denial was impressive. Nor was there any citing of the fact that as the mayor was speaking Israeli authorities demolished the homes of 30 more Palestinians in E. Jerusalem. Instead, the strategy of the talk was simple and effective: 1. counter the growing international concern and outrage over Gaza by talking about the charms of Jerusalem, real and imagined. 2. Divert attention from the UN vote on the Goldstone Report due to take place tomorrow (November 5).

The message was clear enough: despite growing international condemnation of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, including where it concerns Jerusalem, Colorado’s political class, the state’s governor and one of its more prestigious academicians included – both generally liberal – still support the Jewish state virtually unequivocally regardless of its actions.

Barkat spoke in the main auditorium of the Newman Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Denver at an event hosted personally by both the University’s Chancellor, Robert Coombe and none other than the governor of Colorado, Bill Ritter. As if to drive home a point, both took to the stage to personally welcome and introduce Barkat. It was not so much an evening of historical insight as much as it was a show of power.

Larry Mizel

At the end of the evening, `special thanks’ were given to Larry Mizel, one of Colorado’s richest developers, for helping to make the event possible. Not without reason. It is likely that Mizel’s role in organizing this talk was important.

Mizel is a Denver-based real estate developer, founder and CEO of MDC Holdings, Inc – at one time the nation’s fifth largest home builder. MDC is essentially a real estate holding company which controls many others. He is one of the city’s most politically powerful figures and has made quite a name for himself in Colorado, not all of it anyone might be proud of. But then, money talks, doesn’t it?

According to Forbes Magazine, Mizel, now in his late sixties, ranked 28th in the nation in 2005, with a total compensation package of ($9,334,163). In 2007 Forbes estimated his net worth at around a cool $2 billion making him the second wealthiest Colorado behind Philip Anschutz. Elected chairman of the board of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles in 2003, he was, among other things heavily implicated – but never indicted – in the 1989 collapse of the Silverado Bank which was at the time Colorado’s third largest savings and loan company presided over by Neil Bush, the little idiot from Texas’ third brother. Mizel also funds a Jewish museum in Denver, the Mizel Museum and is a major contributor to political candidates, more than 95% of whom are Republican.

Audience Liked Barkat

An audience of perhaps 500 – drawn with few exceptions – overwhelmingly from Denver’s Jewish Community loved it and responded with respect if not warmth. After all, he’d given them pretty much what they wanted to hear – re-inforcing the myth of Israeli democracy with his every word. Barkat made Jerusalem sound something akin to New York City in the 1950s – open, diversified, tolerant. There is nothing quite like watching a hall full of people engaged in collective self-denial, reinforcing their own prejudices.

He glossed over or avoided virtually all issues of substance and international concern with shallow and at times twisted cliches: “everyone in Israel wants peace”; house demolitions of Palestinian homes are exaggerated, when they happen, it is to build a school or hospital in East Jerusalem. Barkat was careful to blame the city’s political tensions on `extremists of both sides – ultra-conservative Jews and Palestinian `leftists’.

The 900 pound elephant in the room – (I’m going to have to find another metaphor for this – I’m tired of big elephants ) – was the never mentioned fact that according to international law, East Jerusalem is occupied territory. Likewise, tn the question of East Jerusalem becoming the capitol of a viable indepedent Palestinian state, Barkat was nothing short of recalcitrant. Behind his adament insistence that `Jerusalem should remain united’ theme, repeated several times during the course of the evening is an open rejection of any meaningful settlement with the Palestinians. So while the mayor specifically claimed to be politically independent, the sense that comes through is that in fact in his policies he cooperates closely with the ruling Likud Party and the right wing coalition now in power.

In the end his message was little more than a tourist pitch: come to poor Jerusalem – it is poor – and spend money. Barkat glossed over or avoided the obvious. The ring of Jewish settlements choking off East Jerusalem from its Palestinian constituency in the West Bank was not mentioned, nor was Israel’s Dec 2008 – Jan 2009 cruel military offensive of Gaza, nor when I think of it was anything else of substance addressed.

Still There Was Malaise

Yet there was a sense of malaise in the hall, reflected in a number of ways.

+ Outside the hall, around 100 protesters, organized by the Colorado Palestine Network, stood with signs opposing Barkat’s visit, the on-going demolitions of Palestinian homes in E. Jerusalem and the Occupation. The group produced a fact sheet which they handed out to the audience. As often is the case in these situations, `someone’ with a mega-telescopic lens attempted to photograph every last face of the protesters

The presence of so many protestors – and their literature – seemed to dampen the spirits of the audience inside. They seemed annoyed that anyone would want to burst the psychological bubble with the unpleasant realities so many of them were actively trying to repress. Several people inside the hall suggested that the protesters were only `doing it for the publicity’.

Not true.

Instead, they were out there protesting the immorality of the longest military occupation in modern history, and the fate of the oppressed Palestinian people. An effort to set up a meeting with DU chancellor Coombe was rebuffed. The group was told his schedule was full for some time in the future.

+ There were a few bumps along the way inside the hall as well. The event was over-controlled. A Denver SWAT team, and members of the Denver Police Force and its intelligence unit were omni-present. Three of them, armed to the teeth, with beady eyes and no necks spent the entire event standing directly behind me as I watched the event from a balcony seat – a coincidence I am sure. They never left my side until I exited the building.

+ The question and answer session was contrived. All questions to Barkat had to be submitted in writing in advance to Dr. Micheline D’Ishay, a colleague at the Korbel School of International Studies. She then selected among them which ones to ask Barkat. True, she asked Barkat about house demolitions as well as his view on making East Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state, but the procedure essentially eliminated any spontaneous audience participation – as it was meant to do. Over-organized to frustrate dissent, it should be no surprise that some erupted in different forms anyway.

+ That didn’t stop some people. There was a man on the other side of the hall who, like a parrot, kept shouting out `rubbish’, `rubbish’ `rubbish’ to some of Barkat’s more outlandish claims of tolerance towards Jerusalem’s Palestinian population. Several people – a group of Ward Churchill groupies – walked out in a huff early in Barkat’s talk

Dan Winters and Gary Anderson…

+ And then there was the indomitable expert at peaceful non-violent self expression, Dan Winters. Calm and cool as a cucumber, one of the least threatening looking and boldest members of this state’s peace movement, Winters positioned himself well on the balcony. A bit into the question and answer session, as Barkat feebly tried to defend Israel’s house demolition program, Winter’s unfolded a sign from under his jacket that simply said “Barkat Destroys Arab Homes’, a theme which he also repeated several times verbally. When asked to leave by the no-necked SWAT team members, Winters complied and calmly left the hall.

He had made his point rather well.

+ As did Gary Anderson, a retired civil engineer who has worked and lived Jerusalem. Anderson’s remarks came in a letter to DU Chancellor Coombe. They are worth quoting:

“Mayor Barkat’s administration is working to erase the existence of the non- Jewish majority who have dwelt in the region for thousands of years. This is being done by restricting options for property, travel, education, medical care and all municipal services. The plan, clearly, is to encourage Arab residents to “just go away”, leaving a predominantly Jewish city. Some examples follow: ‘

“1) During Mayor Barkat’s tenure, we have seen the de-development of municipal infrastructure in Arab East Jerusalem. While 1/3 of the citizens of Jerusalem are Arab, only 8% of the municipal budget is allocated to those neighborhoods.
2) Arab Families are driven from their homes at Police gunpoint while Jewish families are escorted in to take over the homes.
3) Arab home demolished in East Jerusalem: 2008 (87), 2007 (78), 2006 (83). This fear and threat of the bulldozer in the night casts a reign of terror over the Arab residents. This year, demolitions by mayor Barkat’s administration have made another 150 Arab residents homeless.
4) I have personally seen a Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem where graves are being bulldozed to make room for the “Mizel Museum of Tolerance”. How can Mayor Barkat allow such an outrage to take place in his city?
5) The annexation of lands captured from Jordan in the 1967 war is illegal; as the occupying power, Israel has the obligation to preserve intact the occupied territory and to refrain from the transfer of its citizens (or other persons) into the occupied lands. Mayor Barkat’s participation in implementing these illegal acts is also outside international law.
6) “Expulsion disguised as archaeology”- in parts of East Jerusalem, such as Silwan, coveted by city planners, “archaeology digs” are taking place. These are being conducted (for instance) at “the City of David” archeological park in the Wadi Hilweh neighborhood. These digs restrict access to Arab homes and create concerns about damage to homes. The work is funded by the Elad Settler movement whose goals are political, not scientific.”

Needless to say, the good mayor avoided the issues that Anderson raised.

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