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Disturbing the Peace 

The local conversation between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian activists is getting less civil every day. And Lee Kaplan's tactics aren't helping.

Wednesday, Aug 9 2006
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Everything that Kaplan says and writes comes with another side of the story attached, appropriate to the endless argument-counterargument of Middle Eastern politics. Some of Kaplan's targets have published outraged rebuttals, including a vice-president at Duke University, who saw past Kaplan's disguise at a student conference in 2004 and kicked him out. "I have worked with many journalists over the years," wrote the beleaguered administrator in a letter to David Horowitz, "but never have I experienced one whose behavior has been so outside the norms of recognized ethical and journalistic standards as Mr. Kaplan."

Early in Kaplan's rabble-rousing career, some activists believed that no one would take his work seriously: They considered his articles to be minefields of exaggeration, mischaracterization, and quotes taken out of context. As a result, they tried to remain above the fray, disregarding his accusations. But others worried about letting Kaplan define the debate.

"For the first four or five years, people basically just ignored him," says Nadeem Muaddi, a spokesperson for the Palestine Solidarity Movement, a national network of student activists. "It's such an emotional issue that people go to extremes. We're kind of used to that. But he follows this principle that the more he repeats something, the more true it sounds. This past year he got onto the O'Reilly show. It's kind of frightening to see him coming into the mainstream now. When he says these things and we don't refute them, people start to think they're true."

The mainstream Jewish organizations in San Francisco don't seem to embrace Kaplan, and it's not clear what they think about his work and tactics; the local chapters of the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Anti-Defamation League, as well as the Israeli Consulate and San Francisco Hillel, all declined to comment for this article.

They do, however, share some of his concerns about the motives of Palestinian sympathizers. Yitzhak Santis, director of the JCRC's Middle East project, says the vitriol displayed at recent pro-Palestinian rallies has occasionally crossed over into anti-Semitism. Members of the JCRC who speak Arabic recorded a chant, he says, that translates, "Palestine is our homeland, and the Jews are our dogs." At another demonstration, they photographed a man in a kaffiyeh repeatedly giving the Nazi salute. But the larger concern, says Santis, is that the atmosphere of debate has been poisoned by pro-Palestinian groups that take an uncompromising approach. "They don't seek a peace with Israel; they seek peace without Israel," he emphasizes. "They want to fight until one side is left standing — their side — and that approach is a formula for prolonging the conflict." Kaplan sees no reason for compromise, either.

This March, the local conflict found a new venue when two college students at UC Berkeley began Lee Kaplan Watch, a blog that tracks and dissects Kaplan's tactics. The students who started it — Ehud Appel and Yaman Salahi — claim that Kaplan frequently uses fake names to attack them or praise himself on the blog, pointing to the common IP number associated with each entry. They believe he's driven as much by his ego as by his political beliefs, and that he vastly overstates his following and influence.

Appel, who will be a senior next year, is a Jewish member of Students for Justice in Palestine, majoring in Middle Eastern studies. He says he's not worried about the consequences of taking Kaplan on, but professes to be creeped out by his zealotry. "There's something odd about what is fueling him," he says. A few days after Appel posted his first critical piece about Kaplan (and informed him of it via e-mail), Appel checked a Web site dedicated to Kahanism, an aggressive Jewish movement that has been banned in Israel. The American site includes an extensive list of Jewish people it calls "Self-Hating and/or Israel-Threatening" — a SHIT list. Appel found a recent, lengthy write-up on himself, which included his photo and e-mail address and called him a "boot-licking kike," among other slurs.

Appel believes that Kaplan either wrote the entry or submitted Appel's name to those who run the SHIT list, a charge that Kaplan refutes. However, Kaplan does admit that he posted a nearly identical write-up in the "rogues' gallery" on one of his own Web sites, StopTheISM.com, soon after Lee Kaplan Watch launched. Only a few words were different: "Kike" became "kapo," and a coda was added at the end: "If anyone reading this Web site knows any members of Ehud Moshe Appel's family in Israel, we would like to talk to them and find out what they think of a guy who works for the likes of Hamas that declares no Jews may live anywhere in Israel at all and that it is OK to kill them."

"Lee Kaplan has designated himself as our persecutor," says a resigned Paul Larudee. This polite and soft-spoken man, nearing 60, is one of the most active campaigners with the Northern California chapter of the ISM; he's also the prime example of Kaplan's effectiveness. Larudee recently spent 14 days in an Israeli detention center, and believes that Kaplan's work was largely responsible for his lockup. Kaplan agrees.

Larudee has been visiting the occupied territories for 40 years, and has become more politically engaged over the last five. Kaplan spoke with him while arranging to take part in the ISM training session in 2004, and Larudee earned a spot in Kaplan's resulting article and in his online "rogues' gallery."

This June, Larudee set out for Gaza with a dual purpose. Acting as a professional piano technician, he would tune Palestinians' pianos, while as a professional activist he would organize ISM volunteers who showed up for "Freedom Summer 2006" (for the past few years, the ISM has called on activists to use their vacation time for the Palestinian cause). Larudee had about 20 piano-tuning appointments waiting for him at Gaza's cultural centers and schools, but that wasn't a good enough story for the Israeli customs officials, he explains. They interrogated him for hours, inquiring about allegations that Larudee recognized from Kaplan's articles, and then announced that he would not be allowed to enter Israel. He spent 10 days waiting to appeal the decision, but on his day in court the judge reviewed what the prosecution called "secret evidence" in her chambers. Several days later, she declared him a danger to the country. He was on a plane to Jordan that night.

About The Author

Eliza Strickland

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