(23 October 2014)
On the evening of 7 October, after a basketball game between the Brooklyn Nets and the Israeli team Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Palestinian-American Nerdeen Kiswani was attacked by a group of Maccabi Electra fans. The 20-year-old Hunter College student was punched in the stomach, and a Palestinian flag was torn from her hands.
Among her attackers was Leonard Petlakh, a professor of Jewish history at her own school, and the executive director of the Kings Bay YM-YWHA (Young Men’s Hebrew Association). According to witnesses present during the assault, along with video evidence, Petlakh and his accomplices were plotting their attack on the young woman.
Kiswani published a Facebook status at 10:14pm on the night of the attack, recounting the horrific event. Her Palestinian flag was torn from her hands and she was punched in the stomach. She wrote “I was shaking and screaming and told them what happened [but] they pushed me to the side and let him go even though it was on camera.” Kiswani adds that several witnesses told the guards they explicitly saw the attack, but the guards did not listen and let Petlakh and his accomplices go. “I’m shaking,” she recalled. “They got 6 guards on me for a flag, a Zionist punches me in the stomach [and] I get cursed out by tons of white middle aged men. I’m the only visibly Muslim woman there.”
This is not the first time Kiswani has been targeted by police. She said
the number of times I’ve been assaulted by police for being near a protest [and] for existing as a Muslim Palestinian woman in this city is insane. I brush it off all the time. But this time when there’s witnesses and I get assaulted by a middle aged man in front of hundreds of people I honestly didn’t believe they’d look at me like I was crazy and let him go. … It’s exhausting being a Palestinian Muslim woman in this world. … Cops only exist to protect certain kinds of people, especially in NYC. I’m not one of those people.
Security escorted the assailants from Barclays without any questioning. When witnesses alerted nearby police of the assault (and of the inaction of the security staff), the NYPD reacted similarly; instead of listening to what they had to say, they threatened the witnesses with arrest.
Nerdeen filed an assault complaint against the group of attackers. On 21 October, on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall, a coalition of activists and human rights groups held a press conference to publicize details of the attack.
The press conference held on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall on 22 October 2014
I got in touch with Nathan Sheard, Campaign Organizer for the peace organization CODEPINK’s Communities Organizing to Demilitarize Enforcement campaign, who spoke at the press conference. He expressed CODEPINK’s support for and solidarity with Kiswani and condemned “all forms of violence rooted in oppression and bigotry.” Sheard said that while he “wish[ed] there were other methods of recourse beyond depending on the mechanisms of a state itself complicit in violence against Palestinian and Muslim peoples both here and in Palestine, we recognize that solidarity does not mean telling those directly affected what Justice should look like.”
On behalf of CODEPINK, Sheard expressed “hope that the people of New York and those sworn to represent them will fulfill the obligations to which they have committed, and take action to make it clear we will not tolerate the violence of hate and two-tiered system of protection.”
National Lawyers Guild attorney and human rights advocate Lamis Deek, representing Kiswani, also spoke at the press conference, as did representatives from Jewish Voice for Peace and the Institute for Middle East Understanding.
Deek told The Brooklyn Paper “My client Nerdeen Kiswani, was the true victim, of not only Mr. Petlakh, but also his gang of thugs. Mr. Petlakh felt that he could and would get away with claiming he was the victim when he was the aggressor. What he and his friends displayed that night was anti-Muslim, anti-Palestinian hatred against Ms. Kiswani.”
As horrible as Kiswani’s story is, she was not the only Palestinian solidarity activist reportedly targeted that night. Several other pro-Palestinian advocates, protesting outside Barclays, reported being sexually harassed by Israel supporters.
Fabricating a Hate Crime to Cover Up a Real Hate Crime
The story did not end here. After he and his accomplices physically assaulted a young Palestinian woman, Petlakh told the police that, later in that same night, he himself was allegedly assaulted in a hate crime. He falsely accused 25-year-old journalist and Palestinian solidarity organizer Shawn Carrié of punching him for being Jewish.
Many news sources quickly jumped to inaccurate and dishonest conclusions. Haaretz, the Jewish Daily Forward, the New York Daily News, all accused Carrié (whom they refer to as Shawn Schrader, but who goes by Shawn Carrié) of a “hate crime.”
Haaretz cites Petlakh claiming that, “as he left the [basketball] game,” he was verbally harassed before being punched. Petlakh’s account completely distorts the order of events and implies that he was attacked purely out of hate. No mention is made of the assault on Kiswani.
Many of these publications quote Petlakh encouraging readers to “volunteer to serve in the Israel Defense Forces,” and draw exclusively from his testimony. They also heavily cite Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn), who jumped the gun, immediately and erroneously assuming that Carrié’s alleged punching of Petlakh was racially motivated, and demanded that authorities punish the activist more harshly. Cymbrowitz claimed Carrié “was part of a group of anti-Israel protestors whose intentions turned hateful and violent.” No mention whatsoever is made of the group of pro-Israel protesters who assaulted a young Palestinian woman, among others.
Not a single source, in fact, makes any mention of the attack on Kiswani. The NY Daily News does note that, during the basketball game, one of Petlakh’s accomplices accosted a stranger who was waving a Palestinian flag, sparking an argument that continued outside.
The Palestine Solidarity network noted the irony that a group of middle-aged white males would proudly post a video of their own assault on a young woman of color, and then blame her for their crime.
In the video, ludicrously titled “Anti Israel provocation at Barclays Center,” you can see how Petlakh and his accomplices initiate the conflict. The men were clearly targeting Kiswani, and their assault was premeditated. The young woman is simply standing there, holding a Palestinian flag, while the men point at her on camera, speaking about her in Russian. According to two different translators with whom I consulted, the men call Kiswani a “beast” and “creature” before saying “take the flag; you want to.”
Petlakh teaches a course on Russian Jewish history at Hunter College, and is the first Russian-speaking Vice President of the American Zionist Movement. Perhaps he and his accomplices did not expect viewers to understand the racism they were spewing on camera. Regardless, posting video evidence of you and your friends dehumanizing a young Palestinian woman before plotting to assault her may not be construed as the most prudent of decisions.
At 0:21, one of the men, who appears to be Petlakh himself, approaches Kiswani and violently pulls the flag from her hands. At 0:29, you can see that the man assaulted Kiswani right in front of young children, presumably Petlakh’s. The man who assaulted her then calls out “Can I get an usher?”—doubtless knowing that, given the egregious degree of racism and Islamophobia in US society, the usher will believe his story over hers. When the guard arrives, you can hear him ask “What’s the problem?” A bystander replies “He took her private property” and Kiswani says “He assaulted me.” The guard asks whether the flag belongs to her, and the assailant admits that it does, insisting “I didn’t want to have a political statement.” Much like Israel itself, the pro-Israel attacker thought it was okay to physically harm another person because he didn’t agree with her politics, let alone with her right to hold a flag in a public place.
(In case the attackers realize posting evidence of their crime is perhaps not the best idea and decide to take it down, I have archived the YouTube information here and the video itself here—which I have renamed, much more accurately, as “Anti-Palestinian provocation at Barclays Center.”)
The conflict, initiated by Petlakh and his accomplices, continues after the video ends, yet even this short clip clearly contradicts Petlakh’s testimony—the only testimony cited in any of these news stories. In order to understand what happened off camera, a journalist would have to interview witnesses. Not a single news publication interviewed a witness, however; Petlakh’s allegations, doubtless impartial given his complicity in the assault, are taken at face value, as fact.
I spoke with several activists who attended the event, one of whom witnessed the attack on Kiswani. They spoke of incredible hatred, verging on violence, directed toward them, as they protested in what Dave Zirin described as the “fenced-off pen on the narrow strip of sidewalk,” in “an outdoor space built with public funds was deemed a privatized, no-free-speech zone, enforced by armed public employees.”
Zirin spoke of the pro-Israel counter-protesters who showed up. “All male, mostly young and carrying Israeli flags, they showered the demonstrators with profanity … and raised a middle finger.” When he tried to interview one of the Israel supporters, the man replied “F*ck them, f*ck your questions and f*ck you. Get the f*ck away from me before I bury you”; when Zirin asked how the man wanted to be identified, he responded “My name is ‘f*ck you.'”
Jewish Voice for Peace and Adalah New York were among the protesters outside Barclays, criticizing the Nets for hosting 12 wounded Israeli soldiers and Barclays for collaborating with the organization Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. Zirin reported seeing protesters holding signs reading “This Jew says no to Gaza slaughter.” Haaretz is the only mainstream publication to even acknowledge their presence. A critical reader would see this as a reminder that, in spite of Petlakh’s insistence to the contrary, many of the most prominent Palestinian solidarity activists in the US are in fact Jewish themselves.
The Witch Hunt of Shawn Carrié
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this story, nonetheless, is the subsequent witch hunt of Shawn Carrié.
On 16 October, Carrié was over 950 miles away from Brooklyn, in Ferguson, Missouri, reporting on the brutal, militarized police repression of nonviolent civil rights protests, when the FBI showed up and arrested him. Police flew him almost 1,000 miles from Ferguson back to Brooklyn, where he was jailed for 60 hours.
I spoke with Carrié’s lawyer, Lamis Deek. She explained that the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Task Force found Petlakh’s accusations to be completely false and unfounded; Carrié was never even charged with a hate crime. In spite of the fact there was no evidence of a crime that he was never charged with, and in spite of the fact that a police investigation firmly stated otherwise, the District Attorney still stubbornly argued Carrié had committed a hate crime—an accusation the judge called “preposterous.” No mainstream media source took the time to report these crucial facts, yet alone to apologize for its erroneous claims.
I reached out to Carrié for a statement, yet he was unable to comment on the case, for legal reasons.
That police would travel several states over and fly a 25-year-old journalist suspected of punching a man in the nose back to a Brooklyn jail is strange to say the least, particularly considering the incredible lack of interest the police displayed in response to the attack on Kiswani.
Carrié has had work published in Adbusters, The Nation, PolicyMic, Truthout, among other publications. He was also heavily involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. In 2013, Carrié in fact successfully sued New York City for a series of beatings and unconstitutional treatment at the hands of police.
In its official statement, the New York City Palestine Solidarity network “strongly condemn[ed] anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and all forms of racism,” noting that “phony accusations of anti-Semitism undermine and take lightly the seriousness and danger of true anti-Semitism.” The organization expressed disgust with this “cynical manipulation of the charge of anti-Semitism, which was used to discredit pro-Palestine organizations, particularly Jewish Voice for Peace, and possibly to distract from an Islamophobic hate crime.”
The Palestinian Solidarity network called “the media’s rush to judgment and failure to investigate violations against pro-Palestine demonstrators … irresponsible journalism that contributes to fear and distrust in New York City,” lamenting that “the vastly unequal treatment of victim Nerdeen Kiswani and apparent aggressor Leonard Petlakh at Barclays Center on October 7 is but one example of pervasive institutional discrimination, privileging anti-Palestine groups and individuals.”
“We demand nothing less than full equal treatment of pro-Palestine groups and individuals engaged in activism in New York City and beyond,” the human rights advocates insisted.
Echoing Israeli Policy
This policy, accusing another party of the very crimes of which you are guilty, is a common tactic employed by the Israeli government. Whether it be the use of human shields, indiscriminate military targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure, or rampant, violent displays of racism and bigotry, Israel has perfected the art of accusing Palestinians of the very crimes of which it is guilty.
During its summer 2014 attack on Gaza, “Operation Protective Edge,” the Israeli government and its media establishment claimed Hamas was using Palestinian civilians as “human shields,” reiterating the unsubstantiated accusations ad nauseam. Journalist Max Blumenthal noted that like “so many Zionist accusations against Palestinian society (‘They only understand force,’ ‘They teach their children to hate,’ ‘They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity’) the human shields slander is a projection” of Israeli policy.
Israel’s policies of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and forced migration of mostly working-class, Mizrahi Jews (those of Middle Eastern descent, often discriminated against in a society that preferentially treats Ashkenazi Jews, those of European descent) has created a kind of buffer zone around Gaza. Today, Blumenthal writes, “these largely neglected communities form a human wall against the demographic threat tucked behind a high-tech cordon sanitaire just to their south.”
At an even more basic, overt level, numerous reports—including some from the UN itself—have proven that Israel uses literal human shields. Sizable amounts of evidence show that the Israeli Defense Force has put Palestinians children on top of military vehicles, or forced children to enter houses to see whether they are rigged with explosives, or stood behind women civilians to prevent from being shot at. Yet Israel is never censured for its well-documented use of using human shields; it is always the Palestinians who are accused.
It is quite striking that, when Petlakh, a pro-Israel professor, attacks a young Palestinian student (who attends his same school), he is not only punished, but defended by the police and media, whereas when Steven Salaita, a prolific Palestinian scholar, tweets critiques of Israel, he is fired and his career is ruined. This egregious double standard is almost unbelievable in its degree of duplicity; one might say it verges on the farcical.
Turning the victim into the villain and the oppressor into the oppressed has always been a strategy employed by powerful groups to defend their systems of injustice—whether it be European settlers in the “Americas,” British colonialists in India, or white supremacists in the Jim Crow South. In the hate crime committed against Nerdeen Kiswani, the subsequent coverup, and the witch hunt for Shawn Carrié, we see that this unfortunate historical trend is still alive and well.