The detour

A speaking tour of eyewitnesses from Iraq and Israel ignites a controversy at Davis Senior High School

Rabbi Greg Wolfe sees the Wheels of Justice tour as “sensationalistic and one-sided.”

Rabbi Greg Wolfe sees the Wheels of Justice tour as “sensationalistic and one-sided.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

It all began with a school bus—painted with a tie-dye hodgepodge of purples, greens and silhouettes of doves. Along the bottom reads, “Break the Cycles of Violence,” while the top announces, “The Wheels of Justice—Eyewitnesses to Iraq and Palestine.” Each window is adorned either with an Iraqi child’s drawing filled with visions of peace, or with a photograph of wounded Palestinians in agony. More than 15 states saw this bus, when it stopped at any requested place for its passengers to recall what they believe are the grave effects of U.S. foreign policy in prewar Iraq and Israel.

To some, this bus carrying the Wheels of Justice tour brings nothing but the truth the U.S. government does not want us to know. To others, it is an instrument of propaganda that catalyzes hatred of Israelis and supports Palestinian violence against them.

The latter observation recently overshadowed the tour, as its scheduled December 15 appearance at Davis Senior High School was canceled at the last minute in response to the protests of local Jewish community members. Many tour supporters are accusing their opponents of racism and systematic censorship. This incident may be the beginning of a major controversy in the Davis community; the tour may attempt to return to the school in the near future.

This is the most trouble Wheels of Justice has encountered since it started last August. Three organizations, Voices in the Wilderness; the Middle East Children’s Alliance; and Al-Awda, the Palestine Right to Return Coalition, sponsored the tour by arranging voluntary speakers who come and go, by helping set up tour dates and by supplying literature for sale. The tour, with its “two pillars of nonviolence and universal human rights” theme, is expected to visit all 48 continental states before next December.

“We want to visit places that aren’t normally hotbeds of activists,” said tour booking agent Ceylon Mooney. Each Wheels of Justice stop is basically a teach-in, in which the speakers share their stories, play videos or show photographs of people they visited and then have a dialogue with their audience. In recent visits to two Oakland schools, Voices in the Wilderness speaker John Farrell showed slides of impoverished Iraqi children and asked the classes, “What do they not have that you’ve got?” to show how the U.S. economic sanctions against Iraq took away many basic necessities from Iraq’s people. The funding for Wheels of Justice comes from donations and merchandise sales, which are necessary for the bus’s biodiesel supply, according to tour manager Elizabeth Russell.

The basic messages that the tour conveys are that the U.S. government continues to abuse the Iraqi people and that Palestinians urgently need their own state, as the U.S.-aided Israeli government is currently constructing 372 miles’ worth of walls around territories deemed for Palestinians. Mooney recalled that some tension did arise early on in the tour, when a Colorado Jewish group accused his tour of being “apologists for violence against Israelis.” However, he explained what the tour was all about and resolved the conflict, he said. “Once people get to know who we are and realize that we’re not a hate group, they’ll see that we’re just about getting to speak directly about the occupations,” said Farrell.

The images of Palestinian suicide bombers walking into cafes and public buses throughout Israel still burn in many hearts; 640 Israelis were killed by such attacks between 2000 and 2002. The horror has haunted Wheels of Justice. Before the tour stopped to speak at an International Human Rights Day rally in Palo Alto on December 10, Dafka, a pro-Israel group, posted on its Web site that the speakers were connected with organizations that advocate violence, including suicide bombings, against Israelis. This message caused an uproar, and an estimated 100 protesters descended on the rally. At the rally, there also were two people dressed in traditional Palestinian wear, with fake explosives strapped to their bodies, Russell said. The Jewish Community Relations Council then pressured a San Francisco after-school program to cancel a Wheels of Justice appearance later that week.

Rabbi Greg Wolfe of Davis’ Bet Haverim congregation first heard of the tour as it was moving across the country and then learned that a teacher had scheduled its appearance at Davis Senior High. He visited the Wheels of Justice Web site and objected to its use of terms like “death squads” and “ethnic cleansing” to describe the Israeli government’s actions upon Palestinians. Wolfe said he was fine with the school bringing in a pro-Palestinian-state perspective, but he believed not inviting a speaker with a contrary view was unacceptable.

The Wheels of Justice tour bus encountered little trouble before reaching Davis.

“To let this group present a very complex issue in a sensationalistic and one-sided way at the school is not responsible,” he remarked. “But remember that I would also object to Israeli activists coming in to show photos of Israeli victims of terrorist attacks.” The rabbi then encouraged members of his congregation, such as Michelle Riordan of the Davis Human Relations Commission, to research the tour’s sponsors, such as Al-Awda, a network of 62 activist groups with varying opinions about Palestinian resistance. Surprised by what she believed were anti-Semitic views on the Al-Awda Web sites, Riordan, along with Human Relations Commission Chairwoman Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald, complained to Davis City Council members, Davis Senior High Principal Mike Cawley and members of the Davis Joint Unified School District Board.

Wolfe later met with Cawley to share his concern about the tour’s slant on the Israel-Palestine issue and viewed the questionable Web sites with him. With the controversy growing, District Superintendent David Murphy and Cawley decided to cancel the Wheels of Justice activity, three days before its appearance. The tour staff believed they were being censored but hoped to have a dialogue with their opponents. Some tour supporters believe that the cancellation is based on racism. “If there’s anyone getting discriminated [against] here, they are the Arab and Muslim communities,” argued Sacramento Area Peace Action member Maggie Coulter. Her group, which encouraged teacher Don Winters to invite the speakers onto his campus, then held a sparsely attended press conference with Wheels of Justice across the street from the school on Monday morning before staging a teach-in at Sacramento’s Newman Center.

That night, Lauren Anzaldo of Al-Awda made her case for Palestinian nationhood. An audience of 30 people first watched a video that showed historical footage of Palestinian refugees being trucked away from their homes at the time of the Declaration of Israel’s Independence in 1948 and then featured clips of their descendents who wish to return to their ancestral lands. Afterward, Anzaldo talked about her two-month stint teaching English to Palestinian refugees in Jenin, where Israeli army gunfire frequently broke the air. She then argued that the Israeli government’s 20-percent-completed separation walls have cut off vital farmlands, and talked about how she and other activists cut some of the wall’s barbed-wire fences.

When the tour speakers fielded audience questions, Escamilla-Greenwald expressed her agreement with the tour’s message of nonviolence but said that it was contradicted by Al-Awda and that some of its members endorsed the suicide attacks against Israelis. Russell and Anzaldo reiterated their tour’s pillars of nonviolence and claimed that they had nothing to do with the militant groups. Riordan later announced that she was one of the people who had pressured Davis Senior High to cancel, thus sparking a group argument between her fellow Human Relations Commission members and tour supporters.

Davis school-board member Jim Provenza heard the arguments and still wanted to schedule a Wheels of Justice appearance at Davis Senior High. He did not find Anzaldo’s presentation to be anti-Semitic and said he foresaw a positive outcome if the school carefully accepted the tour speakers. “I think that the students would benefit from having it and benefit from hearing an opposing view,” he said, reflecting his district’s policy toward having controversial speakers at its campuses.

In the middle of the growing firestorm is Winters. “I saw (the tour visit) as an opportunity for the kids to think critically about the issues,” he said. The teacher regularly brings speakers who argue for political causes into his classroom, including Voices in the Wilderness founder Kathy Kelly. He even invited a U.S. Army colonel who advocated the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “We look at bias, propaganda and how to separate fact from fiction,” said Winters, adding that he researches each speaker beforehand and makes an effort to bring in someone with an opposing view. He said that he tried to contact Wolfe and other local Jewish leaders to present contrary views to the Wheels of Justice speakers, but they never replied.

Wolfe responded to this statement by saying that nobody asked him to speak at the school until word got out about his opposition to the tour, or “at the 11th hour,” as Riordan put it. “We would’ve been happy to present our view,” Wolfe said.

Winters remarked that there ironically was a “balance of opinion” on campus on December 15 because military recruiters had tables set up. He then mentioned his refusal to invite his students to the Newman Center, saying, “I made an effort to not include students in this issue.”

Julia Sway and Kyle Melton are Davis Senior High students who curiously attended the Newman Center teach-in. They both agreed that Anzaldo’s presentation was biased. “Obviously, (the tour speakers) got in and saw one side of the picture, and everyone knows there isn’t [just] one side,” said Sway. “If it [really was] so black and white, there wouldn’t be an issue.”

As for the commotion over what his fellow class members should get to hear, Melton replied, “If we were just approached by public speakers that everyone agreed on, it would be pretty drab.”