Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
Time to Intensify Our Efforts
Building a Counter-AIPAC
By Josh Ruebner
Henry David Thoreau, arguably the greatest American philosopher and practitioner of nonviolent resistance to injustice, recognized that the U.S. political system is particularly prone to the pernicious influence of foreign interests. In his classic essay, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, Thoreau wrote: “I quarrel not with far-off foes, but with those who, near at home, cooperate with, and do the bidding of those far away, and without whom the latter would be harmless.”
Indeed, could there be a more apt definition of the role played by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the rest of the American Jewish community’s misrepresentative leadership in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy toward the Israel-Palestine conflict? (Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was fond of declaring that there is a “collective obligation of all national Zionist Organizations to aid the Jewish state under all circumstances and conditions even if such an attitude clashes with their respective national authorities.”)
For decades, AIPAC and other neoconservative American Jewish organizations masquerading as mainstream have worked unflaggingly to align U.S. diplomatic, economic and military foreign policy with Israel’s oppressive military occupation of Palestinian land and people. Together with some anti-Semitic Christian evangelicals who view the Jewish people as pawns in their plans to bring about Armageddon, and an American arms industry which benefits materially from the continuation of the conflict in the form of a yearly $2 billion subsidy from U.S. arms grants to Israel, AIPAC has helped to create an interlocking and overlapping set of interests—an “unholy triple alliance” of sorts—which together serves to make the U.S. complicit in denying fundamental human, political, social and economic rights to an entire people.
The Hebrew Prophet Amos proclaimed: “Let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Unfortunately, when it comes to the Palestinians much of the American Jewish leadership has chosen to disregard Amos’ call to social justice and has remained silent regarding Israel’s brutalization of the Palestinian people. Throughout the years, however, American Jews, who draw inspiration from their religion’s commitment to justice and righteousness, have refused to acquiesce to this culture of silence. Over the past two years, as the Oslo “peace process” was derailed and exposed as a cover for Israel’s drive to impose a permanent bantustan-like system of apartheid on the Palestinian people, American Jewish advocacy for a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians has expanded.
Israel’s “pro-occupation lobby” fears the emergence of a Jewish peace movement in the U.S.
Indeed, in virtually every large American Jewish community there is a growing, organized movement in open revolt against the agenda of the neoconservative, unelected leadership of their community. Not since the first Palestinian intifada in the 1980s have thousands of American Jewish activists banded together to reclaim the best of their moral heritage of pursuing justice from a spiritually bankrupt leadership whose unabashed adoration of nationalism is nothing less than modern-day idol worship. Dozens of proudly self-identifying Jewish groups, from Jews Against the Occupation (JATO) in New York to a Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) in San Francisco, have stood up to say that they no longer will permit Israel to oppress the Palestinians in their name.
Although, in public, Israeli government spokesmen and AIPAC officials attempt to denigrate the American Jewish peace movement as an “extremist, marginal, fringe phenomenon,” in private they bite their nails and fret over the disappearance of an illusory unanimity. (This writer once asked an Israeli Embassy employee whether she was aware of the activities of the growing American Jewish peace movement. She admitted, quite candidly, that not only was the embassy aware of the phenomenon, but that it was preoccupied with its implications.)
Israel clearly understands that when U.S. policymakers realize that AIPAC represents only a small fraction of the American Jewish community, and that only its extremist right-wing fringe will give Israel carte blanche to brutalize the Palestinian people, Washington’s unconditional support for Israel’s occupation will be in jeopardy. Israel’s “pro-occupation lobby” also fears the emergence of a Jewish peace movement in the U.S. because such a movement could play a leading role in a broad American effort for a just peace in Palestine and Israel—one which cuts across religious and ethnic lines. Such a movement easily could overwhelm numerically the narrow special interests of the “unholy triple alliance.”
Indeed, by its very presence, a flourishing American Jewish peace movement would shield its allies from the “pro-occupation lobby’s” often spurious assaults equating any legitimate criticism of Israel’s military occupation with “anti-Semitism.”
Perhaps it was this fear of a vibrant American Jewish peace movement, not only capable of working with, but actively seeking the cooperation of American Arab and Muslim organizations, that prompted Israel and AIPAC to try to foil the attempt by our organization, Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel, and American Muslims for Jerusalem (AMJ) to bring a congressional staff delegation to Palestine and Israel in August. Despite promises from the Israeli Embassy that the delegation would be treated “with dignity,” Israel stamped “denied entry” on the passports of representatives of the government which provides it with more than $3 billion yearly, and threatened the delegation with violence. Before we could even issue a press release to clarify the situation, the Israeli Foreign Ministry (along with the U.S. State Department) was coordinating its story with AIPAC on Capitol Hill to “spin” it and have people believe that Israel did not deny entry to the congressional staff delegation! We later found out that Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai personally attempted to keep the delegation out of the occupied Palestinian territories. Such high-level concern about the activities of one grassroots American Jewish peace organization reveals just how concerned Israel is about this movement.
The time is ripe for an American Jewish peace movement—working in conjunction with a broad spectrum of concerned American citizens of varying religions and ethnicities—to topple the house of cards that the “unholy triple alliance” has built and to expose AIPAC for the paper tiger it is. AIPAC’s near mythic stature in the eyes of many of its admirers and detractors is folly. Its oft-cited ability to oust from Congress those they consider to be undesirables—such as Reps. Earl Hilliard and Cynthia McKinney—is inflated. True, AIPAC controls numerous political action committees (PACs), which played a large role in funding the Hilliard’s and McKinney’s Democratic primary challengers. Both seats were vulnerable, however, for reasons having nothing to do with the Israel-Palestine conflict. Had they enjoyed “safe seats,” no amount of money could have defeated them.
The emergence of an energetic, conscientious American Jewish grassroots peace movement already is evident. What is now necessary is to transform this dynamic movement’s moral weight into political muscle capable of convincing members of Congress that AIPAC represents no one but its own narrow membership base, and that American Jews who remain faithful to the moral precepts of their religion, and who are concerned with promoting a U.S. foreign policy supportive of human rights, have no choice but to advocate for the freedom, dignity and security of both Palestinians and Israelis.
Without doubt, it will take quite some time and a commensurate expenditure of resources to rival the organizational clout and political pull AIPAC enjoys today. All movements for social change, however, especially those seeking peace and justice, begin small. This should not serve as a deterrent. In his own era, Thoreau confronted an even more evil, more well-entrenched system of interests in the United States which eventually was defeated: the institution of slavery. When he wrote On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, Thoreau’s optimistic belief in the abolition of slavery may have seemed naíve to some and fanciful to others. Yet he recognized “that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten people whom I could name—if ten honest people only—aye, if one HONEST person, in the State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this co-partnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever.”
Josh Ruebner is co-founder of Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel (JPPI) and a former Analyst in Middle East Affairs for Congressional Research Service (CRS).