Progressives are not the only ones protesting AIPAC.
Early on a May Sunday in Washington, a pixie-like blonde in jeans and a pink T-shirt addressed a column of well-dressed walkers through a megaphone. “I have to tell you,” said Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin to the men and women making their way to the city’s convention center, “The Palestinians didn’t do the Holocaust.”
She went on to assert that oppression of the Arab population of Palestine contravened both Jewish moral interests and American ones. Her audience was arriving for the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, one of Capitol Hill’s most powerful lobbies.
Over the next two days, those conventioneers would hear speeches from President Obama—trying desperately to paper over his disagreements with Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu over whether the 1967 borders were a starting point for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations—and numerous top members of his foreign-policy team. Hundreds of congressmen would attend the AIPAC banquet Monday evening, where, as in past years, they would hear their names called out from the podium and be applauded. Netanyahu would speak there, a warm-up for his Tuesday address before a joint session of Congress, where he would be treated to a rapturous 29 standing ovations.
Against this juggernaut, Code Pink gathered a few hundred people in a small park near the convention center, a camp of placards and banners and a makeshift podium. I was part of this group, a smorgasbord that included twentysomethings and sixtysomethings, young Muslim women in headscarves and Jews in yarmulkes, among many others—including an impressively eloquent Israeli peace activist.
For 36 hours we would create a spectacle. To congressmen arriving in their limousines we shouted, “Shame on You, Represent America.” We put on skits that portrayed the everyday humiliation Palestinians undergo at Israeli checkpoints. We had a fat inflated “Bibi” figure who marched outside the convention center with a sign proclaiming “Show Me the Money!”
While the older AIPACers tried to signal with sneers and gestures that we were beyond the pale of civilized discourse, several of the younger conference-goers, perhaps accustomed to pro-Palestine agitation on American campuses, did stop to argue and engage. They were usually polite young men, but those I spoke with seemed intellectually imprisoned—armed with debating points but ignorant of Israel’s history and blind to the impact of settlement activity on the geography and economy of Palestinians in the West Bank.
In the decade or so since I’ve developed a serious interest in Israel-Palestine, beginning from the time it became plain that the Oslo process was not going to give birth to a Palestinian state, I’ve donated money to candidates and activist groups, become involved with a major Christian peace organization, traveled twice to the region, read as much as possible, and written dozens of articles. But demonstrating is viscerally pleasurable in ways those activities can’t match. What does one want to do when contemplating members of the U.S. Congress jumping up and down before Netanyahu as if they were attendees at a 1950s Soviet Party Congress? Scream out loud, of course. With Code Pink, I could.
Indeed, I wish there were more demonstrations. The blogosphere has made available torrents of information about the Israeli occupation: in Israel there are thousands of knowledgeable, talented people who have risked their careers and now face legal sanction to document their country’s efforts to make the lives of Palestinians impossible to endure. Anyone who wants to know what Israel is doing can find out easily. But Americans remain indifferent. I wonder whether, contrary to the situation in unfree countries, the American blogosphere doesn’t serve a demobilizing function, encouraging people to blow off steam by sitting at home concocting clever comments rather than engaging the broader public.
Philip Weiss, creator of the Mondoweiss news site, connects Israel/Palestine advocacy to previous social movements in American history—the effort to overcome the indifference to slavery and to breach the complacency about segregation in the South. Neither succeeded merely by disseminating information; they needed people ready to confront entrenched power openly and sometimes risk their lives to force these subjects into the national conversation.
With the exception of the pro-life movement, street protest has been the domain of the left. Code Pink fits the pattern: Medea Benjamin has been a Green Party candidate for Senate in California and is a longtime progressive activist. What is relatively new is that Israel-Palestine is slowly becoming part of the list of causes American liberals care about. PEP—“Progressive except Palestine”—still describes the liberal establishment and the views of many American Jews. (Former Rep. Anthony Wiener epitomized the phenomenon: left on every issue and on Israel a pro-settlement fanatic.)
But that is changing. Benjamin is Jewish, as is much of Code Pink’s leadership. They are part of a broader group of Jewish progressives, increasingly visible in pro-Palestinian advocacy, who refuse to exempt Israel from their wider commitment to social justice.
On the other hand, the number of conservatives ready to question aloud whether an alliance with a repressive right-wing ethnostate should be the linchpin of U.S. foreign policy remains abysmally small. This is one of the great puzzlements of American politics. Two generations ago, a bipartisan Cold War establishment—exemplified by such figures as George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, and George F. Kennan—sought to keep its distance from Israel. This group has few heirs. Two of their number, Steve Walt and John Mearsheimer, spoke at the Code Pink gathering the day before the demonstrations. Medea Benjamin introduced them with friendly jokes about their anti-communist and Cold Warrior credentials.
Meanwhile, fear of Muslims has become the glue that holds together the fissiparous elements of the Republican coalition, binding wealthy Wall Streeters to social conservatives much as anti-communism did a generation ago.
Yet it is obvious that America can’t fight an endless series of wars against Israel’s regional rivals without bankrupting itself and in all likelihood abandoning its own civil liberties. With this in mind, a view of Israel/Palestine based on social justice also rests on the most practical of realist foundations.
I recall reading, nearly 40 years ago, an editorial in National Review addressed to the Commentary crowd, then just beginning to abandon its liberalism and Democratic Party loyalties. “Come on in, the water’s fine,” NR enticed. Those words more or less summarize my feelings after experiencing a Code Pink weekend.
Scott McConnell is a TAC founding editor.