Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 2004, pages 32-33
Breaching Another Barrier for Palestine—This One in the U.S. Peace Movement
By Sara Powell
Leslie Cagan of United for Peace and Justice (l), and Elias Rashmawi of FPA and ANSWER, author of the Arab- and Muslim-American community’s“open letter” to the anti-war movement (staff photos S. Powell).
AS MANY ADVOCATES for Palestinian justice are aware, U.S. activists to the left of center have failed to really push the issue to the forefront of the peace movement. Literally for decades, in fact, activists concerned for Palestinian rights have been consistently marginalized by their peers. From the shameful refusal of anti-nuclear activists to address what was happening in Sabra and Shatila at their million-strong rally in New York City in June 1982, to the two demonstrations held April 20, 2002 in Washington, DC—one the largest demonstration for Palestinian rights ever in the U.S., the other a smaller anti-war demonstration—the organizers of which initially declined to participate in a unified march and rally to include the Palestinian issue. The latter group eventually merged with the larger march against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s vicious assault on the West Bank. Through the decades, however, leading American activists have tried to keep Palestinian voices—and the voices of those supporting them—from being heard.
The post-9/11 U.S. war on Afghanistan, and especially the pre-emptive war on Iraq, led to a renaissance of the peace movement in this country—bringing hundreds of thousands of Americans from all walks of life into the streets, time and again, to challenge U.S. Middle East policy. Two large coalitions—International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) and UFPJ (United for Peace and Justice)—took center stage as organizers of the movement. Those who demonstrated heard a variety of messages about colonial domination around the world, the need for equality and justice at home, and the misuse of funds for warfare when so many of their fellow citizens are hungry and homeless. The protestors even heard something about the Israeli occupation of Palestine with U.S. funds, arms, and diplomatic protection.
On Oct 25, 2003, ANSWER and UFPJ cosponsored a large demonstration in Washington, DC demanding to “Bring the troops home now.” Early last November, ANSWER issued a public call for a March 20 protest—to be held on the first anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Soon after, UFPJ followed suit. Both formed coalitions with other like-minded groups, and applied for permits—the work of organizing was underway. By early December ANSWER had approached UFPJ with a proposal for a unified demonstration, and by January an extensive, somewhat detailed, proposition was on the table.
Along with the Palestine Right to Return Coalition (Al Awda), the Muslim Students Association (MSA), the Free Palestine Alliance-USA (FPA), the Muslim American Society, Freedom Foundation (MAS), the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) and the Arab Muslim American Federation, ANSWER called for the March 20 mobilization to protest all colonial occupations—specifically including Palestine.
On Jan. 12, the Arab- and Muslim-American community issued an open letter to the anti-war movement. Among the letter’s main points were that the struggle in Palestine was central to any peace and justice mobilization, that the rights of return and self-determination are key anchors of the Palestinian struggle, and that the decades-long marginalization and tokenization of Arab and Muslim voices is racist and unacceptable. “Justice is neither selective, nor partial or conditional,” the letter concluded.
To date almost 300 organizations, as well as many individuals, have signed the letter. Among the signatories are 10 Palestinian refugee camp institutions—including The Forum of Palestinian NGOs Working on Refugee Camps of Lebanon (an umbrella group of 18 non-governmental organizations), The Palestinian NGO Network of 92 Palestinian NGOs based in Palestine, and the Right of Return Congress International—and four South African solidarity groups, including the Anti-War Coalition South Africa, which comprises 70 organizations. (For a complete list of signers see the ANSWER Web site, <www.internationalanswer.org>).
Immediately, UFPJ and the other members of its coalition, the March 20 Mobilizing Committee, attempted to reshape the program. Once again, American activists split over the issue of Palestine. This time, however, the March 20 National Coalition, which included ANSWER, Al Awda, MSA, FPA and others, drew a line in the sand and refused to compromise or back down from their insistence that Palestine be a major focus of the demonstration.
In the past, other political differences within and between the various coalitions had proven secondary to the pressing issues of war. The issue of Palestinian rights, however, always had crumbled in the face of supporters of Israel—from hard-line Zionists to sympathizers with Holocaust victims—all apparently unable to acknowledge the injustice perpetrated on the people of Palestine. As ANSWER had stood with Arab and Muslim Americans in April 2002, however, so it was determined to do again on March 20.
Throughout the country, heated meetings took place between the various groups. Al Awda’s Dr. Jess Ghannam, of the University of San Francisco, said that one UFPJ leader, reportedly from Tikkun, told him personally that the group was worried about a Palestinian taking the stage to discuss the Right of Return. The peculiar tendency to embrace all other just causes while pretending (at best) that Palestinians do not exist, or blaming Palestine for its occupation—or even vilifying Palestinians as evil terrorists who have no right to the land they have lived on and cultivated for centuries—was exposed as lying deep within groups whose raison d’etre ostensibly was peace and justice.
During one conference call seeking to create a unified demonstration, the March 20 Mobilizing Committee tried to change the focus of the march while still “allowing” Palestinians to speak. At the conclusion of the call, according to sources, those representing the March 20 National Coalition stated, one by one, that they would not compromise on the demand to include Palestine as an integral focus.
Finally, on Feb. 6, after many tense negotiations, the Mobilizing Committee agreed on Feb. 6 to issue a joint statement with the National Coalition. The call went out for a united demonstration in New York City, to “march for an end to the occupation and corporate control of Iraq and to bring the troops home now [and to]…march for an end to the occupation of Palestine…”
On Feb. 7, ANSWER issued the call on behalf of the National Coalition; several days later, UFPJ issued the call on behalf of the Committee. However, U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW), Bring the Troops Home Now—a coalition of Military Families Against the War, and Veterans for Peace no longer are listed on the UFPJ Web page as being among the members of the March 20 Mobilizing Committee. UFPJ’s San Francisco chapter, moreover, declined to be part of the Bay Area demonstration. In contrast, New York City Labor Against the War (NYCLAW) fought for the inclusion of Palestine.
Nonetheless, it does seem that the Palestinian cause might be on its way to achieving “political correctness” among U.S. activists. One hopes that, as a result, Americans’ realization of Palestinian’s legitimate demands will spread more quickly among those who profess to stand for justice.
Sara Powell is the Washington Report’s administrative and public relations director.