From Helma Lanyi, Episcopal Peace Fellowship and Peace Action Montgomery
Code Pink put on an expertly executed, top-notch conference with important speakers on Saturday, May 21, timely workshops, and the usual lively display of street theater during today’s demonstrations outside the convention center.
Yesterday, Saturday, about three hundred people were seated in a large hall inside the Mt. Vernon Methodist Church near the Convention Center to hear the main speakers, Profss. John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt, authors of the 2007 book on Aipac and its influence on U.S. politics through their financial contributions to Congress. Their speech reiterated the theme of their book and was somewhat depressing in that, yes, it is all true: AIPAC really is that powerful and has proven its power over and over. To the question whether it should not be registered as a foreign agent the answer is no because it is run by Americans, not foreigners. Since the U.S. permits dual citizenship many officials are, indeed, citizens of both countries and seem to assume that U.S. interests are automatically identical to Israeli interests. Any serious conflicts are papered over, for example. When a U.S. citizen dies in Israel’s custody or simply territory, the U.S. does nothing, as in the example of Rachel Corrie or the sole U.S. citizen on the Marmi Marmara, the first Flotilla boat last May. The attack on the U.S.S. Liberty 44 years ago where Israel killed U.S. troops is another, unmentioned, example.
This all is deplorable, but, as both authors noted, is disastrous for all concerned, and that now includes Israel which is unable, it appears, to change its political direction in view of the changing realities of the Arab spring.
The question of one or two states was discussed at length: Ehud Barak said that either Israel will become non-Jewish (by including everybody) or non-democratic. According to Mearsheimer, AIPAC is helping Israel commit national suicide by advocating no change and no accommodation with the Palestinians.
On the positive side: Disagreements can no longer be kept behind doors, not in the age of the Internet. Change is bound to come.
I was amused when Mearsheimer suggested that we individual citizens needed to employ “Saul Alinsky type practices” when fighting AIPAC, and he said that as a fellow Chicagoan. He teaches at the Univ.of Chicago.
Two panel presentations followed lunch and displays of books by the authors or related groups. Ambassador Chas Freeman was one of the panelists and seemed to have the time of his life among the group of peace friends of various intensity and backgrounds. He signed his book for me and I told him that he and Noam Chomsky are a breath of fresh air, and he liked that. It occurred to me that we had not only top academics in Mearsheimer/Walt but also a high ranking member of the diplomatic corps. You recall that he was nominated by Pres. Obama to head the National Security Council but withdrew because of AIPAC’s campaign against him: he allegedly was not pro-Israel enough. When I heard him two weeks ago he told the anecdote that in the late 1980s he had lunch with a high-ranking Israeli for whom he had helped establish contacts in Africa. This Israeli asked him what position he envisioned for himself in the upcoming administration of George H.W.Bush. Freeman said he would do whatever he was asked to do and this Israeli friend urged him to be more specific, saying: “Whatever you want, we will get it for you.” Freeman was shocked that a foreign national had that much say over a U.S. administration. Freeman was now on a panel with a Palestinian woman who blogs as “Gaza Mom” which might be good to read.
Another panel discussion by members of “End the Occupation,” included, among others, Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, and Noura Erekat who impressed me especially. She is a lawyer for human rights and spoke passionately about fairness for all, including Israeli settlers. (A questioner suggested that, for legal reasons, settlers in occupied land be considered enemy combatants, and she strongly condemned that because they are civilians and unarmed, even though some settlers are, in fact, armed.) This panel discussed the legal questions in connection with the Palestinian attempt at gaining statehood in September. Each member was united in emphasizing that no matter what shape or form the new entities would have, the goal was always to have freedom, justice, and equality for all human beings. That is the umbrella over all specific items fought for. As Phyllis Bennis said, the U.S. needs a new foreign policy based on human rights and international law.
We then split up into workshops. I decided on one led by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb about ways to refute the charge of anti-Semitism. I knew her from Fellowship, the Fellowship of Reconciliation magazine. She was not able to come but a capable young mentee of hers who also lives in Nyack, New York, in an “intentional community” (I gather a modern equivalent of a utopian commune) offered to facilitate our large group. Rabbi Gottlieb, by the way, is the first person who articulated for me a suspicion I had for some time that so-called “interfaith dialogue” is nothing but a block to genuine encounters and communication unless participants are willing to expose themselves to genuine openness, which is not the case in my experience.
I want to mention that I felt honored that Hedy Epstein, the 80-plus year-old Holocaust survivor and member of the first international attempt to end the siege of Gaza in December 2009, was in this workshop. She was with Jean Athey of Peace Action Montgomery who wrote her Letters from Gaza at that time. The group was not permitted to cross into Gaza under the Egyptian leadership of Hosni Mubarak.
The dynamic of “anti-Semitism” today is directed primarily at Arabs, and those present spoke eloquently about it. My own background as a German-born person and the hostile assumptions I had to deal with all my life are so…yesterday!!! Still, I echoed Hedy’s comments about the need to be very specific when speaking to people. Prejudices and assumptions are a shortcut to encounters. However, I think that my own journey of overcoming the “collective guilt” the world put on all German-speaking people can be of use for others who are engaged in conflict. Our own hearts have to be pure, so to speak. We cannot long for revenge because then, we, too, are guilty. This obviously can be discussed further some other place. Gandhi and all other non-violence practitioners have written about it.
It was a long day. I made it back for the outside demonstration today, which, as usual, resembled a circus. There were the dressed-up members of AIPAC on their way to lunch who either ignored all opposition or looked at us with bemused, superior, smiles. There were not only the Code Pink folks with their tent; their separation wall which Medea Benjamin, founder of Code Pink, demanded to be torn down (Mr. Netanyahu, tear down this wall, like Pres. Reagan in Berlin); the Code Pink aged clown, a regular at their events; but there were also the ultra-conservative Rabbis in top hats and three quarter length coats, who held signs opposite the convention center, on the same side as the Code Pink folks. These rabbis denounced the Zionist state of Israel!! – and there were all sorts of signs. One woman silently held a photo of a wounded, bleeding Palestinian carried away by another, right by the wall. Other signs asked the U.S. to start getting Israel off U.S. welfare! Another asked to end the occupation and give self-determination to Palestinians, and many more.
There was one other noteworthy and moving event: Jewish Voice for Peace, the progressive group led by Shelley Cohen Fudge, organized a reading of the very, very moving poem/drama “Seven Jewish Children.” It was apparently performed here in DC at the Jewish Community Center by J-Street Theater and we were all urged to support that theater and I will do so now. The play should be seen, not discussed. It is only 10 minutes in length. Written by Caryl Churchill, it can be downloaded at Royal Court Theater, www.royalcourttheatre.com. I would dearly like to see it read/performed by everyone who can do so in their parish/community.
On my way home I reflected on the conference: How we see the entire Middle East is now yesterday’s news. We are facing new times and we need to be ready to see things in a new light. The guidelines articulated by the speakers and panelists and even workshop members are a great guide for this new age we are entering in the Middle East. We who are working for freedom, equality, and justice are ready, but are the bureaucrats in the State Department and White House ready as well? Please contact your representatives on all those points, mostly the unhealthy relationship with AIPAC which does not represent all Jews in the U.S. In fact, a sign stated: “I am for peace, and AIPAC does not represent me.”
I also congratulate the women of Code Pink: I used to think that they were a tad too “in your face” for me, but today I take my hat off to them. This was substance throughout with a minimum of fluff and noise. This old feminist is quite proud of these ladies’ accomplishments. They practice solidarity, equality, caring, a consensus-led way of doing things. Medea Benjamin is clearly not a top-down leader but a consensus builder. It is possible to get things done in a non-hierarchical manner.
Saw many old friends, Donna Hicks and Newland Smith of the Palestine/Israel network, also Cotton Fite, also many local Palestinian-Americans, local Muslim peace friends, progressive Jews and local Episcopal Peace Fellowship members like Steve France. I am also happy to include Kem Sawyer who just finished a book on Gandhi for children, and Rev. Susan Burns of Redeemer Episcopal Church in Bethesda who organized a vigil at the Capitol when Netanyahu is addressing Congress. The vigil is in protest over the deportation policy by Israel of the Episcopal bishop of Jerusalem, Bishop Suheil Dawani. Informally we called it “Bibi, let our bishop go!”
I hope our little chapter will grow in grace and strength with the addition of these members. Enjoyed catered lunch provided by Busboys and Poets, the place where the party continued after I had gone home.