Move Over AIPAC challenges business-as-usual in Washington

Hundreds of activists across the US converged in the capital for the Move Over AIPAC conference last month. (Flickr)

Late last month AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, held its 2011 annual policy conference in Washington, DC. Just across the street hundreds of social justice activists from all corners of the United States, in addition to a handful of internationals, met with the formidable goal of building a counter-force to AIPAC. The atmostphere of the Move Over AIPAC meeting, held 21-24 May, was excited and lively, drawing its energy and inspiration from the democratic uprisings currently raging in the Middle East.

The jam-packed day of events at the Move Over AIPAC conference was initiated with a talk by the foremost experts on AIPAC, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, the authors of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. Walt began by stating that “people should be able to discuss AIPAC without being smeared or slandered, being charged with anti-Semitism or Nazi sympathizing.” He reiterated the objective of the loose coalition of individuals and groups called AIPAC which actively works to support the relationship of unconditional US support for Israel.

Walt noted that the strategies employed by this lobby group are, firstly, to keep people who are sympathetic to Israel in office. Secondly, the lobby shapes public discourse on this issue so Israel is viewed favorably by all Americans by monitoring and attacking media outlets and their financiers.

Walt’s colleague John Mearsheimer said that lobbyists work hand in hand with Israel to make it impossible for the US to push for a two state solution, which he referred to as now being a “fantasy.” The majority of his talk was premised on his view that “over the next decade Israel will complete its transformation into an apartheid state,” which is not sustainable in the long-run.

Mearsheimer noted the fundamental shift in Palestinian strategy, which relies on “diplomacy, civil disobedience and nonviolence” and said that even if the Palestinians succeed in having an independent state recognized at the United Nations this September, it wouldn’t matter in the short-term because the realities on the ground have made a one-state solution inevitable.

Human rights the point of departure

In a later panel, human rights attorney and activist Noura Erakat emphasized the importance of maintaining human rights and international law as the “main point of departure” regardless of which state model will come to fruition in the future. She commented that it is much more realistic to imagine and achieve the integration of the illegal West Bank settlements into a future single state than to expect their dismantling.

The conference was heavily centered on directing efforts towards the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, which has been gaining considerable momentum in recent years. Panels headed by prominent activists and BDS leaders from organizations such as CODEPINK, Who Profits and Adalah-NY educated activists on how to get involved in the myriad of global BDS campaigns currently taking place.

Dalit Baum, founder of Who Profits from the Occupation? — a project of the Coalition of Women for Peace — opened a workshop by emphasizing the importance of “setting measurable short- and long-term goals.” She encouraged activists to “learn how to celebrate our successes,” something Palestinian rights activists are not very accustomed to.

Other strategy and skill-building workshops focused on creative tactics to oppose US military aid to Israel. Examples of such tactics included billboards, digital displays and flash mobs,the most recent of which took place the day before at the DC Union Station (“Move Over AIPAC Flashmob (DC Union Station),” 21 May 2011). On 22 May, hundreds of activists protested outside the Washington Convention Center where AIPAC meetings were taking place throughout the course of the weekend.

Lack of Arab presence

What was noticeably missing during the weekend of activism was a substantial Arab and Palestinian presence. Other than a handful of individual Arabs who made the effort to attend the conference, the vast majority of the attendees seemed to be leftist or liberal American Jews.

Fida Qishta, an activist from Gaza, briefly addressed the group early on Saturday, expressing her immense appreciation for the efforts Americans are making in solidarity with Palestinians. Later, a man who identified himself as an Arab surprised the audience when he asked one of the panels if it would be harmful for the cause if Arabs got involved in helping organize against AIPAC. The response to his question was passionate encouragement for him and other Arabs to get more involved.

If anything, the absence of a significant Arab presence at the unprecedented event likely weakened the efforts of the organizers who need all human and intellectual capital present in order to even begin to rival the efforts of the AIPAC giant. More than a hundred peace and justice groups endorsed the conference, which included several Arab and Muslim organizations. Unfortunately, representatives from these organizations were largely missing.

The AIPAC enterprise makes or breaks the careers of American politicians. Without an active, diverse, unified and broad-based coalition of organizations and individuals which span from non-Arab progressives to Arab, Palestinian and Muslim organizations, influence on US policy-makers will remain marginal at best.

Challenging AIPAC more important than ever

It is crucial that all organizers remind themselves that AIPAC is only the most obvious and powerful example of the stranglehold that interest groups have over foreign and domestic US policies in the context of a broken and paralyzed democratic system. It will be impossible to build a movement without the active help of all those who are adversely affected by this arrangement.

Earlier in the conference Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, pointed out that the discourse on this highly-charged issue has begun to change in the US. Netanyahu’s address to Congress, which concluded the events of the weekend, shows that challenging AIPAC is more important than ever. Members of US Congress were falling over themselves to demonstrate their enthusiasm and unwavering support for anything that came out of Netanyahu’s mouth.

Rae Abileah, a member of CodePink and one of the main organizers of the Move Over AIPAC conference, was attacked and beaten by AIPAC attendees for yelling “No more occupation, stop Israel war crimes, equal rights for Palestinians, occupation is indefensible” during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address at the US Congress. The incident, which received international attention, was hardly covered by mainstream American media outlets.

During his talk, Stephen Walt urged peace groups like Coalition of Women for Peace and Jewish Voice for Peace to “put pressure on politicians to do what is right rather than what is politically expedient.” His words may be the ideal that all human rights activists would like to achieve but it goes without saying that the objective is easier said than done.

The Move Over AIPAC conference was an inspiring step forward and the time is ripe for escalated organizing and tactics. Future activism must be centered on pushing for a human rights agenda, which will require the intensification of direct action strategies being pushed by the growing BDS movement and professional lobbying efforts. It’s up to grassroots activists to make it impossible for Congress to do business-as-usual with apartheid Israel.

Linda Khoury is human rights activist and aspiring journalist who is currently pursuing her MA in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She currently blogs at Midthought Blog.