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Pro-palestinian Activists Take Page from Pro-israel Community’s Playbook

April 25, 2002
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There’s the diplomatic front, the P.R. war and the actual battlefield.

Now the Middle East conflict is also playing out in the American street.

For months, pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups have demonstrated with some regularity in New York and other cities nationwide.

The street activism reached a crescendo in the past two weeks.

On April 15, more than 100,000 pro-Israel supporters poured into Washington for a rally that was said to be the largest-ever on behalf of the 54-year-old Jewish state.

Then on Saturday, tens of thousands of “anti-war, anti-racism” protesters converged on the nation’s capital — the media said it was between 35,000 and 50,000 — in defense of the Palestinians, against the campaign in Afghanistan and against the assault reportedly in the works for Iraq.

Another rally that day in San Francisco reportedly drew between 30,000 and 50,000, and several others took place across the country.

And on Monday, outside the annual conference of the influential pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, several hundred Palestinians, Socialists and environmental activists chanted slogans such as “Long Live the Intifada” and demanded that the United States staunch the flow of military aid to Israel.

The real prize at stake: American public opinion, and ultimately, U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Even with much of the Third World, the United Nations and Western Europe solidly behind the Palestinians, it’s clear that the position of the United States is the only position that truly matters.

Pro-Israel advocates say the United States is proving itself to be Israel’s “indispensable ally” now more than ever.

Which is worrying the other side.

The United States has become the main player on the international stage, Edward Said, a Columbia University professor and a member of the Palestine National Council, wrote recently in the London-based Arabic daily Al Hayat.

“However, we have never realized the importance of methodical organization of political work on a popular level, in an effort to bring about a situation in which the ordinary American does not immediately think of ‘terrorism’ whenever he hears the word ‘Palestinian.’ This kind of work provides real protection for the gains achieved on the ground through our resistance to Israeli occupation.”

While pro-Palestinian advocates like Said bemoan the inadequate level of pro-Palestinian organization here in the United States, Jewish observers note with admiration and worry the huge strides made toward leveling the playing field.

There was a time when the American Jewish activism reigned supreme.

Yet, as the Arab- and Muslim-American population has grown in this country, these groups have observed how certain pressure groups got their points across.

“Many in the Arab- and Palestinian-American community have been wise to learn from the history of activism in this country, whether for good causes or bad, if it was against Vietnam or South Africa’s apartheid, or for Zionism,” said Mazin Qumsiyeh, a co-founder and spokesman for Al-Awda, the Palestinian Right to Return Coalition, which has been involved in organizing numerous pro-Palestinian demonstrations.

With that wisdom has come greater savviness in public advocacy, say some Jewish observers.

For example, pro-Palestinian demonstrators are trying to appeal to a wider swath of society by portraying the conflict as one that transcends politics and land, and is more about fighting racism and defending human rights.

The Palestinian cause is “not about two sides, not about two tribes, but clearly an issue between those who care about human rights versus a small and getting-smaller group of people who think tribal,” Qumsiyeh, a geneticist at Yale University, told JTA, characterizing Israel supporters in the latter group.

In many ways, pro-Palestinian activists now match the Jewish community move for move: a flurry of large newspaper ads published by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee over the past week in The New York Times, Washington Post and International Herald Tribune seemed to be a page taken from the Jewish playbook.

Sometimes, they also succeed in putting the Jewish community on the defensive: Jewish students are now struggling to counter Arab and Muslim activists who recently launched on several university campuses a campaign to divest from Israel, similar to that taken during the 1980s against South Africa.

What prevents their message from penetrating a wider audience, pro-Palestinian activists routinely say, is “Zionist influence” over the media and lawmakers.

Jewish leaders, not surprisingly, disagree.

“They are trying to emulate the example set by American Jews, whether in the streets or other means, but there’s a fundamental misunderstanding on their part,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which was a co-organizer of the April 15 rally.

“The American people support us because they agree with us. And the congressional leadership comes to our rallies, not theirs, because at ours, everyone supports the administration.”

In contrast, he said, they criticize the administration, and what they say is not in sync with the view of the lawmakers and “what is seen as America’s interest.”

More effective than the activists on the ground, Hoenlein said, are the Arab spokespeople who appear frequently on CNN and speak directly to viewers.

Hoenlein conceded, though, that pro-Palestinian supporters in America have gained the upper hand on college, and even high school, campuses.

He also said the Jewish community has grown too complacent.

“I don’t see us challenged by” the other side, “but they do write to the media, to their congressmen, and do make their voices heard,” Hoenlein said.

“Too often our community takes it for granted — it’s been there, done that — and forgets the importance of this kind of activism.”

As for public demonstrations, both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists say they aim to raise awareness of their cause.

But many admit that they don’t expect to change many minds with chants or posters that blare “Arafat Is a Terrorist” or “Sharon Is a War Criminal.”

To a large degree, it seems, anyone who cares about what happens in the Middle East likely has his or her mind made up about who’s to blame.

Polls in the United States seem to bear that out. Over the years, they have shown consistently stronger support for Israel, and the intifada hasn’t changed it dramatically.

But there are other tangible reasons for such rallies.

Primarily, they’re aimed at attracting media attention, in hopes of snatching air time on the 6 o’clock news, or some ink in the next day’s paper. In fact, a rally’s success is often gauged not by attendance, but by the amount of media coverage it garnered.

The media’s platform enables activists to simultaneously reinforce their “talking points” to the public and to let elected officials know that such-and-such segment of the electorate is holding them accountable for their policies.

A second reason for demonstrations is the message of solidarity — whether it be to the Jews in Israel or to the Palestinians in the territories.

With thousands of miles separating American Jews or Arabs from their brethren in the Holy Land, participants say a media-covered public demonstration is an outlet to vent pent-up frustration and one of the few ways to illustrate that “we are with you.”

Finally, rally organizers also want to encourage and mobilize the like-minded around the country, who may be despairing that little or nothing is being done domestically to help alter the status quo.

Pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrations themselves are actually quite similar in that organizers for both try to stage-manage as much as they can, and participants do their utmost to paint their adversaries in the worst possible light though Jewish observers generally find pro-Palestinian rhetoric more vitriolic and hateful.

There are, however, some key differences, including crowd makeup.

At the rallies of mainstream or harder-lined Jewish groups, the crowds are almost entirely Jewish, often drawing from across the political and religious spectrum.

At the pro-Israel rally in Washington, there was also a smattering of conservative Christians, in the crowd and on the podium.

At the pro-Palestinian demonstrators, as activists are quick to note, the gathering is often more diverse, at least racially and ethnically: from fervently religious to atheist Muslim, to Latinos, African Americans and other minorities, to Jews — primarily the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta, as well as leftists and progressives whom the mainstream Jewish community generally brand as “self-hating” Jews.

“We try to emphasize the diversity, because we believe in diversity and we don’t believe in the triumph of one nation over another,” said Stanley Heller, chair of the human rights group Middle East Crisis Committee and a Jewish member of Al-Awda.

Politically, though, there’s a distinctly leftist bent to those non-Arabs and Muslims who join the cause, a convergence that was first on display late last summer in Durban, South Africa, at the U.N.-sponsored World Conference Against Racism.

More recently, Socialist activists and radical labor groups — like the “Committee for Workers Self-Defense” — raged against “Zionist terror” at the New York rally April 12.

The Black Panthers were on hand in Washington a week later.

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