Palestine, the antiwar movement, and the quest for genuine unity


Ted Glick’s article “Building Unity at a Time of Possibility” (Znet July 20, 2005) provides a window into the thinking of the UFPJ leadership and its vocal supporters regarding how best to build a broad and effective anti-war movement capable of bringing about the end of the brutal US occupation of Iraq. The thrust of the article attempts to tackle the division within the US anti-war movement organizers largely surrounding the question of Palestine, while providing a rationalization for why the UFPJ leadership has chosen to keep Palestine and particularly the question of the right of return out of the agenda of the anti-war movement.

The basis for Glick and presumably the UFPJ leadership reaching this conclusion rests upon his opening argument: “Narrow approaches are a dead-end for our movement. . . What is needed is an approach that can appeal to millions of people, that connects with and draws strength from the deep-seated traditions of struggle for justice among the peoples who make up this country.”

He then argues that although he “personally understand[s] and support[s] the right of Palestinian organizations to put this demand forward” and importantly recognizes that “no one can legitimately deny this just demand of the Palestinians”, he nonetheless concludes that “to put this particular demand forward rather than, say, a demand to end U.S. support for the Israeli occupation, can only have the effect of confusing, alienating or turning away potential participants in and organizers of September 24th, and not just in the white community.”

He further argues that tactically “It is not a demand broadly understood or supported within the United States, even within the U.S. progressive movement”, and that within “the context of the movement to force the United States to pull its military troops and military bases out of Iraq and end its neo-colonial plans to control Iraqi oil, this is a demand that will weaken and narrow that movement.”

Glick’s concerns should not be taken lightly, or for that matter immediately eschewed out of implicit purist idealism. Nonetheless, as I will argue in this article, he is wrong both with regards to the pre-assumptions to his argument, as well as with regards to the conclusions he draws, which I believe can only lead the anti-war movement down a dangerous path, built upon an untenable footing. This is made all the more serious and damaging within the context of the enormous human costs borne by the people of Iraq and Palestine, not to mention the lives of US soldiers, and the draining financial costs these policies are having domestically. I hereby put forth my arguments within the spirit of constructive debate and the desire to set the necessary political and methodological parameters for actualizing the long deterred goals of our movements.

Why is Glick wrong?

First it is important to clarify the severity and hence urgency of the political situation in Palestine, and the direct culpability of the US government, historically and into the present, for bringing this situation about. On this there should be no debate: US government support for Israel (spanning both Democrat and Republican legislators) in the form of virtually unlimited political, financial and military aid, forms the basis for allowing Israel to do what it does throughout Palestine. In its more ‘favorable’ interpretation Israeli policies are leading to the erecting of a brutal form of apartheid across historical Palestine, while in its more ‘critical’ interpretation, these policies aim toward transferring the Palestinians from their historical homeland be it in ‘slow motion’ (through walls, settlements and the making of the most elementary function of daily life intolerable), or in ‘fast motion’, if sufficient historical conditions arise (such as regional war).

Without US governmental support for these policies, Israel truly would be a pariah state.  Here it is important to emphasize that the extent of Israeli policies is not limited to the brutality of its illegal 38 year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, whose abuses are so numerous it would be impossible to cover in an article of this length. Rather, Israeli policies flow from its Apartheid-like structure which defines itself as “the state of the Jews throughout the world”, and not as the state of its citizens. This definition necessitates the structural discrimination of the Palestinian citizens of Israel (who number more than one million people – one fifth of the populace) and is incomparable to any other political regime around the world. It should be categorically rejected by progressives world wide, not only because it is fundamentally racist against the indigenous Palestinian population, but also because the way this ideology is activated on the ground both historically and in the present necessitates the exclusion, and indeed transfer of Palestinians to maintain a “Jewish majority”.

If one fifth of the citizens of the United States were excluded on religious bases from elementary rights such as access to land, (93% of which in Israel cannot be sold to non-Jews), or the ability to give their spouses citizenship (as is the case of Israeli citizens who marry Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza), it would elicit justified domestic and international opprobrium. Wasn’t this similar to the basis for the Civil Rights movement which fought against racial discrimination and segregation in the from of Jim Crow Laws? Wasn’t this also the basis of the movement against apartheid South Africa? It is the nature of the Israeli state, embodied in the Zionist conception of an exclusive Jewish state which guides Israel’s policies in the 1967 occupied territories, against its Palestinian citizenry, and which likewise prevents the legitimate return of Palestinian refugees to their lands and homes – a right which needless to say has been acknowledged in the UN General Assembly more than 110 times.

Here lies the importance of the inclusion of the latter demand (the right of return) within the agenda of the anti-war movement. Unlike the demand to merely call for the end of the 1967 occupation, which Glick seems more amenable to, the question of the right of return goes to the heart of exposing the nature and extent of the issues faced in the “Palestinian-Israeli conflict.” The Palestinian people categorically reject conceding their individual and collective right to return to their land and homes as they justly should.  After bearing witness in recent years to the return of Afghan and Kosovar refugees, and after it is acknowledged quite openly among Israeli historians that Palestinians were intentionally driven off their land in 1948 to create “the Jewish state” in the first place, support for such a demand is an elementary human right which no reasonable person committed to progressive values can deny. The right of return has the tactical significance of being able to combine the pre-1967 historical oppression of Palestinians (yet to be recognized or amended by Israel), and the current racist nature of the Israeli state, which prevents their return because they are simply not Jews.

The point is that given the historical culpability of the US government in supporting Israeli policies, the US anti-war movement cannot pretend that it is blind to these abuses, nor that it does not have a role to play in their resolution. That is why the inclusion of a systematic and holistic critique of Israel, and more importantly Zionism – embodied in the demand for the right of return – is so important. Israel cannot remain Zionist and accept the right of return. An entirely new arrangement would have to be brought about if Palestinian refugees were accorded their long denied rights. Furthermore, the right of return does not allow for the question of Palestine to be reduced, as many have attempted, to the question of the oppression and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip alone. Many have forgotten that the PLO was formed in 1964 – three years before the 1967 occupation even began – and was founded as a movement of return for the 800,000 Palestinian refugees who were driven from their land, and the wholesale destruction of 532 of their towns and villages. This issue is an open wound not just in Palestine but across the Arab world, and has consistently been at the forefront of Arabs and Muslims internationally, including within the US. Attempts made at de-linking the right of return from the question of the 1967 occupation will end in failure as this right represents the heart and soul of the Palestinian national movement, without which there is no basis for a “solution” to the “Israeli Palestinian conflict” in the first place – whoever may negotiate on the Palestinian side.

Unfortunately that is exactly what Glick suggests, when he says that these issues “must be dealt with as part of the process of serious negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli government representatives, leading to an end to the Israeli occupation.” Since when is the anti-war movement limited in the setting of its agenda, to the actions and policies of various elites, rather than setting the principles for what must be the basis of human rights and historical justice? By the same logic, the anti-war movement is in no position to call for ending the occupation of Iraq and for “Troops out Now”, given that this is not something raised by the governments of Iraq and the US. Abstaining from setting the principles for what constitutes the basis for a genuine anti-occupation position based upon respect for human rights, the end of an unjust and illegal war and occupation, and the end to a dehumanizing and intolerable dispossession of an entire nation, means abdicating the responsibility of leadership to the agendas of organized power – the very same powers which brought about the occupations of Iraq and Palestine in the first place.

The anti-war movement must clarify whether it wishes to set principles for what constitutes genuine anti-war, anti-occupation, and anti-racist positions, or whether these are in fact negotiable issues. If these principles are non-negotiable, then there should be no reticence in including these demands as part of the anti-war movement agenda. If they are in fact negotiable then the anti-war movement is attempting to erect itself upon a footing which by necessity concedes its principles and power to elites. There can be no middle ground on these questions (though certainly tactical considerations are another question, once this has been determined.) This is also why Glick’s implicit description of such demands as “narrow approaches” that will “weaken” the movement is a mischaracterization. On the contrary, failing to establish principles of what constitutes the rights that we are fighting for is a recipe for building a movement which does not truly know what it is fighting for, resulting in an ambiguity which can only confuse the movement, making it subject to disorientation by the spectacle of “Iraqi elections”, the “writing of the Iraqi constitution” or the next “Palestinian-Israeli peace summit” etc. Over time this can only result in the movement’s ineffectuality, demoralization and the depleting of its ranks.

Once this principled question is answered by the anti-war movement – a question which is actually independent of the particular context of Iraq or Palestine, but which is actualized through it – only then can an effective movement be built. The lack of political clarity around the reasons for this war; the feeling amongst many in the anti-war movement that the UN could stop it; that the problem was the Bush administration (and not US imperial policies in the region), and hence the need to back a pro-war Democratic party candidate (who could ‘do the job better’) are indeed the reasons for the splintered, ineffectual state of the US anti-war movement today. The movement simply cannot repeat these mistake again, or the consequences for Iraq, Palestine, and the American people will be devastating.

Determining the need for erecting the anti-war movement upon a sound political basis whose values it sets, is the best way to rebuild the movement upon an effective footing. Doing so also necessitates that the anti-war movement not be in the pocket of the Democratic party which cynically takes its support for granted while functionally supporting the war in Iraq, the “war against terror”, the occupation of Palestine, and the Zionist nature of Israel.

Only once this fundamental question is resolved can the question of raising tactical considerations be addressed. Here, Glick indeed does have a point that we must not be ashamed to concede. The question of Palestine overall, the right of return, and all aspects surrounding it, are indeed impeded by the fact that there is not sufficient political clarity in the US in general, and within the anti-war movement overall, regarding these issues. Additionally it should be clearly noted that there is also a vocal minority within the anti-war movement that is pro-Zionist and which strives to perennially scuttle addressing the issue of Palestine in a just way as part of its agenda.

But if clarity around the need for a principled anti-war movement is determined, the politics and orientation of the anti-war movement will naturally flow. Rather than making attempts to force out Palestine as an organic element of anti-war movement organizing, the anti-war movement must move towards forcing out the Zionist elements within it, as a corrupting and contradictory force which sews ideological confusion within its ranks. Hereafter the anti-war movement can begin to take up the issue of addressing the need for a broad based educational campaign around the issue of Palestine, in order to clarify the outstanding questions which remain and are in need of clarification: the difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism; demythologizing the “peace process”; understanding the exclusivist racist nature of Zionism etc.
 
The need for such a campaign will also have important theoretical contributions to the movement for ending the occupation of Iraq and for bringing the troops home. This is because the occupation of Iraq is not an isolated byproduct of a deranged American president, but the aggressive expansion of US imperial policies in the region – policies it is worth pointing out which are supported by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress and the Senate. US support for Israel represents a core axis of US policies in the region, of which the direct US occupation of Iraq is merely an extension. While Israel has worked furiously since its inception defending the interests of it imperial backers (including ensuring access through the Suez canal, destroying pan-Arab nationalist regimes and leftist movements, defending pro-American Arab dictatorships, ensuring that no counter-hegemonic anti-US imperialist project emerges to ‘threaten’ access to this crucial geo-strategic region etc.), the US now works to secure control of the oil spigot itself, so as to be able to leverage control over this crucial resource against its economic competitors, particularly the EU, Japan and China. Iraq and Palestine thus represents two wings of one US imperial strategy, and the sooner the anti-war movement internalizes this, the sooner it can begin to develop effect counter strategies and movements.

The de-linking of Iraq and Palestine within the US anti-war movement is illogical when viewed in this light. Furthermore, the pre-assumption that anti-war activists don’t sufficiently understand the question of Palestine and hence would leave its ranks if it were to be included in its agenda, is also illogical. On the contrary, including Palestine within the anti-war movement’s agenda necessitates having a holistic critique of the causes of this war (US imperial ambitions, and US capitalist competition against its competitors), and can only serve to galvanize, orient and engage anti-war movement actors for the long haul. In this we must have no pretensions: the occupation of Palestine has already lasted 57 years, and despite the enormous human costs witnessed so far, the US occupation of Iraq is merely in its infancy. If we look to the historical experience of Vietnam, the US ruling classes showed that they were willing to kill 2-3 million Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians, and 60,000 US troops in its failed effort to ensure that this region did not fall beyond its bounds of control. How then will these same forces act to defend their interests when 60% of the world oil reserves are at stake? The anti-war movement must soberly pose the question of how many Iraqis, Palestinians and US soldiers the US and Israel are willing to let die to ensure that the US maintains control of Arab oil.

I believe all genuine anti-war forces in the US can achieve and internalize this understanding, without serious dissention. The problem with anti-war movement organizers is that both UFPJ and ANSWER/ TONC do not trust their own constituencies – as though only the leaders can understand these supposedly complex issues. Both coalitions act as though their agendas, with or without the inclusion of Palestine, is a fait accompli, without seeing the need to address and dialogue with their constituencies about the need to set firm principles upon which the anti-war movement is to be based, and then to work to develop and educate the movement as a whole to address their respective educational insufficiencies – be it regarding Palestine or Iraq. Needless to say, let there be no illusions as to the fact that plenty of educational work also needs to be taken up around the issue of Iraq, given the gross misunderstandings and indeed dehumanization that exist within the anti-war movement surrounding issues like the right of Iraqis to resist, their right to self-determination etc.

UFPJ drew the conclusion after the last US presidential campaign that their movement needs “to reach potential new allies and expand our base. . . An education working group will be created to develop the long-term educational strategy to reach new constituencies.” What new constituencies is UFPJ talking about? The increasingly organized Right-wing? As Glick himself acknowledges, the statistic polls already show that the majority of Americans are against the war in Iraq. This is the anti-war movement’s constituency – a constituency which proved its forces even before the war in Iraq began in the largest demonstrations witnessed in the history of the planet. UFPJ’s strategy mirrors the policies of the Democratic party which believes it must “reach out” to “red staters” – as though there is a middle ground on issues like the war in Iraq, or a woman’s right to an abortion. The role of the Left must be to organize its real and potential constituency around its principles, trusting that its values and interpretation of reality are applicable and necessary for the American people to live in freedom, equality and at peace with other people around the world. It must not see its role as organizing the Right. The problem with the anti-war movement was not that it wasn’t big enough, but that it was not organized around a set of politics which could tackle the reasons for this war, and what it would take to stop it.

Is it is any wonder then, that while UFPJ heads off in search of “new constituencies”, Arab and Muslims in America – representing a constituency severely effected by the wars in Iraq and Palestine, the bogus “war against terror”, and domestically targeted and scapegoated by everyone from “homeland security” to the Columbia University administration – are distancing themselves as far as possible from this wing of the anti-war movement? Is it any wonder that Arab and Muslim representation at the UFPJ conference was virtually non-existent, when beneath the banner of “inclusiveness” UFPJ bumps out Palestine, so as not to alienate open Zionists? Is it any wonder why Arab and Muslim organizations like the National Council of Arab Americans and the Muslim American Society are calling the UFPJ demonstration on September 24th “segregated”, when advocates like Glick characterize the inclusion of Palestine and the right of return in the agenda for the anti war movement as “troubling”? Tragically I am sure that the great majority of the UFPJ constituency would side with Palestinian rights if given a fair chance to hear and learn about the necessity to have Palestine within its agenda for the health of the anti-war movement as a whole, and for its ability to build an effective struggle. But when they are precisely prevented from doing so by the leadership of UFPJ beneath the bogus concern that it will “narrow and weaken” the anti-war movement, the result can only be further splintering of anti-war movement ranks, and deeper confusion over the anti-war movement’s trajectory. All this indeed during “a time of possibility” when the everyday scandals, lies and incessant blood-letting of the war in Iraq provides the anti-war movement with more than enough fodder to expose and demythologize the US campaign in Iraq for the savagery and colonialism that it is.

As for ANSWER and TONC, both coalitions should indeed be credited for their principled and courageous stand, and for seeing the political and organizational importance of the inclusion of Palestine at the forefront of the anti-war movement’s agenda. Acknowledging this however does not excuse their anti-democratic methods of organizing, which have also tragically shown themselves to be incredibly destructive for movement building as a whole. Each demonstration they organize is like a carbon copy of those organized years ago, as though history is static and new circumstances and questions have not arisen that need to be addressed. Although in name ANSWER says it is a coalition, in reality the decisions it makes are done behind closed doors and are not accountable to needs and demands of what should be anti-war movement priorities. I know this from experience, after having attended one such meeting in which I attempted to raise a political disagreement regarding the question of whether the anti-war movement has achieved an anti-imperialist consciousness. The next day I received word from one of ANSWER’s main national organizers that “The ANSWER meetings have brief political updates/orientations, followed by short discussions on the various points, and then breakdown into working groups. They are organizing meetings and are not meant to be forums for carrying out political debates…”

If ANSWER is a genuine democratic coalition made of groups and individuals committed to building an antiwar movement, why would it eschew political debate? In fact without political debate, the movement remains constipated and insular, unable to process and adapt to the changing reality on the ground, thereby aborting its ability to undertake the challenges a changing reality poses to movement organizers in building effective struggle. If the methods of ANSWER organizing are not seriously reformed they will over time (if they haven’t already) lead the movement and its constituency in ANSWER-organized cities, into political obscurity.

Needless to say, as the anti-war movement experience throughout the course of the past few years has shown, the process and methods of organizing cannot be separated from the goals we are trying to attain. Likewise the goals we strive for cannot be separated from defining the movement’s independent elementary principles and values, which must uphold the categorical rejection of occupation, colonialism, and racism while defending the right of self-determination, the right to resist an illegal occupation and the need for historical justice. Without having all these elements combined within democratic structures that encourage political debate, the unity we all strive for to once and for all put an end to the inhuman occupation of Iraq and Palestine, will never materialize.

Needless to say the urgency of immediately and comprehensively addressing these issues is made all the more stark in the context of the destruction Israel is preparing to inflict upon the Gaza Strip as part of its unilateral disengagement from Gaza – a plan which aims at nothing less than permanently transforming Gaza into an open air prison, expanding and annexing Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank, and dealing a crushing blow to the Palestinian national movement in the process. As Israeli Gen. Eival Giladi recently stated, “Israel will act in a very resolute manner in order to prevent terror attacks and [militant] fire while the disengagement is being implemented” and that “If pinpoint response proves insufficient, we may have to use weaponry that causes major collateral damage, including helicopters and planes, with mounting danger to surrounding people.” It would be a genuine catastrophe for the people of Palestine and for the US anti-war movement as a whole if on September 24th, the anti-war movement cannot formulate a united position on this impending blood bath. Worse yet, if UFPJ led demonstrations entirely ignore the issue of Palestine like an ostrich putting its head in the sand. Without a radical transformation of the approaches and agendas of the anti-war movement, the blood flowing from Iraqis, Palestinians, and US soldiers will be so plentiful and mixed together that it threatens to soak into every hole, where every ostrich burrows its head.

26 July 2005

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