Standing up for Gaza but not with certain groups


BY BILL WEINBERG  |  On July 28, the same day 10,000 people joined a “New York Stands with Israel” rally at the U.N., my frustration was compounded by a demoralizing encounter outside St. Mark’s Church. I was biking down Second Ave., and saw the “FREE PALESTINE” banner outside the church, and stopped to check it out. To my disappointment (but not, alas, surprise) it was one of the highly problematic groups that have mobilized around that issue in New York City. In this case it was the group If Americans Knew.

It is obvious from its name that this is basically a right-wing nationalist formation with (at least) an anti-Semitic streak. Right, I think every time I see their name, “Americans” are pure and righteous (never mind Gitmo and Abu Ghraib and “shock  and awe”), but are being hoodwinked into supporting atrocities by those wily Jews… . I nonetheless took one of their fliers just to see what it said, and was dismayed to find it was a big quote from Gilad Atzmon, a practically open Jew-hater (notwithstanding his own Jewish origins), with a Web site full of Holocaust revisionism, claims that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was “in direct response to the declaration of war on Germany by the worldwide Jewish leadership,” and other such gems.

When I told the woman who handed me the flier I don’t like Gilad Atzmon, she smiled smarmily and said, “He’s awesome.”

And that wave of existential loneliness swept over me yet again… . With death raining down on the Gaza Strip, Israel’s atrocities must be opposed — urgently, uncompromisingly. But groups like If Americans Knew and figures like Gilad Atzmon just play right into the propaganda ploy that any opposition to Israel is anti-Semitism. Their presence on this issue is worse than useless: It is deeply counterproductive.

It has actually been hard to find protests I can join against the aerial terror on Gaza.

New York is a tough town to be a pro-Palestinian dissident in. Our “progressive” Mayor Bill de Blasio delivered a private speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) shortly after taking office, where he assured the assemblage (his comments leaked in spite of his efforts to keep the affair under wraps) that support for Israel is part of the mayor’s “job description.” The city’s entire congressional delegation attended the “New York Stands with Israel” affair. Jews who break ranks with the pro-Israel consensus are assailed as self-haters or worse.

But a pro-Palestinian dissident is what I am, and have been since I was old enough to understand the conflict at all. The foremost point right now is that the frightening Israeli consensus for the aerial campaign in Gaza is part of the general dynamic on this planet of normalization of mass murder. This is also seen in the spiral of sectarian massacres in Iraq, Bashar Assad’s use of poison gas and “barrel bombs” against the Syrians, and innumerable other conflicts, from the killing fields of South Sudan to the mass graves along the Mexican border.

The notion that the clinical form of mass killing witnessed in Gaza is justified because of Hamas’s improvised rockets, or its supposed use of the strip’s population as “human shields,” is perverse on the face of it. (As I write, more than 2,000 Palestinians have died since the bombing began, overwhelmingly noncombatants, and 67 Israelis, mostly soldiers; every major human rights group has condemned Israel’s air-strikes as “disproportionate,” and Amnesty International has called for an International Criminal Court investigation of possible “war crimes.”)

Hamas’s ideology is reactionary and its tactics often criminal, but its demands for a lifting of the Gaza siege — letting in food and aid, allowing the Gazans freedom of movement, and the right to fish off their own coast beyond a circumscribed three nautical miles — must also be our demands. The position that Hamas must disarm before Israel meets these demands is an absurd double standard; the Gazans demonstrably have much more to fear from Israeli firepower than vice versa, yet nobody is calling for Israel’s disarmament. Hamas has offered a 10-year ceasefire (amounting to de facto recognition of Israel) if these demands are met.

Opposing the aerial terror means looking at the problem unflinchingly. The two-state solution, rendered meaningless by Israel’s continued colonization of the West Bank, has failed. I am among those Jews who support a single secular democratic state in historic Palestine, with equal rights for all. Yes, the anarchist in me would prefer a “no-state solution” of autonomous communities and worker assemblies. But with Israel becoming more of an oppressive apartheid state each day — the demolition of Bedouin villages in the Negev to make way for Jewish-only housing developments, the internment of African migrants in desert camps, the ongoing theft of Palestinian lands and water on the West Bank — a single secular state seems ambitious enough, thank you.

We must demand the dismantling of this system, the lifting of the Gaza blockade, and an end to the West Bank “Apartheid Wall” (or “security barrier”) that encloses Palestinian farmlands and was ruled illegal by the World Court a decade ago. While the 5 million Palestinian refugees (by the U.N. estimate, which includes descendants of those displaced in 1948) obviously cannot all return to villages that in many cases no longer exist, there must be some real justice for them, arrived at with their consent and active participation. Palestinian civil society has called for a boycott, sanctions and divestment (BDS) to pressure Israel on these demands, and it is incumbent upon those of us who are allies of the Palestinians to support this time-honored nonviolent strategy.

So I’ve become quite used to getting it from both sides, and even take some pride in it — baited as a self-hating Jew by Zionists when I protest Israeli atrocities, baited as a Zionist by Jew-haters when I protest anti-Semitic attacks. Even after the looting, vandalism and swastika-scrawling at synagogues and Jewish-owned shops in Rome and Paris, I hear from too may “progressives” that anti-Semitism is just an exaggerated Zionist propaganda ploy. That’s actually the least dishonest response. Worse is being told in ritualistic manner that “anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism” — as if vandalizing a synagogue was legitimate protest against Israel. Such responses, again, just play into the Israeli propaganda that any anti-Zionism necessarily is anti-Semitism.

Another frequent response is the sophistry that anti-Semitism can’t exist because “Arabs are Semites too.” As if Jew-hatred is somehow diminished by an imprecise name for it. Sometimes I am even told that Arabs are “real” Semites and Jews “false” ones, which betrays Nazi-like genetic-determinist ideas about ethnicity.

But “anti-Semitism” is the name historically applied to Jew-hatred, and we Jews didn’t invent it — the anti-Semites did. (Google “Wilhelm Marr.”)

And Jew-hatred is something I see nearly every day, on my Facebook feed and in “real life” — whether of the vulgar “Hitler was right” variety or the more subtle propaganda about how the Israeli tail is wagging the imperial dog and Washington is “Zionist occupied territory,” that the U.S. didn’t invade Iraq to secure the planet’s most strategic oil reserves but because of the mysterious powers of the Chosen People.

Since the missiles began raining on Gaza on July 8, I have marched against the bombardment twice — both times in rallies organized by Adalah NY, a Palestinian-led group that advocates for BDS. But there have been several other rallies I have not been able to bring myself to join because of their ugly politics. 

These have been in the sway of three related entities: the International Action Center (IAC), Al-Awda and ANSWER. In case anyone doesn’t know, IAC is a front group for the Workers World Party, a deeply reactionary (as well as ungrammatical; note missing apostrophe) formation that is an avid serial cheerleader for dictators and mass murder. They supported the Tiananmen Square massacre as a necessary crackdown on “counterrevolutionaries,” cheered on the Bosnian Serbs in their genocidal campaign against Muslims, rallied uncritically around Saddam Hussein, and now thusly rally around Vladimir Putin and Bashar Assad. Al-Awda, a group that advocates for “right of return” for Palestinian refugees, is unfortunately in the orbit of IAC. ANSWER also started out in the orbit of IAC and Workers World, although it broke from them in a faction fight a few years back. It shares the same toxic politics.

The most recent march, on Aug. 20, was organized by a new coalition, supposedly initiated by former Occupy Wall Street people, calling itself NYC Solidarity with Palestine. In response to my queries about the leadership on the group’s Facebook page, I was informed that “only” one representative from the noxious ANSWER was on the organizing committee (as if this was supposed to comfort me). I decided to go to the rally and then decide whether to join the planned march over the Brooklyn Bridge on the basis of the atmosphere.

When I reached the gathering point in Cadman Plaza, my cynicism seemed vindicated — once again. I was greeted by a sea of mass-produced placards from IAC, ANSWER and Al-Awda. Also prominent was Neturei Karta, a group of Orthodox Jews who oppose Israel on the obscurantist grounds that any Jewish state is apostasy before the coming of the Messiah. The only prominent banner from a group I saw as legitimate was that of Jewish Voice for Peace. Adalah NY had no visible presence. Nor did War Resisters League, another group I have worked with over the years. I didn’t see anyone I particularly wanted to march with, and a great many I consciously did not want to march with. At least I only saw one banner with a swastika on it, but (as with the ANSWER rep on the organizing committee) that’s one too many.

I started to head home. Yet I wound up marching in spite of myself, overcome by curiosity as to which contingent would actually be leading the march. 

Amid all the annoying banners (and depressing paucity of good ones), there were a couple of high points. As we marched, some activists on the south side of the Manhattan Bridge, in full view to us, dropped a huge banner off the walkway with a Palestinian flag reading: “Gaza in Our Hearts; Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions on Israel.” It hung for several minutes before the police reeled it in. That was wonderful to see. And the Rude Mechanical Orchestra was making its usual joyous racket, with an especially good fellow on the bagpipes. But it was frustrating that it was in the service of such a problematic coalition.

When I finally managed to get ahead of the march, my cynicism was vindicated yet again. The lead contingent was wielding a forest of mass-produced placards from IAC and its satellite group Al-Awda. Disgusted, I biked down the bridge and back home to the East Village. I didn’t join the rally at One Police Plaza.

I honestly do not get it. How can you march against mass murder in Gaza at the hands of Bibi Netanyahu with people who support far greater mass murder in Syria at the hands of Bashar Assad (as they supported mass murder in Bosnia at the hands of Radovan Karadzic, supported mass murder in Beijing at the hands of Deng Xiaoping)? Of course if you ask them, they will deny they support mass murder — as those who support mass murder always do. They will give the same kind of justifications currently offered by Israeli leaders in defense of their war crimes in Gaza — oblivious to the irony.

I assert that it is ethically bankrupt and tactically suicidal to coalesce with Workers World and its spin-off and satellite entities. Or, for that matter, with If Americans Knew, which has tagged along at some of the IAC/Al-Awda rallies.

Unity has to be based on principle, and there has to be a line you cannot cross. Gilad Atzmon and Bashar Assad, and their respective fans and apologists, are well on the other side of that line. Any unity with them hurts the cause of standing up to the Zionist machine here in New York City.

 Weinberg blogs at WorldWar4Report.com