If someone came into your land and took your house, would you give it up without a fight? What if they kidnapped or killed your family, would you ever cease to struggle against them for justice? These are the sorts of questions that Palestinian activists encouraged the crowd in Washington, DC to ask themselves on the morning of March 4 as they prepared to protest the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
AIPAC is the voice of the pro-Israel lobby and self-proclaimed policeman of U.S. attitudes toward Judaism, Zionism and Israel, which it rigorously (and incorrectly) claims are one and the same. While the pro-Israel lobby does not by itself drive U.S. imperialist policy in the Middle East, it is nonetheless a powerful lobbying group that capitalist politicians seek to please as evidenced by the fact that Vice President Mike Pence spoke at this year’s gathering. While AIPAC’s history is too long to detail here, their latest cause is stopping BDS, or the movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel, Israeli-made products and businesses that do their business in Israel.
The protest was the 4th annual hosted by Al-Awda, The Palestine Right Of Return Movement and the ANSWER Coalition. Other groups that joined the protest were Students for Justice in Palestine, International Solidarity Movement, NKUSA, CodePink!, the Party for Socialism and Liberation and Workers World Party.
The protest began with a rally in front of the White House, where several hundred gathered to hear speeches and perform chants in support of Palestine and in denunciation of Israel and its apartheid ethnostate. Activists and supporters traveled from across the country and from Palestine itself to be at the event, which proceeded into a vigorous march across central Washington to the Convention Center on 7th St. NW, where loud chanting of “Haifa/Al-Quds/Jaffa/Ramallah will be free!” and “Al-Quds – Arabiyya! [Jerusalem is Arab]” echoed inside the glass-enclosed meeting hall.
Rally co-chair Eugene Puryear of the ANSWER Coalition drew attention to the solidarity that arose between Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Black protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, when Palestinians realized the tear gas being used against Ferguson residents by police and National Guard troops was of the same make as that used against them by the IDF. Palestinians tweeted to Ferguson resisters how to deal with the gas, which is a chemical weapon banned in warfare by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, of which the U.S. is a signatory. Their solidarity greatly increased the ability of Ferguson protesters to stay in the streets and resist, and the Movement for Black Lives has paid that solidarity back by fully and completely standing with the Palestinian struggle for justice.
Al-Awda refers to “Haq Al-Awda,” or the “right of return,” which Hamideh emphasized is the keystone of the Palestinian cause. “’From the river to the sea’ means just that,” he said, because Palestine is the ancestral homeland of the Palestinian people going back thousands of years and anything less than the total right of return of Palestinian refugees who fled from the Israeli occupation and war machine means acknowledging the legitimacy of the Zionist colonial project and giving up the right of the Palestinian people to their homeland.
Al-Quds is the capitol of Palestine!
This year’s protest is especially significant for two reasons: first, 2018 marks 70 years since “Al-Nakba,” or “the catastrophe,” i.e. the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the loss of sovereignty by the Palestinian people in 1948; and second, because of President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and thus de facto recognize the Israeli claim to that city as its capital instead of Tel Aviv. Both acquire central importance in the context of the demands of the Right of Return.
The key, according to Jewish anti-Zionist activist and rally speaker Miko Peled, is to not pretend Israel is an equal partner thus giving it legitimacy. He urged people not to think in terms of “Israel” and “Palestine” – the land is Palestine, call it that! Use Palestinian names for places, he urged, and deny that the name of the city is Jerusalem, although people may call it that. It is Al-Quds, which is not a Muslim name, but an Arab name. Palestinians come from all faiths, and they were Palestinians long before any religion came to their land and they are still Palestinians whether they convert or become atheists.
A Palestinian speaker from the International Solidarity Movement pointed out that “colonialism kills our imagination; if we can’t imagine a different world we cannot fight for it.” Using indigenous names helps to keep that dream alive and to remind us what we are fighting for is not gone forever, it is stolen.
Many speakers at the protest emphasized that this is not a religious conflict. One Jewish group present, Neturei Karta, has been fighting against Israel since its creation, arguing that, in the words of Rabbi Weiss, the Zionist movement has “hijacked” the name of Judaism for their own designs. Weiss emphasized that Jews and Muslims are not, and have never been, enemies, and that the Torah compels Jews to show gratitude to people who have helped them. He recalled that since the birth of Islam, Muslims sheltered Jews from the discrimination they widely faced elsewhere, welcoming Muslim rule over Palestine because of the intolerance of the Roman Empire and later being welcomed as refugees from places like Spain, from where the Sephardic Jews were exiled in the late 15th century.
Apartheid in the mirror
The BDS movement draws its inspiration from the anti-Apartheid movement in the 1980s, an international movement that put pressure on South Africa to break its racist system of separation and settler-colonial minority rule. The anti-Apartheid movement finally forced the white settler minority to concede in the early 1990s; grant political rights and the rule of law to all in South African society and to end the jailing of political prisoners like Nelson Mandela who had fought against the separate two-races, two-societies system.
Israel’s system, with its separate Israeli settler and Palestinian Arab communities, subjected to two different sets of laws, with two extremely different levels of material existence and the former dominating the latter completely, has drawn increasing comparisons to the South African system of Apartheid.
Although observers like former U.S. President Jimmy Carter have helped to popularize the comparison, there is perhaps no greater condemnation than that given by South Africa itself. On February 20, South Africa announced its intention to cut diplomatic ties with Israel: “The majority party has agreed, that government must cut diplomatic ties with Israel, given the absence of genuine initiatives by Israel to secure lasting peace and a viable two-state solution that includes full freedom and democracy for the Palestinian people,” said Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor at the time.
Several speakers on the street outside AIPAC drew attention to this telling commentary, as well as to the similarity in that Apartheid Israel, like Apartheid South Africa, is now trying to silence critics, ban foreign observers from the country, and punish those who advocate on behalf of the boycott movement.
Ariel Gold of CodePink! brought to the protesters’ attention that her organization, along with 19 others who support BDS, were blacklisted by Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry at the beginning of the year from entering the country.
Nonetheless, Peled, Hamideh and others echoed Gold’s message that “BDS is the way we are going to win.” AIPAC is spending huge amounts of money to shut down the BDS movement, including proposing laws that would make advocating BDS illegal, punishable by either hefty fine or jail time, but this fact only proves how effective BDS is and how scared they are that it will succeed.
Nino Brown of the Party for Socialism and Liberation drew parallels to the methods of colonial occupation in the U.S. and in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Brown pointed out that U.S. police officers train in Israel, where they learn colonial tactics.
Like Apartheid South Africa, Apartheid Israel will fall, because as Hamideh said, “There will never be peace without Palestinians returning to their ancestral homeland.” The struggle against colonialism and for self-determination in Palestine is a microcosm of anti-colonial struggles around the world, from Pretoria to Ferguson to Belfast and Standing Rock. Decolonization in Israel means the right of Palestinians to return home, it means the legal integration of the land, law and society and the end not only of exclusive settlements and roads but the end of the Zionist state completely.