The Code Pink “Move Over Aipac” demonstrations in Washington were extraordinary. There are not yet thousands ready to come to DC to demonstrate against AIPAC and its fellows’ dominance of American Mideast policy, but there were a few hundred. Medea Benjamin and her crew molded us into a creative, witty, and challenging force—one that caused manifest discomfort to the smug and well-heeled delegates inside the convention center. Watching Medea and her staff work, supervising the creation and painting of signs and banners, building the props like the grossly fat inflated “Bibi suit” with “Show Me the Money” emblazoned on it, the cardboard checkpoints, the “Boat to Gaza,” the songs, the chants, an electronic billboard truck displaying the faces of murdered and imprisoned Palestinians circling around the AIPAC convention, was a reminder that focusing on the concepts and debating points of politics misses more than half of it. Code Pink does organized political theater, as well as it could be done with limited resources. Moreover we had a blast doing it, a feeling amplified by all the signs the vast majority of the AIPAC people couldn’t bear our presence. No doubt they would have preferred us to be treated the way Israel treats peaceful demonstrators, with barrages of tear gas canisters and stink grenades and arrests in the middle of the night. But the DC police I thought did a good job ensuring that the space outside the convention center retained the freedoms of America.
I’m not sure if there are global MacArthur awards for charismatic leadership, and the former academic in me kept trying to recall what Max Weber had said on the subject. But Medea Benjamin is in a very special class. Our group was young and old, kippahed, headscarved, and Christian (and probably some Buddhists) But its dominant tone is derived from the fact Medea is a Jewish woman who argues from Jewish social justice tradition to shame the AIPAC’ers. When the conference opened early Sunday morning, we were there to greet them in our little park. The AIPAC’ers filed past, the women dressed to the nines in stiletto heels and as dresses as brief as middle age allows. A smug and self-assured crowd, which tried to give us dismissive and condescending smiles. “You know, the Palestinians didn’t do the Holocaust” began Medea over the microphone, which may be the crucial point, so seldom made in America, which is at the heart of all this. And then, as they were leaving in the evening, “Were you taught to believe that you are chosen? I was taught that all people are chosen. I was taught to believe in the Golden Rule.”
There were of course more accusatory chants, which we took to the gates of the conference center, referencing Israeli war crimes, ethnic cleansing, checkpoints, the nascent apartheid state between the river and the sea that Israel is rapidly becoming. It was delicious to see the delegates’ discomfort at these accusations. They live in a bubble of self-righteousness, where they are told continuously that only anti-Semites oppose Israel. They have the satisfied aura of those accustomed to having American politicians bow and scrape before them, say what they want said, write the resolutions they want written, pass the laws they want passed. So it has been for nearly two generations, long enough to seem part of the natural order.
And thus it was as if they almost couldn’t bear the sound of criticism, loud and pointed, in the streets of Washington DC. And yet, since there is surely intelligence and historical memory in the ranks of the AIPAC’ers, so there is knowledge that the opposition to both segregation and the Vietnam war began with small groups confronting a seemingly impregnable dominant power. I don’t doubt that some of the conventioneers have begun to recognize how tenuous is their hold on American discourse, how quickly it could crumble once the first cracks begin to show.
Code Pink has held these gatherings for the past few years, and every year has been bigger than the last. I hope for justice in Palestine, but failing that, next year’s should be twice the size and far more powerful still.