Do you know that our Congress gave 29 standing ovations to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he spoke in the Capital on Tuesday, May 24? I couldn’t watch this hero’s welcome for a man who supports the continued building of illegal settlements, won’t lift the siege of Gaza, and refuses to negotiate with the new Palestinian unity government. During the talk, when Netanyahu was praising young people rising up for democracy in the Middle East, and I took my cue to stand up from my seat in the Capitol Gallery, unfurl a banner, and shout, “No More Occupation! Stop Israeli War Crimes! Equal Rights for Palestinians!”
Immediately, I was tackled, gagged and violently shoved to the floor by other members of the audience, many of whom were still wearing their badges from the AIPAC conference this past weekend. Police dragged me out of the Capitol gallery, and an ambulance whisked me to the hospital, where I was treated for neck and shoulder injuries and put under arrest for disrupting Congress. After I disrupted, Netanyahu said to his Congressional audience, “You can’t have these protests in Tehran; this is real democracy.”
Is it? What kind of a democracy do we live in when free speech is met with brutality and arrest? In a real democracy, our representatives would be looking out for our best interests, not the interests of a foreign government, ie, Israel. I want my government to take an even-handed approach that respects the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians. But in our so-called democracy, special interest lobby groups like AIPAC have enormous power because of their ability to direct campaign contributions.
So we have a very skewed policy that ignores the rights of the Palestinians, allows repeated Israeli violations of international law, sullies the U.S. reputation internationally, and gives $3 billion a year of our tax dollars to the Israel military when we need this money here at home. Before we go preaching democracy abroad, we should make our own democracy more responsive to the public good, not the wishes of wealthy lobbyists.
On Monday night, May 23, five brave activists disrupted Netanyahu’s speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Gala and were also met with assaults. The young women who had spoken out were subjected not only to assault, but to sexual groping by male AIPAC attendees. But these activists felt compelled to speak out against Netanyahu’s claim that returning to the 1967 borders would be “indefensible,” when it is Israeli policies that are really indefensible: starving Gaza, occupying and stealing land, bulldozing homes, silencing dissent. (see videos here). The same day, at a press conference at the National Press Club about military aid to Israel and the dangerous role of the Israel Lobby, activist Allison Weir had her phone slugged out of her hand by an angry Zionist. This sounds eerily similar to the alleged democracy in Israel, where Palestinians and Israelis are routinely assaulted, arrested and jailed for speaking out against the Israeli occupation.
For the Palestinian people who live under Israel’s 44-year-old military occupation, violence dominates everyday life. Zinad Samouni of Gaza is a living testament to this oppressive reality. She lost 48 family members during Israel’s December 2008 bombardment of Gaza, and hers became yet another tragic story in a long history of home demolitions, land confiscation, and systematic violation of the Palestinians’ basic human rights. After the massacre of the Samouni family, Israeli soldiers left behind racist graffiti such as “Arabs need 2 die” and “1 is DOWN 999,999 TO GO.”
Young Jews like me hear stories like Samouni’s, and we see clearly that Israel’s actions do not embody our deepest Jewish and humanistic values, which have taught us to love our neighbors and work for justice. We read in the Torah (Leviticus 24:22), “You shall have one standard (mishpat ehad) for stranger and citizen alike. . .” We also read in the Israeli equivalent of the Declaration of Independence, the Megillat ha-Atzmaut, that “[the State of Israel] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex. . .” This rich and long Jewish commitment to social justice and equality bears no relation to Zinad Samouni’s experience of living under a crippling blockade and losing her loved ones to a brutal military onslaught that made no distinction between civilians and combatants.
It was this schism that we sought to expose during disruptions of Netanyahu’s speeches at the AIPAC conference and in Congress. Some decried our actions as “rude”, and “inappropriate.” But after countless fruitless attempts to petition lawmakers through traditional channels, we felt the time was ripe for a nonviolent direct action that would speak truth to this head of state. Netanyahu is, after all, responsible for the violation of Palestinians’ lives and human rights.
My neck pain is a small price to pay compared with the sacrifices made by numerous Palestinian, Israeli, and international nonviolent protesters who’ve risked their bodies and lives to defend the basic human rights of the Palestinian people. For example, recently the Israeli army arrested brothers Bassem and Naji Tamimi, who have organized unarmed protests in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, and they are currently imprisoned without trial. Israel sent Palestinian Abdallah Abu Rahmah of Bil’in to prison for his role in organizing nonviolent protests against Israel’s illegal, land-confiscating wall. In March 2003, the Israeli Army bulldozed 23-year-old American Rachel Corrie to death when she attempted to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home in Gaza. In March 2009, the army shot 38-year-old Tristan Anderson of Oakland, Calif., who was participating in a nonviolent anti-wall demonstration in the West Bank, with a high-velocity tear gas canister, causing a near-fatal head wound and brain injuries. These are only some of most egregious and visible examples of the daily violence faced by Palestinians and their supporters in their struggle to uphold human rights and international law.
What’s more, despite the growing nonviolent movement in the West Bank and Gaza, and the recent Palestinian Unity Agreement, in his speech to Congress, Netanyahu made it clear that the Palestinians have no partner for peace, and Congress would back his outrageous claims. In referring to the Occupied Palestinian Territory of the West Bank, he said, “And you have to understand this: In Judea and Samaria, the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers.” Someone should inform Mr. Netanyahu that his own Supreme Court has written that the West Bank is “held in belligerent occupation.”
The worst part of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was not what he said, but the appalling spectacle of watching our elected officials who literally applauded this bald-faced lie about the West Bank and the other outrageous statements Netanyahu made. It occurred to me that right now when it comes to this issue our Congress is more an outpost of the Israeli Knesset than a representative body of the United States.
With Obama and our Congress pandering to Netanyahu and AIPAC, what hope do we have? AIPAC, while claiming to represent the interests of both the United States and Israel, is mobilizing fear, escalating hate, and controlling our elected officials through enormous campaign contributions.
President Obama, in his speech to AIPAC this past weekend, said, “You also see our commitment to Israel’s security in our steadfast opposition to any attempt to de-legitimize the State of Israel.” This reference to “delegitimization” is code for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS), a Palestinian-initiated effort to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law. But the BDS movement is not delegitimizing Israel. Israeli policies, supported by AIPAC, that deprive Palestinians of basic human rights by stealing their land, demolishing their homes, stripping them of residency permits for Jerusalem, and that blockade and starve the entire population of the Gaza strip — these are the things that delegitimize Israel.
The BDS Movement gives me hope about the future for Israelis and Palestinians. Our elected officials will not lead; they will not stand up to AIPAC, and they will not challenge these terrible Israeli government policies. So it is up to us to take the lead. By joining the BDS Movement, whether it is CODEPINK’s own Stolen Beauty campaign against occupation profiteer Ahava cosmetics, Jewish Voice for Peace’s TIAA-CREF Divestment Campaign, The U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation’s many initiatives, or other campaigns that are happening in your community, you can take action to support human rights and a just peace for Palestinians.
It’s not every day that we have an opportunity to confront a war criminal like Netanyahu in person, but the boycott and divestment campaigns allows conscientious people to take a stand and to put our money where our values are — as was the case with the boycott of and divestment from businesses cooperating with apartheid South Africa, and the boycott of businesses in the Jim Crow South. Such campaigns provide an opportunity to those who profit from violence to turn aside, to nonviolently push for international law and accountability, and to follow the teachings of our faith. And I predict that these campaigns will continue to grow and rack up further victories, as long as entrenched injustices remain unaddressed.
In a few weeks, a courageous group of internationals, including many Americans, will have another chance to stand up for justice. The Gaza Freedom Flotilla will set sail from Europe in June with the goal of reaching Gaza, breaking through Israel’s inhumane siege. Last year, the Israeli military violently intercepted the flotilla in international waters, killing nine activists. This year, let’s do everything we can to ensure that the flotilla is not met with violence. Please send the members of the flotilla your support.
You can also write a letter to the folks in Gaza who are living under siege. The “Audacity of Hope,” which is the name of the U.S. boat on the flotilla, will deliver your letters when they set sail next month. Send your written letters to: LETTERS TO GAZA, 119 West 72nd Street #158, New York, New York 10023 or email to [email protected]
The outpouring of support I have been receiving from all over the world has been astounding. A woman in Iraq said she was moved to tears seeing a Jewish-American speaking out. A man in Gaza wished me a speedy recovery and quoted the civil rights song “We Shall Overcome.” I even got a message of gratitude from Brad Pitt!
We have also had a great response to the protests, summit and other creative actions we organized this weekend opposing AIPAC, the powerful Israel lobby that has a stranglehold on Congress (see MoveOverAIPAC.org). During Move Over AIPAC, we heard from excellent speakers at our summit; we coordinated a flashmob (that’s been seen by over 30,000 people); we created a people-powered flotilla; we had a dialogue booth, a mock-settlement expansion, and a street theater-style checkpoint. The creativity and dedication of this movement inspires me to believe that justice will prevail, and is within our reach, if we all work together.
People are thrilled to see Americans standing up to our government’s unconditional support for the crimes Israel commits with our tax dollars and we have received hundreds of emails and calls from people in all corners of the world.
My tradition teaches that, “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” (Deuteronomy 16:20) And I will keep continue pursuing justice, and justice will eventually prevail. Israelis and Palestinians will one day live together in true equality.
Rae Abileah is a national organizer with CODEPINK Women for Peace and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace. She lives in San Francisco, CA and can be reached at [email protected]