Occupy Wall Street and the struggle over Israel/Palestine

Israel/Palestine
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Below is an interview with Daniel Sieradski. Sieradski is a “cause media entrepreneur” and one of the driving forces of Occupy Judaism. The interview started with me emailing him for a brief comment on Marc Tracy’s piece in Tablet about the flotilla tweet controversy within Occupy Wall Street, and quickly expanded into the conversation below.

Adam Horowitz: Marc Tracy quoted you as saying “the the ramifications would likely be severe” if the flotilla tweet wasn’t retracted. What kind of ramifications were you imagining? Did you see any play out in the short time the tweet was up?

Daniel Sieradski: So, first thing is, I want to stress that I am speaking only for myself, not for Occupy Judaism, and not for any of the working groups at OWS in which I participate.

I did not ask that the tweet be retracted. And I did not say the ramifications would be severe unless it was. I said that the ramifications of the tweet itself would be severe. The working group chose to delete the tweet of its own accord. I simply asked someone in the working group to look into the matter and to tell me how it got there.

However, the tweet was immediately picked up by the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Jewish Internet Defense Force, among others, and began making its rounds about the net.

The ramifications I imagine begin with a mountain of press attacking OWS as being anti-Israel and pro-terrorism. Whereas beating back false charges of antisemitism was easy because the movement is not antisemitic, were the movement to embrace an explicitly pro-Palestinian agenda, it would be impossible to counter charges that the movement is anti-Israel. No matter how much we as individuals may reject such a framing, supporting the breaking of the Gaza blockade will surely be labeled as enabling the flow of arms into Gaza that will be turned on Israeli civilians. No matter how one might rebut those claims, we all know that mainstream media does not handle nuance well when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The external impression of being anti-Israel will not be helped by Boston’s “emergency march” on the Israeli consulate, which was promoted on the official Occupy Boston calendar. This is already being used by Andrew Breitbart and Commentary to insist that OWS is a cesspool of anti-Israel activism. It’s also already reached the Israeli press.

Furthermore, the external impression of being pro-terror can only be worsened by actions like Existence is Resistance‘s (EIR) Keffiyeh Day, which was marketed using an image of a convicted hijacker, Leila Khaled, and which called for the release of two convicted terrorists, Ahmad Saadat and Majd Ziada. The former is a PFLP leader whose faction explicitly rejects any negotiations with Israel and calls for the expulsion of all non-Palestinian Jews from historic Palestine and the latter was the getaway driver in a shooting attack on a West Bank settlement that was so indiscriminate that the lone victim was a Palestinian [Horowitz note: As can be expected there are differing opinions about Saadat’s and Ziada’s cases, see examples here and here].

As such, many Jewish supporters of OWS who do not identify as anti-Zionist, who do not support the goals of the anti-Zionist movement, and who sure as hell do not feel comfortable identifying with actions in solidarity with armed Palestinian militants, feel that the should OWS embrace a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and particularly an anti-Israel position, that they could no longer be associated with the movement. This says nothing about non-Jewish Americans who identify as pro-Israel, nor the various Jewish leaders who went to bat for OWS last week in defense against charges of antisemitism, such as Mark Green, Eliot Spitzer and Randi Weingarten. It is a slap in their faces for a lone Palestinian solidarity activist operating without the consent of the General Assembly to announce on behalf of the entire movement solidarity with an attempt to break the Gaza blockade only two days after these individuals proclaimed “We are pro-Israel and we support Occupy Wall Street.”

Worse yet, there have been attempts to push Zionists out of the movement by claiming their support for Israel’s mere existence is fundamentally racist and as such, they should not be part of any serious social justice movement. I find such actions deeply offensive. Insisting that I or anyone else pass a litmus test requiring the rejection of Israel’s existence so that I can protest the fact that my parents are in bankruptcy and foreclosure — which is actually what these protests are supposed to be about and which is why I got involved with them — is obnoxious and infuriating.

That is why many people at OWS, including myself, feel that this issue is neither pertinent nor helpful to OWS’s objectives, and why I personally am very troubled by efforts to focus this movement on opposing the Israeli occupation.

Which is not to say that I support the Israeli occupation or the violation of Palestinian rights, or that I believe Palestinians and their issues should be excluded from this movement. Despite the despicable flaming I received from the Palestinian solidarity community last week alleging, among other things, that I support genocide against Palestinians, I would happily stand in front of an Israeli bulldozer in the West Bank any day of the week. I spent the last ten years working inside the Jewish community to change attitudes about the occupation and to create a more open space for dissenting voices. All I am calling for is a little bit of wisdom in determining relevant actions that address the issue of Palestinians’ economic destitution in a way that the predominantly non-radicalized public can connect to and be enlightened by and which cannot be turned back on OWS by the right-wing and the press as an expression of tacit support for terrorism. I would also prefer that these actions have buy-in from OWS working groups and general assemblies and are not just foisted upon the movement so that we are put in the position of having to defend ourselves from such charges.

AH: Was there any negative fallout from the EIR event?

DS: There have indeed been several blog posts circulating (I keep getting sent this one, for example) pointing out the EIR event’s arguable glorification of terrorism. There is also now a video circulating in which a man at the rally is heard shouting “Occupy Yahudi!” and “Yahudi are kaffars!” [“Occupy Jews!” and “Jews are infidels!”] Though EIR denies any connection to the man, the video shows that when asked why he was not being asked to leave or to be quiet, participants in the rally said, “We’re not going to tell him to shut up…He’s a grown man.” Yet such hate speech violates both OWS’s Principles of Solidarity and Good Neighbor Policy.

Beyond seeing that video and blog post added as a comment to every positive article about Jews and OWS I’ve read in the past week, there has not yet been a greater fallout from that particular incident. However, my concern is not what the consequence will be of each individual episode, so much as the cumulative effect of these things together. It’s only a matter of time before a conservative pundit does a round-up in the mainstream press and the anti-Israel charge becomes OWS’s new scarlet letter. It seems Commentary already has.

AH: You also told Tracy that “once the movement becomes explicitly anti-Israel you’ll have effectively alienated 3x more people than you’ll attract.” Can you tell me what this estimate is based on? Anecdotal info down at OWS? Polling? Something else?

DS: According to a recent Pew study, 48% of Americans identify as pro-Israel vs. 11% of Americans who identify as pro-Palestinian.

AH: Just because broad polling numbers indicate that many Americans identify as pro-Israel, doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be alienated from OWS based on a specific position or statement regarding the blockade of Gaza or the broader conflict. Have you seen, or heard of, people sympathetic to OWS being alienated by mentions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Along these lines, what are examples of attempts to push Zionists out of the movement, or forcing people to reject Israel’s existence?

DS: Knowing how long you yourself have been working on these issues, I am surprised that you would even entertain the idea that OWS won’t be significantly hurt by being seen as anti-Israel.

Marc Tracy himself says he’s growing weary of the movement’s co-optation by anti-Zionists. He’s just one of several dozen voices I’ve heard from over the last two weeks that have said to me that if OWS becomes explicitly anti-Israel, they will no longer be able to be associated or active within the movement.

This, of course, will have an even stronger negative impact on our efforts to recruit Jewish organizations to come out in the support of the protest.

Per examples of attempts to push Zionists out of the movement: One member of the community outreach working group threw a fit over email after an organizer of the Israeli tent protests addressed that group, saying that if the movement had room for “Zionist racists” in it that he would no longer be involved nor invite Palestinians to be involved. Another, Michael Letwin, who is a member of the OWS Labor Outreach Committee; Former President of UAW Local 2325 (Assn. of Legal Aid Attorneys); and speaking here on behalf of Labor for Palestine and New York City Labor Against the War, sent the following email after Stuart Applebaum of RWDSU, UFCW & the Jewish Labor Committee announced a panel discussion about labor and OWS:

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Michael Letwin
Date: Tue, Oct 25, 2011 at 7:33 PM
Subject: Re: [Labor OWS] LABOR MEETS OWS

Does Stuart Appelbaum really belong in OWS?

Born of the Arab Spring, our movement’s strength is that it seeks justice for all people. This reflects Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous observation that, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Stuart Appelbaum, however, is chief trade union defender of apartheid Israel (see below).

We wouldn’t tolerate other forms of racism or anti-Semitism in OWS. So how is this OK?

——-
June 13 New York City Picket Tells Labor Officials to Dump Israel Bonds
Appelbaum has long traded on his image as a “progressive” labor leader to attack growing international trade union support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel. Recently, he has been at the forefront of a witch-hunt that banned supporters of Palestinian rights from meeting at the NYC LGBT Community Center.
http://www.laborforpalestine.net/2011/06/19/labor-for-palestine-june-13-new-york-city-picket-tells-labor-officials-to-dump-israel-bonds/

Palestinian Trade Union Coalition for BDS (PTUC-BDS) formed at historic conference
The support of the entirety of the Palestinian trade union movement for a full boycott of Israel, as the most effective form of solidarity with the Palestinian people, was the overarching message of this historic gathering.
http://www.laborforpalestine.net/2011/05/06/palestinian-trade-union-coalition-for-bds-ptuc-bds-formed-at-historic-conference/

Sign on: Stop Scabbing for Apartheid — Withdraw From Israel Bonds “Celebration”
The undersigned labor, anti-apartheid and human rights activists call on you — Dennis Hughes (President of the New York State AFL-CIO) and Stuart Appelbaum (President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and head of the Jewish Labor Committee) — to respect the above call from Palestinian labor by withdrawing as “Honoree” and “Chair,” respectively, of the “State of Israel Bonds” fundraiser in New York City on June 13, 2011.
http://www.laborforpalestine.net/2011/06/07/sign-on-stop-scabbing-for-apartheid/

Open Letter to the Labor Research Association: Don’t Honor Israeli Apartheid
The LRA’s dinner program praises Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, for building “relationships with community organizations in an effort to expand the rights of unorganized workers.” What it doesn’t say is that, as head of the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC), he leads the witch-hunt against labor bodies in South Africa and around the world that support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israeli apartheid.
http://www.laborforpalestine.net/2009/05/04/open-letter-to-the-labor-research-association-dont-honor-israeli-apartheid/

On Tue, Oct 25, 2011 at 3:11 PM:
Please Join

Stuart Appelbaum
President
Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union (RWDSU, UFCW)

AND

George Gresham
President 1199SEIU

for a

Discussion on
“Labor and Occupy Wall Street”
Representatives from Occupy Wall Street will join us for a discussion on how Labor and Occupy Wall Street can work together on common concerns about the current economic conditions in New York and the United States. They will also update us on the current status of Occupy Wall Street.

Thursday, October 27, 2011
4:30pm.
RWDSU
5th Floor Conference Room
30 E. 29th Street
New York City

Both emails were blatant attempts to alienate and exclude Zionists from participation in OWS.

AH: I think it’s a misrepresentation to say that there are people who want to refocus OWS on the Israel occupation (Tracy made this charge as well). This controversy was over a single tweet, not a desire to overhaul the OWS agenda. You say you don’t believe that “Palestinians and their issues should be excluded from this movement,” and yet a simple statement of solidarity with an activist attempt to break the blockade of Gaza was considered beyond the pale. How can you imagine Palestinian issues being incorporated into OWS? Do you understand why many Palestinian activists viewed the tweet’s deletion as a sign they are not welcomed in the OWS movement?

DS: This question is either naive or disingenuous. This isn’t about a single tweet. This is about a concerted effort by the Palestinian solidarity movement to force OWS to take up opposition to the Israeli occupation. This is about folks like Andy Pollack responding to being told that the issue won’t be settled by OWS by saying “Well, yes, Mr. Zionist, it will be settled here.” This is about yet another organization seeking signers for a statement calling “criticisms issued of Israel’s domestic and foreign policy at Occupy Wall Street…integral to the larger protests.” It’s about some guy from the OWS PR team deciding that even though there is no consensus opinion on the Freedom Waves to Gaza it “does not mean that we do not fundamentally support it.” It’s about folks issuing directives to working groups to “get this [march to the Israeli consulate] on the website” as though it were an officially sanctioned event. And it’s about the dick with the @OccupyFortWorth account who tweeted, also without consent or approval from the Ft. Worth GA, “Zionism is racism. Israel is an apartheid state based on Jewish supremacy. FREE PALESTINE.”

This is an economic protest. While, U.S. military aid to Israel totals $3B annually, the total U.S. federal budget in 2010 was $3.4T. U.S. military aid to Israel is therefore: .08% of the U.S. federal budget. It’s not even one-tenth of one percent of what our country spends annually. Beyond that, 75% of U.S. military aid to Israel comes in the form of secured loans that are paid back with interest (ergo, the U.S. makes money on them) and which can only be used to purchase arms from U.S. defense contractors. In other words, U.S. military aid to Israel is corporate welfare for the U.S. defense industry and a form of pork barreling which supports the defense manufacturing sector, putting money in the pockets of working class Americans that, in turn, re-enters our economy.

It may be supporting a grave injustice, but the idea that we’re just showering obscene amounts of free money on Israel that is of no benefit to Americans is therefore a falsehood, and it certainly pales in comparison to the $20B shipped to Iraq in stacks of hundreds on palettes which simply disappeared into the ether. As such, people who insist that U.S. aid to Israel is somehow crippling our economy are over-inflating the issue and by doing so at OWS, they are conflating Wall Street’s corruption, Jewish power and influence in Washington, and human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories. I personally find that to be a very dangerous combination. And I fear JVP’s recent call to “Occupy the Occupiers” is just one such example of this moving in a direction that could have negative consequences for the Jewish community and its involvement in OWS.

If people want to protest the U.S. military industrial complex and military spending generally, including but not limited to military aid to Israel — amen, I’ll show up to that protest myself. But singling out an individual instance of that spending that adds up to less than one-tenth of one percent of the annual federal budget at a time of heightened sensitivity around “Zionist banker” memes infecting the discourse? Do I really have to explain why this is a bad thing for everyone?

AH: By maintaining such a hard line over what it is permissible for OWS to say about Israel/Palestine, are Jewish organizers basically telling the movement they have to chose between including Jews or Palestinians (and their supporters)?

DS: I am just going to reiterate that I am speaking for myself and not Occupy Judaism, which contains a plurality of voices on this issue and which has not yet reached consensus on a position on this issue. As such, Jewish organizers are not maintaining a hard line about anything. I’m just telling you like it is from my perspective as a person who has worked as an organizer and activist in the Jewish community for a decade. If you want the broader Jewish community to be involved in these protests, you’re not going to do it by forcing the people who show up to tacitly endorse the anti-Zionist line on Israel.

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