By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
There weren't any surprises in the foreign-aid bill Congress passed last week, least of all in the appropriation the U.S. handed Israel: more than 17 percent of the entire foreign-aid expenditure, $2.7 billion. That's on top of the $2.5 billion in military support from the defense budget, forgiven loans, and special grants the tiny state rakes in each year. Up to 80 percent of this aid never leaves the U.S., because it's earmarked for arms purchases that must be made here.
As usual, there wasn't any significant debate, and to be sure, nobody seriously suggested America's largesse be linked to Israel's compliance with human rights accords, UN resolutions, or international law. The prevailing viewas the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC puts itis that "U.S. aid to Israel enhances American national security interests by strengthening our only democratic ally in an unstable and vital region of the world."
Nonetheless, in the 15 months since the outbreak of the Al Aqsa Intifada, scores of groups around the country have come out against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalemsome pressing for a two-state solution, others emphasizing the Palestinian right of return. Now the question of U.S. aid is at the cutting edge of this activism. Campaigns from Berkeley to Boston are connecting demands for peace and justice in the region to Congress's underwriting of the occupation and Israel's use of F-16s, Apache helicopters, and other American-made weapons against Palestinian neighborhoods and refugee camps.
SUSTAIN (Stop U.S. Tax-Funded Aid to Israel Now) has point people in a dozen cities around the country organizing teach-ins and letter campaigns. The San Francisco group A Jewish Voice for Peace is, among other things, conducting a petition drive, asserting that "as Americans, we do not want our foreign aid dollars used to deprive Palestinians of justice and human rights. As Jews, although we support a democratic Israel, we must criticize its security policies that have the effect of making it less safe, not more." And on campuses like the universities of California, Michigan, and Illinois, a movement modeled on the anti-apartheid activities of the 1980s is beginning to call for divestment of university funds from companies with strong ties to Israel.
Even if none of these groups actually expects Uncle Sam to cancel Israel's allowance anytime soon, they understand how effectively American aid can function as a focal point for the most important step in any movement for Israeli-Palestinian peace: basic public education. "People don't understand that there's still an occupation," says Chicago-based writer and analyst Ali Abunimah. "Even so, they are paying for it."
Between corporate media's presentation of foreign policy from the State Department's point of view and a pro-Israeli PR machine that treats the conflict as if the parties were both powerful nations, a common perception persists of Israel as a besieged little democracy under constant attack from preternatural Jew haters. But even with the horrific suicide bombingsa series of bloody attacks claimed more than 30 Israeli lives in the last month aloneIsrael remains the powerful partner, controlling the lives of 3 million disenfranchised and dispossessed people and responsible for killing more than 800 Palestinian civilians since the hostilities boiled over last year. Nothing is likely to shift in the conflict without significant pressure from the U.S., so cracking public perception here is key.
"Like Cuba," explains Hussein Ibish, of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, "Israel is as much a domestic as a foreign issue, especially given the incredible power of the Christian right and Jewish pro-Israel lobbies as well as the major defense contractor lobbies. To get through to people in ways that can counteract those lobbies," Ibish adds, "you need to describe the reality of occupation precisely. You can't substitute a slogan for the details; it's just not helpful. In the U.S., the most important activism is discursive."
The divestment movement growing on dozens of campusesand Jewish organization efforts to discount itprovides an example in miniature of the way different narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict compete in the U.S. Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of California, Berkeley, have used street theater to drive their campaign, once setting up a mock checkpoint at a campus gate, for example. According to SJP member Snehal Shingavi, the group has already collected 5000 student signatures on a divestment petition, specifically targeting, among others, General Electric, which produces propulsion systems for Apache helicopters and F-16s and in which UC invests hundreds of millions of dollars. Currently SJP is planning a national student conference for mid February; they expect several hundred students from all over the country.
If UC regents have so far shrugged off SJP demands, major Zionist organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League have expressed some alarm, creating resource kits for Jewish students so they can rebut anti-occupation claims. True, the rhetoric can get overheated (it's not all that rare for somebody to charge Israel with "genocide" at campus rallies). Still, progressive Jewish students find themselves equally turned off by the one-sided bromides proffered at the local Hillel. "I don't agree with the Israel-is-always-right attitude I get from Jewish groups on campus because I think the occupation is absolutely wrong and must end," says an Ann Arbor student who requested anonymity. "But I can't join a demonstration with banners that say 'Zionism Equals Racism' because I don't buy into that, either. It's also too knee-jerk and simplistic."