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 view—as the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC puts it—is 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 Jerusalem—some 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 bombings—a series of bloody attacks claimed more than 30 Israeli lives in the last month alone—Israel 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 campuses—and Jewish organization efforts to discount it—provides 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.”
For longtime activists, recognizing how much discursive ground has been lost in recent years is profoundly demoralizing. “I feel like we’ve taken so many steps backwards,” said Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz after a meeting last Sunday in which she and half a dozen other Jewish feminists, all anti-occupation veterans of 10 to 20 years, planned a midtown vigil in solidarity with a Jerusalem rally organized by Israel’s Women in Black for December 28. “True, some things are better. It used to be you couldn’t even say ‘Palestine,’ ” Kaye/Kantrowitz explained. “But now we have to correct the almost universally held but completely wrong idea that Israel offered peace and the Palestinians answered with violence.”
A little more than a decade ago, as the first intifada brought the occupation into American living rooms with TV coverage of Israel’s bone-crushing response to a mostly nonviolent popular uprising, at least some of the public understood who was the occupier and what that meant, and a movement to link aid to human rights compliance began to take shape. The taboo on questioning Israel’s foreign-aid entitlement was even broken on the floor of Congress in 1990, when Wisconsin Democrat David Obey suggested future budgets reduce aid to Israel by the amount that country spends to build or expand settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Two months later, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, setting off the Persian Gulf War and foreclosing any statements—much less actions—that might have made America’s Middle East ally fear abandonment. Soon after, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat signed the Oslo accords at the White House, heartening all who hadn’t bothered to actually read the agreement or look at a map with the hallucination that the occupation was ending and peace was at hand. Congressional criticism, as well as grassroots activism, faded away. But the occupation did not. And despite Representative Obey’s suggestion—and worse, despite the Oslo agreement—Israel rapidly expanded settlements, doubling their population in the years since the accords were signed.
Palestinians’ lives got worse: Israel continued to demolish homes; Jewish-only bypass roads connecting settlements to Israel increasingly chopped up the West Bank, dividing Palestinian communities into disconnected Bantustans; Israel retained control of water and other resources and continued to confiscate Palestinian land. And it certainly didn’t help that corrupt officials in Arafat’s Palestinian Authority pocketed funds meant for economic development. Americans hadn’t paid much attention, so when the Al Aqsa Intifada erupted, it was easy enough for them to buy the Israeli version of what had gone wrong: the Palestinians simply didn’t want peace.
“We had done a good job during the first intifada of showing the occupation,” says Phyllis Bennis, a fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies who specializes in the Middle East. “But our mistake was in not continuing to talk about human rights violations as an ongoing reality of a repressive, spirit-killing, military occupation. It seemed as though if guns weren’t being fired, then things must have been fine. But you don’t have to fire a gun to control someone, you only have to have it. That’s why if you hold up a store by aiming a gun at the cashier, you’ve committed armed robbery, even if you never pulled the trigger. Israel was still holding the gun, but we had stopped pointing at it.”
Now that the guns are blazing again and the wider war rages nearby, threatening to expand ever more explosively, Israel-Palestine activists feel both that their efforts are more urgent and more inadequate. Despite last week’s declaration of a ceasefire by Hamas, nobody expects a miracle. Though “not an optimist in the short run,” Ali Abunimah remains convinced that “a broad-based movement against the occupation and in favor of a just peace, based on equality and ending domination,” can succeed. “People forget that there was a strong business lobby in this country for South Africa during apartheid and that American policy was turned around entirely due to public pressure,” he says. “There are precedents.”