By Stephanie Westbrook
The theme of this year’s annual policy conference for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was ‘Israel: Tell the Story.’ And it was quite a story that AIPAC wanted to tell.
The conference aimed at imparting to the over 7000 attendees ‘an intimate understanding of the many ways that Israel is making the world a better place,’ with a focus on peacemaking and innovation. According to the AIPAC web site, conference goers will also ‘meet Israelis who rush to the scene of natural disasters in far away lands because they believe that to save one life is to save the whole world.’ No mention was made of the 1400 people killed during the Israeli assault on Gaza.
Against a backdrop of creative blends of US and Israeli flags and icons, the three-day conference in Washington DC included plenary speeches by former Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom, according to journalist MJ Rosenberg, delegates were warned in advance not to boo or hiss. Workshops varied from self-serving questions such as ‘Are Settlements An Obstacle to Peace?’ and ‘Is Israel Treated Unfairly in the Press?’ to ‘The Gaza Dilemma’ and ‘Inside Iran.’
Large numbers of young people attended the conference. With more than 900 university students from 370 campuses as well as 397 high school students, many benefiting from scholarships, students made up nearly 17% of the total number of participants.
Standing outside the conference it was clear that AIPAC is reaching out well beyond the Jewish community for support.
The constant flow of buses, with taxpayer-funded police escort, dropped off conference attendees including many African-American delegations. In fact, workshop sessions centered on the emerging alliance with the African American community and how this alliance can be ‘ignited around the pro-Israel cause.’
The conference also included fear-mongering workshops in Spanish, presumably as an attempt to reach the Latino community, on Iran’s influence in Latin America via its strong ties with Venezuela, Cuba and Brazil, and concerns that this might lead to terrorism, Islamic extremism and anti-American sentiments.
Additional workshops focused on capitalizing on pro-Israel support from the Christian evangelical community as well as a ‘new era of military and intelligence cooperation’ with India.
However, the scope of most of the workshops was to prepare participants for the lobbying day on Capitol Hill, with the three main requests for Congress. First and foremost, AIPAC was calling for ‘crippling sanctions on Iran.’ Noting that it was unlikely for the UN Security Council to pass such a resolution, AIPAC called on the United States ‘to lead the international community,’ a euphemism for unilateral action.
The second request dealt with the current tensions between the US and Israel following the continued announcements of new illegal settlements in East Jerusalem. An AIPAC drafted letter initiated by House majority and minority leaders Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Eric Cantor (R-VA) called on Secretary Clinton to ‘reaffirm our commitment to the unbreakable bond that exists between our country and the State of Israel’ and to solve any disputes ‘quietly, in trust and confidence, as befits longstanding strategic allies.’ Over 50% of the US House of Representatives have signed onto the letter. A similar letter is circulating in the Senate.
Last but certainly not least, AIPAC urged support for continuing US military aid for Israel, which AIPAC refers to as ‘security assistance,’ by approving President Obama’s request for $3 billion for fiscal year 2011 as part of the 10-year $30 billion package. Time Magazine was unusually candid in its coverage of this request, reporting ‘the Israeli government has announced plans to replace its aging fleet of F-16 fighter jets with new, American-made F-35 fighters, a major cost that Israel hopes will be substantially borne by American taxpayers.’
That’s the same F-35 that Secretary of Defense Gates was referring to in his testimony before Congress on March 25 when he spoke of "unacceptable delays and cost overruns." The price tag for the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program has nearly doubled since 2001, recently leading Secretary Gates to replace the program manager and withhold more than $600 million from the lead contractor, Lockheed Martin. It’s no wonder Israel would prefer US taxpayers foot the bill!
Inside the Washington Convention Center, AIPAC was simultaneously calling for the US public to be kept in the dark regarding any disputes with Israel while asking taxpayers to fund 20% of Israel’s defense budget. Outside it was a different story. Activists from CodePink, Veterans for Peace, Military Families Speak Out, Avaaz, Jewish Voice for Peace and the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation kept up a presence during the conference with signs and banners calling for respect for international law and human rights, an end to the siege of Gaza, Israeli apartheid and US taxpayer funding of war crimes.
Using street theatre, we set up a checkpoint to greet the participants, and I, in the role of a Palestinian woman, tried in vain to get through. I pleaded with the sometimes startled conference-goers to help me get to a hospital, but Tighe Barry, playing an IDF soldier at the checkpoint, pushed me away telling the AIPAC supporters, "You can pass. This is a Jewish only road."
During our presence outside the conference, I got an earful of everything from thoughtful debate to the most vulgar of insults to outright ignorance on the issues: "There is already a settlement freeze!" "Gaza isn’t under siege, Israel is!" "AIPAC has nothing to do with policy!" This last remark was made while standing under the enormous sign reading ‘AIPAC Policy Conference.’
We were outnumbered roughly 100 to 1, yet the very site of us literally sent some people over the edge. A few people even resorted to violence, shoving and hitting the activists. During a press conference held outside the Convention Center, we were constantly interrupted, with people shouting and walking in front of the cameras. Josh Ruebner of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation rightly judged this as a classic example of the AIPAC crowd trying to completely control the debate so that no other voices can be heard.
But there was at least some debate going on inside the conference. Hadar Susskind of the new self-proclaimed pro-Peace pro-Israel lobby J Street was being interviewed by the BBC when Alan Dershowitz, one of the conference’s principal speakers, approached and the two got into a heated debate. As the press gathered around, Dershowitz asked "How can you not agree that Goldstone is a despicable human being?" referring to the well-respect South African judge who lead the UN fact-finding mission investigating the Israeli assault on Gaza. AIPAC security quickly moved in to usher the argument outside the building. A French documentary crew had their credentials revoked after refusing to leave.
The second day of protests outside the conference made use of satire to try to get the message through. CodePink issued a fake press release announcing AIPAC’s support for a settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The phony release was picked up by several news outlets prompting AIPAC to issue a statement refuting the claim, and thereby confirming that they are not in line with US policy on the issue or the majority of US citizens. Some conference participants were then questioning why AIPAC was not supporting a settlement freeze.
Later that morning, ‘Netanyahu and the Settlements’ arrived at the conference. Activists with the global online advocacy group Avaaz.org showed up wearing cardboard boxes shaped like settlement housing along with someone in a Netanyahu mask wearing a Caterpillar hardhat chanting, "Build settlements, not peace." Later that afternoon, nicely dressed activists escorted the conference participants: "Right this way to the Apartheid Conference."
The main attraction of the three-day event was, of course, the gala dinner where Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke. Rae Abileah of CodePink, who had purchased a ticket to the conference but then received a certified letter saying that her registration had been cancelled, was nonetheless inside the dinner waiting for her moment. After the traditional Roll Call, the interminable reading of the names of the Congress members present – some 59 senators and 269 members of the House of Representatives – Netanyahu finally took the stage. "When the prime minister announced Israel’s commitment to defense, I could no longer remain silent." Rae jumped up on AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr’s private table right next to the stage and opened a banner reading ‘Build Peace Not Settlements’ while shouting, “Lift the siege of Gaza! No illegal settlements!”
Shortly after Rae was forcibly removed from the dinner, Joan Stallard, also of CodePink, unfurled a banner and shouted, "Stop the settlements!" Joan, who was seated a little to close to security, was quickly thrown to the floor and promptly removed from the dinner.
Following Tony Blair’s speech the morning of the third and last day of the conference, the AIPAC lobbyists made their way to Capitol Hill, where a reported 500 meetings with Congress had been set. We arrived early to beat the crowd and delivered thank you letters to the 36 members of the House who had voted NO on the resolution condemning the Goldstone Report.
‘Netanyahu and the Settlements’ had arrived by the time we finished and were there to greet the AIPAC lobbyists as they lined up to enter the Rayburn building. Holding a gigantic check made out for ‘Endless Illegal Settlements’ signed by Barack Obama, we called out on the megaphone, "Bank of Israel, otherwise known as the United States Congress. Nothing is too much for Israel." There were a number of groups of young people on the Hill the same day lobbying for education and jobs programs. As we passed, I told them, "Sorry, no money left for your school or jobs. Congress wants to give it to Israel."
We then walked over to the Senate side of the Hill. Two senators, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democrat Charles Schumer of New York, had spoken the previous day at the AIPAC conference. Senator Graham quickly dismissed the pesky problem of East Jerusalem: "Jerusalem is not a settlement. No government in Israel will ever look at Jerusalem as a settlement! No government in the United States should ever look at Jerusalem as a settlement! It is the undivided capital of the State of Israel. It is the eternal home of the Jewish faith. And it is now time to move onto other issues."
We paid visits to the offices of both Senators Graham and Schumer, as well as those of Senators Lieberman and Kyl. Donning tunics that said ‘Settler’ and waving a flag that read ‘Mine,’ we moved in, occupied the office, set up a rode block and began moving the furniture around to our pleasing. Again playing the part of a Palestinian woman, I pleaded with the staff, who were, not surprisingly, alarmed at what was happening, for their help in removing the settlers from my family’s land. In three out of four cases we managed to secure a meeting with a member of the staff; at Sen. Graham’s office Capitol Police arrived and promptly removed us!
This year’s AIPAC conference couldn’t have been scheduled during a more interesting period, with unusually high tensions between the US and Israel. Holding signs saying ‘Israel Endangers Peace’ during the Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing on March 16, we heard General Petraeus state clearly that "the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict foments anti-American sentiment due to a perception of US favoritism toward Israel." On CNN recently, there has been unprecedented talk of an Apartheid state in Israel and calls for cutting off US military aid. And just one day before the AIPAC conference began, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon stated during a tour of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, "Let us be clear. All settlement activity is illegal anywhere in occupied territory and must be stopped."
As much as AIPAC appears to be living in a bubble, it also seems unlikely that the US government, or the international community for that matter, will take a courageous stance and do what many Israelis have been asking, save Israel from itself. That’s why so many activists are now taking it upon themselves to lead the way by supporting the Palestinian call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Right outside the AIPAC conference the newly formed BDS group of the greater Washington area called on local residents to not buy Israeli products as a way to make a meaningful contribution to ending the Israeli occupation. And on March 30th, the second Global BDS Day, actions will take place around the world. (http://bdsdayofaction.wordpress.com).
Invest in peace. Boycott Israel!
– Stephanie Westbrook is a U.S. citizen who has been living in Rome, Italy since 1991. She is active in the peace and social justice movements in Italy and traveled to Gaza in June 2009. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.