Aron: Over the last few weeks, AIPAC supporters have critiqued IfNotNow’s March 26th protest at AIPAC’s Policy Conference. “How can you say AIPAC enables the occupation when it supports a two-state solution?” they have asked. “And if you want to engage in meaningful dialogue, why not participate in the conference instead of standing outside and blockading two of the entrances?” Despite its ostensible support for a two-state agreement, AIPAC has systematically worked to undermine a peaceful solution to the conflict that would ensure freedom and dignity for Israelis and Palestinians while it has also sidelined and silenced dissenting voices. Therefore, IfNotNow believes that protest is the most effective way of publicizing its opposition to the occupation.
I. AIPAC’s Support for the Occupation
There are, broadly speaking, two ways that the occupation could end: the creation of a single democratic binational state that guarantees equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians or the execution of a two-state agreement that allows for an independent Palestinian state. AIPAC explicitly opposes the creation of a binational state, and it has quietly worked to undermine a two-state agreement.
Many Israeli, Palestinian, American, and other international policymakers consider settlement expansion as the single greatest threat to a two-state agreement. Despite this consensus, AIPAC has consistently opposed any criticisms of or penalties imposed on the settlements under the aegis of supporting unconditional military aid to Israel. In 2011, for example, AIPAC successfully lobbied the U.S. to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution that called upon Israel to cease all settlement activity. In its press release following the veto, AIPAC labeled the resolution “anti-Israel.” It did not mention the words “settlements” or “occupation.” In 2012, Judith Gelman, a Vice President of Ameinu and a member of AIPAC’s National Leadership Council, introduced an amendment to AIPAC’s Action Principles that advocated for “the protection of minorities and the dismantling of illegal settlement outposts.” The resolution was summarily defeated; according to Gelman, the vote was roughly 300 to five. Earlier this year, AIPAC failed to prevent the U.S. from vetoing another anti-settlement UNSC resolution. As in 2011, the organization called the resolution “anti-Israel” and refused to mention settlements or the occupation.
AIPAC cannot claim to support a two-state agreement while advocating against pressuring Israel to stop expanding settlements. Tom Dine, AIPAC’s Executive Director from 1980 to 1993, has even admitted that the organization’s unspoken policy is, “We’ll work against [a two-state agreement] until it happens.” By obstructing a two-state agreement while simultaneously lobbying against a democratic binational state, AIPAC implicitly supports the only possible third option: a single binational state in which Palestinians in the West Bank live under permanent occupation without democratic and economic rights while Palestinians in Gaza live under unending military siege.
When I have raised these points with AIPAC supporters, they have asserted that AIPAC’s mission is merely “to strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship.” Part of that work, they argue, is lobbying for unconditional military aid and diplomatic support for whichever Israeli government is in power. The current Israeli government, though, has expressed explicit support for a permanent occupation. Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan recently admitted that “all members of the security cabinet, and foremost the prime minister, oppose a Palestinian state [emphasis added].” When addressing this year’s Policy Conference and talking about Israel’s future, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not even mention a two-state agreement. In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Naftali Bennet, Israel’s Minister of Education and Diaspora Affairs, advocated for annexing 60% of the West Bank and permanently denying Palestinians in the West Bank full democratic rights. In an interview this past month with Israel’s i24 News, Likud MK Miki Zohar recently argued that Israel should annex the West Bank and enact laws that would prevent or disincentivize Palestinians from voting. In February, the Israeli government passed a law legalizing settlements built on private Palestinian land and, just last week, it approved a new settlement deep in the West Bank. AIPAC cannot claim to support the two-state solution while advocating for a black check for an Israeli government that adamantly opposes it.
II. Why Protest?
In response to these charges, AIPAC supporters often argue that IfNotNow members should have participated in the policy conference and voiced their concerns there. After all, Palestinian activist Ali Abu Awwad and Meretz MK Zandberg spoke at the conference. Why would IfNotNow protest an event where they were speaking?
The answer is that despite inviting a handful of left-wing activists and politicians each year to address plenary sessions, AIPAC has lobbied for the same policies for decades. Representative Nancy Pelosi read a letter at the conference calling upon President Trump to reaffirm support for a two-state agreement. But there are no indications that actions such as Rep. Pelosi’s will lead AIPAC to join that call. The conference’s left-wing speakers seem to be nothing more than fig leaves that conceal AIPAC’s tacit support for the occupation.
Another reason why IfNotNow believes it is appropriate and necessary to protest at the AIPAC policy conference is that many of the IfNotNow members who were present at the protest have already participated in AIPAC conferences and meetings of other major pro-Israel organizations – I personally attended two AIPAC training conferences while in college – and have seen for themselves how opposing views are silenced. One common tactic is to invite dissenting voices to closed-door meetings in order to give the appearance of flexibility while preventing criticism from being publicized. Again, I can speak from experience: as president of a pro-Israel group on campus, I repeatedly tried to incorporate the local JStreetU chapter into my organization, partially in order to dampen its critiques of Israel.
For AIPAC supporters to criticize IfNotNow for choosing not to participate in the conference is deeply hypocritical, since AIPAC has consistently castigated critics of the occupation. This year, multiple IfNotNow members were denied access to the conference. Though AIPAC refused to provide a reason, it appeared that their affiliation with IfNotNow had made them personae non gratae. The organization has also blacklisted journalists from outlets that are critical of Israel, turning away three journalists in 2012, two in 2014, and four in 2016. In 2015, leaked emails from the Democratic think tank Center for American Progress revealed that AIPAC members had pressured the think tank to censor its writers’ views on Israel.
Recently, AIPAC supported the “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act,” which labeled “delegitimizing Israel” as anti-Semitism. The ACLU stated that the bill was “a serious threat to the First Amendment rights of those on campus who may hold certain political views.” Kenneth Stern, the American Jewish Committee’s former specialist on anti-Semitism and extremism, argued that the bill was unconstitutional and would curtail debate about the conflict.
Of course, AIPAC is not the only pro-Israel organization to exclude anti-occupation voices. When JStreet was founded, pro-Israel organization StandWithUs claimed that JStreet represented “anti-Israel” and “anti-Jewish” narratives. In 2014, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, a Jewish umbrella organization, voted to deny JStreet membership in the group. Recently, the Israeli government labeled Jewish Voice for Peace’s annual conference as a “hate conference.” In March, Ohio State University’s Hillel expelled its pro-LGBTQ affiliate for cosponsoring an event to raise money for Syrian refugees merely because the event was also cosponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace.
Finally, despite repeated calls for IfNotNow members to “join the conversation,” it is not at all clear how IfNotNow’s participation in the AIPAC conference would or could contribute to ending AIPAC’s support for the occupation. Would IfNotNow members quietly raise pointed questions during plenary sessions? If they did, would someone answer? Would an IfNotNow representative address a few dozen AIPAC attendees? Would anyone listen? Why should IfNotNow believe that any such participation would generate change when AIPAC eschews the advice of Israeli lawmakers?
All of these factors – AIPAC’s use of left-wing activists and politicians to mask its pro-occupation policies, our experiences as part of AIPAC and other pro-Israel organizations, and the marginalization by these organizations that many of us have experienced – has made it clear to us that protest is the only way to draw attention to AIPAC’s support of the occupation. We were not just speaking to conference attendees. We were also addressing Jews around the country who have been similarly marginalized, have tuned out of the conflict, or are unaware of what AIPAC uses their donations for.
III. The Choice
AIPAC continues to enable the Israeli government’s drive towards a permanent occupation in which Palestinians are denied full democratic, civil, and economic rights. In the furtherance of this implicit goal, AIPAC has justified working and donating to with some of America’s most illiberal forces: Frank Gaffney, the architect of Trump’s Muslim ban; Vice President Mike Pence, who helped elect Trump, tried to allow Indiana businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals, and prevented Syrian refugees from resettling in Indiana; Senator Ted Cruz, who opposed reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, relief for Hurricane Sandy, and the DREAM Act; not to mention Trump himself. Is our community, 76 percent of which voted against Trump, willing to check our liberal values at the door of an organization that enables the occupation and works with such figures?
While we equivocate, the occupation grinds on. According to Btselem, an Israeli NGO, more than 300 Palestinian minors are being held in Israeli prisons as of August 2016 and 11 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem have been demolished this year. On top of that, the Israeli government is planning to demolish the Palestinian village of Susiya in order to make room for a nearby settlement. This is, in part, likely a result of the tremendous expansion of the settler population: as of last year, Reuters reported that more than 550,000 Israeli Jews live over the Green Line.
For members of IfNotNow, there is only one ethical and justifiable way forward: we will continue to advocate for a solution to the conflict that ensures freedom and dignity for all. We will not be silent as AIPAC and other pro-Israel organizations work with far-right American lawmakers to support a far-right Israeli government’s quest to permanently disenfranchise Palestinians.