Rally Against Occupation Draws Sparse Crowd in D.C.

By Daniel Treiman

Published June 13, 2007, issue of June 15, 2007.
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Organizers of this past weekend’s “The World Says No to Israeli Occupation” rally in Washington pulled out all the stops.

They secured the backing of the nation’s largest grass-roots anti-war coalition, United for Peace & Justice, which has brought hundreds of thousands into the streets to protest the Iraq War. They reserved prime real estate on the National Mall, with the Capitol as a backdrop. They purchased ads on the Washington Metro system and on cable television. They had a promotional rap song (“June 10, come out and represent/June 10, the day to protest/June 10, got to end this occupation/June 10, Palestinian liberation”). Comedy legend Roseanne Barr recorded a message urging participation.

There was one area, however, in which the rally was lacking: Not many people showed up.

The rally’s sponsors, UFPJ and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, placed the number of attendees at “more than 5,000.” The U.S. Campaign labeled the rally a “huge success.” But pro-Israel activists and bloggers who observed the rally said there were far fewer in attendance, some placing the number at about 1,000. Right-wing blogs ridiculed the gathering, posting photos that suggested a sparse crowd. The Jerusalem Post put the number of attendees at “upwards of 2,000.” Mainstream news outlets largely ignored the rally.

“I think they have to be very disappointed,” Roz Rothstein, national director of the pro-Israel group StandWithUs, said of the organizers of the pro-Palestinian demonstration. StandWithUs organized a small counter-protest.

The U.S. Campaign stated that its rally was called “to protest the 40th anniversary of Israel’s illegal military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, and Syrian Golan Heights.” The group had been planning the event since late last year, according to the U.S. Campaign’s office manager, Omar Masri, a rally organizer.

“We expected a large number. We didn’t know exactly how much. We were excited to know that 5,000 were there, of course,” Masri said. “We were hoping for a bit more, but we didn’t have an official estimate.”

Masri stood by the 5,000 figure while acknowledging that it was a “rough estimate.” He said that the number of attendees was less significant than the fact that “this was the first time in our history that two of the largest coalitions come together demanding an end of Israeli occupation of Palestine.”

Speakers at the rally variously denounced American aid to Israel, railed against the “Zionist lobby that took this country to war in Iraq,” and accused Israel of practicing “apartheid” and of violating Palestinians’ human rights. Another speaker warned of “a plan to create a new American-Israeli century where those who dare to speak out will be squashed.”

The rally was part of a larger two-day mobilization that also included a march and a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill. Masri called the event “historic,” pointing to the co-sponsorship of UFPJ, a coalition claiming more than 1,300 member groups. It was not, however, UFPJ’s first foray into the issue. UFPJ has adopted the slogan “Occupation: Wrong in Iraq, Wrong in Palestine,” and in 2004 it coordinated a national day of protests against Israel’s West Bank security barrier.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue has been a delicate one for UFPJ and the larger antiwar movement. UFPJ’s leaders and core activists — who include many far leftists — often have strong pro-Palestinian sympathies. But aligning the antiwar movement with the Palestinian cause angers some rank-and-file opponents of the Iraq War, particularly Jews. UFPJ’s own “Palestine/Israel Just Peace Working Group” includes both anti-Zionist groups like Al-Awda: The Palestine Right to Return Coalition and some left-wing Jewish groups, such as the Tikkun Community and the Shalom Center, which are highly critical of Israeli policies but support the Jewish state’s right to exist.

Jewish groups have criticized the fervidly anti-Israel rhetoric and signage of previous antiwar rallies, particularly ones organized by International Answer, a rival coalition that many antiwar activists say is controlled by an extremist Marxist sect. Organizers of the June 10 rally, however, touted the participation of Jewish Voice for Peace and distributed some protest signs that called for “A Just Peace for Palestinians & Israelis.” A man who showed up to the protest with a sign that featured a swastika and condemned Israel with a profanity was surrounded by rally volunteers who attempted to block his sign with their bodies.

“We do not under any shape or form support the likening of Israel to a Nazi state,” Masri said. “We don’t take a policy in regards to whether we believe in a one- or two-state solution, but in our ‘Call to Action’ we do believe that both Israelis and Palestinians have a right to the same livelihood and the same human rights.”

Still, the rally sparked conflict even among leftists. Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the left-wing Tikkun magazine, penned a dispatch in which he criticized the planned rally, suggesting that many of its organizers were united around a desire to see Israel’s dissolution. Two top Jewish officials from the groups that organized the rally responded with an angry letter to Lerner, whose Tikkun Community is a member of both UFPJ and the U.S. Campaign. Lerner later apologized for his “clumsy wording” and noted that UFPJ, the U.S. Campaign and Jewish Voice for Peace do not endorse the dissolution of Israel but rather, he wrote, “leave open that question” — a stance he also criticized.

But UFPJ also has faced criticism from those who want it to take a more forceful stand against Israel. International Answer recently posted a statement on its Web site purportedly from a group called the Free Palestine Alliance — a member of Answer’s steering committee — attacking UFPJ’s position on the issue. “Today, as some in the liberal peace camp feel the need to champion Palestine, they are doing so while constructing a colonial paradigm of sort,” the statement said, citing a failure to explicitly condemn Zionism.

The U.S. Campaign’s Masri, who said he had never heard of the Free Palestine Alliance, responded that UFPJ has “absolutely supported our call to the end of Israeli occupation of Palestine.”

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