The anti-war group behind the recent demonstration that brought tens of thousands to Washington to protest the Iraq War already has plans for another mass rally in the nation’s capital. This time, though, the target of the protesters’ ire will be Israel.
United for Peace and Justice, the convener of the January 27 march, is joining with the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation to co-sponsor a two-day “mobilization” in June, titled “The World Says No to Israeli Occupation.” The event will include a mass rally, a “teach-in” and lobbying. It will mark the 40th year since Israel’s capture of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in June 1967.
“The purpose of the event is to hopefully call greater attention both to the ongoing Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, but also to call attention to the role that the U.S. plays in supporting that, and specifically the financial role, of course,” said UFPJ’s national coordinator, Leslie Cagan.
The Jewish community has had an uneasy relationship with the anti-war movement. While polls show that solid majorities of American Jews now disapprove of the decision to go to war in Iraq, most major Jewish groups have been quiet on the issue. Many supporters of Israel have been concerned that the anti-war movement has become a vehicle for promoting the Palestinian cause to a larger audience.
Josh Ruebner, grass-roots advocacy coordinator for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, called UFPJ’s co-sponsorship of the June 10-11 mobilization “very significant.”
“The scale of what both of our coalitions are attempting, I think, has never been attempted before on the issue of Palestinian human rights in this country,” he said.
But not all Iraq War critics are pleased by UFPJ’s activism on the Palestinian issue. Informed of the group’s plans for a rally criticizing Israel, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who appeared onstage at this weekend’s demonstration along with several other members of Congress, said he was “very upset.”
“I totally disagree with them on their view,” the New York Democrat said. “I obviously don’t think the major problem is the Israeli occupation, which would have ended long ago if it weren’t for the major problem, which is the refusal of Hamas and the Palestinian leadership generally to agree with the existence of Israel.”
Nadler said that most of those who participated in this past weekend’s rally showed up because they oppose the Iraq War, not because of UFPJ’s other political agendas.
“This group is a group with its own opinions, and they have one opinion that a lot of people share, and they’ve done a good job in mobilizing and getting out front,” he said, referring to UFPJ’s opposition to the Iraq War. “One can wish that someone else had done it, but nobody else did. They did the organizing, etc. Now they are going to try to exploit that for their other points. They will not have much success with that.”
UFPJ is a coalition of about 1,400 local and national groups. It has successfully organized demonstrations that have brought hundreds of thousands to the streets to protest the Iraq War. Formed in 2002, UFPJ was regarded within the nascent peace movement as an alternative to the then-dominant anti-war coalition, International Answer, which many believed was controlled by the Workers World Party, a fringe Marxist sect. Jewish groups, in particular, were alarmed by International Answer’s fervid anti-Israel rhetoric.
But UFPJ also has drawn accusations of extremism. National coordinator Cagan, a veteran left-wing activist, has been a particular lightning rod for critics, who have accused her of being sympathetic to Cuba’s communist regime and of equivocating about the Iraqi insurgency. In a 2003 interview with the Forward, Cagan, former director of the Cuba Information Project, called Fidel Castro “a very smart man who has worked very hard to help organize his country in a way that he thinks is valuable and positive.” Asked in the same interview about the then months-old Iraqi insurgency, she said that UFPJ “doesn’t have a position on that, and personally I’m neither condemning them nor applauding them.”
The June mobilization will not be UFPJ’s first foray into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. UFPJ has criticized Israeli actions repeatedly, adopting the slogan “Occupation: Wrong in Iraq, Wrong in Palestine.” In 2004, UFPJ coordinated a national day of protests against Israel’s West Bank security barrier.
“I believe that historically the issue of Israel-Palestine has been relegated to the sidelines or not discussed at all by the larger peace and justice movement in this country,” Ruebner said. “I think that that attitude and mind-set has changed a great deal over the past five years, and that UFPJ has played a role in bringing the issue of Palestine and Palestinian human rights and U.S. support for Israeli occupation into the mainstream of the discourse of the peace and justice movement.”
Cagan said that the June rally will likely be UFPJ’s largest action so far relating to Israel. She said, however, that it would not be an anti-Israel event but rather a protest against Israeli policies. She said that UFPJ supports Israel’s right to exist, although the coalition’s Palestine/Israel Just Peace Working Group has stated that it “will not endorse a particular solution [for peace], such as two states, one state, the Geneva Initiative, the road map, etc.,” since its member groups have differing views on this issue.