This is the story of how a powerful lobbying organization enlists black Americans – victims of oppression and state violence for centuries – to mask the suffering of another oppressed people. It is the story of how the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) strategically recruits and educates black leaders to defend Israel from critique. And it is the story of how Palestinians living under Israel’s occupation suffer in ways that reverberate upon America’s streets – where black bodies are bruised, bloodied and destroyed under the weight of police violence, mass incarceration, and disenfranchisement.
It is a story which begins – for our purposes – on June 9 at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC, where a public hearing on the Democratic Platform convened for two days of discussion and debate in advance of the Drafting Committee’s work in St. Louis at the end of June.
At this hearing, the DNC’s 15-member Platform Drafting Committee heard public testimony on and debated many aspects of the platform, working through domestic policy and foreign policy and finally arriving at Israel. When they did, Robert Wexler, President of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, sat before the committee and presented Hillary Clinton’s version of what the DNC platform should look like, making sure to list Israel’s legitimate security concerns while neglecting to articulate the suffering Palestinians endure. Needless to say, absent from Wexler’s testimony were the words “occupation” and “settlements.” Though he did make sure to condemn Palestinian civil society’s nonviolent Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, noting that Democrats must oppose outside forces pressuring Israel.
Sitting opposite Wexler was Cornel West, a prominent author, academic and BDS supporter, who resides on the Drafting Committee as one of five members appointed by Bernie Sanders. (Six were appointed by Clinton.) When Wexler finished his testimony, West had this to say:
“I think both of us can agree that a precious Palestinian baby in the West Bank has exactly the same value as a precious Jewish baby in Tel Aviv … A commitment to security for precious Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel can never be predicated on an occupation of precious Palestinians. If we’re concerned about security, it seems to me we’re going to have to talk seriously about occupation. I don’t know if you would allow the use of that word … but occupation is real. It’s concrete.”
“For too long, the Democratic Party has been beholden to an AIPAC that didn’t take seriously the humanity of Palestinian brothers and sisters. We’re at a turning point now, though of course it’s going to be a slow one in the Democratic Party … So my first question would be: one, would you argue for the use of the word occupation in the platform? And two, how would you respond to those who say for so long the United States has been so biased toward Israeli security and has not accented the humanity of Palestinians, such that to talk about evenhandedness is always a version of anti-Semitism as opposed to a struggle for justice?”
Wexler responded, saying “what you refer to as occupation” should be absent from the DNC platform. Why? To include mention of occupation and settlements would be to litigate sensitive issues which must be negotiated by Israelis and Palestinians themselves, not the Democratic Party. An absurd answer made even more so given Wexler, on Clinton’s behalf, advocated minutes before for Jerusalem to be recognized by Democrats as Israel’s capital, one such ‘sensitive’ issue.
When the public hearing had concluded, the Clinton camp’s position was known: it opposed West’s proposal to acknowledge Palestinian suffering in the Democratic Party Platform, as well as the nonviolent movement he champions. What wasn’t known was just who would prevail on this issue. What also wasn’t known at the time was that in a matter of days, AIPAC would quietly aid Clinton by enlisting black politicians and church leaders to counter West’s efforts on the Drafting Committee, as though the only natural way to counter a black intellectual is with other black intellectuals.