Fresh Tactics and New Voices in the Movement for Justice and Freedom in the Middle East


Rae Abileah disrupts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress on May 24, 2011. Her banner reads, “Occupying Land Is Indefensible.” She was later attacked by onlookers, rushed to the hospital, and then taken to jail. Credit: AFP/Getty (Saul Loeb).

“You can’t have these protests in the farcical parliaments of Tehran or Tripoli; this is real democracy,” bellowed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, responding to a Jewish woman who stood up to disrupt his speech at a joint session of Congress this past May. The activist was shouting about equal rights for Palestinians and an end to the Israeli Occupation. She was assaulted by members of the audience in the congressional gallery, rushed to the hospital, treated for a neck injury, arrested, and taken to jail.

I know all this because I was that woman.

From the chambers of Congress to the shores of the Mediterranean, nonviolent protesters are rising up against the Israeli Occupation in surprisingly innovative and effective ways. There’s a buzz, and it’s stirring the hive of the American Zionist establishment like never before as we, young Jews, apply our democratic values to the situation in Israel and Palestine.

Young Jews are organizing within the Jewish establishment across the country to speak out against the Occupation. Last fall a new youth outcrop of Jewish Voice for Peace emerged at the annual Jewish Federations of North America conference in New Orleans, where fourteen young Jews held their own leadership summit and penned a “Young  Jewish Declaration,” which states (in part):

We are punks and students and parents and janitors and rabbis and freedom fighters. We are your children, your nieces and nephews, your grandchildren…. We will not carry the legacy of terror…. We commit to re-envisioning “ homeland,” to make room for justice.

Five members of this new group, dubbed Young, Jewish, and Proud, then disrupted Netanyahu’s keynote address to the Federation with messages about what really delegitimizes Israel—the settlements, the Occupation, the siege of Gaza. The video of this action went viral and again broke the silence surrounding the Occupation in mainstream Jewish communities. Jewish youth are redefining an old adage to say, “Progressive includes Palestine!” As one of the founding members of Young, Jewish, and Proud, I have found in this organization a place to be “out” about my views on the Occupation while being fully present in my religious and spiritual life.

The international movement we are part of takes inspiration from the leadership of Palestinian civil society groups, village popular committees, and their Israeli allies as they organize against land theft, home demolitions, settler violence, and inequality before the law. Every Friday the West Bank villagers in Bil’in and Nil’in hold peaceful demonstrations against the encroaching “apartheid wall.” At Friday demonstrations in the village of Nabi Saleh, residents challenge the illegal theft of their land and natural spring water by the settlement of Halamish since January 2010. In an attempt to silence dissent, the Israeli army uses banned high-velocity tear gas projectiles, rubber-coated steel bullets, and at times live ammunition against unarmed civilians. Speaking on behalf of the European Union, Ambassador András Dékány stated, “The rights of Israeli and Palestinian human rights defenders protesting peacefully against settlements and the separation barrier are severely curtailed.”

In a speech prepared for his appearance in Israeli court regarding the blanket charge of incitement brought against him because of his work as the coordinator of the Nabi Saleh Popular Committee, Bassem Tamimi stated: “Land theft and tree burning are not just. Your military laws are not legitimate. Our peaceful protest is just. I organized these peaceful demonstrations to defend our land and our people.” Despite the jailing of their leaders, Palestinian villages continue their nonviolent struggle against the theft of their land and resources. But how much longer will the global community countenance Israel’s imprisonment of Palestinian Gandhis?

The Power of Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions

AHAVA protest

Nonviolent struggles against the Occupation are mobilizing a new generation of activists, like CODEPINK's international boycott of Ahava cosmetics. Credit: Creative Commons/CODEPINK.

Here in the United States, while lobbying Congress is important, it’s up to the grassroots to lead, seeing as our elected representatives are still in thrall to the far-right Israel lobby—the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) specifically.

Boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaigns offer a way for people to help take the profit out of the Occupation and to focus attention on Israel’s flagrant violations of international law. The demands of BDS are threefold: a withdrawal from the Occupied Palestinian Territories; the right of return for Palestinian refugees (in accordance with UN Resolution 194); and an end to legal discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. Taking as models the successful boycotts against South African Apartheid and the Jim Crow South, this new movement is moving from strength to strength.

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Whether via CODEPINK’s Stolen Beauty campaign against Occupation profiteer Ahava cosmetics, Jewish Voice for Peace’s TIAA-CREF Divestment Campaign, or Adalah-NY’s creative protests against diamond dealer and settlement-builder Lev Leviev, BDS offers activists a way to support human rights without waiting around for the U.S. government to broker a peace deal.

BDS is working. After pressure from European activists, the French transportation giant Veolia is pulling out of an Israeli light-rail project to connect Jerusalem to the settlements; Veolia continues to lose business from European municipalities unwilling to support a company that runs settler buses in the West Bank. Deutsche Bahn, the German railway operator, has pulled out of a new fast-train project, built between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and crossing the Green Line border twice. Belgian bank Dexia announced that it would sell its Israeli subsidiary in order to make sure it does not finance construction projects in illegal settlements. Ahava’s flagship U.K. store is being forced to move out of London’s trendy Covent Garden after two years of fortnightly demonstrations. And at the end of 2010 the major Dutch pension fund Pensioenfonds Zorg en Welzijn, which had investments totaling 97 billion euros, announced that it had divested from almost all the Israeli companies in its portfolio.

Israel Criminalizes Nonviolent Activism

So successful is this nonviolent tactic of exerting economic pressure that the Israeli Knesset responded in mid-July 2011 by passing a bill against supporters of boycotts against Israel. The new law makes calling for boycotts a civil tort. In a widely disseminated op-ed titled “It Can Happen Here,” Uri Avnery, leader of the Israeli peace movement Gush Shalom, wrote:

According to the law, any settler who feels that he has been harmed by the boycott can demand unlimited compensation from any person or organization calling for the boycott—without having to prove any actual damage. This means that each of the 300,000 settlers can claim millions from every single peace activist associated with the call for boycott, thus destroying the peace movement altogether.

Gush Shalom immediately appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court. Boycott from Within, an Israeli group that supports the Palestinian-led BDS movement, immediately vowed to continue boycotting and resisting.

Interestingly, even organizations that tend to decry BDS, such as the New Israel Fund and the Anti-Defamation League, issued statements condemning the anti-boycott law as undemocratic. Whatever the outcome of the anti-boycott law, one thing is clear: as occurred during the 2008 Israeli assault on Gaza and during the 2010 attack on the flotilla, yet another onion layer has been peeled back, exposing the Israeli regime’s violence and its repression of dissent. The veil of “real democracy” is finally wearing down.

The Jewish Federation has budgeted 6 million dollars over three years for a campaign aimed at undercutting the growing U.S.–based BDS Movement. Activist writer Alex Kane documented how the Jewish Federation and its partner, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, appear to be “following the recommendations of the Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank with close ties to the Israeli government, who called on the Israeli government to ‘sabotage’ and ‘attack’ the BDS movement in a February 2010 report.” It remains to be seen what the impact of this funding will be, but it will likely not make a dent in the decentralized and rapidly growing BDS movement.

The Jewish Federation claims to fundraise for “social welfare, social services, and education” and to enhance “the well-being of Jews worldwide through the values of tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedakah (charity and social justice) and Torah (Jewish learning).” But it is hard to see how destroying a nonviolent movement for justice could help “repair the world.” That’s why members of Young, Jewish, and Proud felt so compelled to be at the Jewish Federation’s conference with messages like “Tikkun Olam for Gaza Too” and “The Settlements Delegitimize Israel.”

President Obama, in his speech to AIPAC in May, said, “You also see our commitment to Israel’s security in our steadfast opposition to any attempt to delegitimize the State of Israel.” This reference to “delegitimization” is code for the BDS movement, but the truth is that BDS campaigns are not delegitimizing Israel. Rather, Israeli policies, supported by AIPAC, that deprive Palestinians of basic human rights by stealing their land, demolishing their homes, and stripping them of residency permits for Jerusalem, and that blockade and starve the entire population of the Gaza Strip—these are the things that delegitimize Israel.

New Tactics for a New Millennium

BDS activists have been employing traffic-stopping, high-energy flash mobs, Twitter culture jams, and YouTube videos to get out their pro–human rights message. Lady Gaga’s songs are a favorite for flash mob parodies, from “Telephone” (which was revamped to ask people to “hang up on Motorola” and features 86-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein), to “Bad Romance” turned “Bad Café,” rewritten as an appeal for New Yorkers not to patronize Aroma Café, an Israeli business that has storefronts in West Bank settlements. These short, lively clips are posted to YouTube and then viewed by audiences around the world. Over 50,000 people have watched the “Telephone” parody video.

Boston Poster

Started in Chicago by the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine, this billboard campaign has spread across the country, from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to the Park Street subway station in Boston (above). Credit:

Another exemplary campaign, started in Chicago by the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine, has used branded billboards featuring photographs of Palestinians and Israelis saying: “Be on our side. We are on the side of peace and justice. End military aid to Israel.” The “Two Peoples, One Future” ad campaign was designed to be replicable in other locations, and groups from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Washington, D.C., have posted the billboards in their communities.

In May hundreds of activists converged in D.C. for “Move Over AIPAC,” a series of workshops, performances, and protests held outside the annual AIPAC Policy Conference to call for an end to military aid to Israel. Unlike the heavy security at the closed conference across the street, organizers of the outdoor Move Over AIPAC rally created an open space for debate and discussion between AIPAC members and protesters. Speakers at the rallies emphasized that prioritizing 3 billion dollars a year in taxpayer money toward bombs and F-16s for a foreign occupying power is not in America’s best interest, particularly at a time when schools, parks, libraries, health care, and even Social Security are all on the federal spending chopping block.

During AIPAC’s annual evening gala on May 23, five nonviolent activists disrupted Netanyahu, two of whom were badly battered by AIPAC attendees. They carried signs about what is really “indefensible”: occupying land, bulldozing houses, starving Gaza, and so on. The following morning I spoke out during Netanyahu’s address to Congress and was badly hurt by assaults from audience members. These were not isolated incidents; whether inside the annual AIPAC Gala, on campus at the University of California, Irvine, or in other public venues, activists are calling out war crimes when Israeli officials come to speak.

Students for Justice in Palestine chapters have sprung up on college campuses across the United States. In Arizona and throughout the country, students are building bridges by combating walls—those built between Israel and the West Bank, and between the United States and Mexico, making “concrete connections” between the immigration reform and justice for Palestine movements.

“The wall in both countries is being built by the same Israeli company, Elbit Systems,” said Francesca Contreras, an active member of both Students for Justice in Palestine and the Immigrant Rights Coalition at Brown University. “Motorola, Caterpillar, Boeing and General Electric supply surveillance and military technologies to Israel and to the U.S.,” added Contreras, a Mexican-American Jew who spent her childhood in South Africa and Israel. “The same technology used at the U.S.-Mexico border is being tested and used by Israel and vice versa against Latino and Latina migrants, indigenous peoples, and Palestinians.”

Queer activists have organized to counter what they call Israel’s “pinkwashing,” whereby Israel touts itself as a gay-friendly democracy while committing human rights violations to maintain its illegal occupation of Palestinian communities. A recent delegation to Palestine by North American indigenous and women of color feminists released a statement upon their return denouncing the brutality of the Occupation and announcing their support for the BDS Movement. “As feminists,” the statement reads, “we deplore the Israeli practice of ‘pink-washing,’ the state’s use of ostensible support for gender and sexual equality to dress-up its occupation.”

Flotillas and “Flytillas”

International human rights activists converge again and again on boats attempting to break the crippling siege of Gaza in what’s come to be a household word: flotillas. A year ago the Israeli Navy attacked a flotilla carrying aid workers and humanitarian aid in international waters, killing nine civilians (including one American) and injuring dozens in an incident that caught fire in the global media.

The latest of such expeditions this past summer, the Gaza Freedom Flotilla II, attempted to sail ten boats from Europe, one of which was the U.S. boat to Gaza, the Audacity of Hope. Israel sent a letter to foreign journalists warning them that if they participated in the flotilla, they would be denied entry into Israel for ten years and their equipment would be impounded; Israel later rescinded this statement. Two ships were physically sabotaged. American and Israeli pressure on Greece prevented the U.S. boat from leaving; the French ship was able to set sail for Gaza but was seized by the Israelis on the way. Meanwhile a “flytilla” commenced as hundreds of international activists flew to Ben-Gurion airport, where they told border control agents of their intent to visit Palestine and were promptly deported. Every step of the way, the Israeli government exposed itself as unfriendly to international law and equal rights. As boat passenger and CODEPINK cofounder Medea Benjamin noted, “By torpedoing the Gaza Flotilla, Israel sunk its own ship.”

Arab Spring and Israeli Summer

Netanyahu applauded the United States and Israel for the “real democracy” apparently evident to him when I spoke up in Congress, the same “democracy” that resulted in my assault and arrest. Someone should inform him that in a real democracy, free speech is not met with brutality and arrest, as I faced, and as so many Palestinians face daily. Real democracy erupted in Tunisia last December. It surfaced in Tahrir Square on January 25, resulting in the toppling of Mubarak’s dictatorial reign, and spread to Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and beyond. The courage of Saudi Arabian women getting behind the wheel to challenge the country’s driving ban may also be attributed to the spread of the uprisings for freedom.

The Arab Spring inspired the Israeli Summer in late July when the revolutionary, populist spirit took hold of Israel’s middle class in the form of tent cities on Tel Aviv’s exclusive Rothschild Boulevard, where thousands of Israelis camped out, protesting the lack of affordable housing, gas, and food. Hundreds of thousands rallied in Tel Aviv and outside the prime minister’s home in Jerusalem. Settlers trying to latch on to the cause appeared at the mass demonstrations with signs announcing that the solution to the middle-class revolt was to increase settlement construction in “Judea and Samaria” and make Israel a place for “Jews only.” Meanwhile unlikely alliances formed between the Jewish community from Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood and the Arabs from Jaffa. The Coalition of Women for Peace set up a “No. 1948 Tent” and began leading workshops on the Occupation. And around the tent cities, signs popped up reading “Mubarak, Assad, Netanyahu,” as Netanyahu’s approval ratings plummeted to 32 percent at the start of August.

At the heart of protests happening throughout the region, and even here at home, is what Amos Oz beautifully described as, “the affront and outrage over the government’s indifference to the people’s suffering, the double standard against the working population and the destruction of social solidarity.” The excitement and optimism of the completely decentralized, people-powered tent communities that sprang up in Israel seems to be contagious (I know I for one caught the freedom fever and stay up late reading twitter threads with #J14, denoting the day the protests began in July).

Protesters say they are acting in the name of social justice, but since they are not centrally including demands for rights and equality for Palestinians, their vision of justice is unclear. Israeli journalist Amira Hass predicted:

In the coming months, as the movement grows, it will split. Some will continue to think and demand “justice” within the borders of one nation, always at the expense of the other nation that lives in this land. Others, however, will understand that this will never be a country of justice and welfare if it is not a state of all its citizens.

Energizing Activists in the United States

At home in the United States, a key feature of “real democracy” is the direct relationship between legislators and constituents, many of whom found out their representatives would not be home in their districts during this past August recess because of trips to Israel with an AIPAC affiliate. In the aftermath of the divisive debt deal and during a critical time for Americans struggling in the recession, eighty-one congressional representatives took the Israel junket instead of returning home to work on domestic needs.

Nabi Saleh Protest

Young Palestinians demonstrate weekly in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh (above). Credit: Kara Newhouse.

Surely AIPAC and the American Israel Educational Foundation did not give our representatives a fair and balanced view of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. They didn’t observe one of the weekly demonstrations in Bi’lin or Nabi Saleh, or spend time with grieving Palestinians whose homes were demolished to make way for more Jewish-only housing. They likely didn’t spend a few hours at a checkpoint to witness how Palestinians are detained, abused, and humiliated. They didn’t go to Gaza, where 1.5 million people are suffering under an unbearable siege, unable to travel freely, conduct business transactions across borders, or even rebuild their homes destroyed by the Israeli invasion. And visiting the burgeoning tent cities in Tel Aviv was not on their agenda, though perhaps it created some traffic that made our elected officials reflect on the poor economic situation at home. As Medea Benjamin noted in a blog post, “Going on an AIPAC-sponsored trip to Israel is the moral equivalent of using an Anglo-Boer travel company to visit apartheid-era South Africa.”

A far better trip to take is the journey toward justice that American and international activists have commenced. Seeing that an end to the Occupation, oppression, and segregation of the Palestinian people is not only necessary morally and legally, but is also in the best interest of Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans, more people are increasingly compelled to take action. And with so many ways to creatively affect policy, make waves in the media, and transform public opinion, there’s a path toward engagement for anyone seeking to get involved in this movement for equal rights.

Responding to the assault I experienced in Congress, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, author of The Torah of Nonviolence and a frequent contributor to Tikkun, commented that physical assault is against both American and Jewish law—“Do not envy a man of violence nor follow any of his ways” (Proverbs 3:31)—and stated that by becoming a bystander and watching a physical assault without making an effort to stop it, one is committing a sin of omission. Being an appalled onlooker is no longer acceptable. Now is the time to join the inspiring and growing movement for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East … and here at home.

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