By Medea Benjamin
While I was being tackled by security guards at Washington’s Convention Center during the AIPAC conference for unfurling a banner that asked “What about Gaza?,” my heart was aching. I wasn’t bothered so much by the burly guards who were yanking my arms behind by back and dragging me-along with 5 other CODEPINK members-out of the hall. They were doing their job.
What made my heart ache was the hatred I felt from the AIPAC staff who tore up the banner and slammed their hands across my mouth as I tried to yell out: “What about Gaza? What about the children?”
“Shut the f— up. Shut the f— up.” one staffer yelled, red-faced and sweating as he ran beside me. “This is not the place to be saying that shit. Get the f— out of here.”
What makes my heart ache is thinking about the traumatized children I met on my recent trip to Gaza, and how their suffering is denied by the 6,000 AIPAC conventioneers who are living in a bubble-a bubble where Israel is the victim and all critics are anti-Semitic, terrorist lovers or, as in my case, self-hating Jews.
I found it fascinating that AIPAC’s executive director Howard Kohr opened the conference admitting that there was now a huge, international campaign against the policies of Israel. He painted a picture of 30,000 people marching in Spain, Italian trade unionists calling for a boycott of Israeli products, the UN Human Rights Council passing 26 resolutions condemning Israel, an Israeli Apartheid Week that is building a global boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign.
This global movement, he warned, emanates from the Middle East, echoes in the halls of the United Nations and the capitals of Europe, is voiced in meetings of international peace organizations, and is spreading throughout the United States-from the media to town hall meetings, from campuses to city squares. “No longer is this campaign confined to the ravings of the political far left or far right,” he lamented, “but increasingly it is entering the American mainstream.”
But Kohr failed to explain why there has been such an explosion in this movement, even among the American Jewish community. He didn’t tell the attendees that the world was shocked and outraged by Israel’s devastating 22-day attack on Gaza that left over 1,300 people dead-mostly women and children. He didn’t mention the killing of civilians fleeing their homes, the use of white phosphorous, the bombing of homes, schools, mosques, hospitals, UN buildings, factories. He didn’t talk about the continuing, cruel blockade of the Gaza Strip that is keeping desperately needed humanitarian aid from reaching 1.5 million people and making rebuilding impossible.
There were no seminars at the conference by human rights groups like Amnesty International that are calling for an immediate and comprehensive suspension of arms to Israel. Instead, one after another, U.S. elected officials eager to curry favor with AIPAC pledged continued U.S. financial support for Israel. Senator Kerry, despite that fact that he was one of only a handful of legislators who visited Gaza, didn’t say one word about the massive destruction he witnessed and pledged that as Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he would do everything to ensure that the $30 billion in military aid to Israel is “delivered in full.” “America will continue our military aid, and Israel will keep its military strength,” he insisted. Instead of calling for talks with the democratically elected government of Hamas, Kerry said: “Hamas has already won one election-we cannot allow them to win another.” He ended his speech shouting several times in Hebrew, “Am Yisrael Chai-Israel lives!”
Even Vice President Biden, who at least told AIPAC that Israel should freeze new settlement activity, didn’t say a word about the ongoing humanitarian crisis caused by Israel’s invasion and continued blockade of Gaza. No U.S. officials, and there were hundreds at the conference, dared echo the call of the United Nations or the world community to lift the siege of Gaza.
Republican Congressman Eric Cantor was one of the most emotional speakers, portraying Israel as the victim of an evil global movement determined to wipe out Israel and all Jews. Evoking the “shivering, naked victims who were herded into the gas chambers,” he wondered when it would become too late to protect Israel. “When is it too late?”, he repeated over and over.
I wonder the same thing. When is it too late, I wonder, to stop Israel from destroying itself? When is it too late to tell AIPAC attendees that more violence and hatred is not the answer? When is it too late to open the hardened hearts of my people, once victims of a terrible holocaust, to realize that by occupying Palestine we have become they evil we deplore? When is it too late to restore meaning to the Hebrew term “tikkun olam” by truly working to heal the world? When is it too late for the Jews of the world to weep for the children of Gaza, recognizing that they, too, are the children of God?
I couldn’t ask my questions at AIPAC. My mouth was muzzled by the sweaty hands of hate-filled staffers demanding that I “shut the f— up.” But despite AIPAC’s massive funds and influence, I feel certain that more and more members of the Jewish community will step forward and refuse to be silent. I just pray it is not too late.