When the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) comes to town, demonstrations are sure to follow and, on Monday night, December 13, Oakland was no exception.
AIPAC is recognized as one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington, DC. Its annual meetings in Washington draw crowds of 5,000 — an event topped only by the President’s State of the Union Address. With 100,000 members and a $65 million budget, AIPAC’s political clout holds sway over two-thirds of the House and one half of the Senate. AIPAC supported the invasion of Iraq, backs a military strike on Iran, defends Israel’s “Annexation Wall” and calls for expanded settlements in the Occupied Territories. AIPAC also was embroiled in an espionage scandal after two of its top officers were caught passing “national security information to foreign government agents.” (A former defense official is now serving a 12.5-year prison sentence for violating the US Espionage Act.)
For its Oakland event, AIPAC had scheduled a 7 PM dinner at the Marriot Hotel on Broadway. Hundreds of “honored dignitaries” were invited to hear keynote speaker Rep. Shelly Berkeley (D-Las Vegas), a friend of the Zionist Organization of America and Christians United for Israel who was described as “a strong proponent of natural growth in the settlements.”
By 5 PM, more than 100 demonstrators had gathered on the sidewalks outside the hotel. (Some demonstrators opposed to the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands had gathered at 11AM for a public reading of the Goldstone Report, a UN paper that criticized both the Israeli government and Hamas for human rights abuses). A ten-member marching band danced down Broadway to join the anti-AIPAC crowd bringing a note of hand-clapping merriment to the protest.
The demonstrations were loud but peaceful. The only things being hurled were political chants. “2, 4, 6, 8, Stop the Jihad; End the Hate” was met with cries of “2, 4, 6, 8, Israel Is a Racist State.” “AIPAC, AIPAC! You Can’t Hide; We Charge You With Genocide,” was answered with “Racist, Sexist, Anti-gay; Islamofascists, Go Away.” The most disagreeable rants seemed to be confined to online blogs where one AIPAC supporter referred to the StopAIPAC coalition as “the usual pack of brainwashed supporters of extremist Islamic misogyny and Jew-hate.”
AIPAC’s Oakland event was one of four held at different Bay Area venues (a second dinner was slated for Tuesday in San Francisco). About 14 pro-Israel demonstrators could be counted waving Israeli and US flags while, on the other side of the Marriot’s curving driveway, about 75 anti-AIPAC protestors waved signs and invited passersby to gather informational leaflets and sign petitions demanding that California take steps to divest from companies doing business in Israel.
In addition to flags, the “pro” forces had two large posters propped against the Marriot’s wall. One poster featured a quote attributed to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Peace for Israel means security and we must stand with all our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity.” “King visited Israel twice,” a demonstrator explained. “He said that two weeks before he was shot.”
If there was a competition over quotations, however, the antis clearly won, with critics of the Occupation ranging from President Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, British Parliamentarian Sir Gerald Kaufman and Princeton Prof. Richard Falk to Israeli journalist and Ha’aretz correspondent Amira Haas.
If there was a competition over intellectual content and documentation, the antis clearly won on that count as well.
Stand with Us and San Francisco Voice for Israel offered a flyer that reprinted the photos of gun-wielding children on one side and, on the other side, offered quotes from the Hamas Charter, including: “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad.”
The second of the two large Stand with Us posters was topped with a Nelson Mandela quote: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” The rest of the poster was filled with photographs of the same (presumably Palestinian) children holding pistols and assault rifles. One photo showed a young boy proudly displaying a belt of explosives wrapped around his waist. Alongside was a “martyr photo” of a suicide bomber and her young son, both dressed for sacrifice. (The display left some wondering if this is the frame through which the poster artist actually views all Palestinian children.)
The antis, however, came equipped with a much more impressive array of documentation.
There were postcards from TwoPeoplesOneFuture.org promoting “Fast Facts” — i.e., $58.6 billion (The amount of US military aid to Israel from 1949-2008); $30 billion (The amount of US military air to Israel from FY 2009-2018); 500,000 (The number of Israeli settlers occupying Palestinian land in violation of international law); 1,084 (The number of Israelis killed by Palestinians from September 29, 2000-August 31, 2010); 6,408 (The number of Palestinians killed by Israelis during the same period).
A display on an adjacent kiosk pointed out that Alameda County would be spending $184,523,517 to finance the Pentagon’s military aid package to Israel for FY 2009-2018. Had those funds stayed at home, the display claims, the money could have provided 149,436 people with primary healthcare for a year.
Another poster contained a quote unearthed by Planet contributor Richard Brenneman. The speaker is AIPAC’s Leadership Development Director Jonathan Kessler: “How are we going to beat back the anti-divestment resolution at [UC] Berkeley? We’re going to make certain that pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote. That is how AIPAC operates in the nation’s capitol. This is how AIPAC must operate on our nation’s campuses.”
One kiosk highlights a list of direct actions. In addition to signing the California divestment petition and calling for an end to US military aid to Israel, there is a call to boycott certain products including Ahava Cosmetics (“Stolen from the Dead Sea in the Occupied Territories”) and Sabra Hummus (whose owner allegedly supports the military occupation).
There was a kiosk covered with family photos of people who had lost their lives during Operation Cast Lead, the devastating Israeli attack that killed 1,347 Palestinians, including 300 children. The bombs used to destroy Palestinian homes and schools were paid for by US taxpayers. (Sadly, seeing photographs of unarmed children burned, mutilated and killed in Israeli Defense Force raids suggests why one might expect to see other photos showing children posing with guns.) One photograph stays in the mind. It is a close-up of a beautiful, five-year-old boy. His eyes are wide-open and he appears to be smiling. And then you notice the two bullet holes in his chest.
Arrests at the Entryway
Around 6, a young man runs through the crowd with a message that “they’re arresting nonviolent protestors around the corner!” A good part of the crowd (including the marching band) moves down 10th street to the entrance to the Conference Center where police have arrested seven anti-AIPAC protestors. Leslie Angeline, Martha Hubert, Janet Kobren, Noura Khori, Valerie Ortiz, Gene St. Onge, Peter Tcherneff are handcuffed and quietly escorted from the scene.
But the most memorable demonstration may have been the one staged by a single young man who paused and placed a prayer mat in the path leading to the Marriot’s entrance. As AIPAC’s guests walked to the dinner, they had to pause and walk around a young Muslim engaged in quiet devotion.
The anti-AIPAC protest was endorsed by a coalition that included Progressive Democrats of America-East Bay, Middle East Study Group, Middle East Children’s Alliance, Bay Area Women in Black, Students for Justice in Palestine, 14 Friends of Palestine, Richmond Progressive Alliance, American Friends Service Committee, Code Pink, Jewish Voice for Peace, ANSWER, Friends of Deir Ibzi’a.