ANSWER, Israel and the antiwar movement

The agreement of the two main US antiwar coalitions to sponsor a joint demonstration on Saturday in Washington has caused at least one Jewish group to withdraw.

Writing to the Jewish newspaper The Forward, Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center criticizes Jewish organizations that fail to oppose the Iraq war. But his real anger is aimed at the ANSWER Coalition and United for Peace and Justice:

There is a broad spectrum of organizations that opposed the invasion of Iraq and is working to end the American military presence there. Many of these groups are also critical of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. That’s not terrible — after all, so are you.

But some of these anti-war activists taint their opposition by demonizing the whole of Israeli society and by refusing to criticize the “violence of the oppressed,” even when it includes terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians by Palestinian groups. Their misguided views make it much easier for some parts of mainstream America to reciprocally demonize the entire anti-war camp and deprive it of support.

They have posed a problem to a major anti-war rally scheduled for September 24 in Washington. The broad anti-war group organizing the weekend-long gathering, United for Peace and Justice, had insisted for months that on principle it would not co-sponsor the event with Act Now to Stop War & End Racism, an ultra-left fraction, known as ANSWER, that has a bitterly anti-Israel policy.

But just three weeks before the event, United for Peace and Justice agreed to do just that. The Shalom Center had been urging Jewish support for the anti-war weekend, and we and many other progressives felt betrayed and outraged by the change.

Why did United for Peace and Justice switch positions? When I asked the group’s head, Leslie Cagan, she said that local groups were troubled by “disunity,” that they were querulous about the prospect of having to choose the rally to which their buses would go. I said that United for Peace and Justice could have repeated its principled position and told the local groups they would need to choose — challenging them to be adults. She sighed.

(For those keeping score, ANSWER is no longer a front for the quasi-Stalinist Workers World Party and its International Action Center. In 2004 a substantial number of WWP members split to form the quasi-Stalinist Party for Socialism and Liberation, and took ANSWER with them. The WWP now has a new antiwar front group, the Troops Out Now Coalition. Despite the split, ANSWER and TONC seem to work closely together.)

Instead of joining the demonstration, Waskow wrote, the Shalom Center will hold its own event:

We are organizing a special Sabbath service, focused on pursuing peace, at the 6th and I Street Historic Synagogue in Washington, during the same period on Saturday morning when ANSWER will be on the podium.

Another leftwing Jewish group, the Workmen’s Circle in Los Angeles, will participate in the antiwar activities scheduled for the same day in that city. But in an open letter to ANSWER, they wrote:

As soon as we printed off the flyer to distribute, our hearts sank. The image illustrating the poster featured not an Iraq demo but a woman wearing a “Free Palestine” t-shirt and a demonstrator holding a sign saying, “Stand up against Israel’s terror,” in a crowd dotted with Palestinian flags. The text beneath it has “Support the Palestinian People’s Right of Return” (standard code language for the end of Israel as a Jewish state) as the second demand.

Jewish anti-war activists have long observed, and protested, that anti-Semitism in the left and the anti-war movement impedes our participation, frustrating our cooperation with the wider movement for social change. The overwhelming emphasis on Israel as the world power committing wrongful acts is so misguided, so obstructionist. It is extremely dispiriting to see it repeated yet again. Regardless of our positions on an eventual resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, indeed on the complex sources of that conflict, the simpleminded conflation of what is happening there with what is happening in Iraq, and an assumption of identity of purpose between the Israeli and American governments, is a strategy that reduces great historical movements to a few “militant”-sounding slogans that are objectively not just anti-Israel but anti-Jewish.

So you don’t have to be hawkish to be deeply disturbed by the anti-Israel obssession among a large part of the antiwar movement. And you don’t have to be Jewish either.

(Hat tip: Stuart Elliott of New Appeal to Reason.)