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Organizing for a New Reality

By Nisrin Elamin

CNN and BBC headlines about Israeli withdrawals from Gaza, Iraqi sovereignty and Israel dropping Sharon’s bribery case have made me feel like some people are living a different reality than the rest of us. Never mind, that two brutal occupations persist and that plans for withdrawal, handing back power and restoring democracy and justice seem further away from reality than ever. Can we let what happened in Gaza and Abu Ghraib fall through the cracks and into oblivion so quickly? Can we allow flagrant U.S. and Israeli violations of international laws to continue without organizing internal opposition and dissent?

Those were some of the questions I was thinking about on my way to the 3rd Annual National Organizer’s Conference of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation that took place on June 4-7, 2004 in Washington D.C.

For many of the 150 or so participants from around the country the question of how to build and mobilize effective opposition to U.S. policies towards the Middle East has become more pressing than ever during these trying times. The conference opened with a beautiful commemoration and celebration of Edward Said’s life and continued legacy. Participants included Jeanette Ndhlovu, Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Republic of South Africa and Actor Danny Glover who tied the struggles for peace and justice in the Middle East to struggles for justice in the African diaspora past and present and to the need for continued and stronger solidarity between people around the world against militarism, economic exploitation and occupation.

Phyllis Bennis from the Institute for Policy Studies opened the actual conference on Saturday, by speaking about the teaching moments and opportunities that exist for us working around Israel/Palestine as support for the Bush administration’s occupation of Iraq diminishes. Her remarks were followed by a powerful speech by Reverend Hagler of the United Church of Christ who said: « We get very afraid that we are going to alienate allies in the struggle when it comes to Palestine…we need to risk alienating those who consider themselves allies when it comes to justice. » The first set of conference workshops focused on skills-building (fundraising, outreach, engaging the media etc…). These were followed by afternoon discussions on obstacles to and lessons learned from organizing around a just peace in Israel/Palestine. One workshop in particular led by former anti-Apartheid activist Dennis Brutus looked at lessons that can be drawn from anti-Apartheid organizing in South Africa around divestment, civil disobedience etc… According to Brutus one of the biggest myths about the international anti-apartheid movement was that everyone (in the U.S. and Europe) was against Apartheid and that it was easy to organize people against it. In reality, the anti-Apartheid movement in the U.S. began in the late 1950’s and was first marginalized as an « Anti-American communist group » and it took a long time for it to build the momentum it did in the 1980’s. Divestment organizing hence couldn’t be built around what could be won but rather how it could build the movement.

GRI’s workshop on developing education for action curricula focused on using popular education methodology to talk to people about the situation without over simplifying the complexities and nuances that surround these issues. One of the experiential exercises (from the Human Impact of Occupation section of our curriculum) we used gave people an opportunity to share personal stories and educate each other about life under occupation in the region illustrating the possibility and flexibility of popular education to create dialogue and shared learning around these issues.

On the last day of the conference we learned about the organizing challenges and successes from a panel of divestment activists…about the strides that have been made around the Caterpillar divestment campaign by buying shareholder stock and putting forward a resolution to investigate violations of their own code of conduct (Caterpillar bulldozers have been donated to Israel through the U.S. foreign military assistance program and have been used to destroy thousands of Palestinian homes), about students divestment successes and about the importance of looking at divestment as a organizing tool on college campuses, in cities and communities.

The rest of the conference was focused on discussing and defining the new campaign priorities for the coming year. The three existing priorities, Divestment, Organizing around the Wall and Legislative Advocacy were reaffirmed and organizing around the Dual Occupations of Iraq and Palestine (connecting more strongly to the anti-war coalitions) and the Right of Return were added to the list. The overall mission of influencing U.S. foreign policy and working under the framework of human rights and international law was also reaffirmed. In addition, task forces around media, resource/information sharing, outreach, legislative activism and non-violent direct action were proposed.

The conference was followed by a press conference and lobby day on Capitol Hill and a strengthened commitment by all 194 member groups of the U.S. campaign to continue working in our respective communities while building a stronger more effective coalition for a just peace in Israel/Palestine and beyond.