OREGON DEM PARTY LEADERS TURN OUT FOR PRO-WAR AIPAC DINNER
Leading Oregon Democrats participated in annual Oregon AIPAC dinner on 5/21. The themes endorsed by keynote speakers featured a right-wing pro-Israeli view against negotiation with Palestinians or other Arabs. Strident anti-Iran rhetoric was an end-note. Most of the entanglement of Democratic Party leadership with AIPAC goes under-reported, though it undermines the anti-war movement.
[This article is also in the July Portland Alliance newspaper.]
"I believe that a much-needed self-examination of American policy in the Middle East has started in this country; but it can't make much headway as long as AIPAC retains powerful influence in both the Democratic and Republican parties." - George Soros, billionaire investor, philanthropist, and political activist.
On May 21st, Oregon Democratic leaders joined more than 300 Oregonians to attend the annual community dinner held by the right wing Israel lobby organization, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. AIPAC is the strongest foreign policy lobby group in the United States (and arguably stronger than the grassroots peace movement). It was held at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. Politicians attending the $60 a plate included Oregon State House Speaker Jeff Merkley (D-Portland) who is running against Senator Gordon Smith next fall, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem), Sen. Vicki Walker (D-Eugene), Sen. Ben Westlund (D-Tumalo), Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland), and Rep. Brad Witt (D-Clatskanie). No Republican politicians, as far as we can determine, were mentioned at the event, strange considering, for example, that Gordon Smith as been a reliable vote for the AIPAC lobby.
The gala began with singing from the Neve-Shalom choir, and then a video set to inspirational music and portraying the history of Israel and the U.S.'s close relationship. All around were the flags and other trappings of Israeli and American nationalism. On the tables were cards with the Israeli and U.S. anthems. On one side was the Hatikvah, Israel's national anthem, which speaks about the Jewish longing for a homeland. Not incidentally, Israel's non-Jewish Palestinian citizens (20% of the population) feel excluded by the ethnic nature of the song. On the other side, the Star Spangled Banner on a background with the American flag folded into the shape of the Star of David, a symbol of the Jewish State of Israel, suggestive of a 51st state. On each table were donation envelopes where a suggested donation of $36,000 purchased induction into the "Chairman's Council" of AIPAC for one year, and red, white, and Israeli blue pens with the rotating message: "When AIPAC Mobilizes, Call Your Representative, 202.225.3121". Recently made famous by Barack Obama, lapel pins with the Israeli and American flags joined together were handed out to each participant.
Before the two keynote speakers took to the podium, recognition was given to a group of people that made up a notable presence at the dinner: youth. The semi-formal dinner was a family event, with many children present. Recognition was given to youth programs that promote the cause of AIPAC, and, in particular, college students who promote AIPAC on campuses.
There were two main speakers that evening, Elliot Brandt and Ambassador Marc Ginsberg. Elliot Brandt is the AIPAC Western States Director, who manages AIPAC activities in thirteen states with a staff of forty. The keynote speaker was Ambassador Marc Ginsberg, senior vice president of APCO Worldwide and CEO of Northstar Equity Group. Ginsberg coordinates APCO's efforts with Layalina Arab Television, a private not-for-profit Arab language television production company with headquarters in Washington, D.C., and Amman, Jordan aimed at "addressing U.S. image challenges in the Middle East." Ginsberg was described as Fox News Channel's principal global affairs commentator.
FEAR AND MORE FEAR
Brandt spoke of the threat faced to Israel's population from the rocket attacks from Gaza, going on at length to describe the suffering of Israel's under missile attack. He pictured for the audience "you have somewhere between 15 and 20 seconds to literally figure out where you are, where your family is, where your children are." This is an experience shared by families in Gaza, but Palestinian experiences were never mentioned during the evening. (Amy Goodman recently reported that 8 Israelis have died since Israel abandoned the Gaza settlements, while hundreds of Palestinians have died as the result of Israel's actions.) Several rounds of longer range Katyusha rockets have hit the Israeli city of Aschelon -- Brandt stated that "it is an untenable situation that will test the mettle and resolve of the U.S. - Israel relationship." Also mentioned were Syria's suspected (but not yet proven) nuclear program and Iran's nuclear program as well as the threats posed by Hamas and Hezbollah, all treated simply as pawns of Iran lacking in their own agendas, grievances, or aspirations.
FOES OF ISRAEL
Brandt bemoaned "we are seeing the mainstreaming of some of the worst anti-Israel, and in some cases, anti-Semitic ideology and rhetoric." He went on to talk about Jimmy Carter and his book Palestine, Peace not Apartheid, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (authors of The Israel Lobby), former CIA employee Michael Scheuer (Imperial Hubris), and also Ralph Nader. These writers and activists have been critical of Israel's policies and of America's one sided support for them and critical of America's policies against the people of the Middle East. And what does Brandt think motivates our former President and these other people? Brandt believes that "what motivates them is the fact that America has stood with Israel" and that "they do not believe in that relationship." A pure and simple and meaningless critique which ignores the obvious facts: Israel's expanding settlements on Palestinian (and Syrian) lands, demolition of homes, destruction of crops and schools, Israel's aggressive use of force on civilian populations, and Israel's continuing 40 years of occupation are simply never discussed.
BI-PARTISAN ISRAEL SUPPORT
Washing his hands of Carter, Brandt touted the incredible degree of support for Israel in Congress: the new thirty billion dollar military aid package for Israel, the vote in favor of Israel's punishment of Lebanon (417-0), the vote in support of Israel's punishment of Gaza (404-1).
This support he notes does not come automatically, but through the incredible hard work of AIPAC and its supporters. In AIPAC's last cycle, more than 40 members of Congress went to Israel on trips sponsored by AIPAC and these trips are happening each and every year. AIPAC attempts to meet with every member of Congress several times a year, every candidate for Congress at least once because "by the time they are elected it is almost too late." AIPAC can muster a flurry of emails, faxes, and phone calls in support of their issues.
Governor Kulongoski said before the 2006 AIPAC dinner in Portland that "Support for AIPAC is an article of faith for both political parties." Brandt echoed that sentiment and suggested that support for Israel and AIPAC's efforts are one of the few issues that bring together both political parties and support for Israel serves to bind American politicians together in bi-partisan camaraderie.
Brandt noted that the "bedrock of support for America's relationship with Israel has always been the United States Congress." Unfortunately, Jeff Merkley and some of Oregon's State representatives and senators were present to take in that important message.
FOMENTING WAR WITH IRAN
Both speakers made it clear that the number one threat was Iran, and that the job of AIPAC was to promote aggressive American action and create support for military action with the American public. Ginsberg believes "that we have fallen so far behind in our efforts to confront Iran that the Iranians are actually going to be able to produce a weapon underneath our noses. And the question ultimately is: Will Israel have to militarily act? Will the United States have to militarily act? Will there be a joint effort? Will the world support Israel and the United States? And, most importantly, will the American people?"
Ginsberg had been "spending an enormous amount of time on Fox News looking at Iran's program" and proclaimed that "it's a call to arms that the Americans, ultimately, would be willing to hear. But it's going to take an enormous amount of effort by all of us."
Iran is presented as a backwards, abnormal country with a leader filled with a toxic hatred of Israel rooted in religious ideology and developing nuclear weapons in secret. Diplomacy is only a brief stopping point on the way to confrontation.
Ginsberg stated that "We cannot have a partisan debate about Iran; we must have a bipartisan solidarity and an approach that ultimately is not a war to defend Israel but a war ultimately to defend the United States."
HOW POWERFUL IS AIPAC?
The actual power of AIPAC and the Israel lobby is a subject of considerable debate, particularly since Walt and Mearsheimer's analysis /The Israel Lobby/ was published. Stephen Zunes argues that the lobby's power is less important than the basic imperial interests guiding U.S. foreign policy and notes that the United States has supported right wing regimes and combated left wing governments all over the world without the presence of a well organized ethnic or country-specific lobby like AIPAC. Uri Avnery, observing the spectacle of AIPAC's recent national convention where Obama seemed to move sharply to the right, marveled "The most extreme conclusions of professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt were confirmed in their entirety." Still, Avnery avers, that "The more I think about this wondrous phenomenon, the stronger becomes my conviction (about which I have already written in the past) that what really matters is the similarity between the American enterprise and the Zionist one, both in the spiritual and the practical sphere. Israel is a small America, the USA is a huge Israel." For the activist on the ground, watching politician after politician make their way to the stage, both here in Oregon and in Washington D.C., and give their one-sided support for Israel with statements that often seem written directly by AIPAC, it is difficult to believe that the lobby's power is not real and does not have a real impact on the direction of American policy.
THE WAY FORWARD
Anti-war progressives cannot afford to ignore the influence of AIPAC any longer. Our advocacy for a just and progressive vision of America's role in the world, particularly the Middle East, is deeply threatened by our politician's support for and enmeshment with AIPAC. As we promote alternatives, well-funded AIPAC is busy building relationships and loyalty with the very representatives we seek to influence.
When Democrats who consider themselves anti-war attend an AIPAC event, activists should be concerned. Notice the flack Obama is now getting from those sharing AIPAC's views for his trying to frame a foreign policy that includes elements of dialogue in the Middle East: you can look into the archives of "Democracy Now" or the "Daily Show" to see how Obama and McCain pandered to this lobby at a recent national AIPAC event. As much as AIPAC's clout impacts the future of Palestinians, it also affects Syrians, Lebanese, Iranians, and the entire Middle East.
Steps we could take as a starting point include:
First, AIPAC's activities must see the light of day. There must be political costs for politicians to go to AIPAC events and take AIPAC trips. It is up to us to make it more uncomfortable and politically unpalatable for politicians to engage in this behavior. If a politician must go on one of these trips, we can encourage them to go to the occupied Palestinian territories and hear from Palestinians as well. We can start by making sure that all AIPAC events in Oregon are monitored and protested and that politicians who attend their events and take their trips are challenged directly. Increasing the political cost will make it more likely that politicians can break free of this influence. We can ask why the Oregonian does not cover AIPAC events (when the New York Times covers national AIPAC events).
Second, we need to support Jewish and other alternatives to AIPAC. There are effective, hardworking Jewish groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and Brit Tzedek v'Shalom working to provide an alternative vision. There are new lobby organizations like J Street and AAPER (American Association for Palestinian Equal Rights) that show promise.
Third, we need to provide a progressive forum that engages politicians on these issues. Why can't the Oregon anti-war community have a community dinner that brings politicians in to listen to our vision?
Fourth, we need to engage the youth and provide an alternative vision on college campuses and support student groups working on these issues. We must challenge the trend to eliminate academics that are critical of Israel.
Finally, we need to encourage and help the Arab American community build its own influence with Congress and Oregon politicians.
To Learn More:
George Soros, "On Israel, America and AIPAC", April 12, 2007
"Daily Show" take on recent AIPAC speeches by Obama, McCain, and Clinton:
"Candidates Appear at AIPAC",
LegiStorm, "Transparency's sidekick", monitors junkets, of U.S. Congress, www.legistorm.com. Since 2000, members of Congress took 617 trips to China (a country with 1.3 billion people) and took 696 trips to Israel (a country with 7.3 million people).
No, I Can't! Obama, Israel and AIPAC, Uri Avnery, http://www.counterpunch.com/avnery06092008.html
The Israel Lobby: How Powerful is it Really? Stephen Zunes,
The authors participate in local Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights, www.auphr.com, (503) 287-1885, www.auphr.com.
address: PO Box 12054, Portland, OR 97212
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