“Support for the Palestinian struggle in the United States is out of the closet”

Editorial note: While today Palestine is not a divisive issue on the left, this was not the case even 20 years ago. The following text from 2002 is reposted from Liberation News. For more background on the split in the anti-Iraq war movement over the question of Palestine, see ANSWER’s position on unity in the anti-war movement.

Liberation News introduction

This article was written in 2002 by Brian Becker, National Coordinator of ANSWER Coalition. It was published shortly after ANSWER’s April 20, 2002 demonstration in solidarity with the people of Palestine, which was a direct response to the Israeli re-invasion of the West Bank that began in March 2002.

The April 20, 2002 mobilization was a historic event. It not only put the Palestinian liberation struggle center stage in an anti-war movement that was largely divided over the Palestine question, but it also, at the time, represented the largest pro-Palestine event in U.S. history. The article reflects on the dominant political orientations present within the anti-war movement in 2002, as well as differences in tactics and messaging.

Twenty-one years later, progressive forces converged again in Washington, D.C. just a few weeks ago on Nov. 4 for yet another historic rally: 500,000 joined the mass demonstration against the U.S.-backed Israeli genocide against Gaza, in what was again hailed as the largest pro-Palestine event in U.S. history. In 2023, the issue of Palestine is much less taboo than it was in 2002.

Today, mass mobilizations in support of Gaza are rapidly growing in size and frequency across the country. The momentum is ours, yet some of even the most “progressive” politicians waver on — if not outright reject — the people’s demands for an immediate ceasefire and ending all U.S. aid to Israel. Thus, this article remains instructive for those in the anti-war movement today in its key takeaways: It warns us not to make the same tactical errors of ceding our anti-imperialist political program in the hopes of rallying support from these politicians and building a more progressive wing within the liberal establishment. Doing so would be to abandon the Palestinian cause for the sake of a dead end attempt at reforming the Democratic party.

Why the April 20 protest can be called ‘historic’

How will the April 20 mobilization in Washington, D.C., be remembered in the history of the anti-war and anti-imperialist movement in the United States? What are the most important lessons to be learned from this mobilization that drew more than 100,000 people in the biggest protest to date against the Bush administration’s foreign and domestic political program?

Since there have been many Washington demonstrations over the years organized by both progressive and reactionary organizations, it requires something special to suggest that a particular demonstration has achieved a lasting or historically noteworthy status. Very few mass actions take on decisive importance in the historical process, the exception being revolutions or counter-revolutions — but a mass demonstration assumes special “historical” importance if it signifies the development of something new in society, or at least a sharp turn or breakthrough for a mass movement.

By that definition, the April 20 mobilization will be remembered as a historical moment.

Its historical value resides not only in the singularly important fact that it was the biggest demonstration in solidarity with the resistance movement of the Palestinian people in U.S. history. It also constituted a breakthrough for the U.S. anti-war movement and a repudiation of the shameful, backward political legacy of ignoring the just cause of the Palestinian people.

The fact that the demonstration represented something entirely new was not lost on the dominant big-business media in Washington. “Demonstrators Rally to Palestinian Cause” was the banner headline on the front page of The Washington Post under a three-column color photo of the huge throng. The article cited organizers at the ANSWER coalition rally at the White House who asserted that the event was the biggest pro-Palestinian event in U.S. history.

The Post article also quoted the police estimate of 75,000 people at the various converging demonstrations. Everyone familiar with police crowd estimates knows they are notoriously low for progressive activities.

While many issues were raised at the April 20 events, it was clear to all that the Palestinian resistance to U.S.-supported Israeli occupation was central. Support for the Palestinian struggle in the United States is out of the closet, so to speak.

Its historic legitimacy—which important sectors of the traditional peace and pacifist movement have denied for decades—has been boldly affirmed by a new anti-war movement that has arisen in the United States. This growing momentum for solidarity with the Palestinian people is bound to resonate throughout the entire progressive movement.

Bravely resisting the racist furor

The April 20 mass mobilization had far-reaching consequences in one other way: It represented the courageous reassertion of mass, public political life by the Arab-American, South Asian, and Muslim communities in the United States after Sept. 11, 2001. That tens of thousands of people from these communities came to the White House rally was remarkable given the racist frenzy since Sept. 11.

These communities have been demonized as “terrorists.” Thousands have been illegally detained. Tens of thousands have been “visited” by the FBI.

Even mainstream organizations and charities like the Holy Land Foundation have had their offices and assets seized for “aiding terrorists” because they made political statements in support of the Palestinian cause.

Two coalitions: Two political orientations

The April 20 mobilization was primarily the work of two distinct anti-war coalitions: the ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism) coalition, and the United We March Coalition. There were many differences in the two coalitions’ political programs and strategic orientation. The most notable had to do with the struggle of the Palestinian people.

From the beginning, both coalitions had addressed many issues related to the Bush administration’s so-called war on terrorism. But ANSWER had specifically embraced the cause of the Palestinian people and their anti-colonial resistance to Israeli occupation. The United We March coalition stated that they could not come to a consensus within their coalition. So for a long time they had no official position on the conflict.

Why ANSWER was able to focus on Palestine

After Ariel Sharon launched the murderous reoccupation of the West Bank on March 29, the ANSWER coalition announced that it was elevating the Palestinian struggle as the central focus of its still multi-issue demonstration.

ANSWER could quickly respond to the new political/military developments because its national steering committee had spent months before the March 29 invasion discussing how to elevate political support for the Palestinian struggle in the United States. It had organized mass indoor events on Palestine that took place in New York on Feb. 23, and a week later in San Francisco and Los Angeles, with the aim of raising consciousness about the Palestinian struggle.

On April 20, the principal slogan of the ANSWER demonstration at the White House was “Free Palestine, No New War Against Iraq.” The White House rally drew a very large crowd. CNN put the figure at 60,000 in its coverage from the site, and organizers estimated a higher number of people present.

Organizers from the United We March rally estimated that 20,000 to 25,000 participated in their rally at the Washington Monument. While most participants in their rally were sympathetic to the suffering of the Palestinian people and a number of speakers denounced the recent Israeli atrocities in the West Bank and Gaza, the United We March coalition opted for a more general peace or anti-war message, rather than amending their six demands to include a specific call to support the people of Palestine.

Issues in the united front

The issue of Palestine and its potential prominence — or potential lack of prominence — in the demonstration was one focus of several disputes between the two coalitions as they negotiated over whether to form a united front on April 20. The two coalitions eventually agreed to hold a co-sponsored concluding rally near the Capitol. One of the most contentious issues in the talks had concerned Palestine and Palestinian participation at the concluding rally.

Some of the forces inside the United We March Coalition were enthusiastic in their support for a united-front action that ANSWER had proposed. This was especially true of the New York City Labor Against War coalition, as well as others. But some members of that coalition, especially representatives of a group called the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition, cited political objections to ANSWER’s united-front proposals.

For instance, both sides agreed that Amy Goodman, the noted broadcast journalist with “Democracy Now!,” should be an emcee at the concluding rally. ANSWER proposed that there be a co-emcee — namely, Randa Jamal, a Palestinian student and activist leader. The ANSWER proposal was motivated by the premise that a Palestinian co-chair would signify the centrality of the Palestinian struggle at this moment. The National Youth and Student Peace Coalition representative immediately rejected the idea of having a Palestinian co-chair. “That idea will never get through” the youth and student coalition, because the Palestinian issue is just “one issue,” asserted the NYSPC representative.

The United We March coalition eventually agreed (on April 14) to ANSWER’s united-front proposal by including a Palestinian co-chair for the concluding rally.

Both coalitions ended up drafting a unity agreement one week before April 20. The agreement stipulated that both coalitions would converge in a massive street march after their opening rallies.

Why the backwardness on Palestine?

Why is it that “Palestine” and deep criticism of Israel was almost a taboo in the mainstream peace movement in the United States since 1967?

This same movement supported the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and opposed the war in Vietnam. Yet when Israel launched the 1967 war against the Arab countries and seized the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and the Sinai, only the most radical voices in the U.S. movement demanded that the Vietnam anti-war movement embrace the Palestinian and Arab cause as part and parcel of the anti-colonial movement sweeping the world. The larger peace movement turned a cold shoulder.

And history repeated itself in 1982. Then, this self-imposed taboo allowed the moderate peace organizations and some sectors of the pacifist movement to turn a march for peace and in opposition to nuclear arms — an activity on June 12, 1982, that drew more than a million people in New York — into a near irrelevancy when they refused to address, much less condemn, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon that had begun the week before. Twenty thousand Lebanese and Palestinian people eventually died during that invasion, as the Israeli Defense Forces led by Gen. Ariel Sharon drove Yassir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization from Beirut.

The reason for the historical political backwardness toward the Palestinian cause is frequently misunderstood or misrepresented as the result of the Jewish supporters of Israel who are active in other anti-war struggles but politically tied to Israel and thus unable to support the just cause of the Palestinian people. While this may be a factor it is not the decisive one.

What is the decisive factor?

The problem lies in the strategic orientation of some sectors in the progressive movement who are looking to forge a left-center coalition, sometimes called a coalition of “broad forces” and the like. The goal is to reform the Democratic Party, to rebuild its so-called liberal wing in the national leadership.

This orientation flows from the conception that the main goal of the progressive movement is to prevent the triumph of the extreme right wing in the capitalist political establishment, and to defeat their foreign and domestic policies by promoting more “liberal policies.” In order to secure the support of the liberal capitalist establishment, or at least to bloc with some of its leading lights, according to this approach, the progressive movement must limit its political program in a way that is acceptable or non-threatening to the liberal wing of the capitalist establishment.

The U.S. political establishment was deeply divided over continued involvement in the Vietnam War and later about U.S. support for apartheid South Africa. Consequently, there were significant expressions of support for the anti-war and anti-apartheid movements from politicians and even in the big-business media.

In the case of the Middle East, this left-center-type orientation has required this sector of the movement to abstain from showing solidarity with the Palestinian people because in the U.S. capitalist class there has been virtually no split over support for Israel. U.S. imperialism supports Israel because it serves as a heavily armed and relatively stable client state in the region where two-thirds of the world’s oil is found. Groups looking to limit their political program in the hopes of winning substantial support from the liberal establishment have thus been required to neglect support for the Palestinian people.

The ANSWER coalition shares the tactical objective of uniting with all possible forces against war, racism and repression, but not by liquidating its principled and strategically vital anti-imperialist political orientation.

The April 20 mobilization was historic because it broke through the legacy of inaction and put the issue of solidarity with the Palestinian people on the front burner.

Photo: Protesters at the Nov. 4, 2023 rally in Washington, D.C. Credit: Sofia Perez.