Protesting Too Much
by Sarah Wildman
Only at TNR Online
Post date: 04.23.02
Yesterday Washington hosted a demonstration against the extreme left's new favorite villain: Israel. The immediate impetus was a conference by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), being held at the Washington Hilton just north of Dupont Circle. But as much as anything else, the protest was an outgrowth of a long-planned, four-day spasm of demonstrations against the World Bank, the IMF, and U.S. foreign policy in places like Latin America and Afghanistan. It seems anti-globalization activists have now folded Palestinian solidarity into the hodgepodge of causes they call their own. The result has been as incoherent as it sounds, with ignorance undermining any legitimate grievances.
I got my first glimpse of the protesters at the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and S Street, just a few blocks from the hotel. A line of police had run past me, apparently wading into a crowd to stop a scuffle. I asked around about what was happening, and a helpful woman with sparkly eye shadow and a crisp black "Hoyas for a free Palestine" T-shirt told me that some men wearing things that identified them as Jews--"you know, kippehs [sic]"--on their heads, had waded into the crowd with anti-Palestinian signs and the crowd had repelled them. It's a good thing that the Palestinians get their chance to march here, she added, because there are "no demonstrations in Israel," as the "Machiavellian" state doesn't allow them.(This will come as a great shock to all the activists who demonstrate in Israel routinely, but never mind that.)
Meanwhile, just beyond a double wall of police officers and motorcycles, hundreds of kaffiyeh wearing protestors milled about chanting "Free, Free Palestine! Israel out of Palestine! Israel out of Washington!" But it quickly became apparent that the Mideast was not the only thing on these people's minds. For many, it was just another cause to squeeze into their anti-Western protest rubric.
In fairness, many of the protestors were from Arab American and human rights organizations. And based on my short conversations with them, many appeared genuinely knowledgeable about Mideast affairs. But there was another group--about equal in size--for whom the Palestinian cause was apparently just another button to pin on a crowded backpack. For example, one young man, a 19-year-old from Rochester, New York, explained to me that the protest wasn't really just about the Palestinians. Rather, he said, it's about the "Colombians, Indigenous Mexicans ... the Zapatistas ... the Mayans in Guatemala, the indigenous Alaskans.... It's solidarity. It's human rights. It's all interrelated with the evil neoliberal global order. It's [anti] World Bank and IMF!"
He had reddish-blond curls tucked under a tightly wrapped black bandana and a stainless steel barbell nestled in his brow. And, like pretty much everyone around him, he had a kaffiyeh wrapped around his neck. Indeed, the kaffiyeh seems to have been transformed from its historic symbol of the tension between rural and urban Palestinian men into a general emblem of All-Things-Wrong-In-the-World. One woman I ran into, an attractive 23-year-old African American woman with glossy purple lips and big twists in her hair, said she is "wearing it in solidarity with all people" and "against the colonial settler state, Israel." But it's especially important, she said, "as an African American woman because my liberation is bound up in the liberation of all people."
Laura, a 20-year-old sophomore at Columbia University, was in D.C. with the International Socialist Organization. She told me her Kaffiyeh was a symbol of "Palestinian liberation" that goes back to "1936 when Palestinian and Arab workers led the largest strike in history." "We see all struggles for justice as connected," she says earnestly, shifting her stack of Socialist Worker newspapers from hip to hip, "anti-globalization, anti-death penalty, any struggle going on.... On campus we're helping grad students organize." Added another Columbia student, "It's so important, to stand up to our government and their client state Israel." He wore a free Mumia pin. "Oh yeah," he said, brightening, "I'm very involved in the fight to free Mumia. And stop the war."
Signs all around reflected the seemingly mindless meshing of the weekend's issues, and on more than a few occasions placards included anti-Jewish messages. As Richard Just pointed out this week in The American Prospect Online, legitimate protest seems buried beneath a messy outpouring of ignorance and hate. One man I saw wandering through the crowd was holding aloft an Israeli flag splattered in blood-red paint. Other signs had swastikas, while still others referenced the Holocaust. I overheard one young man talking about the AIPAC conference going on a few yards away, "Let's hope someone put rat poison in their soup!" he said. His companion heartily concurred.
Eventually I caught up with a guy holding an anti-AIPAC poster. He assured me that he loves Israel, the Jews, and Israelis. The problem, he said, is just that "Zionism is racism." "We're not against Israelis, though," he said, "or Jews." His friend disagreed. "No," she said, "we're against Israelis." "But we're not angry with Jews," he said, in an apparent attempt to seem reassuring.
Sarah Wildman is an assistant editor at TNR.
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