Paul Dana, the president of the board of Activist San Diego, had many reasons to be a proud American as he marched 21 blocks from the downtown federal building to Balboa Park last Saturday. His physical presence was a challenge to the policies of his government, his chants of "no justice, no peace, U.S. out of the Middle East" were an exercise of his right to speak freely and the yarmulke atop his head was a symbol of his ability to practice the religion of his choosing. Dana's preferred forms of expression caused several other anti-war protesters marching with him to approach him.
"They said, "You're Jewish, we are Jewish, too. Can we join you?'" Dana remembers of two women who approached him separately. "They said they were a little taken aback by all of the Palestinian signs and flags and all of that stuff and felt uncomfortable about it. I said sure, no problem, I understand."
While Dana says he agrees with the call to end the occupation of Palestine and is accustomed to seeing similar displays at other anti-war events, he understands why some activists may take umbrage to the presence of pro-Palestinian sentiment.
"I think that what makes these women uncomfortable is the misunderstanding that if you are pro-Palestinian you are in some way possibly anti-Jewish or anti-Israel," he says. "I also think that they came to the march thinking what we are doing in Iraq is awful and we need to get out of Iraq, so they went to this march and all that they are seeing and hearing is Palestinian slogans and chants and flags."
There was also plenty of pro-Palestinian support at the rally in the park later that day, something that gave one of the speakers, Zahi Damuni, wearing his kuffiyeh, a traditional Palestinian scarf, reason to be proud. As head of the San Diego Chapter of Al-Awda, a group advocating the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland, and a Palestinian-Israeli living in San Diego, he says he was pleased to see that the majority of the crowd was in support of ending the occupation of Palestine.
"I was born into the anti-war movement," he told his audience from the stage, urging those in attendance to contact their representatives and demand a stop to the funding of the war against the Palestinian people.
"I think there are certain principles that you cannot deviate from if you are indeed an anti-war, human-rights activist," he said in an interview with CityBeat. "You can't keep walking on eggshells when it comes to the issue of Palestine. The American people have a responsibility in Palestine because it is their tax dollars that are supporting this occupation. Our aid to Israel exceeds the aid that we give to the entire continent of Africa. Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. financial aid in the entire world. What can we do as Americans to change Israel's course of action? You tell me-we have got the money."
The unease of Dana's fellow protestors and Damuni's points make up the bulk of a minor controversy that has become a proverbial elephant in the room for some in the activist community. Should the American anti-war movement raise the situation in Israel and Palestine, a divisive quandary of American-financed human-rights abuses and bloody retaliations, at the risk of alienating some Jewish and mainstream anti-war supporters? Should they ignore it and run the risk of disaffecting Arab-American groups?
After two meetings, the M20 coalition, a group of more than 30 local activist organizations, decided that the Palestinian issue, along with U.S. military action in Afghanistan (Haiti was added later), was too important to overlook. In doing so they chose to use the considerable candlepower of the one-year anniversary of the Iraq war to illuminate the other issues.
"We went around and around on this issue because most of us wanted to focus on Iraq," says Martin Eder, director of Activist San Diego, one of the groups in the M20 coalition. "The [coalition] decided we would put it on our fliers because ending the occupation in Palestine has broad acceptance among the Israeli peace movement, a large portion of the Jewish American population, and it has acceptance among a large part of American people if put into the right context."
According to a Pew Research Center world opinion poll released earlier this month, there seems to be significantly more sympathy in the U.S. for Israel than for the Palestinians-by a margin of roughly four-to-one. The same poll indicates that while the majority of Americans believe that the U.S.-led war on terrorism is a sincere effort to reduce international terrorism, only 11 percent believe it is to protect Israel.
Rabbi Alexis Roberts, leader of congregation Dor Hadash, an anti-war activist who works with local Israeli-Palestinian dialogue groups, says "it's a complicated situation and it's not something that I want to stand up and scream about at a rally. Because there are so many issues on the bill, it's bound to get simplified. The left is just as likely to paint with too broad a brush as the right and miss some important nuances."
"I don't think it's a complicated issue," counters Damuni. "It's an issue of disposition where the indigenous population has been expelled, ethnically cleansed and those that remain are subjected to institutionalized discrimination and indignity. There are no special circumstances here. Palestinians are not alien beings. They are human beings that have equivalent rights, so why discriminate?"
Damuni is quick to point out that it is not a religious clash.
"It's not a Jewish-Palestinian conflict. It's a conflict that involves Zionism," says Damuni. "In other words, a political ideology which believes you should create or establish or make sure that you have a state that is exclusively Jewish. An exclusively Jewish state means that you ethnically cleanse the people who are not Jewish and that you have institutionalized racism to discriminate against people who are not Jewish."
But for Rabbi Roberts nuance is critical. A lot of the fine shading has to do with the terms that are used.
"That word "Zionist' is very, very loaded," warns Roberts. "For Jews it just means there should be a Jewish state. It's something very simple, very sweet and very patriotic to feel. For Palestinians, Zionism means something like Nazism-it means a movement to dislocate and kill them off.
"When they say "Zionist,' they say it with a snarl. When we say "Zionist,' we are saying it with a flag waving. It's the same word with a completely different feeling."
While they may not agree on terminology, there are many points on which Damuni and the Rabbi agree.
"I would like to see a peaceful solution. I would like to see an end to the occupation," says Roberts. "I could even envision a one state, secular Israel with equal rights and votes for all. I would be very pleased to see a different American president putting financial pressure on Israel to withdraw from the occupation."
"I cannot see that Israel would treat me equally while holding the banner that it is a Jewish state, which means that you get preferences if you are a Jew," says Damuni. "I'd like to see the United States use its financial muscle to bring about a just resolution of this conflict founded on universal human rights."
Yet both seem unable or unwilling, perhaps, to look past their differences and celebrate their commonalities.
"What goes on with people like Al-Awda is that they have blinders on, just as the Jews who are fanatic about their views do," Roberts said. "They feel threatened to consider the reality of the other person's views or the truth of them. They feel it weakens their position to grant anything. It's this kind of "don't distract me with the facts' approach. It's dangerous and not too ethical and not pragmatic in the long run."
It seems that the blinders are keeping both sides from realizing that they are grazing in the same pasture.
It's hard to get past the passion that drives the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While all of the groups involved in the M20 coalition agreed to bring up the issue, there is legitimate concern that it may turn off other, less-passionate, perhaps less-informed, mainstream voters. It's a prospect that worries many hoping to make George W. Bush a one-term president.
"When you start talking about cutting off America's foreign aid to Israel, that is perceived from outside the movement as being an extraordinarily radical position to take," says Carole Kennedy, a professor of political science at San Diego State University, who attended the M20 rally. "This is a very tough issue. It's not something people in the anti-war movement want to tackle head on because it is potentially damaging to the movement."
But Kennedy says history is full of reassurances otherwise, pointing out that the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era had plenty of factions but still became a mass movement. She says the apparent schism between pro-Palestinian and Jewish groups is something that may actually end up benefiting the anti-war movement as it grows into a mass movement.
"The history of social movements is full of the radical and the moderate elements," she says. "The radical elements tend to draw a lot of fire and make the moderates look pretty reasonable in comparison. The result of that synergy is that you get movement in the direction of the movement's goals."
While Kennedy says she thinks that it will take time for that momentum to build, she says she sees progress and signs that other messages are reaching the American public.
"At this point in time what appeals to most Americans-because let's face it most Americans aren't very savvy about what is going on in the world-are the parents of soldiers who were killed. That's what Americans, the moderates, the mainstream, who are just waking up to our foreign policy, understand and focus on."
Kennedy said she saw evidence of that awakening at Saturday's rally in Balboa Park.
"There was nothing more impressive to me in that crowd than the number of people who literally took their Saturday morning off, packed up the kids, brought their animals and did what they felt they had to do," she says. "A lot of them didn't carry signs, they didn't chant, they were there to simply stand up."
As the sun disappeared Saturday afternoon, so did the kids and the dogs. The crowd of approximately 1,000 protesters thinned quickly, as the remaining speakers preached to a choir of diehard attendees.
Although the event featured only a few speakers who mentioned the plight of Palestinian refugees, plenty of related signs were spotted in the audience, occasional chants of "intifada" were reported during the march and Palestinian flags outnumbered those of any other nation or cause.
"All of these organizations are getting more media savvy," says Kennedy. "The spectacle and the image of all of those Palestinian flags is something that is designed for the media as much as anything."
Away from the crowd, Joe Dana expressed his hope that in the future the same groups in the M20 coalition will come together to produce similar events. He says he hopes they can do so while being more inclusive of all who wish to attend.
"I agree with raising the [Palestine] issue to some extent," says Dana. "But it is such a large issue and something that creates such division for so many people that I think if we could create an event that makes as many people as possible comfortable it would be much more helpful to the cause in general."
Others who attended the event expressed their sense of frustration that the issue was creating stress in the anti-war movement.
"If we are not the people promoting the middle ground then who the fuck is going to do it? It makes me very angry," says Sandy Opatow, an activist and musician from Maryland. "If we don't learn how to stop marginalizing ourselves then how are we ever going to have a big group work together?"Most anti-war activists know all too well that true peace can never be achieved without all sides at the table. Creating an atmosphere in San Diego in which that can happen is still very much a work in progress.