Hundreds of San Diegans are expected to gather in Balboa Park Saturday to protest the ongoing occupation of Iraq. Like the other M20 (that's short for March 20) protests being held in hundreds of cities across America and around the globe, the San Diego event will commemorate the anniversary of the initiation of American military hostilities in Iraq. However, it's the unexpected-the rally's heavily pro-Palestinian emphasis-that has some would-be protesters rethinking their plans to attend.
Jewish groups and some anti-war advocates are concerned that the International A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) Coalition, one of the groups organizing M20 events in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and San Diego, is using the rallies to push a number of other causes on its agenda. Among the most controversial is the group's desire to facilitate "the end to colonial occupation in Palestine." While the phrase, excerpted from Answer's M20-related promotional materials, may seem rather benign and open to interpretation, many Jewish leaders fear it is actually a call for the destruction of Israel.
Supporting their uneasy feeling is the inclusion of several pro-Palestinian organizations. Al-Awda and the Free Palestine Alliance, which will both have speakers at the San Diego event, support the right of Palestinian refugees to return to occupied territories in Israel. It's a prospect that leaders from a wide array of Jewish groups see as detrimental to Israel's survival.
"Anyone who advocates [the return of Palestinian refuges to Israel] is simply an anti-Semite," says Morton Klein, President of the Zionist Organization of America, a right-wing Jewish group that supports the war. "If you advocate that, then you are against Israel remaining a Jewish state."
Others, like Micah Sachs, editor of the San Diego Jewish Journal, are worried that Answer's pro-Palestinian influence will turn off many who would like to participate in the M20 rally.
"A lot of Jews who would otherwise be part of the anti-war movement have been uncomfortable with the hijacking of the movement and the tying of the war in Iraq to the situation in Israel and the occupied territories," he says. "They organize an anti-war rally that they know is going to draw lots of people because of its relationship to Iraq and George Bush, and the Palestinian issue is just snuck in there."
Sachs says he thinks Answer may try to use the large turnout to distort the truth of the anti-war movement. "People are coming there to protest the Iraq war and then all of a sudden they throw in this Palestinian issue and it looks like there is this larger group of people supporting their perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he says.
March 20 will not be the first time that the fate of Palestine and its people has been raised at an anti-war rally. Answer has a history of organizing large protests and angering American Jewish groups along the way.
The loudest shots in the battle between Answer and Jewish groups were fired last year, prior to a February anti-war protest in San Francisco. Several groups coordinating the event with Answer proposed that Rabbi Michael Lerner, the outspoken founder of the progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun, be allowed to speak at the rally. Despite Lerner's criticisms of both Israeli and Palestinian policies, Answer blocked the nomination, citing a rule that disqualified speakers who had previously criticized any of its member groups. It was viewed by Lerner and others as an attempt to silence voices critical of its message by a group that claims to advocate free speech.
The tension between Answer and Jewish groups has been mounting ever since and seems ready to boil over. Rabbi Lerner says members of his group will attend the M20 rallies nationwide, but will do so in protest of Answer and its anti-Israeli rhetoric.
"We are going to march in this demonstration; however, we are going to carry signs saying "pro-Israel pro-peace.' We will also be handing out information explaining why the Answer group is anti-Semitic," he says. "This is a group that doesn't accept the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination in our homeland but they do accept that right for every other people on the planet."
It's not just Answer's uncompromising support of the Palestinian people that has the Rabbi and others angry. By simply bringing up the Palestinian issue, many activists feel that Answer has created a rift in the American anti-war movement. While Answer takes a bold and controversial stance, it is not the only anti-war group raising the Palestinian issue. More than 35 area activist groups, including Activist San Diego, the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice and the San Diego Peace and Resource Center have come together under the M20 Coalition with Answer and agreed to give the colonial occupation of Afghanistan, Haiti, Palestine and the war in Iraq equal emphasis at the M20 rally.
"Our goal is to bring the most people out to Balboa Park," says Martin Eder, president of Activist San Diego. "It offers us opportunity to reach out to immigrants and Arab Americans. Arabs in general are the largest population affected by the war in Iraq."
But Jewish groups feel that the mere mention of the Palestinian issue only muddies the waters of the peace movement, creating unnecessary controversy and ill will.
"It's totally gratuitous-it's not like there is no way they can avoid the issue," says Rabbi Lerner. "As a result they are splitting the peace movement forces and pushing many people who would otherwise be supportive of the peace movement away from it."
But representatives of Answer say Palestine is an essential part of the equation comprising America's imperialist foreign policies. Rather than seeing it as a source of tension in the peace movement, they say it is a useful tool for separating the faithful from the nonbelievers.
Pete Reilly, an organizer with the San Diego Chapter of Answer, says those who don't support the Palestinian people are not real anti-war activists.
"Obviously they don't have a true grasp of the issues that are going on," he says. "Basically, somebody who is going to support the colonial occupation of Palestine is really not a part of the anti-war movement, so [raising the issue] is not dividing the anti-war movement."
But evidence suggests that the Palestinian issue may have created a schism in San Diego's left-wing alliance.
Joe Dana, a member of the local chapter of Tikkun and a member of the board of directors for Activist San Diego, says that despite Activist San Diego's organizing role, he wouldn't attend Saturday's M20 rally due to Answer's involvement.
"Even if it wasn't on Shabbat, I probably wouldn't go to the rally," he says. "I don't like Answer that much."
Losing supporters like Dana is something groups on the left know they can hardly afford if they expect their prayers for the ouster of George W. Bush to be answered this November. But unlike many mainstream anti-war groups, Answer, whose leadership is tied closely to a socialist group known as the World Workers Party, is not very interested in the outcome of the upcoming presidential elections.
"These are not people who think in those terms," says Lerner. "They think in terms of building their revolution against capitalism-they're not trying to win these elections."
It's one point on which the Rabbi and Answer actually seem to agree.
"We are not about the election process; we are not reformist," says Answer's Reilly, who is aligned with the WWP. "The Workers World Party is a revolutionary party with a revolutionary stance for a new state, a people's state."
On Saturday, hours before the M20 rally, groups of protesters will meet at various points around the city and march to Balboa Park.
"We will be coming from different points," says Eder, expressing his hopes that all of the groups can meet both physically and ideologically in the middle.That is, if there is any middle ground left.