A Damned Good Assembly
Linking the Iraq War and the Occupation
by Stanley Heller, first published on Counterpunch
A big cheer filled the hall as an important section of the US Left broke new ground and incorporated the Palestinian struggle firmly into the analysis the anti-war movement. The program of the National Assembly to End the Iraq War and Occupation recognized Palestine as not just as a worthy cause to be embraced from time to time as long as no one objected, but declared it was intertwined with the War at the root. It also overthrew years of Left dogma and recognized the Israel lobbies as a force not only in influencing policy on Israel/Palestine, but also on Iraq and Iran as well.
The National Assembly was 400 or so people gathered in Cleveland June 28-29. It was made up of people who were very unhappy with the way things were going in the movement, with all the multiplicity of coalitions, UFPJ, ANSWER, TONC, etc. and the fact that there were no huge demonstrations against the war in March on the anniversary of “Shock and Awe.” The Assembly was modeled after an anti-war coalition of Vietnam War days, open to everyone, with everyone having the same vote. People could just walk in off the street and participate and many did. Not all were leftists. Some were Libertarian.
This model of democracy contrasts with assemblies of other coalitions which are either made up of “official” delegates of recognized groups or are totally top down. Organizers of the National Assembly said the idea was not to create a new coalition, but to issue a powerful call for unity and new strategic thinking. Over 500 organizations and personalities endorsed the convention from Cindy Sheehan, to US Labor Against the War, Veterans for Peace, the North Shore (Ohio) AFL-CIO to Socialist Action. Leslie Cagan of UFPJ, Brian Becker of ANSWER and Larry Holmes of TONC attended as observers and spoke at an evening session.
Conference organizers came up with a five point strategy on which there was general agreement: immediate withdrawal of all troops/contractors from Iraq, mass action in the streets, independence from the Democrats (and any other party), unity of all anti-war forces and the afore-mentioned democratic decision making process. However, many wanted to go further. The sticking points were Palestine, Afghanistan and Iran.
Connecticut’s Middle East Crisis Committee submitted language on Palestine with three points: 1) that to oppose the war we had to fight Palestinian mistreatment and Israeli militarism, 2) that oil was not the sole motivation for the Iraq invasion and that military/security industries and the influence of Christian and Jewish Zionist lobbies for Israel had to be mentioned prominently and 3) that the conference should call upon peace forces to engage in BDS: boycotts, divestment and sanctions against the Israeli state as long as it would not respect Palestinian human rights and international law. This position is in advance of any of the movement coalitions. ANSWER is in total support of Palestinians, but never says a word about the Israel lobbies. UFPJ has an official position for cutting off aid to Israel, but you have to dig for many minutes to find it on their website. There’s not even permanent link about Palestine/Israel on its home page.
The hardest thing to win was language on the lobby. Our position was caricatured as being akin to Pat Buchanan’s. It was said we were claiming that Israel runs the USA. We explained that it was obvious that trillions of dollars of oil was at the heart of US interest in the Middle East, but that we’d be foolish in the extreme to deny what stares us right in the face, that Israel looms large among millions of Christian and Jews and that its devotees were taking marching orders from the most right-wing parties of Israel and that these people had power.
We must be absolutely vigilant in opposing anti-Semitism, but we cannot turn a blind eye to the reactionaries running the major Jewish political organizations in the US today. By the way the Israeli Left, as far as I can see, has no problem with sharp and open criticism of the Israel lobby. Read Uri Avnery, Ilan Pappe and others on the subject
In the end the vote went our way on the lobby question by a hair and then the whole amendment passed by a sizeable margin. There was an excitement and grins all around the hall. This was a breakthrough!
More followed. Withdrawal from Afghanistan was added to the agenda. This is a tough issue. Nobody supports the Taliban fanatics, but it was clear that after seven years and umpteen billions of dollars the situation was crumbling. The day before I had pointed out that US presidents from Carter to Bush had armed and fattened the Jihadists for a decade, and that the US military was the last force you’d put in to set things right. I quoted the words of historian-activist Lenni Brenner, “You don’t usually send in the arsonist to put out the fire.”
An amendment was offered to add Afghanistan to the action document right along with Iraq and to even change the name of the Assembly to the “National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations”. It passed handily. So did a strong resolution condemning any move to attack Iran or to murder its people with sanctions.
There were a lot of impressive speakers. Jeremey Scahill talked about the notorious Blackwater. Sailor-activist Jonathan Hutto who was one of the founders of the Appeal for Redress got a standing ovation and delighted many with his attack on Obama. Clarence Thomas of the West Coast Longshoremen inspired the audience with an account of the Mayday union strike against the war. Immigrant leader Jesse Diaz talked about the great Boycott/Strike of 2006 and called for 100 days of picketing for immigrants culminating with a big action on May 1, 2009. There were 18 workshops with topics ranging from “Lessons of Vietnam Organizing”, “Next Oil Wars in Africa” to “Palestine” and “Iran”.
The Assembly urged support for demonstrations at the Republican and Democratic Party conventions (September 1-4, 2008 and August 25-28, 2008 respectively), other actions preceding the elections -- especially those called for October 11 -- and proposed December 9-14 as dates for nationally coordinated local actions across the country demanding the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and massive bi-coastal national demonstratons in the spring. Finally the Assembly will continue as a network.
All in all, it was damned good outcome. Now the task is to go out and organize.
USLAW needs to be won over to a good position on Palestine. It does great work on Iraq and Iran, but its worldview needs to expand. There is no doubt USLAW activists have a tough road to hoe in their unions on the Palestine issue. Labor bureaucrats are thick as thieves with Israeli officialdom. Labor unions have hundreds of millions of dollars of members’ funds invested in Israel bonds. A year ago 29 top US labor leaders condemned British unions for calling for boycotts against Israel. However, they are bucking the tide. The Canadian Union of Public Employees called for a boycott in 2006. COSATU, South Africa’s biggest union federation did the same in 2007. IMPACT (the Irish Municipal, Public and Civil Trade Union), The Canadian Union of Postal Workers and Ireland’s largest public sector union went for a boycott in the spring of this year and UNISON the biggest union in the UK decided for a boycott in June. US unions were once blind cheerleaders for US wars, now the ranks clearly are opposed to the Iraq adventure. The trick is to broaden their outlook to get them oppopsed to all aspects of the War.
And we need to go to UFPJ, ANSWER and TONC and other coalitions and bring them the message. The movement needs to be out in the streets in massive numbers demanding the return of all the troops and exposure of all the scoundrels who brought on this disaster.
Stanley Heller is Chairperson of the Middle East Crisis Committee (CT) and host of "The Struggle" a weekly TV news program. He can be reached at: mail@TheStruggle.org
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