“Forget about ideology; we see the facts on the Hi ground.” The Palestinian woman speaks softly but firmly, recounting the tragedies of her people. It is obvious, she says, that Zionism is the central issue in the Middle East. “Because of Zionism, I live in America instead of Palestine. You can’t ignore that fact.”

“You can’t ignore what Zionism has meant to the Palestinians, but don’t overlook what it means to us,” responds the Jewish woman. Nearly all Jews, she says, regard it as the legitimate expression of Jewish self-determination.

We’ve all heard it a hundred times before. Often, it degenerates into name calling. This time, it’s different.

“There’s a third perspective,” suggests the peace activist. As Americans, we should focus on changing US policy. While debates on the nature of Zionism are important, she cautions, they shouldn’t distract us from the work that needs to be done. “In the peace movement, we usually don’t use the word ‘imperialism,’ even though it describes US policy in the Third World. It pushes buttons in people’s minds, and it sometimes obscures what we’re trying to talk about.”

Around the crowded room, heads nod in agreement. Others, unconvinced, listen to the discussion and struggle with their emotions. After two hours, there is still disagreement, but respect and understanding have replaced mistrust.

The scene is from “Breaking the Silence,” an intensive four-day conference organized by Mobilization for Survival and the American Friends Service Committee this past February. Through speakers and workshops and impromptu discussions like this one, the conference laid the groundwork for broader and more sustained grassroots organizing to change US policy in the Middle East. It may even prove to be a watershed for the US peace movement. “Breaking the Silence” was the first nationwide conference for peace activists on US policy in the Middle East. The 120 people from over 25 states were a diverse group: local organizers opposing US militarism, Arab Americans fighting anti-Arab racism, progressive activists in the Jewish community, Christian ministers and lay workers, Palestinian students, nuclear freeze proponents, people interested in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, pacifists, human rights activists, community organizers, academics. There were long-time veterans of Middle East peace work and many newcomers. Nearly everyone left the conference with new connections, fresh ideas, and the feeling that something important was happening in the peace movement.

The Peace Movement and the Middle East

For years, most of the US peace movement has been extraordinarily silent on Middle East issues, even though the region is plagued by nearly constant warfare. Many have opposed US military aid to Central America while overlooking massive US arms transfers to the Middle East. Many disarmament groups have somehow managed to make their case without mentioning the Middle East, the most likely flashpoint for nuclear war. Groups that have consistently addressed Middle East issues have often found themselves isolated in the “Middle East ghetto” of the peace movement. They work hard, but have been unable to mobilize others. They are dismissed as too far left, too disruptive, or worse.

Some of this is due to the organizing approach they have adopted. Many of the groups which have organized around Middle East issues, particularly religious groups, have focused on human rights. Others have operated much like solidarity groups, trying to garner support in the US for the struggles of Palestinians, Iranians and others. Both of these approaches have defined the problem as something happening “over there,” in the Middle East. For the most part, they have not focused on the problem “here”: US foreign policy. This has allowed most Americans, including the peace movement, to shrug off the Middle East as someone else’s reponsibility. Middle East peace groups have been most successful with constituencies which already feel connected to the region: Jews and Arab Americans.

Many “mainstream” peace groups have avoided dealing with the Middle East by saying that the issues are too complex. They say this even though many of them have done an admirable job tackling the intricacies of the nuclear arms race, and even though most of them had no problem taking up Central America work a year or two ago. Other organizations refuse to touch Middle East issues on principle. They’re afraid of controversy, divisiveness and loss of public support. They are constrained, they claim, by the sensitivities of important constituents, especially Jews and liberal Democrats. Liberals and leftists who opposed US intervention in Southeast Asia sometimes support it in Southwest Asia. Their critical analysis of the goals of US policy in the Third World is mysteriously suspended when it comes to the Middle East. Perhaps the most flagrant case of Middle East myopia was the huge disarmament rally in New York City on June 12, 1982, while Israeli troops were advancing on Beirut. The organizers refused to allow any mention of the invasion from the stage in Central Park that day.

It has been a dismal picture, but local peace groups across the country have begun slowly and hesitantly to talk about the Middle East. The turning point was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. As Beirut burned on the nightly news, vigils and demonstrations were organized. Forums and teach-ins and workshops began to wrestle with the neglected issues of the Middle East.

When US Marines in Lebanon began to die in numbers, domestic opposition grew apace. Many in the peace movement realized that the Middle East was their problem, too. Taking their first public stand on a Middle East issue, many began to call for a withdrawal of American troops.

New Directions

Even before the Marine barracks were destroyed by a truck bomb in October 1983, most Americans supported such a withdrawal. The way the country responded to the crisis in Lebanon proved that a broad-based coalition on Middle East issues could be formed around opposition to direct US military intervention in the region. The challenge has been to build and sustain a movement in the absence of a highly visible US military presence engaged directly in combat. After the withdrawal of the Marines from Beirut, would Americans oppose the “hidden intervention” of arms sales, basing agreements, and the like?

National organizations like Mobilization for Survival (MFS) and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) have been trying to build a loose coalition in two ways: by “institutionalizing” Middle East work within the peace movement, and by focusing attention on policies of “hidden intervention.”

One fundamental rule of organizing is to start where people are; for much of the peace movement, this is the threat of nuclear war. A conference organized in April 1984 in Chicago brought together nuclear freeze and disarmament activists to discuss the threat of nuclear war in the Middle East. Activists in the Bay Area of California have developed a traveling road show to bring the same message to the public. A Middle East coalition in Boston has organized a number of public demonstrations, and maintains an extensive outreach program to introduce Middle East issues to peace and disarmament groups. A nationwide series of “deadly connections” conferences has been tremendously successful at bringing together anti-nuclear and anti-intervention activists to discuss issues and strategies. Nearly all of them featured workshops or speakers on the danger of intervention escalating to nuclear war in the Middle East. These activities have helped many disarmament groups see the necessity of addressing Middle East issues in their organizing work.

Even with this realization, most local peace groups have been hobbled by a lack of knowledge on Middle East issues and US policy in the region. This problem is being addressed by a, number of new resources. An information packet developed by MFS guides local peace groups through a four-part discussion of the issues, designed to help groups overcome the obstacles to Middle East organizing. New slideshows and films analyze US policy in the region, highlighting the threat of US military intervention and nuclear war.

With a better understanding of the issues, local peace groups are able to integrate Middle East concerns into their organizing work. This can mean including a speaker on the Middle East in a conference, raising Middle East issues at a peace rally, or featuring an article on the Middle East in a newsletter. These small steps can help ensure that the Middle East becomes an integral part of the peace movement’s political agenda.

Forging a National Movement

“Breaking the Silence” was planned to help nurture this growing movement. The initial idea, inspired by a 1983 Boston conference and developed by Mobilization for Survival’s Middle East Task Force, was to bring together local peace and disarmament activists who were just beginning to address Middle East issues, to provide information, share skills and plan strategy. A number of national organizations were asked to provide resources and expertise for the organizers’ seminar. The American Friends Service Committee, recognizing the potential for such a conference, sought co-sponsorship. With staffed Middle East peace programs in a half-dozen cities and a long history of involvement in Middle East organizing efforts, AFSC brought its experience and seasoned political judgement to the conference planning committee.

While Mobe had originally conceived the seminar as a meeting of activists in its own affiliate groups, AFSC pressed to open up the conference to others, particularly those with more experience in Middle East organizing. It convinced the leadership of New Jewish Agenda and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee that the conference would be an important event; both organizations were well represented by key activists from their national staffs and local chapters nationwide.

Early on, “ground rules” for attendance at the conference were set. Participants should be organizers (as opposed to academics, for instance), with a commitment to continue organizing on Middle East issues after the seminar. The conference would focus on US policy in the Middle East, and would examine problems in the entire region, not just the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It would start from the assumption that all military intervention in the region should be opposed, and would support a peace agreement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on self-determination and mutual recognition.

Taking a cue from the women’s movement, the conference organizers (nearly all women) sought to create a safe place in which people would be able to discuss emotionally charged issues. It worked. While conference participants were not asked to pledge allegiance to these principles, people who could not agree with them tended to stay away. The conference was marked by a high level of unity. While there were plenty of disagreements, there was also understanding and respect for differences. The diversity of the group and the breadth of their experience and knowledge was impressive. The tone of the discussion, particularly on the touchy subjects of Zionism and racism, indicated the potential for continuing dialogue within the peace movement.

“Breaking the Silence” was not intended to kick off a new coalition, and none has formed in its wake. By focusing attention on US policy in the Middle East, however, the conference established a direction for future organizing on the issue. The Mobe and AFSC are drafting a Middle East Peace Alternative to put forward an independent analysis of US policy in the region. This document will outline shared principles and goals towards which the peace movement will try to steer US policy. A number of organizers are discussing the prospects for a coordinated campaign to halt arms transfers to the Middle East and a call for an international conference on the Israeli-Palestinian-Arab conflict.

Nationwide public education and protest activities are planned for October 23, the second anniversary of the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. The date falls during Peace with Justice Week, an annual event coordinated by the National Council of Churches and major national peace groups. Local groups are planning rallies, conferences, religious observances and other events during the week; this year, October 23 will highlight Middle East issues.

Pressure on Congress will increase. Local activists are now more confident in approaching Congressional representatives with their concerns on US policy in the Middle East. It is even possible that an acceptable legislative proposal, perhaps based on the Middle East Peace Alternative, will be introduced in Congress in the near future.

The US peace movement has a long way to go before it can significantly affect American policy in the Middle East. “Breaking the Silence,” and the fresh activity it has spurred, suggests a new maturity.

An MFS organizer from Boston delivered an upbeat prognosis at the February conference. “We should stop being surprised,” he said, “at the large crowds that come to our events nowadays; the Middle East is something that a lot of Americans are concerned about, and we should realize that we’re part of a growing movement.”

His experience in Boston, he explained, had shattered the old myths about the pitfalls of Middle East organizing. Taking up Middle East issues has not split Boston Mobe; in fact, the group has grown because of it. Not only has the group not lost funding, as the doomsayers had predicted, but every one of its funding proposals for Middle East work has been granted. The group has not been ostracized by the rest of the peace movement; rather, it has become an important resource for other peace groups wanting to address Middle East issues. “The ‘Middle East ghetto’ is of our own making,” he asserted, “and it’s time we started dealing with the rest of the peace movement, and the public, in a more powerful way.”

How to cite this article:

Denis Doyon "Breaking the Silence," Middle East Report 134 (July/ August 1985).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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