It was a small but brave demonstration. On October 23, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 20 people marched down a major street during lunch hour, carrying an Israeli and a Palestinian flag. Sponsored by a local coalition of Jews, Palestinians and peace activists, the group distributed leaflets and postcards along the route, urging people to write Congress to promote US recognition of the PLO and mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO.
Peace demonstrations may be common in even the smallest of American cities nowadays; a visible public statement like this about US policy in the Middle East, though, is still rare. But more activists are joining the growing network of Middle East organizers. As the march moved through the streets of Ann Arbor, similar demonstrations as well as vigils and public forums took place in over 100 communities around the country. These were all locally initiated events encouraged by a national campaign called Speak Out for Middle East Peace.
This campaign was born last spring out of the “Breaking the Silence” seminar for Middle East organizers in February 1985. Participants returned home eager to organize activities that would give greater visibility to Middle East peace issues. The seminar also provided them with a firsthand experience in coalition building among Jewish and Arab Americans and other peace activists. Many were eager to develop a local event that would help build bridges among those communities at home.
A number of national organizations began meeting last spring to plan such a national educational campaign, including the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the American Friends Service Committee, the Mobilization for Survival and the New Jewish Agenda, later joined by Clergy and Laity Concerned, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Palestine Human Rights Campaign and the War Resisters League. The late October dates for the week of public education were set to coincide with the annual Peace with Justice Week within the religious community in order to give Middle East issues an even wider audience. October 23 was also the anniversary of the bombing of the US Marine Corps barracks in Beirut; this commemoration could be used as a starting point for an examination of US involvement in the region.
The first major hurdle facing this coalition was to adopt a common political statement. When they encouraged people to challenge the US role in the region, what would they suggest that Americans demand of their government? A unified statement was hammered out, calling upon the United States to:
- Initiate negotiations with the Soviet Union and European countries to establish a multilateral moratorium on arms transfers and a nuclear free zone in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
- Begin comprehensive negotiations to the Israeli/Palestinian/Arab conflict in an international framework which includes all parties to the conflict, including Israel, the PLO, the Arab States, the US and USSR and encourages mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO.
- Adopt a policy based on diplomacy and negotiations to resolve conflicts in the region and commit itself publicly to refrain from using military intervention.
The national campaign suggested three forms of public outreach and provided organizing assistance and resources to local groups to make these possible. They encouraged public forums at which representatives from the various communities concerned about US policy in the Middle East could speak. They suggested public vigils to honor all those who were killed in Lebanon, with an ecumenical religious service and poetry reading. They proposed local meetings with Congressional representatives, to clarify the congressperson’s position on Middle East peace issues.
Two weeks before Speak Out for Middle East Peace Week, the violence in the Middle East escalated further with the Achille Lauro hijacking and then with the Los Angeles bombing which killed the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s staffperson, Alex Odeh. This brought the violence very close to home, for Alex had been one of us. Organizers, at first worried whether it was safe to hold an event, affirmed that a Middle East peace movement must find its voice and call the US government to task for its heavy responsibility for the present deadly situation.
The variety of creative activities that took place around the country was encouraging. While some groups took guidance from the material provided by the national organizers, others developed their own program ideas. Everyone seemed to take heart from the idea that other events were happening simultaneously to theirs. The Speak Out poster and political statement were distributed extensively. In Boston, film showings and public speakers were scheduled on eight college campuses, and a public vigil was held in the Boston Common. Denver kicked off a month-long Middle East Film Festival, attracting up to 150 people to some screenings. Minneapolis held an ecumenical service where people from different walks of life and political movements spoke about the importance of peace in the Middle East to their lives. Washington presented campus and community showings of the Mobilization for Survival’s “From the West Bank to Armageddon” and organized special visits to members of Congress. There were events in Sacramento, in Milwaukee, in Manhattan, Kansas, in Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose and Atlanta as well as many other cities and towns.
Organizers are now meeting to discuss plans for other coordinated events, including regional “Breaking the Silence” seminars and another Speak Out Week in 1986.