Gail Pressberg is the Middle East coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Joe Stork spoke with her in Washington in late March 1987.
Where is the peace movement at now with regard to Middle East issues?
First, there is definitely net gain with the churches. Every Protestant denomination has a position that takes into account Palestinian rights and virtually all recognize that the PLO represents the Palestinians. There is also a gain in the kinds of people who are willing to work together. It is now possible at community conferences in cities across the country, or national conferences, to see church groups and New Jewish Agenda, ADC, PHRC and other folks cooperating. When I started to do this work in 1977, it was almost impossible to get co-sponsorship. I think that is a definite improvement because there are more cities where there are reliable local organizations who can set up speakers or be part of coalition events, or who can organize a vigil for the Los Angeles defendants.
The advent of Breira in the mid-1970s and Agenda in the 1980s means that there is a Jewish peace voice, and the Arab community has grown stronger and more articulate in this country. In virtually every major city and in many small cities across the country you now have at least one or two, and in larger cities, more local Arab organizations, usually affiliated with a national organization. Part of their agenda is Middle East peace work.
Now a lot of local independent peace centers, the kind that have been around since the Vietnam days, are taking up Middle East issues in the “deadly connections” framework. At the national level it is more mixed. SANE and the Nuclear Freeze have recently merged. They have a two-plank platform: abolish nuclear weapons and oppose US military intervention. Under intervention they only list Central America and South Africa. The Central America-South Africa demonstration organized by churches and labor this April left out the Middle East, prompting a lot of complaints from our local affiliates. Our Central America people asked that a Middle East speaker be added. That is a small gain, but at least a Middle East speaker was invited.
There is a reason that the Middle East is not on the broader peace movement agenda. The peace movement definitely does better when it has a single issue to work on, like Vietnam or the anti-nuclear issue. It does less well when it has to cope with a whole slew of issues. To the degree that Middle East-focused organizations have not yet come up with a consensus of what to push, both on the justice and the peace part of Middle East issues, it makes it much harder to get the larger movement to do its work.
There certainly seems to be much more of a consensus today than before.
No question. The March 1987 conference of the Network group is progress. There has never been a group in New York City composed of church people, Jews, Arabs and independent activists to put on a conference or do anything else. I think there needs to be a consensus to push both on Palestinian human rights and in favor of a Palestinian state next to Israel and. a negotiated settlement through an international conference with all the parties including Israel and the PLO. As long as that remains ambivalent and we have to use euphemistic language like “support international conference” full stop or “security for all states in the region” we will have problems. If you talk to peace movement people about security for all states in the region, they look at you like you are a little crazy. Most of them don’t even know all the names of the Middle East countries. They want to know specifically what you are talking about. We who do Middle East work have to have a coalition consensus that is concrete.
There is an international consensus based on the UN resolutions, and there has been, particularly on the Palestinian side, much more definitive endorsement of this.
That is true internationally, but the UN isn’t a frame of reference that people here use. We have put out an international consensus agenda saying: first, the US should agree to a two-state proposition — one Israeli, one Palestinian; second, the US should agree to an international conference with the Soviets, Israel, the PLO, Syria — all the parties to the conflict.
In 1977 you became coordinator for AFSC’s Middle East work. How did you get involved in the Middle East?
Back in 1967 I had just graduated from high school and was beginning an undergraduate degree at Hunter College. I worked at a camp for diabetic children with some friends who were very active in the peace movement. We would talk about Middle East issues and compare them with Vietnam. But the Palestinians then seemed to be off everybody’s agenda. When I got back to New York City, I tried to find an organization where I could discuss the issue sensibly, but there just weren’t any, at least none visible to a recent high school graduate. So I ended up working on Indochina and southern Africa issues.
In 1975 AFSC decided to get involved in Middle East organizing work. They organized a group of people to go the Middle East and asked me to go. It was my first trip outside the US. I had a wonderful trip, but I came back thinking this is a totally hopeless issue to organize around. First of all, it was complex. Second of all, when we talked with Israeli peace people — our frame of reference in those days was finding peace organizations in other countries to link up with — they all badmouthed each other. The Palestinians were then talking about their 1974 National Council. It was clear they wanted peace, but it seemed hopeless to try to organize in the US around the language they were using. So I came home thinking, “Well, I hope the AFSC succeeds, but I’d rather not apply for the job.”
Then at the end of 1976, AFSC had decided to sponsor a conference on Middle East issues here in Washington and invite an Israeli and a PLO person to hold a public discussion — not a dialogue — of the issues and what the US ought to be doing. The conference organizing was highly controversial. We had a hard time getting speakers. In the middle of the whole thing the staff person in charge had back trouble and was told by her doctor that she couldn’t have a job that had a lot of stress attached to it. Well, that ruled out this job. The conference was a zoo, and I was the only person in the office who knew anything about the Middle East, so I was asked to take over temporarily, which I agreed to do. Temporarily, and here it is ten years later.
One thing very noticeable at most Middle East gatherings is the absence of blacks and other people of color. Yet the Rainbow Coalition has taken the lead here in pushing the international consensus position. Why is the movement for Middle East peace so segregated?
Many major national black organizations have had Middle East positions since the 1970s, particularly since Andrew Young was fired for talking to a PLO representative in New York. Part of the problem is that the peace organizations themselves often aren’t very integrated. The National Conference of Black Lawyers cosponsored the New York conference, but I think they didn’t recruit their people very vigorously. There is always the question of priority and time. There was a big conference in Houston last week on immigration issues, and some people had been trying to get some of the Hispanics who work on immigration issues to take an interest in the Los Angeles case. It’s easy to get them to empathize and say, “Oh my God, that’s awful,” but they haven’t really stopped to think what this trial could mean for their work or develop a contingency plan. One of the Palestinian defendants went to the conference, as did Jim Zogby. Some of the people there reported that such personal contacts were very helpful and helped to raise the priority of the LA case with conference attendees.
I think that working with any other constituency in this country requires that we have a very clear set of demands. To the degree that people who do Middle East work bicker over language or come up with fairly vague formulations, it is just more difficult to get others to work on these issues.
What is the major obstacle at this point? The Mobilization for Survival and AFSC have been very close to the Rainbow position.
If you have Mobe and AFSC and the churches in a room with some of the independent peace centers you have no problem. But we have learned that we don’t want to work on something like the Middle East without Jews and Arabs; we don’t work on Central America without Latinos. When you bring AFSC or the churches, Mobe, New Jewish Agenda and organizations that function either as Palestine solidarity organizations or primarily in the Arab community or in the Jewish community, you have much more sensitivity to language. Those on the Agenda side want to specify a two-state solution and mutual recognition. I think most of the peace organizations would prefer to be explicit about a two-state solution and leave language like mutual recognition out of the way. On the Arab side, it is very hard for them to say anything that explicitly posits Israel and a Palestinian state. There are a lot of good people willing to work together and I must say that people now are much more ready to step around the language issue and to undertake some project so that at least people are working together. But as far as presenting a very clear consensus to a broader peace movement which hasn't yet picked up on this issue, until we can get very clear and explicit language, agreed to by both the Arab community and groups like New Jewish Agenda, it is going to be hard to engage the broader movement.
What about issues specifically related to US policy, such as military aid, arms sales, military intervention in Lebanon and Libya?
The peace movement easily gets involved against the attack on Libya and the Iran-contra scandal. But those are almost too easy. Tactically we have to present a set of demands regarding US policy toward the Middle East that doesn’t ever let the Israeli-Palestinian conflict out of the picture. By making it too easy for people we almost make it irrelevant. On arms sales, peace organizations are ready to propose multilateral cuts of arms to the region, but people don’t want to get into the question of arms sales to Israel.
What have we accomplished in terms of placing US policy in the Middle East on the political agenda? You mentioned the churches, but with trade unions there seems to have been no progress whatsoever.
One of the reasons it was a victory at all to have a Middle East speaker on the April 25 demonstration is that the labor part of the coalition agreed to this. It was not difficult for the churches to agree to have one of their own speak on the Middle East. Anything less would have represented a setback. I think what we are going to find is more people confronted by obvious results of US policy. The Iran affair isn’t going to go away. Whether national peace coalitions can include Middle East issues will depend upon two things. One is whether people can see the issue before their noses, and it’s going to take something worse than Iran to do it. It is going to take something pretty scary militarily. Second, people have been able to avoid the Middle East partly because it is easier to do that. It is controversial, and they get very different kinds of advice about what ought to be said and done. If we could find a consensus, it would be easier. But I only think it is going to happen when events shove it in front of the noses of their constituencies, which could happen at any time.
What are your priorities now?
The first major priority is finding ways to have a US-PLO dialogue. Our view is that this is probably not going to happen between the government and the PLO. It is going to happen first between the public and the PLO. We have to mobilize public opinion to pressure Washington. We are going to continue to find means of doing that. One reason we are so concerned about the Los Angeles trial is the degree to which the government can get away with falsely charging and convicting people. It means it is going to be harder to get people from the Middle East to speak in this country, if the price is deportation or not getting visas, particularly for people who have no real options about where they can live. Since about 70 percent of AFSC’s Middle East work is dependent on bringing Arab and Israeli voices to the country directly, we are going to be pretty affected by this Los Angeles trial. But getting the US to deal with the PLO in a push for an international conference is one of our major priorities. The other work we are trying to do is on Palestinian human rights, particularly housing demolitions. But the real push is around the need for the US to deal with the PLO.
In Israel and the US there seems to be much more readiness to do this on the popular level. It is the governments which are more and more intransigent.
That is why it is important to keep the priorities really straight. What we have to do is build support for what we want the US to do, whether it is Central America or anywhere else. We have to say to people that the way out of this conflict, and the next step, is to start negotiations with the PLO and then to work on Israeli-PLO negotiations. This has to be done at a grassroots level. The politicians are thoroughly hopeless. Unless there is real demonstrated proof that there is a constituency that is interested in raising these issues, we are not going to get anything [from the politicians].
Can you say, “Here is an instance where we have seen this issue raised at a grassroots level and that this has had an impact on somebody”?
The degree to which we have been able to get tours of Israelis and PLO people or Israelis and Palestinians who are crystal clear about the PLO representing them and the PLO’s goals before a broad range of audiences, synagogues, churches, editorial boards is where this [grassroots activity] has been most successful. We haven’t seen it translated into the electoral or policymaking process; that’s the next critical step.