Prop. W Not a Setback

As one of the co-chairs of the Prop. W campaign, I was very disappointed in Jeff Blankfort's article [March-April 1989]. He makes no effort to analyze our experience concretely. Jeff seems to feel that we should have gotten more votes; therefore our campaign was a setback. This conclusion reflects an unrealistic assessment of what was possible given the state of our movement at the onset of the campaign. He takes our successes for granted and thus, in criticizing our approach, totally ignores the positive experiences we had with our message. As a long-time progressive activist in the Bay Area who has tried for years to get a hearing on this issue, I believe Prop. W was an important step forward, dramatically improving the status of this issue within the political community of San Francisco.

Until Prop. W, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a non-issue in the city. Not only was all discussion of it excluded from the liberal mainstream, but the leadership of the local peace coalition had successfully defeated all efforts to include it on the agenda of the Spring Mobilization. The conventional wisdom, repeated endlessly to me by the major players in San Francisco political circles, was this: to be effective on a broad progressive agenda, stay away from this issue.

Perhaps the greatest success of Prop. W was that we shattered this wall of isolation. For the first time the Palestinian community participated in a mass political campaign. Their hard work, enthusiasm, pride, good sense and money provided the backbone for the campaign. At the same time, progressive activists took the leap and endorsed [the campaign] — Catholics, Protestants, Black churches, Gays, the Rainbow, Mexican-Americans, Filipinos, progressive Jews and Israelis, community groups and just about every peace and solidarity organization in the city. We now have a broadly-based and powerful support structure to work with. This was a major victory.

Jeff seems to suggest that we would have gotten more than 32 percent of the people to vote for Palestinian statehood if we had taken a harder line against Israel and the Israeli lobby. I, along with most of the activists in Prop. W, believe that we should have given more prominence to the violence and human rights violations in the occupied territories. I think we would probably deal differently with the aid issue as well. But it is hard for me to imagine anyone voting against Palestinian statehood because they thought we were too soft on Israel. Indeed, Jeff makes no attempt to account for the poorer showing of the Jabalya initiative in Berkeley which emphasized precisely the points he criticized us for omitting.

In fact, those of us involved directly in the campaign, speaking alongside of our opposition before scores of political clubs, civic and religious groups, consider our approach to have been a great strength. We placed Palestinian statehood in the context of the search for a just and lasting peace. We sent mixed teams of Jews and Palestinians to speak, the message being both peoples’ stake in a fair and lasting settlement. Peace, we felt, was the key to connecting this issue to the self-interest of Americans. Where we were able to present our case, we either won endorsement or got a vote [not to take a] position. By the end the opposition was avoiding debates with us…

For me, Prop. W was a reality test. I wish things were as easy as Jeff seems to believe they are. While it is true that there is growing sympathy for the Palestinians among the American people, there is also great confusion, anti-Arab prejudice and widespread gut feelings for Israel. Where there are large and powerful Jewish communities deeply committed to the fight, many people are reluctant to become involved in an issue that seems somewhat distant but which provokes such strong reactions from neighbors and co-workers. Our supporters were subjected to ferocious pressures, and many were worried about internal fights and jeopardizing their relationship with the Jewish community, which on other issues is generally quite progressive. Our "soft line" must be understood in this real-life context — not simply as an expression of our personal predilections but as an attempt to find a framework that both expressed the sentiments of a broad cross-section of Americans and which they felt comfortable publicly supporting.

There were serious weaknesses in our campaign. One has to realize that when NAAA [National Association of Arab Americans] started the initiative and sought support, none of us had ever worked together; we had no organization, money or political backing. We had to build an army in the middle of a battle.

Based on our direct experiences with voters, however, we did believe we could win. Our position was fair and reasonable, and when we got a chance to directly address people, we felt that our arguments carried more weight than our opponents’. The problem was that we were unable to reach everyone directly; between our message and the majority of the people lay the immense resources of the San Francisco Jewish community. They knew all the right levers to pull, and they had the financial means and expertise to run an effective, city-wide campaign. Their capacity to confuse and mislead the voters about the intent of the initiative was an object lesson in public relations. We carried the three districts (Castro, Haight, Mission) where we focused our one mailing and our canvassing. We did very poorly in those sections of the city (more than half) where the only direct contact people had with the campaign was with the opposition.

The lesson we drew from this is the need to become more highly organized and more deeply and directly involved in the centers of political life. In the next test of strength we plan to be inside the arena with our hands on some of the levers of political power.

Matthew Hallinan
San Francisco

 

Jeffrey Blankfort Replies

The excuses offered by Hallinan for the refusal of the Prop. W leadership to condemn Israeli atrocities in the months preceding the election are not convincing. Prop. W lost an opportunity to educate the San Francisco electorate as to the true nature of the Israeli occupation and how much Americans are paying for it. Prop. W’s silence, in fact, mirrored that of the “liberal” and rightwing elected officials who shamelessly aligned themselves in opposition to the measure. They didn’t want to talk about these issues and, thanks to Prop. W’s strategy, they didn't have to. Although the intifada had produced Prop. W, it was a non-issue.

I suspect Hallinan is embarrassed for having used the term “morally neutral” in our interview to describe the strategy of the Prop. W leadership. Hallinan’s definition of morally neutral bears repeating: “We took the high road to such an extreme that we were saying we didn't want to condemn anybody,” as if ignoring Israeli violence placed him on a higher plane than those of us who read and watched the daily reports of beatings and killings with mounting outrage. He now says more attention should have been given to the Israeli violence, as if this omission was simply an unintended, tactical error. A Prop. W internal document, however, stressed that the campaign should be “very positive…making every effort to avoid pinning labels or placing blame.”

In order to get the Palestinian and Arab-American steering committee members to support this strategy, according to Lebanese-American attorney Salle Soladay and one other witness, Hallinan brought in a political “professional,” Rob Lavis, who convinced them that the only way to win was not to criticize Israel, not to talk about the atrocities, US aid or the pro-Israel lobby. With little experience in US politics, the majority of the Palestinians and Arabs were ready to follow those they viewed as being more familiar with the US political scene, and whom they believed had their interests at heart. While Palestinian participation was probably Prop. W’s “greatest success,” the campaign tactics and critical day to day decisions were in other hands. Was Soladay, who as president of the Bay Area Chapter of the National Association of Arab Americans conceived the idea of the ballot measure, correct in saying that those running the campaign were more concerned with Israel’s survival and “not disturbing Jewish sensibilities,” than winning? The evidence, to which I would add Hallinan’s reply, points to that.

It is a better explanation than what he offers for Prop. W’s having vetoed mention of the two other issues, besides Israeli atrocities, that would have enlarged and influenced the voters understanding of the conflict: (1) the massive US aid grants to Israel, more than $26 billion in the Reagan years alone, and (2) the pressure of the US-based pro-Israel lobby which…pumped close to a million dollars into the “No on W” coffers.

The demand to cut aid was, in fact, a major part of the winning campaign in Cambridge. While reduction of US aid was not Prop. W’s stated goal, the argument that aid would conceivably be reduced as the result of a two-state peace settlement would have had direct appeal to the voter’s self-interest, as shown in Cambridge. Even Hallinan’s fellow co-chair, New Jewish Agenda's Naomi Nim, noted that “a follow-up poll [in Cambridge] snowed that linking human rights with American tax money was the critical factor” (in an article in the Winter 1989 Northern California ADC Review). While Hallinan now says “we would deal differently with the aid issue,” that seems unlikely, since other key players, such as Nim and the American Friends Service Committee’s Allen Solomonow, who dictated the staff hiring, share his opposition to penalizing Israel.

The demand for cutting or suspending aid should be no more a question of tactics in this instance than it is for redirecting US policies in Central America. Simply put, the M-16s used to kill Nicaraguans and El Salvadorans are indistinguishable from those used against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Without US aid, the Israeli government could no more afford to maintain the occupation than could the El Salvadoran government wage war against its own citizenry or the contras against the people of Nicaragua.

The argument of Hallinan and others that it isn’t “useful” to make these comparisons, that it isn’t “useful” to talk about aid and the lobby or to emphasize Israeli atrocities becomes, in effect, a form of “damage control”…

Hallinan seems naive when describing the opposition’s “capacity to confuse and mislead the voters” as an “object lesson in public relations.” What does he think happened in Berkeley in 1984 when the pro-Israel opposition masqueraded as the “peace camp”? Where does he think the “ferocious pressure” against Prop. W endorsers was coming from and why wasn’t it denounced? Hallinan’s deferential treatment of those with their hands on “the levers of power,” San Francisco’s supervisors, should be questioned. He did not approach them for endorsements: “We realized it was going to be too hot for a lot of people to support us,” he told me in an unpublished part of our interview, “so we wanted just to let them off the hook. We didn’t go to them.” That’s life on the high road.

Hallinan’s reference to the Spring Mobilization is accurate, but he does not mention (1) that he has been a member of the Mobe steering committee since its inception and (2) he has joined the “leadership&rdqou; in consistently opposing a plank calling for “No US Intervention in the Middle East.” On each occasion, the last-minute selection of an Arab-American speaker (scheduled early on the program so as to finish before the main body of the march arrived at the rally site) was put forth by Hallinan as an alternative to placing the issue on the flyer and rally poster, linked with Central America and South Africa where it would be visible on walls and windows long after the demonstration was over. That those connections will one day be made by the US “peace” movement is one of Israel’s greatest nightmares; that they have not is one of our greatest failures.

There is indeed a “broadly-based” community here ready to move on the Palestinian issue, but at the moment Hallinan’s description of it as “powerful” is unfortunately an exaggeration. Polls across the country, however, indicate that Americans in increasing numbers are ready to cut aid to Israel. The “damage” to its image may soon be reaching the point where it can no longer be “controlled.” Let Cambridge be the example.

Jeffrey Blankfort
San Francisco

Zionists and Divine Prophecy

Benjamin Beit Hallahmi’s assertion in your letters column (#156) that only “religious Zionists base their claim to Palestine on the Biblical promise to Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 17:8), while secular Zionists speak only of Jewish ‘historical rights’ based only on ancient Jewish sovereignty and the inheritance principle according to which contemporary Jews are the rightful heirs to the ancient sovereignty” is spurious and inaccurate.

All Zionists, be they religious or secular, have Divine Prophecy and Biblical verses engrained on their psyche.

Zionists such as Ben-Gurion and Begin always used Biblical verse in presentation of their Zionist credo; for not to do so would forfeit our right as an Eternal People and would give us as much right to Palestine as the Greeks have to Asia Minor, modern Turkey. While it is true that representatives of the tough native-born Israelis or the “Sabra Generation” such as Rabin or Sharon do not speak much of Divine Prophecy, they don’t have to because Divine Prophecy and historic rights based on ancient Jewish sovereignty have coalesced into their very being as native-born Israelis and thus they are the rightful heirs to this ancient Jewish sovereignty.

Aui Greenhaus
Jerusalem

Wrong on the Mojahedin?

After reading Eric Hooglund’s “The Islamic Republic at War and Peace” [January-February 1989] I felt compelled to respond to his misrepresentation of facts concerning the Iranian Resistance.

The author introduces the People’s Mojahedin as “an anti-government movement that most Iranians regard as traitorous on account of its collaboration with Iraq.” To buttress his false claim, he weaves a tale about the Mojahedin “accompanying Iraqi forces on their offensives” into western Iran. The Mojahedin, Mr. Hooglund says, had predicted a popular uprising against the Islamic Republic upon the occupation of Islamabad by the National Liberation Army of Iran, whereas “the local population turned upon their ‘liberators’ and assisted pasdar and vigilantes in slaughtering hundreds of Mojahedin fighters….”

I am sending along a photograph from the regime’s Jomhouri Islami newspaper, August 3, 1988, of residents of Islamabad executed by the regime on the charge of collaborating with the Mojahedin during their July operation, code-named “Eternal Light.”

The Khomeini regime published dozens of such reports at the time to intimidate and terrorize the populace, which had demonstrated its support for the Mojahedin. Foreign correspondents in Iran reported hundreds of executions of local residents in western Iran for their cooperation with the Mojahedin’s operation (Edward Mortimer, Financial Times, August 17, 1988). In claiming that Mojahedin forces were killed by the local populace, Eric Hooglund stands alone, eclipsing even Khomeini’s regime.

The Khomeini regime has executed more than 12,000 Mojahedin and their supporters in Iran since it announced its acceptance of a ceasefire in the war. A list of 1,634 identified victims has been submitted by the Mojahedin to international authorities. Even Khomeini or his deposed heir-apparent Montazeri could have told Hooglund that if “most Iranians” regarded the Mojahedin “as traitorous,” it would have been in the regime’s interest to leave them to fend for themselves instead of executing them by the thousands and exposing itself to more international isolation and even more internal feuds and consecutive purges.

Hooglund’s portrait of the Iranian reality is not simply tilted; it is upside-down. Factual adjustments are required to make it all hang together. For example:

  • Hooglund says Khomeini is not to blame for continuing the war. Iraq, the US, etc. imposed the war on him and continued it.
  • He explains that Khomeini had pursued peace for years through diplomatic channels, and his war mania was really just street theater.
  • Now the Khomeini regime’s primary problem is economic reconstruction.

In fact, after 1982, when the Iraqi forces withdrew, Khomeini was the only party responsible for the continuation of the war. Even the regime’s top officials, like Rafsanjani and Moussavi-Ardebili, have confessed that they should have made peace then, but didn’t. Khomeini prolonged the war because he was in dire need of an external crisis to consolidate his rule.

The Khomeini regime was ultimately compelled to consent to Resolution 598, one year after Iraq had accepted it, because of absolute military weakness at the fronts and the threat of overthrow by the National Liberation Army. Khomeini submitted to the ceasefire less than one month after the NLA’s capture of Mehran. He likened the move to “drinking a chalice of poison.” It is hard to believe, as Hooglund would have his readers, that anyone would seek to drink poison for years.

Clearly, the regime’s need for political reform precedes any economic reconstruction. Eight months after the cease-fire, Khomeini has failed the test of political moderation. The severe violations of human rights and unprecedented executions of political prisoners have raised doubts as to the regime’s ability to hold out. Internationally, its isolation climaxed with Khomeini’s decree for the murder of a British author. Domestically, where it really counts, Khomeini’s problems are not getting any better: the National Liberation Army and the Mojahedin are poised to pounce. The deposal of Montazeri, in whom the Khomeini regime had invested heavily to create an aura of stability and continuity, refutes the stability and chances of survival of Khomeini himself. Indeed, would Eric Hooglund ever have predicted such a day?

Aladdin Touran
People’s Mojahedin of Iran
Washington, DC

How to cite this article:

"Letters (July/August 1989)," Middle East Report 159 (July/August 1989).
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