AIPAC Undermines Democracy at Home and in the Middle East

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is one of the most powerful lobby organizations in the country. On March 4-6, AIPAC will be holding its annual policy conference in Washington DC. The speakers include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Republican candidate Newt Gingrich and a host of other powerful politicians.

AIPAC has tremendous clout but its influence has been disastrous for U.S. foreign policy and U.S. democracy. Here are ten reasons why AIPAC is so dangerous.

1. AIPAC is lobbying Congress to promote a military confrontation with Iran. AIPAC – like the Israeli government – is demanding that the U.S. attack Iran militarily to prevent Iran from having the technological capacity to produce nuclear weapons, even though U.S. officials say Iran isn’t trying to build a weapon (and even though Israel has hundreds of undeclared nuclear weapons). AIPAC has successfully lobbied the U.S. government to adopt crippling economic sanctions on Iran, including trying to cut off Iran’s oil exports, despite the fact that these sanctions raise the price of gas and threaten the U.S. economy.

2. AIPAC promotes Israeli policies that are in direct opposition to international law. These include the establishment of colonies (settlements) in the Occupied West Bank and the confiscation of Palestinian land in its construction of the 26-foot high concrete “separation barrier” running through the West Bank. The support of these illegal practices makes to impossible to achieve a solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict.

3. AIPAC’s call for unconditional support for the Israeli government threatens our national security. The United States’ one-sided support of Israel, demanded by AIPAC, has significantly increased anti-American sentiment throughout the Middle East, thus endangering our troops and sowing the seeds of more possible terrorist attacks against us. Gen. David Petraeus on March 16, 2010 admitted that the U.S./Palestine conflict “foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel.” He also said that “Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the [region] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support.”

4. AIPAC undermines American support for democracy movements in the Arab world. AIPAC looks at the entire Arab world through the lens of Israeli government interests, not the democratic aspirations of the Arab people. It has therefore supported corrupt, repressive regimes that are friendly to the Israeli government, such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Events now unfolding in the Middle East should convince U.S. policy-makers of the need to break from AIPAC’s grip and instead support democratic forces in the Arab world.

5. AIPAC makes the U.S. a pariah at the UN. AIPAC describes the UN as a body hostile to the State of Israel and has pressured the U.S. government to oppose resolutions calling Israel to account. Since 1972, the US has vetoed 44 UN Security Council resolutions condemning Israel’s actions against the Palestinians. President Obama continues that policy. Under Obama, the US vetoed UN censure of the savage Israeli assault on Gaza in January 2009 in which about 1400 Palestinians were killed; a 2011 resolution calling for a halt to the illegal Israeli West Bank settlements even though this was stated U.S. policy; a 2011 resolution calling for Israel to cease obstructing the work of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees; and another resolution calling for an end to illegal Israeli settlement building in East Jerusalem and the occupied Golan Heights.

6. AIPAC attacks politicians who question unconditional support of Israel. AIPAC demands that Congress to rubber stamp legislation drafted by AIPAC staff. It keeps a record of how members of Congress vote and this record is used by donors to make contributions to the politicians who score well. Members of Congress who fail to support AIPAC legislation have been targeted for defeat in re-election bids. These include Senators Adlai Stevenson III and Charles H. Percy, and Representatives Paul Findley, Pete McCloskey, Cynthia McKinney, and Earl F. Hilliard. AIPAC’s overwhelmingly disproportionate influence on Congress subverts our democratic system.

7. AIPAC attempts to silence all criticism of Israel by labeling critics as “anti-Semitic,” “de-legitimizers” or “self-hating Jews.” Journalists, think tanks, students and professors have been accused of anti-Semitism for merely taking stands critical of Israeli government policies. These attacks stifle the critical discussions and debates that are at the heart of democratic policy-making. The recent attacks on staffers at the Center for American Progress is but one example of AIPAC efforts to crush all dissent.

8. AIPAC feeds U.S. government officials a distorted view of the Israel/Palestine conflict. AIPAC takes U.S. representatives on sugar-coated trips to Israel. In 2011, AIPAC took one out of very five members of Congress—and many of their spouses—on a free junket to Israel to see precisely what the Israeli government wanted them to see. It is illegal for lobby groups to take Congresspeople on trips, but AIPAC gets around the law by creating a bogus educational group, AIEF, to “organize” the trips for them. AIEF has the same office address as AIPAC and the same staff. These trips help cement the ties between AIPAC and Congress, furthering their undue influence.

9. AIPAC lobbies for billions of U.S. taxdollars to go to Israel instead of rebuilding America. While our country is reeling from a prolonged financial crisis, AIPAC is pushing for no cuts in military funds for Israel, a wealthy nation. With communities across the nation slashing budgets for teachers, firefighters and police, AIPAC pushes for over $3 billion a year to Israel.

10. Money to Israel takes funds from world’s poor. Israel has the 24th largest economy in the world, but thanks to AIPAC, it gets more U.S. taxdollars than any other country. At a time when the foreign aid budget is being slashed, keeping the lion’s share of foreign assistance for Israel meaning taking funds from critical programs to feed, provide shelter and offer emergency assistance to the world’s poorest people.

The bottom line is that AIPAC, which is a de facto agent for a foreign government, has influence on U.S. policy out of all proportion to the number of Americans who support its policies. When a small group like this has disproportionate power, that hurts everyone—including Israelis and American Jews.

From stopping a catastrophic war with Iran to finally solving the Israel/Palestine conflict, an essential starting point is breaking AIPAC’s grip on U.S. policy.

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of and She is one of the organizers of, which will take place March 3-5 in Washington DC.

Plans for OCCUPY AIPAC are under way and we hope you will join us March 2-6 in Washington DC again!

With the Occupy movement that has swept the country demanding social and economic justice, many have concluded that AIPAC—the powerful pro-Israeli government lobby that distorts U.S. policy in the Middle East— is a mandatory “occupy target”.

Adbusters, the magazine that issued the initial visionary call for the takeover of Wall St. on September 17th, has declared: “The time has come for the Occupy Movement to demand an end to the Occupation of Palestine… We need a hashtag, #occupyAIPAC” (Kalle Lasn).

Timed to coincide with the annual AIPAC policy conference in March 2012, the Occupy AIPAC summit will be a long weekend of teach-ins, cultural performances, protests and creative direct actions, and a sneak preview of the forthcoming film Roadmap to Apartheid. Our Saturday conference will feature educational panels on Iran, Palestine, the Arab Uprisings and the Occupy Movement (see the list of speakers).

Sponsors and endorsers include the Institute of Policy Studies, Global Exchange, Just Foreign Policy, Interfaith Peace Builders (IFPB), the US Palestinian Community Network (USPCN), Jewish Voice for Peace, several Students for Justice in Palestine chapters, and over 120 other groups.

Right now AIPAC is trying to drag us into a disastrous war with Iran, just as they pushed the Iraq war. We must show our opposition by exposing AIPAC and standing against a war with Iran. AIPAC’s underhanded tactics and their manipulation of our political process destroys the possibility of a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis. Recent public criticisms of the Israel lobby make the call to Occupy AIPAC all the more relevant.

Now is the time to make a large, people-powered push to show our opposition to the stranglehold the Israel lobby continues to hold over our government. Your support made last year’s Move Over AIPAC a success and we need you again in 2012.

Register for the conference. Your outreach and presence is critical to help us ensure a strong turnout, because now is the time to Occupy AIPAC, not Palestine!

Corporate Flag of America, Graphic Credit: Adbusters

Attention Occupy communities: In addition to peace and justice groups around the country, we are reaching out to Occupy communities for support and participation (see the Occupy AIPAC GA resolution). If your group would like to endorse or join this effort, please email





Fair Harvest in the Dominican Republic

8 years ago here at Global Exchange Reality Tours we began incorporating the fair trade story into our annual departures to address disturbing truths about the global economy.  Millions of farmers around the world are facing poverty and starvation because global crop prices have continued to plummet to all-time lows, a worldwide crisis exacerbating problems including malnutrition, family farm closures, and in some cases increased drug cultivation.

In today’s world economy, where profits rule and small-scale producers are left out of the bargaining process, farmers, craft producers, and other workers are often left without resources or hope for their future. Fair Trade helps exploited producers escape from this cycle of poverty.

The tourism industry has seen a growth in both “voluntourism” and philanthropy-based travel, and in 2003 Reality Tours launched its first Fair Harvest tour. The goals; to share the story of fair trade with travelers, to offer a service learning opportunity, to support local community-based tourism initiatives as a promoter of socially responsible travel, to meet and exchange with fair trade certified cooperative farmers, and to inspire our alumni to return committed to supporting the fair trade movement in their own communities and to support our Global Exchange Fair Trade campaigns and Fair Trade craft stores.

Global Exchange Reality Tours highlight the importance of fair trade on commodity crops such as cocoa, coffee, olives, and tea as well as textiles and crafts, and contextualizes the debate between “fair trade” and “free trade” crops and products in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Ecuador, Palestine, India, Nepal, Rwanda and many other countries. Reality Tours provide the opportunity for participants to learn firsthand how:

  • fair trade producers receive a fair price – a living wage;
  • forced labor and exploitative child labor (and modern day slavery) are prohibited;
  • buyers and producers have direct long-term trade relationships;
  • producers have access to financial and technical assistance;
  • sustainable production techniques are encouraged and mandated;
  • working conditions are healthy and safe;
  • equal employment opportunities are provided for all;
  • all aspects of trade and production are open to public accountability.

The Fair Trade system benefits over 800,000+ farmers organized into cooperatives and unions in over 48 countries. While the complexities of each country are unique, what fair trade means for communities is often very similar. Fair Trade profits help fund basic education, health care, and general infrastructure in communities, amplifying the dignity of communities who get to stay on their land. Reality Tours fair trade themed trips provide the opportunity for farmers to share their stories with participants. Reality Tours participants who have witnessed firsthand the benefits of fair trade return from their journey inspired by the experience.

Nicaragua Woman Harvesting Coffee Beans

A Cup of Fair Coffee?
Let’s take a commodity or two as an example. The United States consumes one-fifth of all the world’s coffee, the largest consumer in the world. But few North Americans realize that agriculture workers in the coffee industry often toil in what can be described as “sweatshops in the fields.”

Many small coffee farmers receive prices for their coffee that are less than the costs of production, forcing them into a cycle of poverty and debt. Fair Trade is a viable solution to this crisis in Nicaragua, assuring consumers that the coffee they drink was purchased under fair conditions. To become Fair Trade certified, an importer must meet stringent international criteria; paying a minimum price per pound, providing much needed credit to farmers, and providing technical assistance such as help transitioning to organic farming.

Fair Trade for coffee farmers in Matalgapa means community development, health, education, and environmental stewardship. Our Fair Harvest programs to Nicaragua provide the historical context for this social and economic vulnerability and absolutely impact people’s purchasing decisions. We’ve been honored to work with the Fair Trade Cooperative CECOCAFEN for years and know that when our delegates return many choose fair trade in their cups. What if that one-fifth of global coffee drinkers all put their purchases where their values are? That would have global repercussions!

Sweet, Sweet Chocolate

Fair Cocoa Harvest in the Dominican Republic

Next, let’s look at chocolate. The six largest cocoa producing countries are Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, and Cameroon. Cocoa has significant effects on the economy and the population in these countries. In Ghana, cocoa accounts for 40% of total export revenues, and two million farmers are employed in cocoa production. The Ivory Coast is the world’s largest cocoa producer, providing 43% of the world’s cocoa. In 2000, a report by the US State Department concluded that in recent years approximately 15,000 children aged 9 to 12 have been sold into forced labor on cotton, coffee and cocoa plantations in the north of the country. A June 15, 2001 document released by the Geneva, Switzerland-based International Labor Organization (ILO) reported that trafficking of children is widespread in West Africa. (For ILO definitions of these labor violations, see ILO Convention 182 on Child Labor ILO Convention 29 on Forced Labor.)

The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) followed up these reports with an extensive study of cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon, directly involving over 4,500 producers. The results were released in August 2002. An estimated 284,000 children were working on cocoa farms in hazardous tasks such as using machetes and applying pesticides and insecticides without the necessary protective equipment. Many of these children worked on family farms, the children of cocoa farmers who are so trapped in poverty many make the hard choice to keep their children out of school to work. The IITA also reported that about 12,500 children working on cocoa farms had no relatives in the area, a warning sign of trafficking.

Child laborers face arduous work, as cacao pods must be cut from high branches with long-handled machetes, split open, and their beans scooped out. Children who are involved in the worst labor abuses come from countries including Mali, Burkina Faso, and Togo — nations that are even more destitute than the impoverished Ivory Coast.

Vicious Circle of Poverty

Rwanda Women's Coffee Cooperative Sorting Beans

Parents in these countries sell their children to traffickers believing that they will find honest work once they arrive in Ivory Coast and then send their earnings home. But once separated from their families, the young boys are made to work for little or nothing. The children work long and hard — they head into the fields at 6:00 in the morning and often do not finish until 6:30 at night. These children typically lack the opportunity for education, leaving them with no way out of this cycle of poverty. The IITA noted that 66% of child cocoa workers in the Ivory Coast did not attend school. About 64% of children on cocoa farms are under age 14, meaning that the loss of an education comes at an early age for the majority of children on cocoa farms. (Watch The Dark Side of Chocolate, a powerful documentary on this issue).

Producer income remains low because major chocolate and cocoa processing companies have refused to take any steps to ensure stable and sufficient prices for cocoa producers. World cocoa prices fluctuate widely and have been well below production costs in the last decade. Though cocoa prices have shown moderate increases in the past few years, cocoa producers remain steeped in debt accumulated when prices were below production costs.

Producers typically also get only half the world price, as they must use exploitative middlemen to sell their crop. The effects of insufficient cocoa income have been exacerbated by deregulation of agriculture in West Africa, which abolished commodity boards across the region, leaving small farmers at the mercy of the market. This economic crisis forced farmers to cut their labor costs. The outcome was a downward spiral for labor in the region, and a surge in reports of labor abuses ranging from farmers pulling children out of school to work on family farms to outright child trafficking and slavery. These small farmers and their children remained trapped in a cycle of poverty, without hope for sufficient income or access to basic education or health care.

 We Can Change It!
For years, US chocolate manufacturers have claimed they are not responsible for the conditions on cocoa plantations since they don’t own them. But the $13 billion chocolate industry is heavily consolidated, with just two firms — Hershey’s and M&M/Mars — controlling two-thirds of the US chocolate candy market. Surely, these global corporations have the power and the ability to reform problems in the supply chain. What they lack is the will.

At Global Exchange, we know there is a solution – supporting Fair Trade cocoa and chocolate. Fair Trade chocolate and cocoa products are marked with the “Fair Trade Certified” label. Fair Trade cocoa comes from Belize, Bolivia, Cameroon, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Ghana, Nicaragua, and Peru. Thus Reality Tours has a Cocoa Fair Harvest program in the Dominican Republic. Every year, we encourage chocolate lovers from around the world to join with our local partners from Grupo CONACADO to explore benefits of Fair Trade cocoa and sustainable harvest, renewable technology in the Dominican Republic.

Palestine Fair Olive Harvest, Group with Farmers 2009

Fair Trade Tourism is a growing segment of our socially responsible travel program here at Global Exchange. Our third Fair Harvest destination was announced in  2007 to Palestine where participants worked side by side Palestinians harvesting olives. The Fair Trade story continues to evolve and we look forward to expanding our Reality Tours programs in the years to come.  There is an opportunity for those of us in the tourism industry to make a positive change in the world. Tourism can be a force for good. We can ensure tourism dollars stay to benefit the local economies of our hosts. We can highlight the stories, the struggles and aspirations of the communities we visit. Together with Reality Tours trip participants, we can be a force for fairness.

This piece was originally written by Malia Everette  for Tourism Review, Tourism Magazine Review October 2010 issue.

The following was written by Global Exchange intern Bethany Schmid:

For many, the term “segregation” brings to mind separate bathrooms, ‘Whites Only’ signs on stores and restaurants, the cone hats of the Klu Klux Klan, and other images of the American South in the 1960s. In order to bring the nation’s attention to the inhumanity of segregation during that time, “Freedom Rides” were organized as a form of protest during which black activists  boarded buses reserved for white citizens. These Freedom Rides are the inspiration for a similar kind of action…in Palestine.

Here too, blatant segregation affects the daily lives of Palestinians who are severely restricted in where they can live and work and travel—all within their own land. In contrast, Israelis are permitted to move freely in Palestine, even settling there, contrary to international law. The Separation Wall, checkpoints, and settlements are all examples of barriers to Palestinian movement in the occupied territories and serve as forms of discrimination favoring Israeli citizens.

On November 15, 2011, Palestinian Freedom Riders attempted to board a bus serving illegal Israeli settlements and East Jerusalem—destinations barred to Palestinians. See a video of their action here. On this same day, cities across the nation, including Oakland, organized peaceful demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinian Freedom Riders. The aim of these activists was to call attention to the intrinsic segregation of Israel’s military occupation and its violations of international law, as well as to shed light on the role of corporations in maintaining the occupation, such as the companies running these bus lines: Veolia Environnement, a French transnational company, and Egged, an Israeli company.

Despite their actions being nonviolent, each Palestinian Freedom Rider was arrested and dragged from the bus. According to Jewish Voice for Peace, as he was being arrested, one activist called for people to stand in solidarity with the struggle for freedom, justice, and dignity, and to divest from corporations involved in the occupation. To see how you can become involved in this work, visit our current Global Exchange Campaign, Economic Activism for Palestine, which supports corporate accountability campaigns targeting companies profiting from the occupation of Palestine, such as Veolia Environment.

And do whatever you can to support the goal of the Palestinian Freedom Riders by bringing attention to the Israeli occupation and the corporations that profit from it (see Who Profits from the Occupation for more information). This could mean anything from starting your own corporate accountability campaign, to educating your school or community about Israel’s violations of international law, to signing a petition to divest from a company involved in the occupation.

Take Action: Check out our Economic Activism for Palestine Program for ways to get involved and take action.

By Medea Benjamin and Robert Naiman

photo: Lina Attalah

Two boats full of courageous passengers were on their way to Gaza when they were intercepted on Friday, November 4, by the Israeli military in international waters. We call the passengers courageous because they sailed from Turkey on November 2 with the knowledge that at any moment they might be boarded by Israeli commandos intent on stopping them—perhaps violently, as the Israeli military did in 2010 when they killed nine humanitarian aid workers on the Turkish boat named Mavi Marmara.

The boats—one from Canada and one from Ireland—were carrying 27 passengers, including press and peace activists from Ireland, Canada, the United States, Australia and Palestine. They were unarmed, and the Israeli military knew that. They were simply peace activists wanting to connect with civilians in Gaza, and the Israeli military knew that. Yet naked aggression was used against them in international waters—something that is normally considered an act of piracy.

The passengers on the boats were sailing to Gaza to challenge the U.S. – supported Israeli blockade that is crippling the lives of 1.6 million Palestinian civilians in Gaza. They were sailing to stand up against unaccountable power—the power of the Israeli government—that has been violating the basic rights of the 5.5 million Palestinians that live inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders or in the Occupied Territories.  They were sailing for us, civil society, who believe in human rights and the rule of law.

The Arab Spring – which has now spread to cities across the United States in the form of the “#occupy” movement, and has been echoed in protests against economic injustice in Europe and Israel as well – has fundamentally been a challenge to unaccountable power. Some countries experiencing this protest wave are dictatorships under military rule or ruled by monarchies; others are generally considered “democracies.” But in all instances the majority feel that they have been shut out of decision-making and have been harmed by policies benefiting a narrow elite with disproportionate power.

The blockade of Gaza’s civilians is an extreme example of unaccountable power. Palestinians in Gaza aren’t allowed to vote for Israeli or American politicians. But due to political decisions taken in Israel and the United States, Palestinians in Gaza are prevented from exporting their goods, traveling freely, farming their land, fishing their waters or importing construction materials to build their homes and factories.

We have been to Gaza before, where we have seen the devastation firsthand.  We have also been to Israel and the West Bank, where we have seen how the Israeli government is detaining Palestinians at checkpoints, building walls that cut them off from their lands, demolishing their houses, arbitrarily imprisoning their relatives and imposing economic restrictions that prevent them from earning a living. We have seen how Palestinians, like people everywhere, are desperate to live normal and dignified lives.

A UN Report released in September found that “Israel’s oppressive policies [in Gaza] constitute a form of collective punishment of civilians”, that these policies violate both international humanitarian and human rights law, and that the illegal siege of Gaza should be lifted.  The International Committee of the Red Cross also called the blockade of Gaza a violation of international law because it constitutes “collective punishment” of a civilian population for actions for which the civilians are not responsible. The Red Cross is a neutral humanitarian organization. It doesn’t usually go around making pronouncements on matters of public policy. The fact that it has done so in this case should be a strong signal to the international community that the blockade of Gaza is extreme and must fall.

History has shown us again and again that when political leaders decide it’s in their interest, then peace, diplomacy, negotiations are possible. Recently, Israel and Hamas – with the help of the new Egyptian government – successfully negotiated a prisoner exchange that had eluded them for five years. In speeches, the Israeli government “opposes negotiations with Hamas,” and in speeches, Hamas “opposes negotiations with Israel.” But when they decided it was in their interest, they had no problem sitting down at the table and hammering out an agreement.

If Israel and Hamas can negotiate an agreement to release prisoners, then surely Israel and Hamas can negotiate an agreement to lift the blockade on Gaza’s civilians.

But the people of Gaza can’t wait for political leaders to decide it’s in their interest to negotiate, so it’s up to us—as civil society—to step up the pressure. That’s what these waves of boats are doing. That’s what the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is doing.

More than a year ago, President Obama called the blockade unsustainable. “It seems to us that there should be ways of focusing narrowly on arms shipments, rather than focusing in a blanket way on stopping everything and then, in a piecemeal way, allowing things into Gaza,” he said. That hasn’t happened. Why not? Why shouldn’t it happen now? What does blocking Palestinian exports from Gaza to Europe or keeping people from getting medical treatment abroad have to do with arms shipments?

The Israeli military stopped these two small ships carrying peace activists to Gaza, but they won’t stop the Palestinians who are demanding freedom, and they won’t stop the solidarity movement. We won’t stop challenging the blockade on Gaza’s civilians—by land and by sea– until the blockade falls. And we won’t stop challenging the denial of Palestinian democratic aspirations until those aspirations are realized.

Medea Benjamin is the cofounder of CODEPINK and Global Exchange. Robert Naiman is the Director of Just Foreign Policy.

When Global Exchange founded Reality Tours back in 1988, it did so with the belief that travel can be a tool for promoting peace and cross-cultural understanding. Since then, we have committed ourselves to organizing enriching, thought provoking and philosophically complex Citizen Diplomacy delegations around the world, even when those nations are often demonized as enemy states or part of the “Axis of Evil”.

Citizen diplomacy is based on the concept that individuals have the right to help influence and shape foreign policies for their country by informally meeting with global citizens and learning about their reality.  As you will read  below, Ken Yale’s reflection and learning is exactly the kind of transformative experience that keeps us here at Reality Tours ever motivated to continue our work to have you “Meet the People, Learn the Facts, and Make a Difference”!


By Ken Yale, Reality Tours Palestine & Israel 2010 Past Participant

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” 
– Aldous Huxley

“Begin challenging your own assumptions.  Your assumptions are your windows on the world.  Scrub them off every once in awhile, or the light won’t come in. “  – -Alan Alda

We are often unconscious of the potential and significance of the moment in which we live.  This was certainly true for me in July, 2010, as I prepared to embark on a Global Exchange Reality Tour of the West Bank in a period when progressive movements in the region did not appear to be very strong.  Less than six months later, the Arab Spring began in Egypt and Tunisia.  Now it is hard for anyone with open eyes to miss the power of this unique historic moment as growing waves of mass uprisings for human rights, democracy, and social justice continue to spread outward from the Middle East and North Africa to nations on every continent.

It’s not easy for most of us in the US to understand the conditions and dynamics that are fueling such rapid change in the region and offering inspiration and hope for global social justice.  We struggle to either discover or unlearn decades of history that have been largely ignored, obfuscated, or distorted by a corporate controlled media and an educational system that discourages critical thought and examination.  For many of us who grew up in Jewish families, we are further challenged to find the courage to confront a lifetime of cultural and religious narratives that demand allegiance to a settler colonial Israeli state as a foundation of our identity.

As a young child growing up in a Jewish Chicago neighborhood, every Sunday morning my parents would send me off to temple with a donation for Israel.  For every dime, we would get a stamp with an image of a leaf to paste onto a drawing of a tree.  When you filled all the branches, you had funded another tree that would be planted in the newly formed nation of Israel, then only about ten years old.  We should feel proud, we were told, to support our people from all over the world, who were returning to the land God gave just to us and making the barren desert bloom despite being surrounded by hostile Arabs who were trying to push us into the sea.  This narrative, repeated in many forms throughout my childhood, was never questioned or challenged in my family or community.

Landing in Tel Aviv airport about fifty years later, I made my way to the baggage claim past a long hallway displaying Zionist art from the 1950’s.  Dozens of posters from the United Israel Appeal, with titles like “Conquering The Wasteland” and “One Million In Israel, On To The Second Million” encouraged the Jewish Diaspora to come settle in Israel with slogans and imagery eerily familiar from my childhood.   An Israeli cab driver picked me up and soon we came upon a group of 25 orthodox Jews blocking an intersection and screaming that we should not be driving on the Sabbath.  As we made a U-turn, 3 teenagers ran toward the taxi and flung eggplants the size of bricks against the cab.  “Welcome to the real Israel,” I thought!

Once I finally connected with Mohamed, the Global Exchange trip leader from the Siraj Center, I immediately felt more relaxed and secure.  He was warm, caring, articulate and insightful, with an amazingly deep knowledge of the history, politics, and culture of the region.   As we drove towards our orientation meeting, Mohamed noticed me staring at a very long, straight row of trees paralleling the highway for miles.  I was fantasizing about how the trees we helped fund as kids could have been planted in a place just like this, when Mohamed said,  “Beautiful, isn’t it?  You’d never know those trees were placed there so that people driving this popular highway won’t see the wall just behind it.”

Mohamed was referring to the 450 mile long separation barrier that Israel has constructed around much of the West Bank and Jerusalem, the most visible symbol of the apartheid state built through military conquest, occupation and the systematic dispossession of Palestinian land and human rights.  It is around 25 feet high in many areas, topped with concertina wire and electrified fence, monitored by surveillance cameras, snipers, dog patrols and soldiers.  It often divides Palestinian communities from their own land.  The wall is the backbone of the infrastructure and policies of occupation that include extensive military checkpoints, mandatory ID cards, restricted access to roads and water, demolitions of Palestinian homes, mass arrests, repressive legal, administrative, economic and military regulations, and the construction of Jewish settlements which confiscate Palestinian lands in violation of international law.  The wall is often covered with the graffiti of resistance, and is a frequent target of Palestinian, Israeli, and international protest.

Mohamed and I are about the same age, so we grew up at the same time, but in obviously two very different worlds.  Mohamed’s family has lived in Palestine for many generations, but they were displaced from their homes and can no longer travel freely.  Just before Palestine was partitioned in 1947, there was a total population of 1.75 million, one third of whom were Jewish, owning 6% of the land.  After the war of 1947-48, the new state of Israel was formed with 78% of the land, leaving just 22% for Palestinians, primarily in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.  Today, Gaza is under a military and economic blockade and 200,000 Israeli Jews have established settlements in East Jerusalem.  A report released during our tour by the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, said Jewish settlements now control more than 42 percent of the West Bank through their jurisdiction and regional councils.

On a daily basis, occupied Palestinian territories are increasingly being carved up into small, disconnected and impoverished enclaves, much like the Bantustans of South African apartheid.  Yet I, who had never set foot on this land before, had so many more rights than Mohamed and his family, including the ability to get full Israeli citizenship, based on nothing more than my being born a Jew thousands of miles away.  What a painful irony that this is rationalized in the name of liberating Jews from centuries of anti-Semitism.  “Never Again” we were often told in my community, with reference to the Holocaust.   But is “Never Again” only for Jews, or for everyone?  Justice or Just Us?  Can there be a humane and fulfilling life for any people, no matter how oppressed, that is built on a foundation of ethnic cleansing, denial of human rights for others, and alliance with international corporate and imperial powers?

One of the many things I appreciated about Mohamed was that despite his incredible knowledge, he would always say, “Please don’t just take it from me.  Engage people from every perspective, see with your own eyes, make your own meaning, discover your own truths.”  Our Global Exchange tour provided the opportunity to meet with two or three organizations and countless individuals every day, both Palestinian and Israeli, some activists and others not.  We heard stories, stories, and more stories, all very moving, from human rights groups, a prisoner’s group, military refuseniks, a woman’s art cooperative, a youth theater, a Jewish settler organization, the nonviolent direct action movement, residents of refugee camps and kibbutzim, politicians, university students and faculty, international solidarity activists, and so many more, including a wonderful home stay with an open and generous Palestinian family.

Perhaps the day that was most memorable was our trip to Hebron.  Despite its location on Palestinian land in the West Bank, a one square kilometer section of the Old City has been occupied by 400 Israeli settlers with the support of 1500 Israeli soldiers.  In Hebron as a whole, over 10,000 Jewish settlers live in 20 settlements.  The military has closed down a large section of the main street in the Old City, shuttering hundreds of Palestinian shops, evicting their owners, and banning Palestinians from even walking on the street.  I will never forget the striking image of dozens of stray dogs that roamed the once teeming market area, with more freedom of access than the rightful Palestinian residents of Hebron.

If you are considering visiting the Middle East at this incredible time in its history, I’d strongly encourage you to go with a Global Exchange Reality Tour and/or the Siraj Center.  They made it possible for me to make personal and organizational connections and experience the region in ways I couldn’t possibly have arranged on my own.  Every time I read the news these days, I access lenses and insights from the trip that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

But please, don’t just take it from me…

The olive trees are green and have faces that cry.  They reach up to the sky embedded in the dirt-earth, in front of buildings that burn from the roof, and tanks that do not pull back.  Yes, children’s artwork is dangerous.

On September 8, 2011 the Oakland Museum of Children’s Art (MOCHA) cancelled the planned exhibition of A Child’s View from Gaza, curated by the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), a Bay Area based humanitarian organization whose work supports children and their families in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq. Global Exchange was sponsoring this event, as we hoped to be a part of educating the public on the traumas of militarism, and build-people-to-people-ties through art. The reason for the abrupt cancellation of the art show?  According to the museum, lack of facilities.  According to the others—the anti-Palestinian-children’s-art-constituency who have publically taken credit for pressuring the museum to cancel—the content made Israel look bad.

“The content of the exhibit was extreme. It would have been outrageous that very young children would potentially view drawings depicting violence,” said Jewish Community Relations Council Executive Director Rabbi Doug Kahn, who lobbied along side right-wingers such as the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, and the Anti-Defamation League to have the art show censured.  However, A Child’s View from Gaza was not the MOCHA’s first run at opening their facilities to artwork by children under military occupation.  In 2004, to a warm reception, MOCHA showcased work by Iraqi children who depicted the disproportionate  brutality children experience under military invasion, in an exhibition curated by Joan Miro.

Barbara Lubin, Founder and Executive Director of MECA commented in the Electronic Intifada that these groups who pressured the MOCHA “try and suffocate the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and censor Palestinian cultural initiatives. What they’re doing is financing the work of silencing and shutting down anyone who wants to talk about what’s really happening to Palestinians.”

But MECA is not spiritless.  The crying olive trees and sad suns will be on display tomorrow, Saturday September 24th from 1-3 p.m. in a renegade show outside of the once venue at 538 Ninth St., Oakland, CA.  Associate Director of MECA, Ziad Abbas said “it was important for these children to know that their voices were going to be heard in Oakland. However, they didn’t expect the siege to stretch all the way from Gaza to California, which is essentially what happened when MOCHA canceled the exhibit due to pressure from these groups.” Abbas has visited the GX office just a few weeks ago for a stalwart presentation, and his own recollections from a childhood in a refugee camp exemplify how children’s experiences of war and violence can never really be erased.  Saturday’s event will be family-friendly, including music, poetry, food, and will celebrate the creativity of these very small artists.

For GXer’s in the Bay Area, MECA is calling for a protest today, at MOCHA’s Cave-In (just outside the Cave-In), Friday, Sept. 23 at 3 p.m. (538 Ninth St. near Clay, Oakland, by 12th St.-City Center BART).

 P.S.:  The Middle East Children’s Alliance is an ally organization of Global Exchange, and has graciously donated some great items to our Open House—Thursday Oct 6th in San Francisco Help us sustain our work for peace and justice, by purchasing your prize drawing ticket today!





Who doesn’t love an ice cold glass of soda on a hot summer day? But SodaStream’s soda water isn’t so cool….

SodaStream, an Israeli company producing a do-it-yourself, counter-top seltzer and soda maker, has been marketing its ware as a “green alternative” to soda cans and bottles. But buyer beware: SodaStream’s main production site is in Mishor Edomim, a settlement and industrial zone in the occupied West Bank, on confiscated Palestinian land. The company exploits Palestinian labor and sells it’s product with a “Made in Israel” label.

During the last two years, SodaStream has expanded it’s market into the US, listed on NASDAQ, and started an aggressive marketing campaign in partnership with its US distributors, which include Bed Bath & Beyond and Macy’s. SodaStream, and other companies which produce in the settlement, takes advantage of Israel’s mandated advantages in the occupied territory, such as tax incentives, governmental support and lax enforcement of regulation.

In a recent interview, the company’s CEO, Daniel Birnbaum claimed that the company is experiencing unprecedented growth and they don’t expect any problems in the US with the kinds of boycotts they’ve been encountering in Europe. In Sweden and in Germany – their representative, Brita, was selling SodaStream under the label “Made in Israel” and the European Court has ruled that was illegal. (Article in Hebrew, read with Google Translate)

Let’s prove them wrong. Consumers in the US don’t want illegal products either!

This weekend, the San Francisco Chronicle published an article about the company, making no mention of the fact that these appliances are made in an illegal Israeli settlement.

Please help fill out the “comment section” of the SF Chronicle article to let SodaStream know that the US does not support illegal settlements in the Occupied West Bank and we don’t want to drink the water made possible by the labor of exploited Palestinian workers.

Click here to read and post a comment about the article!

Do you want more information? Earlier this year Who Profits? released a report on SodaStream’s operations.

Global Exchange’s Economic Activism for Palestine program also has more information about SodaStream and ways to take action. Check it out and help support our Economic Activism for Palestine by making a donation now.

Medea Benjamin

The following was written by Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace, and a passenger on The Audacity of Hope.

Instead of high-fiving each other for their success in thwarting the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, Israeli officials should be throwing overboard the propaganda hacks who catapulted the flotilla into headline news for weeks and left Israel smelling like rotten fish.

Last year, when the Israeli military killed nine aboard the Turkish ship, the incident made waves around the world. But in previous years, the same international coalition had sent boats to Gaza five times, successfully reaching their destination with a symbolic shipment of humanitarian aid. No blood, no military interception, no story. That’s why the advice of many of Israel’s best buddies, including the lobby group AIPAC, was to just ignore the flotilla.

But no, the Israeli government refused to listen and instead announced with great bravado that it was prepared to stop the flotilla with lethal force—including snipers and attack dogs. Smelling blood, the media frenzy began. Before even leaving home, passengers were besieged with press calls inquiring why we were willing to risk our lives and giving us a chance to talk about the plight of the people of Gaza. Worse yet from the Israeli government perspective, mainstream media began bombarding us with requests to come along. With space for only ten media on our boat, we ended up choosing reps from CNN, CBS, Al Jazeera, AP, The Nation and Democracy Now. Other boats in the flotilla also started scrambling to accommodate more press. Thanks to Israel, we were guaranteed that no matter what happened, the whole world would be watching.

The Israeli government’s next blunder was a doozy. It sent a letter to foreign journalists warning them that if they participated in the flotilla, they would be denied entry into Israel for ten years and their equipment would be impounded. The outcry from journalists and media organizations worldwide was immediate. Israel’s Foreign Press Association said the threat “sends a chilling message to the international media and raises serious questions about Israel’s commitment to freedom of the press.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to rescind the decision, blaming it on his underlings.

But the blunders continued. A YouTube video of a “gay rights activist” who claimed he was not allowed to join the flotilla because he was gay and linked the flotilla to Hamas was exposed as a hoax disseminated by employees of the Israeli Government Press Office and the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Senior Israeli defense officials told journalists that flotilla activists were intending to dump bags of sulfer on Israeli soldiers to paralyze them and/or light them on fire “like a torch.” We countered by holding an open house on the boat, inviting the media to inspect every nook and cranny and meet with nurses, lawyers, musicians, writers, grandmothers and other “terrorists” on board. The Israeli government looked so silly that even cabinet ministers criticized Netanyahu’s “media spin” and “public relations hysteria.”

Then there was the sabotage of the Irish and Swedish boats, the frivolous lawsuits and legal complaints by the Israeli Law Center (Shurat HaDin), the strong arming of the Greek government to issue a ban on all boats traveling to Gaza, and undoubtedly more dirty tricks that will be exposed in the future.

Through it all, the Israelis helped us turn a potential non-story into a media blitz that has not ended. The passengers are now returning home to the local public spotlight. Rather than being depressed by Israeli maneuvers to prevent the flotilla from reaching its destination, they are more motivated to speak out about the siege of Gaza and bullying tactics of the Israelis. Flotilla organizers are still fighting to get their boats released by the Greek government and vow to try again.

Our modest and peaceful initiative has exposed, for the world to see, the lengths the Israeli government will go to to stop nonviolent international initiatives. We have put the plight of Gaza and the illegality of the siege once again on the radar where it was previously ignored. We have exposed the sad but ultimately unsustainable fact that the Israelis have managed to extend their vindictive siege of Gaza to the shores of Europe and have widened the gulf between the Greek government and Greek popular sentiment with regard to Palestine.

Most importantly, we have given a boost to the larger, massive, multicultural, multinational movement for Palestinian rights. This Friday, hundreds of international activists are flying to Ben Gurion airport where they plan to tell border control agents of their intent to visit Palestine. This “flytilla,” as it has been dubbed, has also aroused a hysterical response from the Netanyahu government. Here again, the world’s attention will be focused on Israel’s control and blockade of movement in and out of the West Bank. The Knesset is on the verge of passing a bill that will effectively outlaw boycotts, a law that will likely only strengthen the resolve and increase the size of the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement. And then there will be the showdown at the United Nations, when Palestinians will be calling for recognition as a state.

The Israeli government can only continue its egregious violations of human rights and torpedoing nonviolence initiatives for so long. Eventually, justice will prevail and Palestine will be free. And initiatives like the flotilla will be remembered as part of a continuous wave of resistance that helped turned the tide.


As you may know, I am in Greece with a group of international activists who are trying to set sail on the Freedom Flotilla II to Gaza.  The US boat, the Audacity of Hope, was scheduled to sail last weekend, but we are still anxiously awaiting permission from the Greek government, which is being pressured by Israel and the United States to prevent our departure.

Will you call on the US State Department to stop impeding our mission?

Earlier this week, we learned that the Greek/Norwegian/Swedish boat’s propeller was damaged in port, and yesterday the Irish boat sustained crippling damage to its propeller shaft in a Turkish harbor; both of these incidents are suspected to have been calculated sabotage.  Two other ships have left for the meeting point in international waters, but it is unclear when and whether the other boats will be able to join them.

The goal of the flotilla has always been to shine a light on Israel’s inhumane siege of Gaza, and that, we have already accomplished. The Israeli government has felt so threatened by our little flotilla that it has unleashed its propaganda machine, spies, saboteurs, diplomatic clout, and economic might. We are feeling, in small measure, what the people of Gaza deal with every day.

The eyes of the world are on the drama unfolding with the flotilla, and we have massive popular support—except from our own government. The Obama Administration has deemed the flotilla a “provocative act.”  The State Department gave Israel a green light to attack the flotilla under the guise of “self defense,” and issued a specific travel warning against American citizens traveling to Gaza by boat. Senator Kirk (R-Ill.) even suggested yesterday that the US should provide Special Forces for a joint US-Israeli operation to deter the ships from breaking the blockade!

The flotilla participants have been heartened to hear that across the seas, in Washington, DC CODEPINKers set up an overnight vigil at the Greek Embassy to pressure the beleaguered Greek government to allow us to sail.  But we must put the pressure on the true impediments: the US and Israeli governments.  Will you send an email to the US State Department today?

It is time for the US to recognize the illegality and inhumanity of the Gaza blockade, and support the safe passage of the Flotilla.

With gratitude from Greece for your support,
Medea Benjamin


You can hear Medea live from Greece on NPR and DemocracyNow!