Occupy AIPAC: Continuing a Movement or Mimicking Discourse?

AIPAC_03122012Earlier this month, Occupy AIPAC convened as the national AIPAC conference took place in Washington, D.C. With the drum beats heralding war with Iran growing louder, what seemed lost in both the AIPAC conference and the Occupy AIPAC conference was Palestine. With the Israeli government and supporters of Israel distracting the discourse away from Israeli settlement building, unlawful imprisonment of Palestinians, and the continued occupation of Palestinian land, the national AIPAC conference operated under the premise that Israel is a legitimate state actor with legitimate grievances to Iran’s governance over its nuclear energy program. Occupy AIPAC mimicked this distracting discourse in order to counter hollow arguments, from the Israeli government and its supporters, on Iran’s role as a “rational” or “irrational” actor and the role of the Arab revolutions in destabilizing Israel’s political and discursive power within the region. Thus, this action was a semi-unconscious performative result of the compelling Israeli/U.S. discourse, and Occupy AIPAC attempted to subsume itself within this discourse as a means to combat it.

Before proceeding with the argument, I would like to address my use of the term “discourse,” and its usage in respect to AIPAC and Occupy AIPAC. The reason Occupy AIPAC mimics AIPAC’s discourse as a tactic of defense is the power–and to some extent hegemony–of AIPAC’s symbolic and argumentative rhetoric over the American public. As Michel Foucault noted in Power/Knowledge, “Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true.” Although this is truly an oversimplification of Foucault, his words emphasize the importance of speaking, in giving certain politics the ability to function as true. In this case, AIPAC, as well as the other Israel lobbies in the United States have the power of driving the discourse by financial means and access to the appropriate methods to disseminate their message.

Occupy AIPAC was a necessary response to the national AIPAC conference in Washington, D.C. Without opposing movements, the AIPAC attendees may have not seen the opposition to their words and actions. Furthermore, it is important to critique the movement in order to make it draw greater attention from people around the country and around the world to the atrocities committed by the Israeli government against Palestinians. #Kony 2012 should not be the only thing trending on Twitter. Occupy AIPAC does not do enough to bring the discursive power back into a realm of negotiation. For this reason, it would be more helpful to drive the dialogue away from reactionary efforts at moments like these.

Chris Hedges, NY Times journalist, spoke at the Occupy conference, giving his perspective on Israeli and the U.S. governments’ media rhetoric, but, again he focused on the concerns of the Israeli and American governments:

“Those in Washington who advocate attacking Iran, knowing as little about the limitations and chaos of war as they do about the Middle East, believe they can cripple nuclear production and neutralize the 850,000-man Iranian army. They should look closely at the 2006 Israeli air campaign in southern Lebanon, which saw Hezbollah victorious and united most Lebanese behind the militant Islamic group. If the massive Israeli bombing of Lebanon failed to pacify 4 million Lebanese, how can we expect to pacify a country of 70 million people? But reality never seems to impinge on the neoconservative universe or the efficacy of its doctrine of permanent war.”

It is quite important to point out that Hedges, among the few journalists who are attempting to move beyond the short-sighted rhetoric of the American media, went on to discuss the occupation of Palestine and its present (in)significance to the U.S. government and American public opinion.

As a movement, Occupy AIPAC, and other Palestine solidarity organizations, must learn how to transfer power away from AIPAC and the other Israel lobbies by means of awareness campaigns, such as those that have been particularly successful on college campuses like Israeli Apartheid Week and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement. The significance of these campaigns is their ability to empower a different discourse and to educate the American public, particularly the youth, on the realities in Palestine and the politics of the Middle East. The assumption cannot be made that answers to questions, such as “What if Iran created a nuclear bomb? Would it wipe Israel off the map?” will garner any greater confidence in the work of activists than changing the questioning completely, away from the solely reactionary. As the Israeli government and pro-Israel supporters are allowed to strengthen the power of their discourse, opposition movements are sucked in and lose sight of the significance of their work, not just for Palestine, but as movements against neo-colonialism and imperialism.

The American Conservative’s blog post, “Occupy AIPAC!!!!” says it best:

“Sometimes I get the feeling that the Iran war drumbeat is partly a clever technique to completely bury any other criticism of Israeli behavior. After all, wasn’t it Obama’s criticism of the settlements that first earned him the ire of the Lobby? By framing the top issue in the Middle East as Iran’s “existential threat” to Israel, have the Israelis completely set the terms of the debate so that all other issues have completely receded?”

There is real truth to this sentiment and it emboldens the occupation of Palestine. This week, the New York Times came out with a piece entitled, “Arab Spring and Iran Tensions Leave Palestinians Sidelined.” Ethan Bronner highlights how the power of the discourse has shifted public interest so far away from the issue of settler colonialism and the occupation of Palestine that even the Palestinian Authority, the de facto Palestinian arm of the Israeli occupation, has taken notice:

“’The biggest challenge we face — apart from occupation — is marginalization,’ Salam Fayyad, Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, said in an interview. “This is a direct consequence of the Arab Spring where people are preoccupied with their own domestic affairs. The United States is in an election year and has economic problems, Europe has its worries. We’re in a corner.’ ”

Bronner’s article emphasizes the inherent strategy of the Israeli government and pro-Israel supporters, including AIPAC attendees, which is to continue to place the “Palestinian Question” on hold. Thus, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington, D.C. earlier this month to speak at the AIPAC conference and privately with President Obama, the conversation was dominated by Iran. There was little, if any, mention of the occupation of Palestine or an end to the conflict. While it is important to point out the seriousness of the drum beats to war with Iran, it is crucial to not become reactionary to such pronouncements.

Power is embodied in discourse, knowledge and “regimes of truth,” as Foucault has theorized. In order for pro-Palestinian movements and organizations to challenge the power and influence of AIPAC, and other pro-Israel lobbies, they must produce a new reality. New opposing strategies are being developed to counter AIPAC and the strategies of pro-Israel supporters. As Foucault theorized, discourse transmits and produces power, but it can also be undermined by exposing it and rendering it fragile and possible to thwart. This is where Palestinian solidarity can continue to produce its own discourse, while simultaneously thwarting the discourse produced by AIPAC, other Israel lobbies, the U.S. government and American media outlets.

CandaceLukasikCandace B. Lukasik, co-founder of Baraza and Middle East coordinator, is currently a Master’s student in the Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies (MESAAS) Department. Her current work examines the interplay between religious and secular discourses and Coptic ethno-nationalism in Egypt after 2010.