Stigmatizing Solidarity

The smear campaign against a Bay Area pro-Palestine group shows the depths pro-Israel groups will go to silence critics.

A mural in San Francisco's Mission neighborhood expressing solidarity with Palestine. Arab Resource and Organizing Center

Last year bore witness not only to the horror of the Israeli assault on the occupied Gaza Strip, but also to an unprecedented wave in the US of dissent and direct action in solidarity with Palestinians.

In August 2014, the Bay Area made international headlines when activists launched what was perhaps the most imaginative and immediately fruitful of those actions: the Block the Boat campaign to stop the largest Israeli shipping company, ZIM, from unloading or loading cargo at the Port of Oakland. For four consecutive days, a community picket prevented the ZIM Piraeus from going about its business. Two months later, ZIM preempted the next planned Block the Boat action by announcing its ships would no longer be docking in California.

No group played a bigger role in the Oakland campaign than the San Francisco Bay Area’s Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC), whose members include legal advocates, educators, and other community organizers. Since then, the group has remained at the forefront of local Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) initiatives, becoming one of the leading organizations in the anti-militarist Stop Urban Shield Coalition and a vocal supporter of an ultimately successful divestment resolution in the University of California graduate workers’ union.

But the group is more than a BDS group. Although such work has heightened its profile, its origins lie in the provision of direct legal and language services and other community services to largely immigrant Arab and Muslim communities in San Francisco and the greater Bay Area.

In May, for instance, the San Francisco Board of Education approved an AROC-led initiative to address San Francisco students’ access to Arabic and Vietnamese language programs. The “language pathways” resolution also calls for resources for “cultural competency” training for teachers.

But AROC’s efforts have come up against local reaction. For the past year, the Bay Area’s preeminent pro-Israel organization, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), has led the backlash. For example, it was JCRC representatives who met with port officials in preparation for Block the Boat, urging them to be “well prepared” to counter the protesters. In a press release, the group called the port blockade an “overt expression of extremism” and “hatred.”

However, it was not until the school district approved the language measure that the JCRC directly targeted AROC, decrying what they called the group’s “radical Anti-Israel and Anti-Zionist agenda in San Francisco” and urging Board of Education officials not to work with them in implementing the program.

The JCRC voiced no concerns about the Arabic language pathways as such. Their problem was that AROC had worked with the sponsoring board members in developing the bill’s language, and was named in the resolution as a community partner. In addition to packing school board meetings with their supporters, JCRC representatives met with board members privately, showing them “YouTube videos and public statements” of AROC members that were grossly edited to present AROC as constituting a threat to “the Jewish community” in San Francisco, on whose behalf JCRC has claimed to speak.

The attacks have stuck. Board of Education President Emily Murase said that the JCRC complaints led her to question whether AROC’s political activism violated the city’s nondiscrimination policy, whereby the city’s partner “organizations that provide services must have the same nondiscrimination policy.”

While JCRC hasn’t objected to the bill itself, calls for the city to break off its working relationship with AROC serve to cripple the program, jeopardizing the education of scores of students. According to the school district, it “serves an increasing population of Arabic- and Vietnamese-speaking students and families in its schools. Nearly 500 students speak Arabic as their home language, and over 1,100 speak Vietnamese.” Students already have access to Spanish, Cantonese, Korean, Japanese, Tagalog, French, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Mandarin, and Russian language pathways.

Accommodating a variety of linguistic needs is central to proper pedagogy. Sama Abu Ayyash, a Palestinian-Jordanian American resident of San Francisco and longtime AROC member whose son participates in the Arabic language pathway, says her involvement in the language access campaign arose out of her own family’s need for greater inclusivity.

“Providing Arabic in public schools not only makes me and my family feel welcomed, part of the city, and supported,” she says. “It also pulls me and my son out of our cultural isolation and helps him establish stronger connections to his culture and roots.”

JCRC’s campaign against AROC has implications for local immigrant communities of color that go beyond this particular resolution, however. Since the bulk of AROC’s work involves providing free to low-cost legal and language access services to immigrants, a significant portion of their funding comes directly from the city. When AROC’s very legitimacy as a community partner is threatened, it jeopardizes the well-being of all those in the Bay Area who depend on their services.

In funding AROC, the city makes it part of the public’s responsibility to ensure Arabic-speaking immigrants can access and navigate the city’s political and legal systems. And by attacking AROC’s relationship with the city, JCRC seeks, in effect, to make decisions on behalf of the broader San Francisco community about what kind of people can and cannot access public services.

AROC has long served the area’s most marginalized. Then the San Francisco chapter of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), AROC was a founding member of the San Francisco Immigrant Legal Education Network (SFILEN). And in the wake of 9/11, when Arab immigrants were facing raids and other forms of state repression, the organization offered education and outreach.

“They were my resource when I had to deal with the post-9/11 backlash,” Abu Ayyash says. “Some of the difficulties I have faced as an immigrant have to do with racism. I was the target of hate crimes, [and] I feel most of the time outside of the American culture because there is a lot of xenophobia against Arabs. It is also very hard for me now that I have a family here to find support that is culturally sensitive.” Today, according to Executive Director Lara Kiswani, AROC is “the only organization in all of Northern California that provides legal services for free to Arab immigrants” like Abu Ayyash.

These services include advice, consultations, and representation in cases ranging from asylum and green card applications to surveillance and racial profiling.

“The majority of our clients are low/moderate-income Arab, North African, and African immigrants, primarily from San Francisco, with more limited clients from Alameda, San Mateo, Marin, and Santa Clara counties,” immigration attorney Lina Baroudi says. “Due to our anti-surveillance and anti-repression work, we also see a large number of clients from non-Arab, predominately Muslim countries and regions.”

Every month, the organization provides consultations to seventy to ninety people, and every year they represent — including court representation and deportation defense — around three hundred people a year. In total, Kiswani estimates that AROC does outreach to about one thousand people annually (a figure that includes not only legal work but also language access services).

As part of the Language Access Network of San Francisco, AROC advocates for immigrants’ right to interpretation and translation at city departments and public meetings, a right codified in San Francisco’s Language Access Ordinance.

All of this is work with which JCRC can’t take issue. But as a staunchly pro-Israel group, they have tried to create the impression that AROC’s pro-Palestine organizing is at odds with their direct community services.

But AROC’s BDS work is an integral part of their raison d’etre — challenging racist violence and exclusion both locally and globally. Their philosophy as an organization is one of international solidarity, an analysis that makes sense of the reality that, as Baroudi observes, “many of our current clients are from Yemen, Syria, and Palestine.” These clients are typically not only immigrants, but also refugees, driven from their homelands by crises for which US foreign policy bears heavy responsibility.

JCRC at least scores points for consistency: just as the group backs continued US support for Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, so too are they willing to isolate and silence the only support networks Palestinians have when they come here to escape.

In painting AROC as extremists, the JCRC is not only attempting to exclude them from the language pathways program, but to cripple them as an institution by cutting off their main source of funding entirely: “If they’re saying the city shouldn’t work with AROC on curriculum because we’re a hate group, then that means they can set a precedent,” Kiswani points out. “They could take it further and say the city shouldn’t be working with AROC at all.”

This would not only set a precedent for the work of the Arab community, but for all community-based organizations in San Francisco. Kiswani’s assessment is, above all, supported by the JCRC’s own history, which strongly suggests a longtime strategy of punishing pro-Palestine organizations that serve marginalized communities in the Bay Area.

According to the JCRC’s website, the San Francisco-based group — originally called the Jewish Survey Committee — was founded in 1938 to “respond to the growing plight of European Jewry and the need for local advocacy.” Today, the JCRC sees itself not only as the representative of a monolithic Jewish community, but as a sort of propaganda arm of the Israeli government — as Israel’s white knight in the Bay Area, beating back the rising tide of Palestine solidarity organizing and criticism of Israel.

Often these views come from Jewish Americans who reject the JCRC’s rhetoric and actions as marginalizing their own Jewish identity — such as the nearly four hundred signatories to the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network’s (IJAN) letter of solidarity with AROC.

Examples of the JCRC’s erasure of Jewish dissent include the general brochure’s statement of unequivocal opposition to BDS: “The JCRC leads our community in actively combatting the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS), and delegitimization movement, serving as a crucial strategist and behind-the-scenes player on behalf of the organized Jewish community.”

This apparently candid statement of purpose neglects to mention exactly what goes on “behind the scenes” — and who is actually targeted.

In 2003, for example, San Francisco Women Against Rape (SFWAR), a nonprofit that focuses on rape prevention and survivor support, particularly for women of color, organized a teach-in to educate themselves about Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism that included a discussion of Zionism and its role in perpetuating racist ideologies.

Later, the group added Islamophobia and Zionism to their list of forms of oppression. In response, the JCRC successfully lobbied the city of San Francisco to freeze SFWAR’s funding until Zionism was removed from the list. The city ultimately reversed its decision, but for SFWAR, the fight to stand by their principles drained time and resources that were already in short supply.

In 2007, the local group HOMEY (Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower the Youth), a youth development and violence prevention group based in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, organized a mural painting that drew connections between the struggles of people of color in the Mission and those of people around the world. The art included symbols of Palestinian resistance: a map of Palestine and a woman wearing a keffiyeh. After pressure from the JCRC, the city forced HOMEY to remove the map, and the group saw drastic cuts in public and private funding.

Indeed, it’s in cases where Palestinian liberation is linked to other struggles that the JCRC is most vindictive. Two years after the Mission mural, the Eastside Arts Alliance lost much of its foundation support after the JCRC campaigned — again “behind the scenes” — against an art exhibit connecting police violence in Oakland to Israel’s routine violence in the Gaza Strip.

The following year, again under pressure from the JCRC, the Museum of Children’s Art cancelled an exhibit featuring art by youngsters from the Gaza Strip due to funding threats. And in 2014, the group lobbied against the introduction of ethnic studies curricula in San Francisco high schools on the grounds that the program was connected to the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Initiative at the San Francisco State College of Ethnic Studies.

What these efforts add up to is a strategy not only to stigmatize Palestine solidarity among people who fight for social justice, but to silence any pro-Palestine organization that stands firm. The smear campaign against AROC again underscores that the JCRC’s idea of “Jewish community relations” reduces “Jewish community” to a monolithic, politically reactionary bloc, and its “relations” with other communities amount to McCarthyite witch hunts.

Opposed by many Jews, this campaign also imperils the rights of many Arabs and Muslims who depend on AROC. But for JCRC and others, this is immaterial. The attacks on AROC, and groups like them across the country, betray the panic of the privileged, who stamp out mounting criticism of Israel by grasping at every level of institutional power — no matter whom it hurts.