by Medea Benjamin
It is not every day that the voices for justice triumph over the actions of the rich and powerful, especially when it comes to the Israel-Palestine debate. That’s why it is so important to acknowledge and celebrate the settlement just negotiated by CODEPINK activist Rae Abileah and her lawyers after suing American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) volunteer lobbyist Stanley Shulster.
It all started on May 24, 2011, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Washington, DC speaking before a joint session of Congress. Abileah, a 29-year-old Jewish woman who has traveled to the West Bank, Israel and Gaza, was in the audience. She became more and more appalled as she listened to Netanyahu’s speech and watched our congresspeople giving him a stream of standing ovations. “I couldn’t watch this hero’s welcome for a man who supports the continued building of illegal settlements, won’t lift the siege of Gaza, and refuses to negotiate with the Palestinian unity government,” said Abileah.
So Abileah did what most people would never have the courage to do. She got up and shouted: “No More Occupation! Stop Israeli War Crimes! Equal Rights for Palestinians!” And she unfurled a banner that read: “Occupying Land is Indefensible!”
She was immediately grabbed, violently pulled toward the floor, and gagged—not by the Capitol Police but by a member of the audience, Stanley Shulster, a retired attorney from Ashland, Oregon, who had traveled to Washington DC to attend the yearly conference of the Israel lobby group AIPAC. An online bio for Shulster revealed that he was an unpaid lobbyist, a volunteer in the Israeli Defense Forces, and a Navy veteran. In his bio Shulster bragged that he “grabbed the woman who heckled the Prime Minister while he was speaking.”
Abileah was rushed to the hospital, where she was treated for neck and shoulder injuries. She subsequently had to undergo months of physical therapy, chiropractic care and other treatments to heal from these injuries.
But Abileah was also determined to pursue her attacker. She pressed charges and got a warrant for his arrest, and she filed a civil suit for damages. Thanks to the tenacity and generosity of her attorneys, they just reached a settlement in which Shulster was forced to pay her medical fees and issue an apology. In the joint statement issued by Shulster and Abileah, Shulster acknowledges that he “respects the right of Ms. Abileah to hold a different view on the Israel-Palestine conflict and believes she holds this view in good faith,” and Abileah does the same. Both Abileah and Shulster recognize “the right, as Americans, to agree to disagree peacefully.” This might sound like a common sense statement but coming from a man who works with the IDF and AIPAC, which routinely categorizes any critique of Israel as anti-Semitic, this is extraordinary.
It is indeed a rare victory, as there is a history of attacks against US nonviolent activists defending Palestinians rights and most of the time, the attackers face no consequences. In 2007, a peaceful protester outside an AIPAC Conference in Washington DC was attacked and put in a chokehold. In this case, the police arrested the assailant, but they also arrested the woman who was attacked! In 2010, while standing on a public sidewalk, I was hit in the face by an AIPAC conference attendee, and the police refused to even take a police report. A few months later a protester and I were slugged with a book bag by an attendee at another pro-Israeli government conference, and the police once again refused to help. Students at the University of New Mexico were hit by audience members during a non-violent protest, and in November 2010, members of the pro-Occupation group Stand With Us (SWU) pepper-sprayed several members of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). Video footage of the 2011 AIPAC Annual Gala shows the assault of a young woman who held a banner reading “Silencing Dissent Delegitimizes Israel.”
“This time, the justice system worked for me,” said a triumphant Abileah, “I hope it sends a message to aggressive Israeli Occupation supporters around the country that they don’t have the right to assault us; we have the right to express our views peacefully. Just as violence is not the answer to the Israel-Palestine conflict, it won’t work to silence critique and outcry in the US. This is a bittersweet victory—no one should suffer from a violent attack for just speaking up for equality and human rights.”
Of course, for the Palestinian people who live under Israel’s 45-year-old military occupation, violence dominates everyday life. The brutal 2008 invasion of Gaza left 1,400 people dead and crushed homes, schools, businesses—even hospitals. In the West Bank, peaceful protesters are regularly tear-gassed, shot, beaten, thrown into prison without trials.
“My neck pain was a small price to pay compared with the sacrifices made by Palestinian, Israeli, and international nonviolent protesters who’ve risked their bodies and lives to defend the basic human rights of the Palestinian people,” said Abileah. “But with this victory over an AIPAC volunteer lobbyist, perhaps more Americans will be encouraged to speak out and stand up for human rights and free speech.”
Ms. Abileah will donate a portion of the funds from Shulster to legal and medical aid for peaceful Palestinian protesters in the West Bank.