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Lenni Brenner: An Interview on Palestine Solidarity, Black Liberation and Anti-Zionism

Rally outside of the White House before the march in protest against the US's unconditional support of Israel's ongoing military operation in Gaza, Washington, DC, August 2, 2014. (Photo: Megan Iorio)

Civil rights activist and author Brenner discusses the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s work against Zionism and racism, Bayard Rustin, Kwame Ture, anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, Palestine and more.

Author, activist and historian Lenni Brenner was born into an orthodox Jewish family in 1937. His participation in the civil rights movement began in 1952, at age 15, when he met Jim Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality, who was later to become the organizer of the “freedom rides” of the early 1960s. Brenner was active in the 1950s with Bayard Rustin, who later organized Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington.

Brenner was arrested three times during civil rights sit-ins in the San Francisco Bay Area. When he was sent to prison in 1964 for his activities during the Berkeley Free Speech movement, he spent hours in intense discussion with Huey Newton, later the founder of the Black Panther Party, whom he encountered in the court holding tank. After he was freed, in 1968, he worked with Professor Kathleen Cleaver. He also worked with Kwame Ture, (better known as Stokely Carmichael) the legendary “Black Power” leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), in their Committee against Zionism and Racism, from 1985 until Ture’s death in 1998.

Brenner is the author of many articles and five books.

Dan Falcone for Truthout: Thanks very much Lenni for taking the time to talk to us today. My interest in activism and history is connected to education and my work as a teacher. Can you tell me something about your own education and how you became interested in a life of dissent, activism, writing and intellectualism?

Lenni Brenner: I became a history freak at 7, when I read Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind. I joined the Young People’s Socialist League, the youth section of the Socialist Party [SP] at 15, in 1952. I never went to college because I was always busy with work in the civil rights and antiwar movements.

I was very interested to learn that you knew Bayard Rustin. My research of him taught me that he finished his career much less militant and politically oriented compared to when he started. Can you discuss him briefly?

I encountered Bayard in the SP. He had been a member of the Young Communist League (YCL) during the Hitler-Stalin pact period. In 1941 the YCL assigned him to fight against US military segregation and then called off the campaign when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. He quit in disgust and joined A. Philip Randolph (1889 – 1979), president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, in calling for a black march on Washington against racial discrimination in war industries and segregation in the military. The march was cancelled after Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, banning war industry discrimination. The military remained segregated, but the Executive Order was seen by many blacks as a partial victory.

When I met him in 1958, he was a follower of Max Shachtman, an ex-Trotskyist leader who was moving to the right. Bayard, embittered of Stalinism because of CP abandonment of the fight against military segregation, joined up with him and moved even faster to the right.

Your work with Kwame Ture and other militants galvanized an important tradition people do not hear of often in my view, opposition to racism and Zionism. Am I correct that these two issues conceptually get minimal coverage together in the contemporary United States?

As I said, I never went to college, so I’m no academic.

Kwame became an anti-Zionist in his SNCC days. He came to me in 1985 after reading my book, Zionism In The Age Of The Dictators. I think most historians see his post-SNCC period as a decline from his previous civil rights leadership, so they pay little attention to his anti-Zionism in that later period. But the fact that he was such a central civil rights leader has served ever since to legitimatize anti-Zionism in the black community.

Can you comment on the current situation in the Middle East? For example, how deeply ingrained is the falsified idea that the “Arabs’ inherent anti-Semitism” is the root of this flashpoint?

The recent Gaza war produced a sharp increase in sympathy for the Palestinians, in the US and worldwide. But “Arabs’ inherent anti-Semitism” isn’t a “falsified idea.” It is strong in Hamas.

Below are parts of “The Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement” – 18 August 1988:

Article Twenty Two – “Supportive Forces Behind the Enemy:

For a long time, the enemies have been planning, skillfully and with precision, for the achievement of what they have attained . . . With their money they stirred revolutions in various parts of the world with the purpose of achieving their interests and reaping the fruit therein. They were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about, here and there. With their money they formed secret societies, such as Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, the Lions, and others in different parts of the world for the purpose of sabotaging societies and achieving Zionist interests . . . They obtained the Balfour Declaration, formed the League of Nations through which they could rule the world. . . . There is no war going on anywhere, without having their finger in it.”

Article Twenty-Seven – “The Palestinian Liberation Organization: Because of the situations surrounding the formation of the Organization, of the ideological confusion prevailing in the Arab world as a result of the ideological invasion under whose influence the Arab world has fallen since the defeat of the Crusaders and which was, and still is, intensified through Orientalists, missionaries and imperialists, the Organization adopted the idea of the secular state – And that it how we view it.

Secularism completely contradicts religious ideology. Attitudes, conduct and decisions stem from ideologies.

That is why, with all our appreciation for The Palestinian Liberation Organization – and what it can develop into . . . we are unable to exchange the present or future Islamic Palestine with the secular idea. The Islamic nature of Palestine is part of our religion, and whoever takes his religion lightly is a loser.”

Article Thirty-Two – “The Attempt to Isolate the Palestinian People:

After Palestine, the Zionists aspire to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates. When they will have digested the region they overtook, they will aspire to further expansion, and so on. Their plan is embodied in the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ and their present conduct is the best proof of what we are saying.”

There is zero chance of Hamas beating Zionism militarily, and Netanyahu uses its “Protocols” (‘B.S.’) to immunize Israelis against all types of anti-Zionism. Zionism can only be defeated politically by a democratic secular bi-national movement analogous to South Africa’s ANC, which won after it directly recruited whites and asians into its ranks and leadership.

How does your historical work specifically address the dispossession of the indigenous Arabic people? Are you often called “anti-Semitic” in an attempt to discredit your work?

Since I’m ethnically a Jew, Zionists don’t call me an anti-Semite. Instead I’m a “self-hating Jew.” But I’ve made a joke out of the charge. When I lecture, I cite the accusation and then tell how my 42 million ex-girlfriends insist that “The Zionists don’t know what they are talking about. Lenni Brenner is definitely not a self-hating Jew. Lenni is in love with himself. The only one he ever loved is himself!” My audiences always roar with laughter.

What is your opinion of the work of authors such as James Petras? In some respects, the organized left has internal disputes while ensuring that the correct questions are being asked. For instance, while leftists may agree that violent Israeli occupation fueled by the American government and media structure is detrimental, elitist tactics such as boycott and divestment need to be measured. It seems that reading Peter Beinart or John Mearsheimer may be helpful, but focusing on the lobby at the detriment of challenging our elected officials and media/educational sources continue to give leverage to American foreign policy. Am I correct to assume that citizens need to be focused on activism that alters policy and takes the consideration of the victims into genuine account?

The lobby’s hold on our Democratic and Republican politicians is based on pro-Zionist campaign contributions. Us Jewish guys are only 2.2 percent of Americans, but a June 7, 2011, article, “Democrats launch major pro-Obama pushback among Jews,” by Ron Kampeas, the Zionists’ Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Washington bureau chief, said that “estimates over the years have reckoned that Jewish donors provide between one-third and two-thirds of the party’s money.” And Netanyahu’s pal, Sheldon Adelson, gave $102 million to the Republicans, making him the biggest election campaign donor in US history.

Of course some Jewish billionaires throw money at the Democrats and Republicans for reasons unconnected to Zionism. But they don’t complain about the bipartisan hyper-Zionism.

I’m for focusing on both the lobby and the politicians. Anti-Zionists and other critics of Israel must grasp that demonstrations calling on Obama and the congressional Democrats to change their pro-Israel policies won’t work as long as that Zionist money keeps going there. Most critics keep voting for them as the lesser evil. Democratic politicians ask themselves one question about everybody: “If I don’t give them what they want, what will they do to hurt me?” Pro-Palestinians must demonstrate and also join the pro-Palestinian Green Party and vote against the Democrats and Republicans.

A growing percentage of young American Jews are breaking with both Judaism and Zionism. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” survey, 25 percent of Jews under age 30 say that the US is too supportive of Israel. The poll also said that 22 percent of the general American public also thinks the US is too supportive.

The NY Times and the Wall Street Journal both say that millions of voters are very troubled by America’s pay-to-play politics. If we denounce those huge Zionist contributions as part of the larger pay-to-play issue, an increasing number of those concerned voters will become critical of Zionism and vote Green.

In 2005, Steven Plaut in writing for Front Page Magazine called Professor Lisa Hajjar a “Jihadnik.” And A Guide to the Political Left, lists Hajjar along with Norman Finkelstein, Bill Ayers, Phyllis Bennis, Richard Falk, Noam Chomsky, Juan Cole, Lawrence Davidso, and you, Lenni Brenner – as “anti-Semites who believe that Hamas genuinely seeks to reach a peace accord with the Zionist entity but has been overcome by Israel’s intransigence and duplicity.” Many of these individuals I have met and written about. All of them are simply ethical readers, researchers, and activists who question Zionism and for that matter, any defective imperial colonialist world-view where the rights of the indigenous inhabitants are marginalized and erased. What are your thoughts on these attempts to misrepresent and censor?

That misrepresentation is failing. The Times and other media agree with the Pew poll and also say that increasing numbers of Jews and gentiles are growing critical of Israel.

What do you regard as the primary issues concerning the Palestinians?

Intifada literally means “shaking off” and is usually translated as “uprising” or “resistance.” Of course Palestinians are affected by and will resist all aspects of Zionism. The real question is how violently or non-violently?

Not being a prophet, I don’t like to speculate about the future, but there is enough evidence regarding some aspects of the present that lead me to cautiously discuss the immediate future.

When the Gaza war ended, Hamas said it was a victory for it. But the reality is that Gaza was devastated. Now Israel, Egypt, the US, etc. are arranging for big bucks to be sent there to rebuild it. If that isn’t done, if the electric system, sewers, etc., aren’t repaired, it is reasonable to expect outbreaks of communicable diseases, etc. Israel says OK to repair, providing Assad reestablishes the Palestine Authority there to administer the repairs and Israel, Egypt, the UN, etc. inspect everything coming into Gaza and the repair work so that none of the supplies get diverted to building new tunnels, etc.

This puts Hamas on the spot. If it tries to reestablish itself militarily, Israel, Egypt, and particularly the US, will stop the repair money flow into Gaza. It is reasonable to think that Hamas will not try to rebuild its military strength under those circumstances because it knows that the people of Gaza will blame it if the repairs aren’t done and an even deeper humanitarian crisis develops.

If Hamas does “cool it,” that would open up opportunities for a nonviolent movement in Gaza, the West Bank and “pre-’67” Israel, particularly among its 20 percent Palestinian minority, but also among left Jews, to struggle on to get the Palestinians their rights in those three zones.

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