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Why Would a Peace Activist Fly to Iran With Sept. 11 Truthers and Other Crackpots?

Medea Benjamin, of CODEPINK, says she does not regret participating in the New Horizons conference in Tehran, a haven for paranoid anti-Semitism

Todd Gitlin
October 14, 2014
Medea Benjamin, after being arrested during a 'die-in' to protest the deaths of Palestinians in Gaza, July 30, 2014. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Medea Benjamin, after being arrested during a 'die-in' to protest the deaths of Palestinians in Gaza, July 30, 2014. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Dear Medea Benjamin,

I address you because your recent participation in a Tehran conference of anti-Zionist zealots suggests a larger and graver moral and political folly afflicting many others as well—the legions who think that hatred of America and of Israel are decisive criteria, perhaps even qualifications, for membership in “the left.”

You believe in speaking truth to power. You have gone to jail to do so. I admire your courage. But the Islamic Republic of Iran is also a power. It makes war and supplies war criminals, not least in Syria. Amnesty International maintains a formidable roster of the Iranian regime’s crimes against human rights. Human Rights Watch reports about 2013 in Iran: “The judiciary released some political prisoners, but many civil society activists remained in prison on political charges.” You are a longtime activist against corporate globalization, a vigorous Ralph Nader supporter and Green candidate for governor of California in 2000, and co-founder of the nonviolent peace group Code Pink, launched in 2002 to oppose the impending Iraq war. My guess is that, if you were Iranian, you would be one of those civil society activists who are enduring terrible conditions in prison right now for opposing or even merely criticizing the rule of their clerical leaders.

Thankfully, you are not an Iranian with dissenting views and were therefore free to attend a conference called “New Horizon—The 2nd Annual International Conference of Independent Thinkers & Film Makers,” between Sept. 29 and Oct. 1 in Tehran. So, when you learned that the conference was at least partly organized by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, why didn’t you speak truth to that power about the routine torture and murder of domestic opponents of the Iranian regime? About the stoning of women accused of having sex with the wrong people, the use of rape as a routine instrument of intimidation and torture in state prisons, and other crimes that violate the principles that you have spent your life defending? If you had attended a conference in Tel Aviv, wouldn’t you have denounced the Occupation? If in Moscow, wouldn’t you have denounced Putin’s repressions? I grant that surely it is much more dangerous to protest the regime in Tehran. But then that too is worth saying, is it not?

I was bothered enough by these questions that I wrote to you directly, and you were kind enough to write back. I am now going to quote extensively from our email exchanges of Oct. 9-10, and pose some further questions that continue to bother me:

Dear Medea:

The thinkers announced to speak in Tehran were not all that independent, except, perhaps, of sober and informed judgment. Panels included “Mossad’s Role in the 9/11 Coup d’Etat,” with subthemes embracing “Zionist Fingerprints on the 9/11 Cover-up,” “9/11 Truth Movement Strategies and the Zionism Issue,” and “9/11 and the Holocaust as pro-Zionist ‘Public Myths.’ ” Two more were devoted to “The Mechanisms of Action of the Israeli Lobby and Their Effects in Western Capitals.” Another: “Islam as Authentic Universal Religion vs. Zionist Memes of Islam.”

Those were not the sessions you were invited to speak at. Rather, you were invited to give a talk based on your recent book, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. You were kind enough to send me the text of your remarks, most of which I agree with. Drones are, indeed, a chilling development in the baleful history of war. Once in Tehran, however, you also took part in a panel on “The Gaza War & BDS Movement Strategies Against the Zionist Regime,” and in one conversation on “Different Facets of the Resistance” and another on “Paradigms Old & New.”

I don’t know how much of the conference program you saw before accepting an invitation. I don’t know if you were aware that after presentations by Gareth Porter (“The Nuclear Negotiations and Israeli Sabotage”) and Rev. Stephen Sizer (“Christian Jihad vs. Christian Zionism)” further welcome was to be issued by Wayne Madsen speaking on “The Saudi-Israeli Terror Alliance.” I don’t know if you were familiar with Madsen’s views, readily found online: for example, that the Sept. 11 attacks were

carried out by Mossad, Saudi intelligence … and elements of the CIA … [and] Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, A.B.Krongard of the CIA, and Rudolph Giuliani, as well.

And that

The entire reaction of the U.S. defense and early warning systems on 9/11 indicates involvement by high-level officials, including Jeb Bush and his brother Marvin Bush, who had financial interests in the firm that had the security contracts for the World Trade Center and Dulles International Airport.

And that

the Sauds are not only in lockstep with the Americans and Israelis but they are descendant from a Jewish merchant family that originally lived in what is now Kuwait. Wahhabism in fact serves the interests of Israel’s Zionist Judaism …

Your own panel was moderated by Ken O’Keefe, who also, according to the program, took part in the “paradigms” discussion. A few milliseconds of Googling informed me that, according to London’s Jewish Chronicle, O’Keefe in 2012 said publicly: “If Israel is inherently a racist, apartheid state, then … Israel has no place in this world and it must, in its current form, if you want me to use some inflammatory language, be destroyed.” And also: “Israel and Mossad were directly involved in 9/11” and that it “continues to foster false flag terrorism.” When I asked you about O’Keefe, you said: “I had never heard of nor met Ken O’Keefe before.” As moderator of your panel, you added, he did not express these views, and in any case, you do not agree with them.

I’m sure you do not agree with Madsen either. Or with the “analyst” Randy Short, who also spoke on your panel—a go-to guy for Iran’s propaganda Press TV, where he said in June that he believes that “Boko Haram was created and funded by the CIA” and that “the whole purpose is to destroy Nigeria.”

Whatever you knew about these speakers beforehand, whatever you might have known but overlooked in your desire to get to Iran to pursue conversations that might be useful in your peace advocacy, you might reflect on the mentality that convenes a conference whose least common denominator is that they hate the United States, wish to destroy Israel, hold both nations responsible for the bulk of the evil in the world, and believe that people who disagree with them are agents of disinformation.

You did write me this:

I certainly heard things I didn’t agree with—over-the-top conspiracy theories and statements that I thought were anti-Jewish, homophobic, or anti-immigrant. I brought up my concerns to the organizers after the first day and during the second day as well. Some of my issues were addressed, such as clarifications from the podium by the organizers that the conference is not anti-Jewish or anti-Semetic [sic] and that it’s important to make a distinction between Judaism and Zionism. This was reiterated several times.

You went on:

I was definitely uncomfortable, with some of the people in the conference, but I’ve been in many situations where I feel uncomfortable with attendees from a variety of political backgrounds, from AIPAC conferences to Tea Party gatherings to Muslim Brotherhood-sponsored rallies to Thanksgiving meals with extremely right-wing family members. I’m a big supporter of talking to all kinds of people, learning their perspectives, and sharing mine. During the conference days I was up until the wee hours of the morning engaging in heated debates with some of the attendees about their conspiracy theories, their homophobic views, and their rigid value system. Sometimes I felt like I was among people who were closer in ideology to right-wing conservative Christian groups, like Focus On the Family, who were railing against attacks on family values and have concocted the most elaborate and zany conspiracy theories.

Now, discomfort is the new diplomatic buzzword, stretching usefully all the way from absolute loathing to mild irritation. But you seem to set no limits on settings for useful “dialogue.” America-hating and obsessive anti-Zionism are no obstacles:

We should talk to our adversaries whenever we can [you write]. That means traveling to Iran. That means going to conferences with different kinds of people—listening to their views and having them hear mine. I think some of the people at the conference were moved by some of our late-night discussions. And I learned a lot, particularly from the Iranians attending the conference, that will be very helpful to me as a peace activist. Peacemaking is all about dialogue, Todd, with people who see the world from very different perspectives.

Surely, it would not be hard to seek dialogue with Americans who reject the idea that abundant injustices—even Israeli war crimes against Palestinians—justify the conclusion that if the Jewish state disappeared, the Middle East would be just and peaceful. Nor would it be hard to find Israelis with whom to converse—perhaps even make peace.

After BuzzFeed reported on the conference, the American speaker Gareth Porter, who argues (according to BuzzFeed) that Iran has never sought to build a nuclear weapon and that the evidence for its non-peaceful aims was concocted by Israel’s Mossad, said he “regrets” having attended. I asked you whether, in the light of Porter’s statement, you shared his regret. You said you did not.

BuzzFeed added that Porter said “that he was upset by the content of the conference and that the organizers had assured him that extremists wouldn’t be there. He also said that Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin and Brazilian journalist Pepe Escobar, also in attendance, were equally “upset about the conference … [in particular] the role played … by 9/11 conspiracy advocates, and conveyed that unhappiness to the conference staff as well.” Porter said that, before the conference, he had objected to including a certain speaker—indeed, that “I was so upset by what I had found he had written about Jews and Judaism that I complained immediately to conference staff, and I am quite sure my complaint reached the organizers.” That speaker was removed.

Porter went on: “Had I known about the roles to be given to people whose views I oppose quite strongly, I would not have agreed to participate.”

I don’t quite know what to think of your and Porter’s not understanding that in the eyes of the Iranian organizers, crackpot and “extremist” views were no disqualifications. Indeed, those were close to admission requirements.

Which takes me to the real nub of this letter. I asked if you agree with my premise that anti-Zionism has become a collecting point for a political range that runs from peace activists to neo-Nazis. You replied: “I can’t speak for neo-Nazis, but as for peace activists, it’s the continued oppression of Palestinians that has sparked a worldwide movement among peace activists to pressure Israel to comply with international law.”

But this conference was not a conference against the very real and continuing oppression of Palestinians. It was obviously and overwhelmingly dominated by those who believe that the core problem in the Middle East is the existence of the state of Israel, as opposed to the occupation of the West Bank.

Here’s another way to speak truth to power: When I was asked to chair a workshop on “delegitimization” at a 2010 conference in Jerusalem, including Israeli government officials and top American Jewish leaders, I began with a statement that the West Bank Occupation was unconscionable and should end. (By the way, several conferees, to my astonishment, wanted to know, “What is this ‘Occupation’?” One Jewish-American leader proceeded to distort my remarks and when I protested afterward that I had not said what he said I said, admitted with a smile, “I know.”). I departed that conference early to visit the Silwan section of East Jerusalem, which is full of settler depredations, and to demonstrate against Israel’s eviction of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah. (I wrote about my experience in Tablet magazine, here.)

It’s a grim truth that Israel piles up injustices and that protest demonstrations there, and here, have been unavailing. It’s another grim truth that the United States is complicit—and it’s a third that if America and Israel were suddenly to vanish from the earth, the America-haters and the other loons would roll merrily on, fingering Mossad and CIA agents everywhere, blaming those Satanic figures for everything wrong with their despotic, heresy-hunting, woman-confining regimes.

For truth,

Todd Gitlin


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Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, is the author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.

Todd Gitlin (1943-2022), was a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, and the author of among other books The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.