A Smuggler's Tale

A Berkeley woman's efforts to deliver banned medicines and other goods to Iraq arouses federal ire

Barbara Lubin's face possesses a look of almost leonine fierceness; her stare is dark and unblinking. Her eyes resemble those one sees in photos of Third World mothers who have lost loved ones to an act of violence. It is a look that mixes anger with powerlessness, a look that holds a mysterious resolve -- maybe to suffer in silence, maybe to fight back; it's not always clear which.

But Lubin is no Third Worlder; she is a middle-class Jewish grandmother living in Berkeley. She is well-known in the Middle East for her humanitarian projects in Palestine and Iraq. In her own country, though, she is loathed by conservatives and liberals alike because, Lubin says, she loudly criticizes Israel's military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

She is also a vocal critic of American anti-war organizations for failing to protest the 12 years of economic sanctions against Iraq. Lubin has visited Iraq six times, delivering $4 million in powdered baby food, antibiotics, and chemotherapy medicines, sometimes in defiance of U.N.-imposed sanctions. While there are several U.S.-based groups that deliver privately funded humanitarian aid to Iraq, most tread in Lubin's pioneering footsteps.

Last month, the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control fined a Chicago-based group that works with Lubin -- Voices in the Wilderness -- $20,000 for delivering medicine to Iraq without first obtaining permission from the government. Federal law provides for up to $1.25 million in fines and 12 years in prison for individuals who violate the sanctions. So far, however, these statutes have not been enforced. Along with about 75 others who deliver illicit aid to Iraq, Lubin signed a letter to the Treasury Department dated Dec. 5, stating their intention to continue their missions of mercy despite the law.

Travel in Iraq is an adventure, to say the least. In October, Lubin flew through the no-fly zone from the Baghdad airport, which had just been bombed by American fighters, to the Basra airport, which was bombed shortly after she landed. "There was no problem with air traffic control," Lubin says with a laugh. "We were the only civilians flying in the no-fly zone."

In more ways than one, Lubin has journeyed a long way from the home of her parents. "I grew up in a right-wing Zionist home in Philadelphia," she recounts. "When someone asked for the salt to be passed at the dinner table, inevitably, someone would say, 'Is it good for Israel?' We gave money to Israel so that we would have a place to go when 'they' came for us."

She arrived in Berkeley in 1973 and found work as a draft counselor. By then she had a young son, Charlie, with Down's syndrome. When she talks about Charlie, who has a union job at Safeway, she shows a fierce pride in his accomplishments. Her struggle to raise him in as normal an environment as possible threw her into politics.

As an adolescent, Charlie liked to eat lunch every day at a College Avenue soda fountain, Ozzie's. "It was a moment of respite for me when he went to Ozzie's. He always ordered the same thing: tuna, chips, and a Coke." In 1981, a developer moved to tear Ozzie's down. Lubin mounted a grass-roots campaign to save Ozzie's, which resulted in passage of one of the nation's only commercial property rent-control ordinances. "It was later thrown out by the state Supreme Court," she says, "but Ozzie's is still there."

She rode her national notoriety -- "The Wall Street Journal screamed at me, said I was un-American" -- to a seat on the Berkeley school board. She was active in the peace, anti-apartheid and anti-nuclear movements, spending time in jail for civil disobedience. In 1987, she organized a delegation of local people to see what was happening in Palestine during the first intifada, or people's uprising. The trip, she says, changed her life. "People were tear-gassed, shot at -- it enraged me. My family had planted thousands of trees. I went to see them. They were planted on a desecrated cemetery, on a demolished village. It made me ill.

"My partner, Howard Levine, and I held a press conference and said we'd been on the wrong side of the Israel-Palestine issue. We were naive. I had no idea what it meant to criticize Israel. People who once loved me now cross the street when they see me coming. We soon realized that there is no balance in U.S. foreign policy toward Israel and Palestine. We give one people aid, the other gets a boot on the neck."

In 1988, Lubin and Levine founded the Middle East Children's Alliance. Its advisory board currently includes novelist Alice Walker, former U.S. Sen. James Abourezk, and several other members and ex-members of Congress. The Children's Alliance raises money from a list of 8,500 donors, here and abroad. It works to "end the occupation and bring hope to Palestinian children." On February 17, the alliance will bring a children's folkloric dance troupe from the Dheishe refugee camp to perform in San Francisco.

The organization has built playgrounds, parks, and community centers inside refugee camps. (Most of the playgrounds it built, she says, were soon rendered unusable by Israeli forces.) To help finance its activities, the Children's Alliance formed Alliance Graphics, a unionized T-shirt factory. Since 1988, the Children's Alliance has distributed $8 million in food, medicine, toys, and books to Palestinian and Iraqi children.

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