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The Monthly (California)

In Occupied Palestine, Loving the Children is the Easy Part

Berkeley Activist Barbara Lubin Shares the Wealth—and the Love—with Children in the Middle East.

Micky Duxbury

Children’s champion: On a visit to Gaza in January, Barbara Lubin of Berkeley’s Middle East Children’s Alliance poses with a family. (Photos by Sharon Wallace)

Barbara Lubin was 22 years old in 1967 when she
walked into the Philadelphia military induction center along with 250
young men-and was told to strip. A dedicated and unusually daring draft
counselor, Lubin had dressed in drag and hidden her hair in preparation
for infiltrating an entry point into the U.S. military. As she peeled
off her clothing, leaflets opposing the Vietnam War spilled from her
undergarments. Her memories of that success are still vivid: "The
sergeants were so enraged that they marched me out with bayonets and
arrested me, but not before I was able to pass out hundreds of

Over the subsequent 40
years-35 of them spent in Berkeley-Lubin's activism has spanned the
globe: from the disability rights movement in Berkeley, to the
anti-apartheid struggle centered at U.C. Berkeley, to the Bay Area
Committee to Support the People of El Salvador. But since co-founding
the Middle East Children's Alliance (MECA) in 1988, she has focused her
formidable energies on directing the work of this small Berkeley
nonprofit dedicated to a better quality of life for Palestinian, Iraqi,
and Lebanese families and children.

1991, MECA has shipped medical supplies valued at more than five
million dollars to Iraq as well as delivering truckloads of infant
formula and baby food to that country; it also built two playgrounds in
Lebanon. This past January, Lubin - who is Jewish - made her 19th trip to
the region, first gathering four tons of medical supplies from a
distribution center in Holland, then purchasing food, blankets, and 28
wheelchairs in Cairo. After adding a fully equipped ambulance and a
truckload of children's art supplies to their tab, Lubin and her team
entered Gaza - just one day after major bombing stopped.

is an extraordinary woman and what she has done with MECA is an amazing
achievement," says Osha Neumann, a well-known Bay Area activist,
artist, and author. "She's fiercely independent, cranky, funny, and
absolutely dedicated to the often unpopular cause of the Palestinians.
For years she has gotten a lot of flak because of her criticism of
Israeli policies. But she has steered clear of factionalism and like a
laser, has focused her energy on the children."

into Lubin's spacious office, located in a converted warehouse in the
industrial flats of Berkeley, is like taking a history tour of MECA.
Dozens of photos and posters, some featuring luminaries like writer
Alice Walker, singer and songwriter Pete Seeger, and Middle East
political historian and linguist Noam Chomsky, plaster the walls. The
multicolored shawl around Lubin's shoulders matches the vibrant colors
of the surrounding images. Over the past 20 years, big-name events
featuring celebrities have raised over 10 million dollars for MECA.
Housed in the same location is Alliance Graphics, a screen-printing and
embroidery shop whose profits provide a fair share of MECA's office
expenses and salaries. Securing these offices was a considerable
challenge. "Several landlords would not rent to us because of the work
we do, charging us with being anti-Semitic because of our support of
the Palestinians," Lubin says.

whose gray, shoulder-length hair frames a face weathered by years of
hard work, seems to have been born with a pragmatic,
roll-up-your-sleeves attitude. But she'll never forget, she says, a
lesson about staying power that she received from the poet Allen
Ginsberg, who served on MECA's advisory board from 1988 to 1997. On the
organization's web page (, Lubin recounts the
story that continues to inspire her. Over dinner one evening in the
late '90s, a small group from City Lights Books, along with MECA
co-founders Lubin and Howard Levine, were "talking about what was
happening in Rwanda, Iraq, and Palestine. None of the news was good and
we were getting more and more depressed. I turned to Allen and asked,
‘So, Allen, where's the hope?' Allen jumped up, taking the table and
the food with him. He was furious. ‘F- hope,' he yelled. ‘It's not
about hope . . . . You don't do what you do because you hope things
will get better. It's about getting up every morning and asking
yourself what's the right thing to do and doing it.'"

many political activists of her generation, Lubin was first inspired by
the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. But closer to home is
the personal struggle that has fueled her fighting spirit-particularly
on behalf of children-for nearly 40 years. Lubin's third child,
Charlie, was born in 1969 with Down syndrome. Physicians encouraged
Lubin and her husband to place their son in an institution. Instead,
Lubin says, "We decided to raise Charlie at home, and I was going to
see to it that whatever he did, he was going to have the chance to do
it the best way he could."

As Charlie
grew older, Lubin became involved in advocacy work for special
education students. In 1979, she filed a complaint against the Berkeley
Unified School District with the federal Office for Civil Rights for
failing to comply with a federal law that all children should be
educated in the least restrictive environment possible. "Winning that
complaint was the beginning of integrating children with disabilities
into the educational mainstream," Lubin says. Charlie was ultimately
enrolled in a Berkeley public school and graduated from Berkeley High
in 1991 at age 22. He has been working at a Berkeley Safeway for over
16 years.

The educational system wasn't
the only institution that Lubin battled for her child's sake. In the
late '70s, Lubin and her family lived around the corner from Ozzie's, a
favorite neighborhood soda fountain in the Elmwood section of Berkeley.
Lubin says that Charlie stopped in at Ozzie's every afternoon for 12
years-until one day in 1981, he returned home with news that the shop
had been sold. Lubin discovered that speculators had purchased the soda
fountain, and intended to raise the rent 400 percent-far more than
Ozzie could pay.

The next day, Lubin
handed out leaflets calling for a neighborhood meeting at her home. "By
7:45, there were over 400 people on the front lawn of my house"-the
first meeting of what was to become the Elmwood Preservation Alliance.
"We worked on saving Ozzie's," Lubin says, "and ultimately passed the
first commercial rent control law outside of New York City." (Sadly,
the beloved soda fountain closed for good in 2007.)

by Lubin's community organizing abilities, colleagues in the disability
rights movement encouraged her to run for the Berkeley School Board.
Lubin served from 1982 to 1986, ultimately becoming board president.
"Gus Newport, who was mayor of Berkeley at that time, began to educate
me about the Middle East," she says. "Gradually, I began to think about
the situation [between Israel and the Palestinians] very differently
from what I had been taught growing up in a Jewish household."

after retiring from the school board, Lubin saw footage of the first
intifada (Palestinian uprising) on CNN in December 1987. This pointed
the way for her next phase of activism. In order to find out firsthand
what was going on, Lubin and human rights attorney Jeanne Butterfield
organized the first group of Americans to tour the Occupied Territories
in early 1988. (Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began
after the 1967 Six Day War; international law considers both areas to
be occupied territories.) "I was shocked by the conditions," says
Lubin, who met with members of the Israeli peace movement as well as
Palestinians. "We saw refugee camps with raw sewage running down the
streets, demolished homes, and shortages of food, water, medical care,
and sanitation. When I returned, I was committed to addressing this
horrible situation."

Back in the Bay
Area, the delegation held a press conference. Howard Levine, reporting
on behalf of the San Francisco Examiner, was so moved that he and Lubin
sat down that very day to co-create the organization that would
eventually become MECA. The pair has been a couple ever since, with
Levine, now MECA's associate director as well as manager of Alliance
Graphics, taking an active role in the organization.

it is replacing trees uprooted by the Israeli military, distributing
school supplies, or building playground equipment, MECA aims to make a
difference in the daily lives of Palestinians. In 1999, MECA sponsored
the only U.S. tour of Ibdaa, an internationally acclaimed youth dance
troupe from the West Bank. The dancers introduced thousands of
Americans to the stories of Palestinian refugees, farmers, and
prisoners through traditional folkloric dance and theatrical
choreography. That tour raised funds for a new four-story building with
a computer center, women's embroidery collective, restaurant, and
guesthouse for the Dheisheh Refugee Camp. MECA has built three water
purification systems in Gaza refugee camps, which provide immense
relief to parents there; for the first time in years, their children
can safely drink the water.

MECA's 20-year history, Lubin has not witnessed much progress toward
peace. Instead, she says she has seen the demolition of Palestinian
houses, increasing Israeli military checkpoints, and the building of
the 30-foot wall separating Palestinian people from their work, farms,
and families. "I am 68 years old," Lubin says, "and some of this has
caught up with me. All these trips have taken their toll on me, but
I've always had this idea that I would just keep going at the same pace
and then someday just keel over and die."

now, though, she has no plans to scale back her schedule. "I'll tell
you some of what keeps me going: anger," Lubin says. "Yes, I am
exhausted at times, but mostly I push myself and when I am tired, I
just push harder. That is why I have visited the Palestinians so often.
When I go, I experience some of the reality of their lives: the
checkpoints and the shortages, but I also experience many wonderful
people who carry on no matter how horrible their lives are."

if anger is one ingredient in the cocktail that fuels Lubin's activism,
compassion is an even more crucial component. "I feel the same about
the children I have met in the Middle East as I do about my son
Charlie," Lubin says. "Every one of them deserves a chance to have the
best life possible."

Micky Duxbury is a Berkeley-based freelance writer focusing on social justice issues. She is the author of Making Room in Our Hearts: Keeping Family Ties Through Open Adoption (Routledge, 2007).

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