Born in Los Angeles on January 19, 1951, Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow at both the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), where she directs the New Internationalism Project, and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam.
Raised in a Jewish family in West Los Angeles, Bennis as a girl was active in the Zionist youth movement. In 1968 she enrolled at UC Santa Barbara, where she joined the Students for a Democratic Society and was instrumental in bringing Angela Davis and the Chicago Seven to speak on campus.
After college, Bennis worked for two years with Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden in the Indochina Peace Campaign, which sought to cut American aid to the governments in Saigon and Phnom Penh, and to help the North Vietnamese and Cambodian Communists overthrow them.
In the mid-1970s Bennis spent a year working with the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) in New York City. During her tenure there, she and Yasser Arafat‘s PLO delegation at the United Nations co-organized an NLG team to investigate Israeli “violations of international law” in the West Bank. Bennis also joined an organization called Jews And Arabs Against Zionism. Thenceforth, the dominant theme of her activism would be her contempt for both Israel and the United States.
During the 1980s Bennis became involved with Line Of March, a Maoist group based in Oakland, California.
In September 1990, Bennis participated in a Socialist Scholars Conference in New York City.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, Bennis spent ten years as a journalist at the United Nations. She condemned the U.S. prosecution of the first Gulf War in 1991, asserting that America’s deliberate destruction of Iraqi infrastructure targets subsequently led to countless postwar casualties in that country.
Throughout the 1990s, Bennis opposed the U.S.-led economic sanctions against Iraq. She also criticized America for its alleged domination of the UN and defended the scandal-plagued Oil for Food program which supported Saddam Hussein.
In 1999 Bennis accompanied a group of congressional aides on a fact-finding trip to Iraq, to study the impact that the sanctions were having on the population there. That same year, she joined former UN Assistant Secretary General Denis Halliday on a speaking tour denouncing the sanctions.
In January 2002 Bennis endorsed War Times—a new anti-war newspaper established by a coterie of San Francisco leftists, most of whom were affiliated with STORM or the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy & Socialism.
When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Bennis said the attack “threatens our Constitution” and “stands in violation of the UN Charter and international law.” Moreover, she described America as “an empire lording over the rest of the world” and trampling on “human rights” across the globe.
“The real threats to the peace,” said Bennis in November 2003, were “the vast disparities of income within countries and between [the] North and South [Hemispheres], [and] the disempowerment of peoples around the world whose repressive governments rely on U.S. financial, political, and military backing.”
Citing “the reckless foreign policy that has characterized this [Bush] administration,” Bennis in 2008 denounced unilateral military action and suggested that the best vehicle for settling international disputes would be an alliance of countries under the supervision of the United Nations.
In 2011, Bennis praised the Arab Spring as a positive phenomenon that “directly rejects al Qaeda-style small-group violence in favor of mass-based, society-wide mobilization and non-violent protest to challenge dictatorship and corruption.” For example, she supported the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak—Egypt’s longtime president and a dependable partner of the U.S. and Israel alike—which resulted in the ascension of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi as the country’s new president.
In March 2013, on the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Bennis signed a statement condemning that military action. Some excerpts:
In a January 2015 interview regarding the recent rise of the barbaric Islamic terror group ISIS, Bennis counseled against an American military response to ISIS’s genocidal campaigns: “It should be eminently clear that we cannot bomb Islamic extremists into submission or disappearance. Every bomb recruits more supports.”
In a July 2015 interview with C-SPAN, Bennis said that while ISIS had certainly committed some horrible atrocities, they paled in comparison to “the numbers of people killed in the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan.” She also condemned the U.S.-led military action to destroy ISIS, because, she said, it “puts us in the position of being the world’s oppressor to so many people around the world.” “Unlike Al Qaeda,” added Bennis, “[ISIS’s] goal is not to come here…. it’s a very specific and a very local struggle.” In the same interview, Bennis gave voice to the contempt she felt for the United States:
“I don’t think of myself first as an American. I think of myself as an internationalist. My country, the country I was privileged to be born into is the most powerful, the most wealthy country that has very existed in the history of the world. We have more power than — than the Roman Empire ever imagined. We have more money than anyone had — had ever dreamed of. We have more of everything. What we don’t have is care for our own people. 20 percent of our population’s children are leaving in poverty in the wealthiest country by such an enormous scale. The vast disparity of wealth and power in this country, the fact that CEO pay now is at 300 — more than 350 times the pay of the average worker. That’s not just unfortunate, that’s criminal, that’s absolutely criminal for a country.”
Bennis’s low regard for America is mirrored by her loathing of Israel, which she considers an oppressor nation with an “apartheid character” that routinely violates the human rights of Palestinians. In 2001 Bennis helped found the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, where she became an advisory board member. She has referred to the 1948 creation of the Jewish state as “the Palestinian catastrophe … al Nakba.” In 2004 she characterized Israel’s assassination of Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin as a cold-blooded “murder” that stood in “in clear violation of international law.” She contends that the Palestinian “right of return”—which, if implemented, would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish entity—“is absolute, and cannot be compromised away.” And she avidly supports the Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions movement against Israel.
According to Bennis, “the Israeli goal has always been to maximize the amount of land that they control”—as evidenced by “how the Israeli military has gone after Palestinians in their own homes, sometimes for no reason.” The Arab world’s “antagonism toward the U.S.,” she expands, “is grounded in very real U.S. policies” like “supporting the occupation of Arab lands.”
In December 2008, when Israel responded militarily to Hamas’s protracted campaign of rocket attacks, Bennis said that Israel had no “right” to exact the type of “vengeance” that “is the very essence of ‘collective punishment’ and is therefore unequivocally prohibited by the Geneva conventions.” “The disproportionate nature of the [Israeli] military attack,” she added, “… far outweighs any claim of self-defense or protection of Israeli civilians.” By Bennis’s reckoning, even “Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip”—which had been initiated as a means of preventing Hamas from importing weaponry from Iran and elsewhere—was an illegal act that had created a “humanitarian crisis” of “catastrophic proportions.”
In October 2011, Bennis wrote that Israel’s detention of Palestinian prisoners was unrelated to genuine concerns about security threats, but rather, was intended to “demoralis[e]” Palestinians and “undermin[e] the family unity that provides the crucial basis for Palestinians’ sumud, or steadfastness, in resisting occupation.”
In a January 2013 article for Al-Jazeera, Bennis stated that “Israel has for years responded with outrage to human rights criticism and, with US backing, has increasingly directly repudiated UN authority and legitimacy.” In a separate piece that same month, she described Richard Falk, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, as one of “the most important international defenders of human rights in the occupied territories.” Bennis also characterized criticism of Falk by Israel, the US, and Human Rights Watch, as the product of “smear campaigns launched by UN Watch, a right-wing outfit in Geneva known for its anti-UN, anti-Palestinian, pro-Israel and anti-human rights agenda.”
In February 2013, Bennis claimed that concerns about Iran’s nuclear capability were outrageously exaggerated and that if “the threat of war still looms,” it was not because of actual threat assessments, but because of “belligerent” politicians. “Even a theoretical future nuclear-armed Iran,” she argued, “would not be a threat to the existence of Israel” but only “to Israel’s longstanding nuclear monopoly in the Middle East.” That, said Bennis, was “the real threat motivating Israel’s attack-Iran-now campaign.”
In February 2019, Bennis came to the defense of U.S. congresswoman Ilhan Omar for tweeting: (a) her opinion that the pro-Israel lobby organization AIPAC — an American entity that receives much funding from American Jews but no funding from the state of Israel — was guilty of paying U.S. politicians to take positions favorable to Israel; and (b) “It’s all about the Benjamins [$100 bills], baby,” quoting a 1997 song by rapper Puff Daddy. Reacting to Omar’s remarks, Bennis said: “It is no longer political suicide to criticize Israel. We now see it on college campuses we see it on streets; we see it on how people talk about the issue, and this is the change that’s underway and it’s part of the change that has brought extraordinary people to Congress like Rep. Ilhan Omar, like Rep. Rashida Tlaib. This is an incredible generational shift; it’s an incredible political shift, and we should be celebrating it. This is really a great moment.”
In addition to her work with IPS and the Transnational Institute, Bennis is also a board member of Jewish Voice for Peace. Moreover, she has served as an informal adviser to several top UN officials on Middle East issues, and she once sat on the advisory board of Peace Action.