Edition 31 Volume 2 - August 12, 2024

Arab and Jewish activism in the US

Break the taboos - an interview with  Ali Abu Nimah

There's a real reluctance within even progressive activists circles to discuss an alternative future of abandoning partition and aiming towards an inclusive democracy

More comfortable as endorsers -   Leonard Fein

The political weight of the traditional Israel support groups is in no small measure a function of the campaign moneys they provide.

Why American Jews stand strongly with Israel -   Abraham H. Foxman

We learned from the Holocaust that Jews cannot afford to be silent when their fellow Jews are under attack.

A community finding its feet - an interview with  James J. Zogby

The Arab American community faces some difficult challenges, but the progress is absolutely clear

Break the taboos
an interview with Ali Abu Nimah

BI: To what extent do you feel that Arab activism in the US has been successful?

Abu Nimah: I think it has been successful in the sense that Arab Americans now have a voice that has to be taken into account at least in public discourse. I think the days are largely gone where there could be a debate about virtually any issue affecting the Arab world where Arab voices were not included. But, I think there's still a long way to go.

BI: Do you feel the Arab American community is becoming more politically active, more politically aware and more efficient, particularly after Iraq and September 11?

Abu Nimah: I think it's hard to generalize. The Arab American community has always been very highly politically aware, but that has not always translated into action. In fact, sometimes it can mean the opposite: when people are too politically aware they either become afraid or reluctant to be active or they feel the political challenge is so overwhelming there is nothing they can do and it leads to immobilism.

But where I feel most encouraged is in traveling around the country, speaking at colleges, universities and at meetings to a very active, very politically aware and very articulate younger generation of Arab American student who is very highly engaged, particularly in Palestine and Iraq, but also with the broader politics of this society. I think this is very important because they are putting pressure on other political coalitions to take their issues seriously.

BI: You've focused a lot on the US media. Why this particular issue?

Abu Nimah: The media is where the vast majority of Americans get their information about issues which I feel are very important to me and to Arab Americans generally. The media do such a sloppy job, on so many issues, but particularly the Middle East, that that is a place where we have to make our voices heard. It's also an area where we've shown we can be effective with diligent and consistent work. It's an area where we can have an impact perhaps more easily than we can on, say, what Congress does. It's an arena in which we can participate directly much more easily than in policymaking. It doesn't mean we shouldn't be doing the other things, but the media is a direct route, and a good place to start.

BI: Do you feel the American media is doing a particularly "sloppy" job on the Palestine issue?

Abu Nimah: I think it is doing a better job than it was 10 or 20 years ago. I think it has a split personality. The manifestation of this is you can find quite good reporting--sometimes excellent reporting, but generally just ok--on events in Palestine. Where you see a big difference is on the editorial pages where there tends to be much less of a hearing of Palestinian perspectives, and that really cuts across the board from major newspapers to small-town newspapers. It's much harder for people who are critical of Israel to get their views across in the mainstream press. It's not just because people aren't writing articles. I know many who write excellent articles and who simply can't get them printed.

Having said that, we do get printed too, so I don't think we should adopt a defeatist approach. With constant pressure, constant attempts to make our voices heard, we are making some progress. But we still face overwhelming resistance and, I think, fear among a lot of American editors and media executives to tackle particularly the issue of Palestine and to appear too critical of Israel. That fear is still widespread and it is fostered and encouraged by pro-Israel organizations in the US that have become increasingly shrill in labeling any criticism of Israel anti-Semitism. This really does have a chilling effect on public debate.

BI: Do you feel there is a particular role that activists should play at this time?

Abu Nimah: I think we have to challenge the conventional wisdom. Right now, we're at a total impasse as regards debate and discussion on the future of Palestine/Israel. The ideas that are accepted in the ideological mainstream, whether it's from the media or international diplomats, what I call the international peace-process industry--the roadmap, the two-state solution--are simply obsolete when it comes to the reality Israel has created on the ground. We have to break the taboos about real alternatives. There's a real reluctance within even progressive activist circles to discuss an alternative future of abandoning partition and aiming toward an inclusive democracy. The failure to discuss these issues is a sure path to despair, and right now, I think activists have to be willing to talk about these things and have to be willing to face down the voices that simply don't want that debate to happen, who want to preserve taboos around fundamental issues like democracy for Palestinians and Israelis. All issues--a one-state solution, a confederation--have to be open for debate, and people have to be defended against the accusation that they are seeking the destruction of Israel simply because they're trying to discuss alternatives to the absolutely failed approach that has been taken until now.- Published 12/8/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org

Ali Abunimah is author of One Country, A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, and cofounder of The Electronic Intifada.

More comfortable as endorsers
 Leonard Fein

Predicting the Jewish vote in America's presidential elections is a favorite quadrennial pastime, notwithstanding the fact that with a very few exceptions, the Jews have voted on the order of 80 percent Democratic for some 70 years now. This year, however, the game of prediction is, rather surprisingly, a near-constant at almost any Jewish gathering. I say "surprising" because on domestic policy, President George W. Bush's views and policies are so far from the evident sensibility of American Jews that their rejection of him would seem virtually certain. But then comes the kicker: "Bush is," it is alleged, "good for Israel."

Whether Bush is in fact "good for Israel" is not here my concern, although it is worth observing that no American president who is not "good for America" can be good for Israel. The larger question is the role Israel plays in the political consciousness of America's Jews. And that has come to be an increasingly complex question in recent years.

So long as peace was more a prayer than a prospect, the overwhelming consensus of the Jewish community was staunchly "pro-Israel," and being pro-Israel was understood as supporting the policies of the Israeli government. Here and there, especially after 1973, there were pockets of dissent, and those pockets grew in the wake of the ascendance of the Likud party in 1977. But since the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, and even more since Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and siege of Beirut, dissent has become an accepted part of the American Jewish landscape.

That is not to say that the pro-government voices in the community have become muted, or that serious dissent has become a mainstream phenomenon. The America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations remain the dominant forces in the organized Jewish community, and both can be relied upon to support very nearly any policy approved by an Israeli government, here with more enthusiasm, there with less. Still, organizations such as Americans for Peace Now (a support group for Israel's Shalom Achshav), the Israel Policy Forum and, more recently, Brith Tzedek v'Shalom have all carved out a niche which the organized community can ignore but from which it cannot hide. And each of those three has access to Members of Congress and people in the Executive Branch.

That is where the non-fun begins. The very substantial political weight of the traditional Israel-support groups derives not merely from their numbers nor even from such things as AIPAC's legendary mastery of the art of lobbying. It is in no small measure a function of the extraordinary campaign monies they are capable of marshalling. Estimates here vary considerably, but if all the monies provided for congressional as well as presidential campaigns were added together, Jews would doubtless be responsible for at least 25 percent of the total.

That buys not only access; it buys pandering. Many members of Congress are substantially more sophisticated with regard to the continuing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians than their public statements suggest. That is not to say that they do not sympathize with Israel, that they are not outraged by suicide attacks and the like. It is to say that they strongly endorse an end to settlement construction, a two-state solution, a more flexible Israeli stance, a center to center-left approach to the conflict. But they are, for the most part, inhibited from voicing such views when those views conflict with Israel's government. To an only somewhat lesser degree, the American administration is similarly inhibited.

That leaves the field of criticism largely free to those who have no use at all for Israel, to those who genuinely wish Israel ill. Some few Jews are in that broad camp, which leaves a growing number of Jews caught between extreme anti-Israel forces and the "whatever Israel does deserves our support" ethic of the dominant forces in the organized community.

Given such an unappealing choice, and given as well the endless confusion that serious attention to the conflict almost inevitably generates, and given the apparent permanence of the conflict, and given as well the psychic pain engendered by attention to the conflict and concern for Israel-why bother? Love for Israel is not genetically encoded, and these days we seem to find growing numbers of young Jews expressing relative indifference to events over which, as they see it, they have no control and in which they have only peripheral interest.

Years ago, I was the keynote speaker at the national convention of a Jewish organization that will here remain nameless. I'd been preceded on the first two days by Abba Eban and Binyamin Netanyahu. When I arrived on day three I asked the organizers with whom the audience had agreed, Eban or Netanyahu. The answer? "Ninety-five percent of the audience agreed 100 percent with both." Things have changed somewhat since then, but not all that much. We remain a community far less sophisticated than we are generally taken to be, highly responsive to Israel's spin on current events and, in the main, substantially more comfortable as endors

Leonard Fein is an author, a social justice activist, and a veteran observer of the American Jewish community.

Why American Jews stand strongly with Israel
 Abraham H. Foxman

American Jewish support for Israel is both a cause and an effect of the growing confidence and security of the Jewish community in America.

In the 1930s and 1940s, as the Zionist movement became a more central element on the agenda of Jews around the world, American Jewry was divided and ambivalent about Zionism, the aspiration of a national homeland for the Jewish people. Anti-Semitism was rife in the United States and in Europe, and many American Jews, insecure in their identity as Americans, were averse to being associated with a movement that involved Jews overseas.

Today, the overwhelming majority of American Jews is supportive of the State of Israel, despite having differing political perspectives. On the one hand this reality is the product of the high level of comfort American Jews have grown into in American society. On the other hand, one of the elements that have made American Jews so comfortable is the pride and psychological strength drawn from the success of Israel as a Jewish democratic state and as a key US ally.

This dual side of American Jewish support for Israel plays out in the activism of the community on Israel-related issues. As American Jews became more secure, they felt freer to voice their parochial concerns about Jewish safety-of which the survival and security of Israel became paramount. American Jews no longer worried that they would be accused of dual loyalty in their work on behalf of Israel. Dual loyalty, a charge that has surfaced time and again throughout history to label Jews as "outsiders" more loyal to their own kind than to their country, has largely dissipated on the American scene (even though recent surveys have shown that many Americans still buy into the false notion that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America).

Over the decades, institutions were established by members of the Jewish community that took as their mandate maintaining American support for Israel, and there was no discomfort about doing so, for several reasons.

First, we were like other Americans, merely exercising our right to free expression and political involvement. Second, we knew that America and Israel had overall excellent relations because of the two countries' shared values, because Israel was the only democracy in the Middle East, because Israel sought peace, and because the two countries were strategic partners.

Third, we learned from the experience of the Holocaust that Jews cannot afford to be silent when their fellow Jews are under attack. And finally, we knew we had significant support from the American people for the reasons described above.

While Jews do not hesitate to support the Jewish state, their full integration into American society has other effects on Israel-related issues. For one, there is a great diversity of opinion. It takes the form of some Jews thinking about politicians only in terms of, "is he or she good for Israel?" Other Jews say, however, that while Israel is vital to our concerns as American Jews, there are many other social, political and economic issues that also determine one's political preference.

Another manifestation is on the approach to Israeli policies. Clearly American Jews, like Israelis, have a variety of perspectives as to what Israel should do vis-a-vis terrorism, territories, settlements, etc. Many American Jews, even if they disagree on issues, believe that as a country under siege, with a democratic system, Israelis should be able to work out their internal differences without interference from American Jews. Therefore, what takes place is a level of support for Israel that goes far beyond support for specific Israeli policies.

Connected to this is recognition of the need to maintain the support of the US administration and Congress. Consequently, there are continuing efforts within the community to find consensus, despite differences, in order to be united in approaches to Washington.

Having said this, because of the level of self-confidence of the Jewish community there are some who feel comfortable going their own way and don't feel bound by any community consensus.

On one issue there is broad-based support: not allowing anti-Israel activity to be used to generate, fuel or rationalize anti-Semitism. When, for example, some politicians and political pundits tried to blame US involvement in Iraq on alleged Jewish neo-conservative control over foreign policy in order to protect Israel, it was immediately rejected by the vast majority of Americans as anti-Semitism. When efforts were made on major college campuses to divest from Israel-similar to efforts to divest from apartheid South Africa in the 1980s-we fought these efforts as offensive, as sometimes anti-Semitic, and at the very least as provoking and legitimizing anti-Semitism. And when anti-Israel protests compare Israelis to Nazis and the Israeli prime minister to Hitler, the line between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism may be crossed. When that happens, Jewish organizations like ADL will speak out and will make our voices heard to let Americans know that this form of speech is unacceptable and anti-Semitic.

Still, there are misperceptions, especially in the Middle East, about the American Jewish community's role in supposedly stifling all debate in society on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is not true that anyone who even attempts to criticize Israel will be labeled an anti-Semite. We in the Jewish community have always said there are legitimate and perfectly acceptable forms of criticism of Israel. We see criticism of Israel every day in newspaper editorials, from people in our government and from Muslim and Arab American communities. As participants in the American democratic tradition, we listen carefully to these criticisms and respond when we feel they are unfair or problematic, taking advantage of the same freedom of speech that enables such criticism to be freely made.

American Jewry is the most integrated Jewish community in the history of the 2,000-year Diaspora. Our success stems from our own hard work, from the evolving character of American society, and from the self-confidence engendered by having a Jewish state to look to.

We never see a conflict in standing up for America as the world's greatest democracy, and in supporting Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East. And our goal is to work toward the day when Palestinians and Israelis can exist in peace and security, each in their own independent state.- Published 12/8/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org

Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and author of "Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism" (HarperSanFrancisco, 2024).

A community finding its feet
an interview with James J. Zogby

BI: What role do Middle East issues play in the political consciousness of Arab-Americans?

Zogby: Over the years they have played an increasingly significant role. What we find in polling is that despite the diversity that exists within the Arab-American community--three and a half million coming from many countries and of different generations--their concern about issues in the Middle East is very strong. It is obviously stronger and more intense in the direct connection that immigrants have with particular countries, but among the second and third generations born here, there is also a very deep attachment and a generalized concern about the region as a whole. I think it is very interesting for example that you have second and third generation Lebanese Christians becoming incensed about negative stereotyping of Saudis. In some ways, some of the issues are even felt more strongly, and there is a really strong concern that American policy is unfair and biased. And we find that that has increased over the last couple of decades.

BI: Clearly Iraq is a major issue at the moment. How will Iraq affect the voting patterns in the community in the upcoming elections?

Zogby: It is true Iraq is a concern. It is a concern for all Americans. It is true that it is a particular concern for Arab-Americans, who will feel the issue deeply in a number of ways, both because their country is engaged in a war, they have children, neighbors or friends in uniform, and because it is a war that brings their country into conflict with a part of the world to which they have an attachment. Arab-Americans decidedly tilt against the war. Today, the war, or the president's conduct of the war, would be supported by about 20+ percent [of the Arab-American community] while in the country as a whole about half support the effort.

But that will not be necessarily an indicator for how people will vote. Arab-Americans will not necessarily move their vote if they are not happy with the way the war is handled. And that will be the case in particular with those who are in the second or third generations who will make, like the rest of America, their decision based on a complex grid of issues. They'll vote on the economy, education, health care, taxes, national security, as well as Iraq. There will be no single issue that is a predictor for voting behavior. It'll factor in, but it won't be, in and of itself, enough to determine the outcome of the vote.

BI: Do you think the Palestinian issue has a unique place in Arab-American awareness?

Zogby: It always has. If you look back at the literature of the immigrant community in the 1930s here in the States, you will find that they were very concerned about what was happening with Palestine then, and certainly even more so in the 1940s and as the tragedy of 1948 occurred, into the 1950s and 1960s. I've also found that despite internal differences among the immigrant population--the Lebanese for example being divided as some of the population in Lebanon is divided on this question--there's always been something about the basic cause of justice for Palestinians and the fact that America has not pursued a balanced policy that has gnawed at Arab-Americans. In some ways they also feel that they and their progress in this country have been hampered by the fact that this issue has so skewed American politics and the policy discussion.

I remember when my son was working at the State Department and a couple of Jewish groups began a campaign against him. The people I heard from who thought it was unfair, were not just the activists in the community or career diplomats in the [US] State Department, but second, third generation career diplomats in the State Department, Arab Americans, who in some cases I didn't even know were Arab-American, but would tell me: "I know what your son is going through. It is terrible, and believe me it angers me so much because I always feel that it is something that could happen to me if I spoke my mind."

There is a real sense of hurt, a sense of injustice, a sense that this is an issue that they want to talk about, but feel sometimes that they can't, and they resent that.

BI: Yet, on this issue and perhaps in general in the Middle East, the Jewish American lobbying efforts have been so much more effective. Why is this? The Jewish community is bigger of course, but the Arab-American community is not insignificant.

Zogby: It's not, but let's understand a couple of things. I am a co-chair of the Ethnic Council, which brings together ethnic Democrats from all the European and Mediterranean communities. No group is equal to what the Jewish community has done. In fact, when you look at lobbies in Washington, their ability to leverage money both to create fear and to intimidate politicians is rivaled only by groups like the gun lobby or some of the HMO's and the health care industry. It is an enormously powerful political force that brings a great deal of money in a very targeted way.

I think one of the things the Holocaust did was create a sense framed by the expression "never again." A small group of people were able to resolve that at any expense, and at any effort, they would get the job done. I don't think Arab-Americans have ever felt as personally threatened or as vulnerable and therefore as resolved to never spare any expense to make their pressure felt. You have PACs [Political Action Committees] of four or five hundred people that put together almost three-and-half million dollars by themselves. We certainly have four or five hundred individuals in the Arab American community that could do that, but they don't. If an Arab-American decides to contribute to our PAC he'll give me a thousand dollars. On the other side, that same kind of individual will give five thousand to each of five PACs. It's a completely different story.

No other ethnic community comes anywhere close. In some way we have the misfortune of having to square off not just against a controversial issue, but against a very dedicated and well-organized group that has written the book on how to do this. [But] I think we're making progress. If you look at where we were 30 years ago, the difference is significant. But it remains a very difficult battle. And, yet it is to the credit of this community that we've never surrendered. I think we've established ourselves in the mainstream of American politics

BI: Do you think, particularly after September 11 and the pressures that Arab-Americans have been under, this may sharpen people's activism and bring people together to make the community a stronger political actor in the future?

Zogby: I think it already has, and in several ways. One is that it has certainly brought people together. But it has also made the process more open to us. The threats against Arab Americans have been real and the discrimination has been real. But as important, is the support we've been given by political leaders and elected officials. I think that energized the community, it gave them a sense that they would be protected. I think there's no doubt that we face some difficult challenges, but we've weathered some storms and I think we've turned a real corner. In my experience, looking at the big picture, the progress is absolutely clear. I feel that the last 30 years have been a remarkable record of advances.- Published 12/8/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute, senior advisor to Zogby International (which conducts polling across the Arab world) and author of the forthcoming "Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us And Why It Matters".

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