Israel's Road to Peace:
The Role of American Jews

Plenary Address by James Zogby
An Arab American Perspective
Brit Tzedek v'Shalom's 2nd National Conference
November 2 , 2003
Boston, MASSACHUSETTS

Thank you very much. I particularly wanted to thank you for the invitation to be with you today and was honored to accept it. I didn't know how honored I'd be until I heard Sumaya's remarks. It was truly a delight to hear you-I'd never heard you before, but I appreciate it very much what you had to offer.

I have different remarks from a different perspective. I get soft sometimes. I inherit much from my mother, but I inherit one quality of my father, my brother tells me, and that is when he wanted to be heard, he would speak more softly. People would then listen. So I apologize for that. If you know me, I'm not a shouter. My children know a different me, but that remains to be seen.

I offer a different perspective and I wanted to, because I'm told we're running very behind time, just to share a few observations with you. I've been doing this work, as the introduction made clear, for maybe too many years now. And I've learned some lessons that I want to share. The first is that we as two communities have work to do among ourselves and we're doing that today. I think one of the challenges that we face among ourselves is simply to talk to each other, and to share narratives; both personal stories and collective communal stories. In part because we do not understand those narratives. I was fortunate. I had a mother who was different. She brought me up on Anne Frank, and one of my earliest political memories was a strange one, actually, as I look back on it, because I know my mother and I know her politics. I'll just share it with you: my first political memory was coming down to the kitchen as a child and my mom was sitting at the table with my father and she was crying and I asked what happened, and she said, "They murdered two people today." I asked why she was crying and she said, "Because they have two children and they are the age of you and your brother." And I said, in effect, tell me more and wanted to know more. She said, "It was the Rosenbergs, in any case, and when I asked why they killed them, she said, "They said they were spies, but I think it's because they were Jews."

That was my mother, and that was the life I grew up in. My uncle, who was my godfather, sent letters back-he had gone into the camps and it made an impression. It was who I was, and it is who I am. But I find that many in my community don't know because they weren't fortunate enough to have my mother as their mother. One of the earliest headlines I remember getting, much to the irritation of another Arab-American organization was…I was at a conference in 1972 and somebody made remarks-"Jews this and that"-and when it was my turn to speak, I berated them for anti-Semitism and I got a headline in the Washington Post that said, "Arab-American challenges"… whatever, and they weren't very happy with that. But it is who I am.

What I find disturbing, however, is that we do not do enough of it. There are dialogs sessions around the country. Everywhere you go, there are Arab-Americans and American Jews talking, but not enough. Too often our discourse is harsh, insensitive and fails to recognize both the real fears and the real histories of both peoples, in part because the narrative of the Jewish people has become part of our culture. I saw the movie Exodus when I was 13-I cheered for the good guys. Didn't know I was the bad guy, but it is our culture. You were the cowboys and we were the Indians and that is how the story was framed, and it was civilization versus barbarism. That's who you were and that's who we were, and we grew up in that world. And so to some degree, you will find on the Arab side resentment for the story being framed that way, and an anger that their narrative never breaks through. Dialog is a way to cure that. And sharing narratives is a way to create a human portrait on both sides.

I had an Israeli friend years ago who founded The Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights and he used to tell me that at the end of the day we will not solve this unless we recognize equal humanity on both sides. The suffering of one is the same, and histories have to be known. I teach a course in comparative narratives and it is fascinating to do it because people just don't get it. Just don't get it. I think what Sumaya shared with us today is so critical because nowhere in the policy formulation will you find a recognition of Palestinian suffering. I went with Bill Clinton in 1998 to Gaza. He insisted that he was going to get a third vote from the Palestine National Counsel denouncing the charter. I said, "Mr. President, they already did it twice, don't do it again." He said, "I need it." So we worked on a speech and as much as I would like to claim credit for 20% of the speech, the best parts of it…he was winging it. Because he got it. And he got up there and he used an expression about "I know your people and I know you have been disposed and dispersed and I know how you have suffered; I know your history." I saw men who I knew, who I met in Beirut in the '70s-hardened revolutionaries-begin to cry. Because when you think about it, no American president had ever spoken to the Palestinians about their suffering.

It was Israeli humanity versus the Arab problem. Later on, we made an advance: it was Israeli humanity versus the Palestinian problem. Whatever happened, the answer would be: if only Arafat would do this. There was never a paternity on the Israeli side. Israel was responsible for nothing. It was always that the Arabs had to do. The weakest party had to do the biggest job, and still does.

I listen to presidential candidates and wait for them to…I am willing to deal with either a criticism of what Israel does or at least recognition of Palestinian suffering. I say sometimes to the candidates when they ask, "Well what can I say?" I say, well go to passive-tense, damnit, if you have to. If you're too chicken to say the law was wrong. Or the settlements are wrong, just say that Palestinians have suffered. Nobody culpable, nobody did it-they just suffer. And in part it's because the narrative isn't shared and people don't know and don't feel.

I think, and I want to talk just for a moment on this topic before I go off to my final point, and that is that I am as troubled as you about suicide bombers. They scare the hell out of me. They anger me and they trouble me deeply. But I want to know what happened to a culture? Where is the paternity? What happened and what is responsible for the deforming of an entire culture where a young boy-twenty-four years old, without a job, without a prospect of a job, with no family, no hope of a family-comes to think that honoring his parents and giving meaning to his life is not bringing home a child and saying, "Dad, you're a grandfather," or, "I got a job," or, "I graduated," but it's killing himself. And killing a whole lot of other people with him-the more his does, the bigger he is. He's not just killing Israelis, he's murdering himself. And a cult of suicide has developed, where that becomes honor and, frankly, you can talk all you want about cracking down, but unless you also understand, you don't solve it. Unless you radically transform the daily lives of people so that young people have hope, you don't end the problem. We will only understand it through sharing of narratives. Understanding the humanity on both sides.

A final point. My most important one, I think. We need to do this among ourselves, but we have some things to do for ourselves. We have to go beyond ourselves. One of the biggest issues that has always troubled me about our two communities here is the degree to which we see ourselves as surrogates for them-Israelis and Palestinians. And we are not. We're Americans. At the end of the day, we have a responsibility in this political arena to change our country and make it better.

I remember in 1988, I went to the Democratic convention with a plank and we challenged the party to a debate, and I was told that the time, "You can't do this. If you do this there will never be a place for you in the Democratic Party again and you're going to destroy this party." They played Chicken Little with me. "This is the end of Democrats." Well, we lost in 1988-I know we're in Massachusetts-, but it wasn't my plank that did it. Actually if you listen to our plank, it was mutual recognition, territorial compromise and self-determination for both peoples. Woah. That was heavy. It was portrayed in The New York Times as Arab versus Jew at the Democratic convention. That was the headline. You know, we had a petition of those who supported our resolution. We had three hundred and eighty Jews on our petition and only fifty Arab-Americans. I think we had more Jews on our petition than they had on theirs. Because the point was, we weren't functioning…this was not Arab versus Jew. This was how do you create peace and move the country and the political debate forward versus how do you take a bye on it and duck it, and let it continue for another 4 years or a decade. I mean we're in the middle of a presidential debate now, and we don't have it.

And so we did a poll, Arab-Americans and American Jews. It was fascinating. We're almost within the margin of error of each other on most questions. You know that? I mean, people who claim to be speaking for you, and are beating the hell out of the candidates, whipping them into shape, they don't speak for what the majority of American Jews do. But the candidates won't know if you don't make it clear that this is not just about supporting the Geneva Agreement. And it's not-at the end of the day, I don't care it guy who runs for president supports the Geneva whatever. Or Oslo. That's not his job. It's the job to the Israelis and Palestinians to do that. The job of an American president and the job of American peace movement is to say to our nations leaders: "You've got to be fair. You've got to be strong with both sides. You've got to be balanced in how you approach this conflict because, damnit, it's go to end." And it's not going to end if we don't change because there are asymmetries all over this equation. One of the asymmetries is that Israel has got power Palestinian don't, so you have this asymmetrical battle going on and it's ugly. On both sides, ugly. But we have other asymmetries and they come from here. We have asymmetry of pressure and a asymmetry of compassion. Israel gets the compassion, Palestinians get the pressure. It's got to be reversed; it's got to be balanced. Palestinians need pressure to change, but Israel does, too. It goes from President Bush on April 4, "Arafat's got to do this and Sharon's got to do this," to April 17, "Sharon is a man of peace and Arafat's got to go." Something happened in those thirteen days. What happened was Gary Bauer criticized him and Bill Bennet criticized him and Ralph Reed too out a paid ad in the newspapers, and Pat Robertson criticized him and all of a sudden he saw the light. Powell was in the Middle-East and got his legs cut out from under him. But were the Jewish voices then, saying, "President Bush, that's not right."

And I'm going to stop. Because I do think that we need to take seriously our responsibility as an American political constituency to create change here. That's what we have to do for ourselves, and I thank you.

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