Aug 29th 2018

Flashback 30 Years: Lessons to Learn, Work to Do

by James J. Zogbi

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of the Arab American Institute
 
Thirty years ago, I mounted the podium of the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, Georgia to open the first ever political party debate on Palestinian rights. Looking out over the convention hall at our 1,500 delegate-supporters wearing "Palestine Lives" T-shirts and carrying "Statehood Now" placards,  I was overcome with emotion. 
 
I recalled earlier Democratic convention floor demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, in defense of farmworkers' rights, and in opposition to South African Apartheid and had always dreamed that one day there might be a similar manifestation of support for Palestinians. And there it was, right then, happening before my eyes.      

I began my remarks from the podium by noting:

 
"We're making history today. Today the issue of Palestinian rights is being debated by our party. We've won a victory...The deadly silence that has for so long submerged the issue of Palestinian rights has been shattered. The question of Palestine has, up till now, been the least talked about, but most thought about issue in the Party. Today, the silence has ended."  
 
I went on to criticize the existing Party platform language for its refusal to speak about Palestinians - ignoring "their right to freedom, to independence, and to statehood". Our minority plank corrected this disgraceful omission by speaking about the Palestinians as a people and so I addressed their concerns "with occupation and with exile, the violations of their basic human rights, the killings and the beatings and the agonizing expulsions—the daily humiliation of being a people without a state, without a home of their own".
 
I concluded by recognizing that "there are those who seek to silence this debate, to pretend that it isn't happening. But pressure and intimidation work only in the short run. They may cause fear among some, but they do not win friends in the end".
 
Polls had shown that if a secret ballot had been taken, 70% of the delegates would have supported us. But given the politics of intimidation and fear, we, in the Jackson campaign, knew that the debate and "ending the deadly silence" had been victory enough and so we decided not to call for a vote. 
 
In the next day's press coverage, one prominent pro-Israel Democrat was quoted as saying, 
 
"I'm scared. Nothing like this has ever happened before...[We] went all out to keep this issue from being debated on the floor and we were unable to stop it". 
 
The Israeli newspaper Maariv went further:
 
"Some see the events in Atlanta as a victory for Israel and its friends. This is certainly not the case...once an Arab lobby representative took the floor, even if for a mere 10 minutes, Israel lost the battle. Israel's supporters shamefully flunked at the convention...never before had so many PLO flags been seen waving on so many American TV screens". 
 
I write this not to reminisce, for its own sake, but to recall an important moment in our history and to learn lessons from that period that can guide our work today.  
 
It is important to understand that three factors made this debate possible: the courageous leadership of Rev. Jesse Jackson; the hard work of dedicated African Americans, Arab Americans, and progressive American Jews; and the changes in US perceptions created by the inspiring sacrifices of young Palestinians who were in the midst of their Intifada.
 
1. The importance of building coalitions and mobilizing them in the political arena:
 
Arab Americans had been mobilizing for years in defense of Palestinian rights and had succeeded in building coalitions with progressive Jewish groups and African American civil rights leadership. In 1987 we embarked on an ambitious strategy to turn this coalition into a political vehicle by running our members in state party elections and bringing our issues to a vote in state party conventions. 
 
We targeted 10 states and succeeded in passing pro-Palestinian statehood resolutions in every one of them. Without fail, party leaders and elected officials in each state tried to block these efforts, but they were unable to do so because our simple calls for justice resonated among the grass roots in the party. The momentum we were able to create through this year-long effort helped set the stage for Atlanta. 
 
2. The importance of leadership:
 
It was Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign that empowered our movement and made it possible for our coalition to successfully focus its efforts in the political arena, to win victories in state after state, and then to mobilize in Atlanta. He was consistent in his principled stance in favor of Palestinian rights and he withstood tremendous pressure from party leaders until the end. 
 
Our negotiations with the party over the language of the platform had been difficult. They were unyielding in their opposition to even mentioning the word "Palestinian" in the document. At one point, one party leader said to me "if you persist, you will be responsible for destroying the Democratic Party". I told her to stop "playing 'Chicken Little shouting the sky is falling'". They persisted with threats and brow-beating sessions until the very last day. 
 
While we had the votes to insist on a minority plank, some within our group had become fearful of retribution and were pushing that we drop the whole issue. I insisted that we take the matter to Jackson. He stood firm, saying "we've come this far on principle. We won't back down now". But because some of our elected officials delegates had become weak-kneed and because we knew the party leaders would "whip" hard to further intimidate them, we decided that the debate and the floor demonstration were sufficient. 
 
3. Changed perceptions made debate possible:
 
The first Intifada played a significant role in changing US opinion and inspiring our efforts—from sit-ins in front of the Israeli Embassy (during which some of us were arrested) to the broader effort to bring the issue to the heart of the political process calling for a change in US policy toward the Palestinians. 
 
Because the largely non-violent youth movement was changing US perceptions, we had wind in our sails. We didn't need to introduce people to the Palestinians and the injustices they were facing—they saw it on TV every night. 
 
That was then...
 
            *     *     *
 
...and now:
 
The last 30 years have been difficult ones for supporters of Palestinian rights. The Oslo process created expectations that "peace was at hand" and then, after a few years, dashed these hopes to the ground. Israeli propaganda, helped by US politicians, worked overtime to regain lost ground by blaming the Palestinians for the failure of peace-making efforts. Additionally, the tumultuous events of the past two decades have caused attention to be focused on areas other than Palestine—the war in Iraq, the failed Arab Spring, an emboldened Iran and bloody regional conflicts. Especially those in Syria and Yemen—all have become matters of deep concern. 
 
In spite of all this, the elements of a successful campaign for Palestinian rights are present and, in many ways, stronger than they were 30 years ago. 
 
What comes through clearly in polling on US public opinion is that there is a deep partisan divide on the Israeli/Palestinian issue, with key demographic groups increasingly more supportive of Palestinian rights and antagonistic to hardline Israeli policies. In some ways, the Netanyahu/Trump "marriage" has also helped to fuel the partisan divide. A Pew poll from earlier this year found that support for Palestinians far surpasses support for Israel among self-described "progressive" and "liberal" voters. And a recent Gallup poll shows that only 17% of Democrats now have a favorable view of the Israeli leader. 
 
At the same time, our capacity is greater than ever with stronger and better organized groups in the Arab, Jewish, Black, and student communities ready to act for Palestinian rights. 
 
Should Bernie Sanders run again for president, his leadership will help to empower this coalition, as he did in 2016 when for only the second time in history, we had a debate on Palestinian rights. But even if Bernie chooses not to run, the movement is substantial enough and the changes in the views of Democrats are significant enough to force the issue onto the table—and cause at least one, if not more than one, candidate to see this as an issue worth embracing.   
 
All that is left is a commitment and focused effort to bring our energy and our movement directly into the political arena and to embrace a strategy to move the Palestinian issue forward in 2020. The strategy will not be the same as the one we used in 1988, but the conditions are there to insure that the debate can happen again in 2020. 

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Nov 17th 2019
Extract: "Digital money is already a key battleground in finance, with technology firms, payment processing companies, and banks all vying to become the gateway into the burgeoning platform-based economy. The prizes that await the winners could be huge. In China, Alipay and WeChat Pay already control more than 90% of all mobile payments. And in the last three years, the four largest listed payment firms – Visa, Mastercard, Amex, and PayPal – have increased in value by more than the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google)."
Nov 14th 2019
Extract: "Trump, who understands almost nothing about governing, made a major mistake in attacking career public officials from the outset of his presidency. He underestimated – or just couldn’t fathom – the honor of people who could earn more in the private sector but believe in public service. And he made matters worse for himself as well as for the government by creating a shadow group – headed by the strangely out-of-control Rudy Giuliani, once a much-admired mayor of New York City, and now a freelance troublemaker serving as Trump’s personal attorney – to impose the president’s Ukraine policy over that of “the bureaucrats.” "
Nov 4th 2019
Extract: "Trump displays repeated and persistent behaviours consistent with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These behaviours include craving for adulation, lack of empathy, aggression and vindictiveness towards opponents, addiction to lying, and blatant disregard for rules and conventions, among others." The concern is that leaders with these two disorders may be incapable of putting the interests of the country ahead of their own personal interests. Their compulsive lying may make rational action impossible and their impulsiveness may make them incapable of the forethought and planning necessary to lead the country. They lack empathy and are often motivated by rage and revenge, and could make quick decisions that could have profoundly dangerous consequences for democracy.
Oct 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "......let’s see what happens when we have less money for all the things we want to do as a country and as individuals. Promises and predictions regarding Brexit will soon be tested against reality. When they are, I wouldn’t want to be one of Johnson’s Brexiteers."
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Were Israel to be attacked with the same precision and sophistication as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East would be plunged into war on a scale beyond anything it has experienced so far. Sadly (but happily for Russian President Vladimir Putin), that is the reality of a world in which the US has abandoned any pretense of global leadership."
Oct 20th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe also stands to lose from Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds. If, in the ongoing chaos, the thousands of ISIS prisoners held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces escape – as some already have – America’s estranged European allies will suffer. Yet Trump is unconcerned. “Well, they are going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go,” he remarked casually at a press conference. “They want to go back to their homes." "
Oct 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Assuming the House ultimately votes to impeach Trump, the fact remains that there are far fewer votes in the Senate than will be needed to convict him and remove him from office. But the willingness of Congress – including the Senate – to continue tolerating his dangerous conduct in office, including threats to US national security, is now truly in question."
Oct 7th 2019
EXTRACT: "The problem didn't start with the election of Donald Trump. Nor did it begin with the Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump. This is a developing crisis that has been growing like a cancer within our polity for at least the past 25 years. Its main symptoms are a lack of civility in our political discourse, a "take no prisoners" mindset, and a denial of the very legitimacy of "the other side." Trump didn't create this crisis; he was the result of it.   When Newt Gingrich took the helm of Congress in 1995, unlike previous Republican leaders, he embarked on a campaign not only to obstruct the efforts of then President Clinton, but to destroy him. Congress launched a series of investigations accusing Clinton of everything from corruption to obstruction of justice – with hints of even more nefarious plots to assassinate those who might pose a problem to his presidency.  "
Oct 4th 2019
EXTRACT: "As the story spreads, it grows darker. Meanwhile, Trump is trying to learn the identity of the whistleblower (who is protected by law), which could expose that person to great danger. And he is accusing some people – including Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee – of treason. My sense is that Trump fears the tough, focused Schiff. Trump has ominously noted that traitors used to be shot or hanged. And he hasn’t helped himself with members of either party by declaring, in one of his hundreds of febrile tweets, that forcing him from office could lead to a “civil war.” Trump has taken the United States somewhere it’s never been before. His presidency may not survive it."
Sep 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "But regardless of whether the Ukraine scandal remains front-page news, it will haunt the US intelligence community, which has been Trump’s bête noire since the day he took office. Trump has relentlessly attacked US intelligence agencies, cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and divulged secrets to foreign officials, potentially burning high-value sources. This behavior had already raised serious concerns about whether Trump can be trusted to receive sensitive intelligence at all. Now, intelligence leaders must ask themselves how far they are willing to go in toeing the White House line."
Sep 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "As Lobaczewski pointed out, pathological leaders tend to attract other people with psychological disorders. At the same time, empathetic and fair-minded people gradually fall away. They are either ostracised or step aside voluntarily, appalled by the growing pathology around them.......As a result, over time pathocracies become more entrenched and extreme. You can see this process in the Nazi takeover of the German government in the 1930s, when Germany moved from democracy to pathocracy in less than two years.......In the US, there has clearly been a movement towards pathocracy under Trump. As Lobaczewski’s theory predicts, the old guard of more moderate White House officials – the “adults in the room” – has fallen away. The president is now surrounded by individuals who share his authoritarian tendencies and lack of empathy and morality. Fortunately, to some extent, the democratic institutions of the US have managed to provide some push back."
Sep 16th 2019
EXTRACT: "If the Supreme Court does agree with the Divisional Court that the question is political rather than legal, it will take the UK constitution into quite peculiar territory. Prime ministers will be the new kings and queens. They will be free to suspend parliament at will, and for as long as they wish, without any judicial interference. Parliament will meet not out of constitutional necessity but in the service of the government’s interests – namely, to pass its legislation and to maintain appearances, rather than to hold it to account."
Sep 12th 2019
Extract: "The Republican Party has lashed its fate to an increasingly unhinged leader. Though three other presidential hopefuls for 2020 now stand in Trump’s way, none can defeat him. But they can damage his reelection effort, which is why the Republican Party has been scrapping some primaries and caucuses. How well Trump does in November next year may well depend on how his fragile ego withstands the coming months."
Sep 2nd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Most people think of revolutions as sudden earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that come without warning and sweep away an entire political system. But historians, political scientists, and even the odd politician know that the reality is very different: revolutions happen when systems hollow themselves out, or simply rot from within. Revolutionaries can then brush aside established norms of behavior, or even of truth, as trivialities that should not impede the popular will............ Only time will tell whether we are currently witnessing the hollowing out of British democracy. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well have crossed some invisible Rubicon by.......... Whatever happens now, British parliamentary democracy may never be the same again. It will certainly never again be the model that so many people around the world once admired."
Aug 29th 2019
EXTRACT: "Events such as prorogations and dissolutions happen when countries face difficult times. Therefore, because of the disastrous effects of Brexit: sterling in freefall; a recession looming on the horizon and Britain’s international standing at its lowest ebb since Suez, it is no surprise that the country is in this position now. The worrying thing is that using the monarchical power of prorogation does not solve problems – it has a history of turning them into frightening and often violent crises. There is a worrying relationship between the use of such powers and a complete breakdown in government."
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: "Reminiscent of Don Quixote, Trump is tilting at windmills. His administration is flailing at antiquated perceptions of the Old China that only compound the problems it claims to be addressing. Financial markets are starting to get a sense that something is awry. So, too, is the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the global economy is fraying at the edges. The US has never been an oasis in such treacherous periods. I doubt if this time is any different. 
Aug 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "In fact, with firms in the US, Europe, China, and other parts of Asia having reined in capital expenditures, the global tech, manufacturing, and industrial sector is already in a recession. The only reason why that hasn’t yet translated into a global slump is that private consumption has remained strong. Should the price of imported goods rise further as a result of any of these negative supply shocks, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable household income growth would take a hit, as would consumer confidence, likely tipping the global economy into a recession."
Aug 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Climate change is real, and it is a problem. According to the IPCC, the overall impact of global warming by the 2070s will be equivalent to a 0.2-2% loss in average income. That’s not the end of the world, but the same as a single economic recession, in a world that is much better off than today.  The risk is that outsized fear will take us down the wrong path in tackling global warming. Concerned activists want the world to abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible. But it will mean slowing the growth that has lifted billions out of poverty and transformed the planet. That has a very real cost. "
Aug 20th 2019
EXTRACTS: "It is no exaggeration to say that Johnson has lied his way to the top, first in journalism and then in politics. His ascent owes everything to the growing xenophobia and English nationalism that many Conservatives now espouse................Johnson has chosen a government of like-minded anti-European nationalists. His principal adviser, Dominic Cummings, was described by David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister from 2010 to 2016, as a “career psychopath.” Cummings is, alongside Johnson, the most powerful figure in the new government; he is an unelected wrecker who earlier this year was ruled to be in contempt of parliament. Fittingly, if depressingly, he now is masterminding our departure from the EU with or without parliamentary approval."
Aug 19th 2019
EXTRACTS: "Back in May, a jury found Patrick Syring, a former State Department official, guilty of 14 counts of making threats against my life and my staff at the Arab American Institute. This week, a federal judge sentenced Syring to five years in prison to be followed by three years of court-ordered probation.................It gives me no pleasure to see this man going to jail for a long period, but it does provide us all with a sense of enormous relief. I've been threatened before. My wife, my children, and I have received death threats for the past 50 years – owing to my advocacy for Palestinian rights and the rights of the Arab American community. My office was fire-bombed and an Arab American colleague, whom I hired, was murdered. Two individuals who, in the past, made death threats against me and my children were convicted and sentenced to prison terms. But this case was different."