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Jewish-Muslim engagement on domestic issues isn’t enough

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs has adapted a resolution that, at first glance, warms the heart, according to the Forward. It proclaims:

“Jewish and Muslim Americans…should work in coalition to advance our common commitment to civil liberties, the struggle against all forms of terrorism, racism, anti-Semitism (and) anti-Muslim prejudice,” the resolution declared. It also strongly denounces anti-Muslim bias and harassment.”

Working together with Muslims is a wonderful idea. So is focusing on our common concerns as American citizens. But the article also notes:

Jewish activists currently involved in dialogue with Muslim groups agree that talks should focus on issues with potential for common ground — not on the Israeli-Arab conflict, which is viewed as a non-starter for interfaith discussion.

The Forward doesn’t explicitly state that the JCPA is advising its constituents to skirt the conflict, but that seems likely, and understandable. I’ve participated in several “dialogue groups” with Arab Americans. As soon as the topic of Israel comes up, passions become heated and the familiar Clash of the Narratives begins. It requires a very good facilitator to help people in both groups feel that ongoing dialogue, let alone working together, will accomplish anything. Good facilitators are hard to find. But even if this recent, laudable initiative has concrete success, there will still be a yawning gap that somehow must be filled.

What is missing from the Forward piece and the JCPA resolution is a little-known, vitally important fact: most Jews, Muslims and Arab Christians in the U.S. agree on the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on the need for energetic American diplomacy. According to a 2007 poll co-sponsored by the Arab American Institute and Americans for Peace Now, majorities of Arab and Jewish Americans wanted the U.S. government to press harder for a two-state solution. 65 percent of American Jews and 89 percent of Arab Americans believed it was “important” for Israel to end its occupation. 70% of the Jews and 82% of the Arabs supported the Arab League peace iniitiative.

Now, of course we need to take this with grains of salt. Sentiments may well be different now, as the poll was taken before the violent Hamas/Fatah split and the Israeli operation in Gaza. The pollsters didn’t drill down deep and explore opinions about the Palestinian right of return and other controversial matters. Also, the poll doesn’t provide insights into the large community of Muslim Americans who are not Arab (for that matter, more than half of Arab Americans are Christian, which makes this topic very difficult to write about). Nevertheless, there is clearly a wide swath of American Jews, Muslims and Arab Christians who share very similar political goals.

The peoples of the region need us to act on those goals. They need us to send the same messages to the Obama Administration, in order to give it political cover to engage in diplomacy that leans on both sides of the conflict, not just one side. Something along those lines has begun to happen in DC, where like-minded groups have begun to coalesce into a political coalition, e.g., the Arab American Institute, American Task Force on Palestine, Americans for Peace Now and its Jewish allies, and Churches for Middle East Peace. But we have a long way to go before different faith groups develop the kind of powerful political muscle that is necessary to counteract the conventional Israel lobby.

That is a daunting task. In my forthcoming book, (order now, please!), I devote a whole chapter to analyzing the obstacles to and possibilities for a truly effective, multi-ethnic alliance. It is called “The Shared Emergency.” I don’t sugarcoat the difficulties or the Clash of Narratives. But, I assert,

what is needed is a collective, willing suspension of disbelief about the impossibility of accomplishing something together, a process described by Hussein Ibish, a former Senior Fellow at the ATFP:

“Jewish and Arab Americans who are serious about peace…need to develop, insofar as possible, functional working relationships. I do not mean here simply Jewish and pro-Israel groups that oppose the occupation on moral grounds, but those that wish to end it for practical and selfish reasons as well. We are never going to convince each other to abandon the narratives that inform our support for Israel and Palestine respectively. But since, for different reasons, Israelis and Palestinians finally find themselves needing the same thing – an end to the conflict based on an end to the occupation – Arab and Jewish Americans ought and need to be able to build a working alliance to support that aim…”

The JCPA should not be expected to accomplish that. The organization, made up of local community relations councils and some national groups, requires consensus to do anything. It would be difficult to write guidelines for dialogue on the Arab-Israeli conflict that would work for all manner of American Jews. Nor could I find any viable candidates in the present array of Arab- and Muslim-American groups.

So, who will fill the vacuum? Tough question. Perhaps it is a naive question. Perhaps there is no answer. But I hope more people start asking it.


6 thoughts on “Jewish-Muslim engagement on domestic issues isn’t enough

  1. There are places to start.

    One advantage of the US is that it is a mutually safe place, where people can dialog without objective threat (beyond what they bring to the discussion themselves).

    Given my moderately contentious experience tonight in Amherst, I’m not sure if many activists will willingly and coolly ask themselves the questions that result in peaceful approaches.

    I saw two videos tonight on you-tube of individuals that periodically seem sober and prospective peace proponents that suggested to me that it is unlikely: Mustafa Barghouti and Rashid Khalidi.

    I’ve seen both of them on national media speak very soberly and considerately of the other.

    Tonight I saw each of them speaking to activist audiences, in which their anger was expressed prominently, ideologically, and in a way that ignored that Israelis actually had a current and historical experience.

    It disappointed me.

    It constructed a comment that I’ve heard Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky state, “Is there any other opinion possible?”

    At the Amherst, MA pro-peace demonstration I attended today, I experienced the same structured contentiousness from the counter-demonstration.

  2. Well, Dan, you’ve always been an irrational optimist so this is just another addition to the roster. And Richard, I share your pessimism about activists.

    What is never mentioned when talk turns to politics and coalition-building is that most people need to earn a living and don’t have time for politics and coalition-building. It’s scary out there, and if you have a job, you don’t want to mess it up by putting in a lot of hours trying to save world. So I don’t think the political establishment ever hears from most of the ordinary, hard-working Jews and Arabs who answered that poll. They’re too busy feeding their familes. That leaves the field open to college students and the tiny minority of people who care enough to be politically active. And the activists tend to be more extreme.

  3. Richard-
    Could you tell us what happened in Amherst? Who was in the “counter-demonstration”?

    Also, regarding Barghouti and Khalidi, are you saying that whereas in the national media, when exposed to the outside world, they would be like, say, an Israeli taking a MERETZ line, and then, when speaking to a domestic Palestinian audience they end up speaking like an Israeli hard-line “Right-winger”? In other words, there is a basic inconsistency in their positions expressed to the two different audiences?

    I recall that Nasser would grant interviews with Western reporters before the Six-Day War and talk about peace with Israel and how the “Middle East would flourish with the cooperation of both Israel and the Arab states”, and then a short time later, in front of a domestic, Egyptian audience, he would pour fire and brimstone against Israel saying they would be expelled just as the Crusaders were. When his spokesmen were asked about this, the answer would be “you know, Egyptians are very anti-Israel, he has to make these statements for internal reasons, but his true position is what he told you”. In other words, he lies to his own people, but he tells the truth to foreign visitors who are going back home in a few days.

    A similar case is that of Emir Feisal, who was the Arab head of the revolt against the Ottoman Turks during World War I headed by T E Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”). Lawrence points out in his book that he would express support for the Turks while at the same time talkng with the British about the Revolt. Was he being clever, or was he playing both sides to see who would give him the best deal? He later met with Chaim Weizmann and claimed he supported Zionist activity in Palestine. He later renounced this. What was his “true” position? What he told Weizmann or what he told his own people?

  4. Sorry, Richard, I didn’t see you comment on the previous thread about Amherst. I would like to know, though, what position that those who advocate divestment express…i.e. the world should get tougher with Israel to force it out of Judea/Samaria, or is it that Israel is essentially illegitimate?

  5. Yitzhak,
    Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness played the same game in N. Ireland throughout the 1990s and early 21st century. In essence they were lying to both sides because they had no idea what the final result would be. They told the IRA rank-and-file that they would never agree to the IRA having to disarm and that a united Ireland would be achieved by 2016. At the same time they told the British gov’t and the unionists that they were doing all they could to achieve disarmament and that it just couldn’t be achieved at this time. By putting pressure on Sinn Fein over years disarmament was finally achieved in 2005–over five years after it was supposed to occur. It probably could have been achieved much earlier if the Br gov’t had been willing to run risks and directly tie release of IRA (and loyalist) prisoners to disarmament. But Blair and the gov’t was afraid that the IRA might resume attacks on the Br mainland if he did this. But the unionists by implementing their own sanctions against Sinn Fein forced the issue. They prohibited Sinn Fein from participating in North-South Council meetings with Irish officials. They resigned from the power sharing executive several times and finally they just pulled the plug on the executive after a Sinn Fein spy ring was found at Stormont.

    Israel is in the position to slow the implementation of any agreement with the PA. But this is more credibly done by those who aren’t opposed to the idea of a Palestinian state from the beginning.

    I think that Arafat was basically playing the same game as Adams and McGuinness from 1993 to 1997. He was both cracking down on Hamas and IJ at times, while releasing their terrorists from prison and continuing incitement through the media and education system. The difference was that Sinn Fein was convinced that armed struggle was a sucker’s game in the long term that only precluded any political gains by the Irish minority. The Pals have yet to be convinced of this. Plus, although the leadership of the IRA was corrupt, the leadership of Sinn Fein wasn’t. Israel was dealing with a pol leadership that was corrupt and that didn’t control the main terrorist threat to it. The PLO is being swept into the dustbin of history as a result.

  6. ” the world should get tougher with Israel to force it out of Judea/Samaria, or is it that Israel is essentially illegitimate?”

    That is the hundred-thousand dollar question on dissent. Its not clear what the dissenters mean when they say “end the occupation”.

    There clearly were some individuals that ranted at the pro-Israel/pro-peace demonstration for hours, very angrily. I’m not sure what the point of that is. Sober presentation to convince rather than rant, is so much more effective even at changing nuances of understanding.

    Barghouti’s and Khalidi’s presentations are on you-tube. You can see them yourself easily. They vary. Khalidi was on the Rose talk show a year or so ago, and was very civil, respectful. Similarly for Barghouti. In many settings he is a very appealing man who has committed to non-violent means of dissent. (I don’t know Khalidi’s sentiments on violence.)

    After Gaza, they both were fuming. They obviously regarded the Israeli assault on Gaza as cruel, and in a one abuse after another assessment. (Military assault following blockade with no acknoweledgement of the Hamas’ commitment to maintain the cease-fire during it (at least as far as rocket fire). The reported argument between Haniyeh and Meshal sited in Haaretz, stated that Haniyeh was angry at Meshal for encouraging the shelling at a time when Gaza Hamas was not prepared militarily or economically for an Israeli invasion. That indicated the possibility that Gaza Hamas did actually think of the cease-fire as automatically extending, indicating a relaxation of their active violence.

    They didn’t make the bridge though. They just left the chasm stand.

    Likud in power with its agenda continues the death dance. Hamas in power with its agenda continues the death dance.

    Y Ben David,
    You know I consider it a violation of Torah to extend the settlements by affirmations of title by decree for the benefit of a single population. Its functional theft.

    Torah does establish title on the basis of residence, not only purchase or conquest. Those that claim to settle based on Torah commandments rationalizing expulsion of Palestinian residents and forced taking of land, are falsifying Torah for their own greed, a very grevious sin.

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