The Struggle for Palestinian Rights: Then and Now

Jerusalem Israel Palestine Dome of The Rock Golden Dome

Forty years ago this month I left a tenured teaching position and moved to Washington, DC to run the Palestine Human Rights Campaign (PHRC). It wasn’t easy doing Palestine work back then, and Washington was an especially inhospitable city in which to pursue my new vocation.

Advocating for Palestinian rights can still be difficult, but so much has changed in the past four decades that I thought it might be useful to reflect on where we were in the 1970’s and where we are today.

Back then, major pro-Israel and establishment American Jewish organizations threw their full weight behind the effort to marginalize our work. They denounced and defamed us as supporters of terrorism—a disgraceful effort to silence and isolate us because we defended Palestinian rights—including the right to self-determination. The language they used was so harsh and the charges they leveled against us were so inflammatory that they took a toll. We received death threats, hate mail, culminating in violent attacks and even murder.

Their campaign to make “Palestine” taboo also negatively impacted our ability to build alliances. A few hardy Members of Congress supported our defense of Palestinian victims—of torture, Administrative Detention, collective punishment, or illegal expulsion from their homeland. Most Members, however, even those with stellar human rights records, begged off by citing their fear that if they were to defend Palestinians it might damage their political careers.

At one point, we even stopped testifying before Congressional committees since they proved to be largely frustrating and unproductive affairs. Instead of being allowed to make our case, our appearances only provided pro-Israel Members of Congress with the opportunity to badger and insult us with patently false scripted attacks (“Isn’t it true that you are supporting terrorists?” and other such nonsense).

Even progressive foreign policy groups were intimidated. On two occasions we were disinvited from membership in a major left-leaning foreign policy coalition despite having won admission with an overwhelmingly favorable vote. The reasons given for asking us to withdraw were that a few Jewish groups threatened to leave the coalition if were to join, creating the concern that the coalition might lose support from liberal Members of Congress and financial assistance from liberal donors.

It wasn’t all gloom and doom. Despite struggling against great odds, we did win some support for our work. A few principled Christian denominations provided assistance, as did most of the civil rights leaders who had been in Dr. Martin Luther King’s circle. Major peace activists noted for their leadership in the anti-Vietnam war movement also participated in our campaigns and programs. Strengthened by this support, we weathered storms and continued to grow.

Several developments occurring between the late 1970’s and the early 1990’s contributed to improving our ability to advocate on behalf of Palestinian rights. The first of these were the public releases of two detailed indictments of Israeli torture—the Washington Post’s publication of the US Jerusalem Consulate cables that documented Israel’s systematic use of torture as a way of forcing prisoners to confess to crimes they did not commit, and the London Times’ exhaustive study of Israeli torture of Palestinian prisoners. In the wake of these shockingly disturbing reports, it became difficult for some human rights leaders to remain silent.

In 1979, there was the “Andrew Young Affair” in which it was revealed that Young, then the US Ambassador to the UN, had met with the PLO’s UN representative. In doing so he had broken the taboo that prohibited US officials from having any contact with the PLO. Young lost his job, but African Americans were outraged, leading many respected civil rights leaders to trek to Beirut to meet directly with Yasir Arafat in a direct challenge to the lunacy of the “no talk policy”. On their return, these same leaders joined our PHRC.

During the 1980’s, many Americans were horrified by Israel’s especially brutal and senseless bombardment of and occupation of Beirut, and the excessively cruel and violent tactics Israel used to squash the first Intifada—in which stone-throwing Palestinian youths confronted heavily armed Israeli occupation forces. They were shocked by the scenes they saw and reports they read and became more sympathetic to Palestinians and came to support our work.

Two other events, during this period also served to catapult the Palestinian cause to a front and center position in American consciousness and politics. The 1988 Jesse Jackson presidential campaign mobilized Arab Americans, progressive Jews, African Americans, and peace activists in support of Palestinian rights and “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Building on Jackson’s leadership and the growing awareness of the plight of the Palestinians, we were able to pass pro-Palestinian planks in 10 state Democratic Party platforms and have the first-ever floor demonstration and debate on Palestinian rights at the Democratic National Convention.

The Oslo Accords of 1993 contributed to significantly altering the US landscape changing the situation from Jews versus Arabs to those who supported a just peace versus those who did not. Despite Oslo’s weaknesses, it opened the door to a discussion on Palestinian rights and gave legitimacy to pro-Palestinian advocates who had been long been shunned for their work.

It was these developments from this earlier period that helped shape the political environment in which we are now operating. But it didn’t end there. Contributing to even greater change are several new factors that must be considered. First and foremost is the growing demographic and partisan divide over Israeli behavior toward Palestinians. Millennials, African Americans and other “minority” communities have been shocked by the crude and heavy-handed policies of an increasingly hardline and overtly racist Israeli government. Further exacerbating the divide is the way Israel and Trump (and his conservative and right-wing Christian allies) appear to be locked in an embrace. This right-wing pairing has been matched by the alliance that has brought together the growing movement of young progressive Jews, Arab Americans, and African Americans. This latter coalition found expression first in the Bernie Sanders campaign and now in several other political campaigns and pro-Palestinian initiatives on college campuses and even a few notable efforts in Congress.

In several significant ways the Palestinian reality, whether under occupation or in exile has worsened in recent years, taking a horrific toll on both Palestinian lives and aspirations. While US politicians may now feel comfortable mouthing support for a “two-state solution”, it is difficult to imagine how such a solution can be implemented. It is even more unlikely that some of the same elected officials who say they support two states would consider taking the tough positions to force Israel to end the occupation in order to allow a viable Palestinian state to come into being. Their profession of support for two states, therefore, appears to be hollow and designed more to side-step their responsibility to address Israel’s abuse of Palestinian human rights and justice.

Nevertheless, I remain more optimistic than I was forty years ago. The developments that have occurred have had a profound impact. The situation may be more difficult, but the movement for Palestinian rights is stronger, larger, more diverse, and more deeply committed to justice. There is new energy and new hope that we are turning a corner in our ability to secure justice for Palestinians.