On Sunday, October 25th, representatives of over three dozen Arab American and American Jewish community organizations met in Washington to make clear their shared commitment to a comprehensive Middle East peace. Hosted by J Street, which calls itself the US’s “pro-peace, pro-Israel lobby” and the Arab American Institute, “the research and policy arm of the Arab American community”, the event was joined by Tina Tchen, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.
The message that the leaders and activists who gathered hoped to send, via this summit, was that despite their different starting points, both agree on the goal of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are supportive of President Obama’s peace making efforts, to date.
This is not the first time Arab Americans and American Jews have joined forces.
I personally will never forget how after the September 1993 Rabin-Arafat signing ceremony on the White House lawn, President Clinton and Vice-President Gore brought together the leaders of both communities urging them to support peacemaking. Despite the euphoria of the moment, a joint effort was difficult for some, requiring, as it did, a break with long-established patterns of behavior.
Organizations in both communities knew how to oppose each other, but learning how to work together was new. However, as we were to discover, if peacemaking was our goal, then learn we must–”for peace to succeed, there has to be a constituency that supports peace.
For his part, Vice-President Gore launched Builders for Peace, a private sector initiative that brought together 150 Arab American and American Jewish business leaders who were given the challenge to work together in an effort to grow the Palestinian economy in support of peace. As Gore would often say, while economic progress was no substitute for peace, without improvement in the daily lives of people, it would be impossible to sustain the work of peace.
To lead the effort, Gore asked former Congressman Mel Levine and myself to serve as Co-chairs. In some ways we were an odd-couple, since before that time, we had only come together when we clashed during my testimony before his Congressional committee or when we appeared opposite one another, on Crossfire-style TV shows, debating U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But as Mel would note, while he and I might not have agreed on the past, we did agree on where we needed to go in the future. And that was sufficient to build our effort and our working relationship.
Because of a myriad of problems, ranging from Israeli-imposed impediments to economic development and Palestinian problems with corruption, Builders for Peace didn’t succeed as we had hoped. But what did work was the experience of joint Arab American and American Jewish cooperation. Friendships were developed, that have stood the test of time.
The intervening 16 years have not been kind to peacemaking. Thousands have died. Terrorism and repression have taken a bloody toll. Settlements and new barriers to peace have been erected and Israeli and Palestinian attitudes have been hardened. Extremists on both sides have gained ground, while the hopes of many for peace have been dashed.
What hasn’t changed, however, is the imperative for peace and the commitment of many to make it real. No doubt, the conditions today are more difficult than they were 16 years ago. But, we have a new U.S. President who appears committed, despite the overwhelming odds, to unravel this knot and find a way forward. He has noted that he is mindful of the fact that advancing toward peace “is important to Arab Americans, important to American Jews and important to me” and has added that it is “important to the national security interests of the U.S.”.
While the prospects for peace, in fact, appear dim, the Arab American and American Jewish leaders who gathered in Washington agreed that it is worth the effort. We are both cognizant of the reality that our commitment to joint action in support of the President and peacemaking is not shared by all in our communities. Given the prevailing mood, there are some on both sides who look with suspicion on such cooperation. Some of us have been called “traitors” or “sell-outs”, but such rhetoric misses the point.
Those of us who come together, in fact, remain faithful to the different historical narratives told by our respective communities. But we are not willing to let the story end there. We know that a way forward must be found, in order to reconcile these competing histories and to replace the current reign of terror and oppression with peace and justice. We are unwilling to be condemned by the scourge of the past, but seek a way to create a better future. And we know that in the end, our two communities, the people of the Middle East and our country will be better served by peace, than by the continuing conflict.
That is why we came together, and why we will remain together, until, God willing, there is a just and lasting peace.