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 1970s and where we are today.
Back then, major pro-Israel and establishment American Jewish organisations threw their full weight behind the effort to marginalise our work. They denounced and defamed us as supporters of terrorism. The language they used was so harsh and the charges they levelled 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 defence of Palestinian victims – of torture, administrative detention, collective punishment, or illegal expulsion from their homeland. Most members, however, begged off by citing their fear that if they were to defend Palestinians it might damage their political careers.
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 took part in our campaigns and programmes.
Several developments occurring between the late 1970s and the early 1990s 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 the PLO’s UN representative. This broke 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 directly meet Yasir Arafat in a direct challenge to the lunacy of the “no talk policy”. On their return, these same leaders joined PHRC.
Two other events, during this period also served to catapult the Palestinian cause to a front and centre position in American consciousness and politics. The 1988 Jesse Jackson presidential campaign mobilised Arab Americans, progressive Jews, African Americans and peace activists in support of Palestinian rights and “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And 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.
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.
Nevertheless, I remain more optimistic than I was 40 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, more diverse and deeply committed to justice. There is new energy and hope that we are turning a corner in our ability to secure justice for Palestinians.