By Nadia Hijab
I want to talk about the messages from the Arab revolutions, how we can stay mobilized as a movement, and the opening for new relations between Jews and Arabs.
I know we’ve all been transfixed by the Arab revolutions, and I want to highlight a couple of messages beyond what they mean for our Israel-Palestine work.
The Arab revolutions are about the people of each country putting their house in order. They’re not being isolationist – look at how the Tunisians, with their own revolution still underway, rushed to help the Libyans. But if peoples do not put their own house in order, they can’t play a positive role outside their borders. And their governments find it easier to hijack their foreign policy.
Another powerful message the Arab revolutions are sending is that democracy is not just about elections every few years It’s also about making the links between political, economic and social rights – between bread, dignity, and freedom.
These messages from the Arab world – which is where I grew up and where I still feel I belong – tell me how incomplete democracy is in America. And one of the reasons it is incomplete is because the link between economic, political, and social rights keeps getting broken.
When people are struggling to survive the repeated disastrous recessions that sweep away their homes, jobs, services, and labor rights, how can they question the crimes their country is committing abroad? And how can they challenge the government they have at home, and the way it’s bailing out the banks of the rich with the tax money of the poor?
America needs to put its own house in order. We need an America that doesn’t just preach democracy abroad but practices it at home. We need an America that doesn’t project moral superiority and see itself as the world’s policeman in control of other countries’ strategic resources – but an America that deals with other countries as equals.
So the challenge for our movement is not just how we can mobilize to change American policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also how we can change America. How do we do that? By laying a firm foundation on which we can build lasting structures for freedom, justice and equality.
The firmest foundation we could ever have is the one provided by the framework of human rights and international law. The problem is that very few people are familiar with these concepts, even though they’re not complex. I’m not a lawyer but because I’m passionate about human rights I’ve learned about some of the international laws dealing with the rights of women, with civil and political rights, and with economic, social and cultural rights.
The core concept that underpins human rights is very simple – human dignity. On yesterday’s plenary panel, Sara Roy said she’s been hearing that word – dignity – ever since she started working on Palestine. And you’ll hear that word used by the poor and excluded all over the world. That’s why principles of human rights are actually very easy to grasp: they’re universal values. And they’re not just a nice sounding set of principles – they’ve been translated into law and we can demand that governments apply those laws that they have signed on to.
It’s vital for any movement that wants to achieve lasting peace and justice – that doesn’t want to keep re-inventing the wheel – to invest just a little time in educating people about this international legal framework and its meaning for their lives. It doesn’t mean diluting or complicating our work – it just mean introducing a little extra education piece in our outreach. And I was very happy to see that JVP is setting out human rights goals in the TIAA-CREF campaign, eg the April campaign is about the right to education.
It’s difficult for governments to completely ignore the law forever. We’re in a strong moral position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict because we want US politicians to just apply US law. For example, when Israel uses arms the US supplies outside its borders, it’s breaking US law. And when US-based charities are funding militias that kick Palestinians off their land, that breaks the law. These are powerful arguments that, when we persevere and when we grow our numbers, we can really hit home.
Our success depends on growing our numbers, not just by allying with other activists for a just peace in the Middle East, but also by allying with groups working for justice at home – for immigrant rights, fair housing, prison reform, jobs, and the right to unionize. And by making the links between our foreign and domestic policies. Such alliances will face our political leaders with a powerful force for change.
And, speaking of alliances, I’m so happy that we’re at a place today where it’s possible to nurture and proclaim alliances between Arabs and Jews. I really wanted to come to your member meeting because I’m so motivated by the work JVP does. I grew up as a Palestinian in exile in Lebanon. I didn’t know any Jews because the creation of Israel pushed most Arab Jews out of most Arab countries.
When I went to live and work as a journalist in London, I had no desire to meet Jews – most Arabs only see Jews through the prism of what Israel is doing to the Palestinians. The fact that Israel projects itself as a Jewish state does enormous harm to the Jewish people, and that’s why I’m so glad that JVP exists to challenge that perception.
Here in the US, I got to know and work with some Jews – it’s very hard not to when you live in NY City! The Jews I first interacted with were liberal Zionists. They were very brave and there was a lot to admire, but it seemed to me that when it came to a question of Israel’s “security” vs. human rights – well, Israel trumped.
You can’t change people’s minds for them – everyone has to travel their own road. And I discovered other Jews, people who believed in justice and equality, in human rights for all human beings irrespective of who they are and where they come from. And I became close friends and a fellow human rights activist with people like Phyllis Bennis, and Josh [Ruebner] and Amie [Fishman] and soon after with Rebecca [Vilkomerson], Sydney [Levy], Cecilie [Surasky], and Lynn [Pollack] and so many others in the growing world of JVP.
As Ali Abunimah said yesterday we have a lot to thank Israel for! The sheer unremitting brutality of successive Israeli governments, the relentless greed that makes it impossible for Israel to do a deal with even the Palestinian leaders most willing to make concessions – these actions have made it impossible for a fast-growing number of people around the world, including Jews, to continue to support Israel and has pushed resistance through effective non-violent means like BDS.
What’s more, Israel is now beginning to treat Jewish human rights activists – Israeli, European, and American – with the same ferocity it previously reserved for Palestinians. This has really sharpened the divide between those who stand on the side of freedom, justice and equality and those who don’t. And it’s made it possible to strengthen strategic alliances between Arabs and Jews, and to define a different future in the Middle East where all people are equal in rights whether in one state or two.
Our role here in the US is to change US policy towards the Middle East while changing America at home. But at the same time, by nurturing our own alliances grounded in the firm foundation of human rights and international law, we can show the world that a different future is possible in Palestine/Israel.
Nadia Hijab gave this speech on Sunday at the Jewish Voice for Peace meeting in Philadelphia.