by James J. Zogby
Thirty years ago, I mounted the podium of the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, Georgia to open the first ever political party debate on Palestinian rights. Looking out over the convention hall at our 1,500 delegate-supporters wearing “Palestine Lives” T-shirts and carrying “Statehood Now” placards, I was overcome with emotion.
I recalled earlier Democratic convention floor demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, in defense of farmworkers’ rights, and in opposition to South African Apartheid and had always dreamed that one day there might be a similar manifestation of support for Palestinians. And there it was, right then, happening before my eyes.
I began my remarks from the podium by noting:
“We’re making history today. Today the issue of Palestinian rights is being debated by our party. We’ve won a victory…The deadly silence that has for so long submerged the issue of Palestinian rights has been shattered. The question of Palestine has, up till now, been the least talked about, but most thought about issue in the Party. Today, the silence has ended.”
I went on to criticize the existing Party platform language for its refusal to speak about Palestinians – ignoring “their right to freedom, to independence, and to statehood”. Our minority plank corrected this disgraceful omission by speaking about the Palestinians as a people and so I addressed their concerns “with occupation and with exile, the violations of their basic human rights, the killings and the beatings and the agonizing expulsions—the daily humiliation of being a people without a state, without a home of their own”.
I concluded by recognizing that “there are those who seek to silence this debate, to pretend that it isn’t happening. But pressure and intimidation work only in the short run. They may cause fear among some, but they do not win friends in the end”.
Polls had shown that if a secret ballot had been taken, 70% of the delegates would have supported us. But given the politics of intimidation and fear, we, in the Jackson campaign, knew that the debate and “ending the deadly silence” had been victory enough and so we decided not to call for a vote.
In the next day’s press coverage, one prominent pro-Israel Democrat was quoted as saying,
“I’m scared. Nothing like this has ever happened before…[We] went all out to keep this issue from being debated on the floor and we were unable to stop it”.
The Israeli newspaper Maariv went further:
“Some see the events in Atlanta as a victory for Israel and its friends. This is certainly not the case…once an Arab lobby representative took the floor, even if for a mere 10 minutes, Israel lost the battle. Israel’s supporters shamefully flunked at the convention…never before had so many PLO flags been seen waving on so many American TV screens”.
I write this not to reminisce, for its own sake, but to recall an important moment in our history and to learn lessons from that period that can guide our work today.
It is important to understand that three factors made this debate possible: the courageous leadership of Rev. Jesse Jackson; the hard work of dedicated African Americans, Arab Americans, and progressive American Jews; and the changes in US perceptions created by the inspiring sacrifices of young Palestinians who were in the midst of their Intifada.
1. The importance of building coalitions and mobilizing them in the political arena:
Arab Americans had been mobilizing for years in defense of Palestinian rights and had succeeded in building coalitions with progressive Jewish groups and African American civil rights leadership. In 1987 we embarked on an ambitious strategy to turn this coalition into a political vehicle by running our members in state party elections and bringing our issues to a vote in state party conventions.
We targeted 10 states and succeeded in passing pro-Palestinian statehood resolutions in every one of them. Without fail, party leaders and elected officials in each state tried to block these efforts, but they were unable to do so because our simple calls for justice resonated among the grass roots in the party. The momentum we were able to create through this year-long effort helped set the stage for Atlanta.
2. The importance of leadership:
It was Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign that empowered our movement and made it possible for our coalition to successfully focus its efforts in the political arena, to win victories in state after state, and then to mobilize in Atlanta. He was consistent in his principled stance in favor of Palestinian rights and he withstood tremendous pressure from party leaders until the end.
Our negotiations with the party over the language of the platform had been difficult. They were unyielding in their opposition to even mentioning the word “Palestinian” in the document. At one point, one party leader said to me “if you persist, you will be responsible for destroying the Democratic Party”. I told her to stop “playing ‘Chicken Little shouting the sky is falling'”. They persisted with threats and brow-beating sessions until the very last day.
While we had the votes to insist on a minority plank, some within our group had become fearful of retribution and were pushing that we drop the whole issue. I insisted that we take the matter to Jackson. He stood firm, saying “we’ve come this far on principle. We won’t back down now”. But because some of our elected officials delegates had become weak-kneed and because we knew the party leaders would “whip” hard to further intimidate them, we decided that the debate and the floor demonstration were sufficient.
3. Changed perceptions made debate possible:
The first Intifada played a significant role in changing US opinion and inspiring our efforts—from sit-ins in front of the Israeli Embassy (during which some of us were arrested) to the broader effort to bring the issue to the heart of the political process calling for a change in US policy toward the Palestinians.
Because the largely non-violent youth movement was changing US perceptions, we had wind in our sails. We didn’t need to introduce people to the Palestinians and the injustices they were facing—they saw it on TV every night.
That was then…
* * *
The last 30 years have been difficult ones for supporters of Palestinian rights. The Oslo process created expectations that “peace was at hand” and then, after a few years, dashed these hopes to the ground. Israeli propaganda, helped by US politicians, worked overtime to regain lost ground by blaming the Palestinians for the failure of peace-making efforts. Additionally, the tumultuous events of the past two decades have caused attention to be focused on areas other than Palestine—the war in Iraq, the failed Arab Spring, an emboldened Iran and bloody regional conflicts. Especially those in Syria and Yemen—all have become matters of deep concern.
In spite of all this, the elements of a successful campaign for Palestinian rights are present and, in many ways, stronger than they were 30 years ago.
What comes through clearly in polling on US public opinion is that there is a deep partisan divide on the Israeli/Palestinian issue, with key demographic groups increasingly more supportive of Palestinian rights and antagonistic to hardline Israeli policies. In some ways, the Netanyahu/Trump “marriage” has also helped to fuel the partisan divide. A Pew poll from earlier this year found that support for Palestinians far surpasses support for Israel among self-described “progressive” and “liberal” voters. And a recent Gallup poll shows that only 17% of Democrats now have a favorable view of the Israeli leader.
At the same time, our capacity is greater than ever with stronger and better organized groups in the Arab, Jewish, Black, and student communities ready to act for Palestinian rights.
Should Bernie Sanders run again for president, his leadership will help to empower this coalition, as he did in 2016 when for only the second time in history, we had a debate on Palestinian rights. But even if Bernie chooses not to run, the movement is substantial enough and the changes in the views of Democrats are significant enough to force the issue onto the table—and cause at least one, if not more than one, candidate to see this as an issue worth embracing.
All that is left is a commitment and focused effort to bring our energy and our movement directly into the political arena and to embrace a strategy to move the Palestinian issue forward in 2020. The strategy will not be the same as the one we used in 1988, but the conditions are there to ensure that the debate can happen again in 2020.
James J. Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute.