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Who Obama Should Talk To


First Published 2008-06-17, Last Updated 2008-06-17 10:07:23


Barack Obama’s recent comments show almost exclusive regard for Israel to the detriment of the Palestinians. Given his themes of “change,” and renewed diplomacy, he should engage not just the Jewish American right, but the Jewish American center and left -- and Palestinian Americans, says Nadia Hijab.

Senator Barack Obama has positioned himself as an independent thinker unafraid to break the Washington mould. He says that, as president, he would pursue “direct diplomacy” and talk to Iran and to Cuba. There was no such challenge to Washington norms in Obama’s recent speeches to the pro-Israel lobby in Washington and to a synagogue in Boca Raton, Florida. In both, he reduced the status of the Palestinians from that of a people with rights to servants of Israel’s security.

Obama’s campaign is out of step with changing realities in the country. It is ignoring fast-growing American Jewish communities that are redefining what it means support to Israel in the United States The day before Obama spoke in Florida, I spoke at a well-attended forum organized by Brooklyn for Peace. The main organizers and my two co-panelists were American Jews, and it soon became clear that many in the audience were too.

There were no dissenting voices as our panel spoke of the desperate conditions of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, the Palestinian right of return, and equal rights for all citizens of Israel. Indeed, many of the questions were from Jews who wanted to know how to talk about the issues to other Jews -- and, especially, their mothers.

This may sound like a fringe event but it was not. One co-panelist was a New York University department chair, and the other an active member of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that has grown from a small California base to a nationwide organization. It has 20,000 people on its email list. Its blog, Muzzlewatch, tracks those who seek to stifle criticism of Israel’s occupation, and is one of the most-frequented blogs in the country.

If we put the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) at the right of the political spectrum, then these American Jews are certainly on the left. Interestingly, because it is likely to be more threatening to AIPAC, there’s change in the center, too. Here a large cluster of American Jewish groups is making the case that peace with the Palestinians is essential to Israel’s very survival. The center includes Americans for Peace Now, Israel Policy Forum, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, and the freshly minted J-Street, which is squaring up to be the “other” Israel lobby.

I would not define the contours of a just peace in the same way as the American Jewish center does. We differ, for example, on the Palestinian right of return and the notion that Israel can be Jewish and be democratic.

However, what is far more significant in American political terms is that the American Jewish center defines peace very differently from the way AIPAC does. AIPAC and its allied American Jewish and Christian Zionist groups are currently the stronger force, but the center’s numbers are not negligible. J-Street, for example, teamed up with to get tens of thousands of signatures on a petition asking presidential candidate John McCain to renounce pastor John Hagee after the latter said, “God sent Hitler to cause the Holocaust so that Jews would move to Israel.” J-Street claimed victory when McCain renounced Hagee.

Yet Obama steers clear of the American Jewish left and center. There are frequent media reports about his campaign distancing itself from advisors that might be seen as anything less than 100% pro-Israel.

The media also continues to give significant coverage to Obama’s abrupt break with Palestinian Americans that were former friends and fellow human rights advocates. He has moved from acknowledging Palestinian “suffering” in times past to a single-minded focus on Israel’s security without even a nod to the besieged Gazans, most of whom now live -- as former President Jimmy Carter recently noted -- on one meal a day because of Israel’s siege.

Obama is out of step with his country here too. This year, as never before, Palestinian stories of loss and dispossession have been widely featured alongside coverage of the 60th year of Israel’s creation. There has never been a better time for a politician to buck Washington trends and listen to the Palestinian voice.

But the Obama campaign, having placed Palestinian Americans beyond the pale, appears to be too apprehensive even to reach out to American Jews that challenge AIPAC-style politics. Is the Senator who has brought hope to so many by preaching “change we can believe in” positioning himself behind the curve of change?

Nadia Hijab is a Senior Fellow at the Washington, D.C., office of the Institute for Palestine Studies.

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