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The continuing struggle for Palestinian rights among California Democrats

Jun 10,2019 - Last updated at Jun 10,2019

It was back in the mid-1980's that Jack O'Dell, a long-time adviser first to Martin Luther King Jr. and then to Jesse Jackson, taught me a lesson I never forgot. The gist of his advice was that when struggling against adversaries to secure your rights, never be devastated by setbacks and never become overly confident after feeling you have made progress.

What prompted this advice were a few incidents that occurred in the early 1980's. In the lead up to the 20th anniversary of Martin Luther King-led 1963 "March on Washington", the organisers of the commemorative event invited the participation of Arab Americans, through our organisation, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Our chairman, former senator James Abourezk, was asked to serve on the National Steering Committee and invited to speak at the event, and I was asked to serve on the National Planning Council. On learning of this, major American Jewish organisations protested and threatened to withdraw their support and involvement in the event. They objected to our participation and to Abourezk's speaking role. After weeks of heated exchanges, we won. Arab Americans marched and our chairman's role was secured on the steering committee and as a speaker.

Later that same year, Jesse Jackson announced his candidacy for president of the United States and appointed me as a deputy campaign manager. Early in campaign, a group of liberal American Jewish leaders requested a meeting with Jackson to express their concerns both with his expanded outreach to the Arab American community and the fact that he had brought me on board. The meeting took place, they raised their objections, and Jackson rejected their concerns.

Throughout this entire ordeal, I sought support from Jack O'Dell and his advice as to how best to weather these storms. When I had first learned of their objections to my being in the campaign, I was so frustrated at having to go through much the same fight we had just gone through over our involvement in the 20th anniversary march, I told both Jackson and O'Dell that I felt like quitting. Their response was "if you quit, you give your adversaries exactly what they want. What they fear most is that you'll stick around and fight". Then, after my role in the campaign was affirmed by Jackson, I told Jack O'Dell how good it felt to win. He offered another piece of advice, a cautionary note. When you think you are winning, he said, do not turn your back, because your adversaries have not given up. They will come after you again.

I have carried these words of wisdom with me throughout my political career and it has helped carry me through many political storms. I thought about O'Dell's lessons after learning about developments at last week's California Democratic Convention.

In the lead up to the convention, a group of Arab American and progressive Jewish Democrats prepared five resolutions on various aspects of Palestinian rights and the path to an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Buoyed by polls demonstrating the extent to which attitudes among rank and file Democrats had shifted on the question of Palestine, their resolutions: condemned recent actions by the Trump administration (aid cuts, moving the US embassy to occupied Jerusalem, turning a blind eye to Netanyahu's settlement expansion); called for the Palestinian right of return; condemned Israel's Jewish nation-state law; criticised equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism; and called for an end to the blockade of Gaza.

After protests from a number of major American Jewish organisations, the California Democratic Party leadership undertook to blunt the criticism by rewriting and "watering down" the resolutions and, in violation of the party's own rules, refused to allow the original resolution language to be brought to a vote. The Jewish press crowed that the party "rejects resolutions critical of Israel". And members of the Arab American and Progressive caucuses who had drafted the original language were justifiably frustrated by having been steamrolled by the party leadership. Some saw the entire enterprise as a loss.

But on closer examination, a different picture emerges. On the one hand, the fact that the pro-Israel groups and the party leaders had to resort to heavy-handed tactics to sideline the original resolutions and feared losing if they had allowed them to come to a vote by the membership, they only served to expose the weakness of their position. At the same time, on closer examination, while the rewritten resolutions struck language they found objectionable, for example, "the right to return" or the language about anti-Semitism, and included more pro-Israel language, they also felt obliged to maintain significant parts of the Arab American/Progressive resolutions. The rewritten resolutions, for example, criticise the "premature" US embassy move to occupied Jerusalem, call for a reinstatement of US aid to UNWRA for "Palestinians who became refugees as a result of Israel's establishment", criticise the "expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem", support "human rights, equality and justice" in Israel and Palestine, and call for ending the blockade of Gaza.

I was pleased to learn that Arab American and progressive activists who led this effort, though frustrated, are resolved to continue their struggle. These activists are right not to quit. They have made real progress. Far from losing, they forced a debate on critical issues of justice and peace, and forced the leadership to include language in their "rewritten" resolutions that otherwise would not have appeared. Understanding both the progress that has been made and the fact that efforts to secure justice must continue, because adversaries will not be giving up either, are important lessons to carry to the next round.


The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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