IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Mideast conflict reaches U.S. shores

Arabs and Jews in America have mobilized to fight their own battle for the hearts and minds of the world’s most powerful nation.
Supporters of Israel, to the immediate right, and of the Palestinians, far right, took to the streets of the nation's capital by the thousands last week.
Supporters of Israel, to the immediate right, and of the Palestinians, far right, took to the streets of the nation's capital by the thousands last week.
/ Source:

With Israeli reservists on active duty and the Arab world incensed at the reoccupation of land already ceded to the Palestinians, Arabs and Jews in America have mobilized to fight their own battle for the hearts and minds of the people in the world’s most powerful nation. While the two sides fail to see eye to eye on much politically, both share the conviction that they, and not their opponent, occupy the moral high ground.

If this battle on American soil was decided simply on experience, Arab-Americans would have little chance. Pro-Israeli activism among the nation’s Jewish community is as well established and well financed as any cause in America. The horrors of the Holocaust ensured that even Jews born long after that trauma have worked hard to keep Israel’s place as a trusted ally foremost in the minds of the American public.

Yet it would be wrong to write off the fast-growing Arab-American community here as overmatched. Last week’s huge pro-Israel rally in Washington, D.C., drew over 50,000 people to the capital. Just five days later, however, at least as many people converged on the city to protest the Israeli campaign in the Palestinian territories, joining forces with other groups railing against the International Monetary Fund and globalization. It is being called the largest pro-Palestinian rally ever on U.S. soil.

A changing dynamic?
For Jewish Americans, the idea that a pro-Palestinian argument might get a hearing in the United States is still something very new.

Partly as a result, the dissent within the Jewish community over Israel’s actions that had become common since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon is missing this time around.

Many Jewish activists say the aim of their marches and rallies is to show solidarity with Israeli Jews living in fear of suicide bombings, and to help equate their experience with the American war on terror.

“After 9-11, people in this country finally understand what its like to live with terror in your own backyard,” said Evie Wilpon, a board member of the Anti-Defamation League and a first-year student at Columbia Business School. “The Israeli government is trying to protect its citizens.”

Many of the protesters and activists who participated in the April 15 rally and other pro-Israel demonstrations say that, in principle, they are against the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. But they say they see no other way to prevent terror attacks and suicide bombings in the current climate of violence.

The Israeli view
“Israelis don’t want to be occupiers any more than Palestinians want to be occupied,” said one demonstrator, Ben Nedevi, at a pro-Israeli rally in New York.

Said fellow protester Steven Kalifowitz: “Israel has never been an aggressor in this conflict; it has only responded to aggressions from the Palestinians.”

A spike in anti-Semitic incidents in Europe also appears to be driving some of this activism. Wilpon sees civil rights being endangered by the bigotry set in motion when being anti-Israel is not divorced from being anti-Jew.

“By doing this you are inciting hatred against a people based on religion,” she said, citing the media’s use of the word “massacre” in describing Palestinian deaths in Jenin when the facts are still in dispute.

The Palestinian view
To pro-Palestinian activists like Dalia Mahmood, the charge of anti-Semitism is a red flag raised by the pro-Israel lobby to obscure any debate over Israel’s actions in this conflict and in the history of the occupation.

“They are frightened to have the world understand what is happening there,” she said.

She, too, sees her side’s struggle as one for civil and human rights. “Human suffering is non-contestable,” she said.

Unlike many immigrant communities that find themselves targets as a result of conflicts abroad, Arab Americans have not retreated into the role of lying low and not making a fuss. Mahmood, also a first-year student at Columbia Business School, sees the rise in activism among Arab Americans as “an understanding of due process that needs to take place to affect change.”

This understanding of how to use the American public forum has led to a swell in the number of pro-Palestinian teach-ins, marches and vigils.

The rise in pro-Palestinian activism also is motivated by a need to ensure that the media give equal time to the Palestinian cause, and to budge a deeply entrenched pro-Israeli bias in the United States.

Media coverage of pro-Israeli events “makes 100 people look like 1,000,” said Maya Takerdine, a pro-Palestinian activist and undergraduate student at Drexel University. “When they see such numbers, the public tends to side with (what it sees as) the majority.”

Battle for public opinion
In terms of public opinion, pro-Palestinian activists say their greatest challenge is to cast the suicide bombings as an act of desperation.

“I hate that suicide bombings happen,” said Mahmood. “They undermine the cause of the Palestinian people.”

But she would like them to be understood as an act of desperation on the part of people who see no other way to fight the American-funded Israeli military machine. Says Takerdine: “We need to move beyond seeing them as senseless acts of terror.”

The way to end the suicide bombings, according to the pro-Palestinians, is to end the occupation and give the Palestinians a state. It is also the view of many on the pro-Israeli side.

Two states foreseen
“At the end of the day, there are going to be two states,” said Ben Nedevi. “Sharon needs to go into the territories, get rid of the terrorists and move out.”

“It is always hard to watch people’s homes being bulldozed,” conceded Evie Wilpon. “But a lot of them harbor terrorists. People want peace, but they also want to be able to send their children to school without fear.”

At the heart of many activists’ passion for their highly emotional cause is a connection they feel to their brethren in Israel and the occupied territories. Part of the reason that Wilpon attended the April 15 rally in Washington, D.C., was because she knew it would be shown on Israeli television. “I wanted them to see the support they had, and to know that they are not completely isolated,” she said.

Said Takerdine: “Standing with my fellow Arabs is the only voice I have.”

Building coalitions
Arab and Jewish groups have reached out to other groups for support, and both have met with success. The pro-Israeli rally was attended by conservative Christian groups and prominent conservative Republicans, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York.

Anti-globalization and anti-war groups, in addition to smaller dissident Jewish groups like Jews Against the Occupation, came to support the Palestinian cause.

In the end, the struggle is very much marked by each side’s identity and connection to the most disputed land in the world.

The Jewish side seeks to convince America that its war is also a war on terror, that like America it is fighting an enemy who wants to destroy Jews.

The Arab side wants the American public to believe that Palestinians are fighting the terror and desperation that has been their history for half a century.

The message is the same: We are not the ones inflicting terror. We want peace. Our actions are the result of the fact that we live with the fear of death every day.

The battle in the United States is over which side is the more persuasive.

Tarannum Kamlani is an intern based in New York.