By: Dr. Aref Assaf
On March 29, just before Gov. Chris Christie’s trip to Israel, I tweeted him an invitation to visit my mother in the Palestinian refugee camp, Kalandia, which lies at the now-infamous checkpoint that separates Israel from the occupied West Bank.
I sent it after learning Christie had no plans to visit the Palestinian territories or to meet with average Palestinians or Palestinian officials. My 87-year-old mother has lived in her wretched refugee camp since she and my late father were forcibly expelled from their native village, Allar, destroyed in 1948 by Jewish terrorist groups.
The governor didn’t accept my invitation.
For a governor who said he will “tread lightly” and wanted the visit to be educational, ignoring the Palestinian elephant in the room sent a contradictory message. Many speculated his trip was intended to raise his stature as he contemplates national office. If this were true, Christie broke a precedent set by many dignitaries before him, who did visit the Palestinian territories.
Christie himself denied this explanation, giving instead three Jersey-centered reasons for the trip.
First, he noted, Israel is a significant, long-term trading partner for New Jersey. His office signaled this commercial relationship as a key reason for his visit. Yet 2010 U.S. Census data shows Israel ranks a middling 14 among the top 25 countries that trade with our state, based on 2011 dollar value. If trade was a motivation, he should have visited our biggest trading partner: Canada.
Second, the governor pointed out New Jersey has a sizable Jewish population, the second largest in the nation. And he is correct. Yet, if population size were all that mattered, the governor would have been better off visiting England, Ireland or Italy. Moreover, there are more than twice as many Muslims and Arabs in New Jersey than Jews, according to data from the Association of Religious Data Archives.
Third, the governor indicated New Jersey and Israel have much in common, including their size. In fact, Israel is one of the few countries in the world that has never defined its boundaries. Other nations, including the United States, do not recognize Israel’s legal right to Jerusalem and the West Bank, yet Israel has — against international will — annexed a significant part of Arab Jerusalem. In the rest of the West Bank, Israel has built hundreds of illegal settlements for Jews only, on expropriated Arab lands.
Israel is an occupying country. Since 1967, it has controlled the lives of millions of Palestinians under an oppressive military regime whose legal system is not designed to procure justice, but to serve the interests of the occupying forces. Unlike New Jersey, Israel is not a country for all its citizens. Israeli laws fundamentally favor Jews, while Arabs, Christians and Muslims are treated with disdain and are subject to hideous, discriminatory practices.
Israel is so unlike New Jersey, Governor.
So what could Christie have added to his itinerary to expand his education in the region?
For one, he could have met with Archbishop Attallah Hanna, the highest-ranking Palestinian clergyman in the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Attalah might have shared with him the agony Arab Christians face when they attempt to enter Jerusalem — the holy sites of which Christie said Israel should control.
Christie could have visited Birzeit University near Ramallah to see how Israeli policy suffocates Palestinian education. Palestinian colleges suffer a sever lack of textbooks, scientific resources and deliberate intimidation on college campuses. He may have been impressed by the students’ relentless eagerness to learn to better serve their people. What a gesture it would have been to start a collaborative educational relationship with Rutgers University.
In a February speech before the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Christie touted Israel’s democratic experiment, paraphrasing Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s line famous line to suggest he would judge Israel by its enemies.
My mother awaits, Gov. Christie, should you care to complete your foreign education.
Aref Assaf is president of American Arab Forum, a Paterson-based think tank specializing in Arab and Muslim American affairs.