Blessed are the Peacemakers

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Blessed are the Peacemakers

Aref Assaf

While President-elect Obama will be preoccupied with the nation’s economic meltdown, foreign issues will still hover over his head demanding attention. The seemingly intractable Palestine-Israel conflict cannot be relegated, for its volatile continuance has precluded the realization of the declared American national interests in the Middle East, namely the promotion of democratic regimes, the security of Israel, the establishment of the Palestine state, and above all, a more normal relationship with the Arab and Muslim world. Except for campaign promises, President Obama has yet to articulate a much more definitive position. It is a fact that setting the U.S. on a new course in this troubled part of the world will be an extremely difficult challenge. Fortunately, there exists a rare opportunity for Arab and Jewish Americans, a segregated and politically exclusive constituency to provide leadership, moral support, and guidance in delivering a lasting peace to a tormented region.

One could possibly understand why Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land may not be in a position to overcome their decades-old mistrust and ravaging wars. Can we, however, be so morally relaxed to ignore both the complicity and the moral duties of eight million Arab and Jewish Americans in fueling the conflict or finding a solution? Both communities, politically active while unequally entrenched in the decision making discourse, if energized can create a pivotally new impetus for a new American position on the Middle East.

It is ironic that we have in Israel and Palestine a more thriving pro-peace voice than in the US; a lamentable commentary that is more strikingly painful considering they are not shielded from the hostile and often bloody realities of military occupation. It is my hope that here in New Jersey and indeed all over the United States, our two communities will soon shoulder the moral responsibility to found a new paradigm for a comprehensive peace agreement, and by so doing, provide our president a greater leeway in his dealing with the seemingly unstoppable AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

AIPAC, it has been argued, has effectively defined American strategic positions regarding the Palestine-Israel conflict. The power of AIPAC, perceived or real, has been debated most recently by two famous scholars, who concluded that AIPAC has significantly impacted a one-sided and now detrimental US tilt towards Israel, and which has exposed the United States to deeply felt resentment not only by Palestinians and Arabs but from Muslims around the world. Their basic argument is that US foreign policy in terms of the Middle East has not been in its own interests and that the “Israel lobby” has had a significant effect in shaping US policy. In particular, they refer to AIPAC, the main Israel lobby group in the US; the myriad of right-wing think-tanks as well as the conservative media columnists and pundits amongst others.

But AIPAC does not speak for all Jews and indeed for most Americans. Several nascent Jewish groups have spoken up to argue that Jews are not a monolithic constituency when it comes to their position on the Middle East conflict. While all Jews do strongly support a Jewish and secure Israel, a large majority sees the military occupation of Arab lands, the dispossession of millions of Palestinians and their systematic maltreatment, and has tarnished the Jewish soul, precluded peace, and risked safety for Jews in Israel and fostered anti-Semitic sentiments around the world.

Such national groups include Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, and Jewish Voices for Peace, and most recently J-Street. These emerging voices incrementally are challenging the status quo of AIPAC’s dominance and are providing politicians with an alternative viewpoint from which to base their policy decisions. On the Arab and Palestinian side, we have the American Task Force on Palestine and the American Arab Institute, among others.

Yet, the success of the pro-peace camp has been limited, incremental, and perhaps deliberately misguided. For without building alliances with Arab and Palestinian pro-peace coalitions, the Jewish pro-peace constituency will remain untouchable by politicians. The goal then must be to incorporate Arab and Jewish American groups into a national pro-peace constituency capable of not only defining a new peace paradigm but effectuating a pro-American foreign policy. This new paradigm argues that a just peace in the Middle East is not only fruitful for the warring parties in the Middle East but is most directly beneficial to fulfilling America’s national interests in the region, namely better human, diplomatic, and economic relations with 1.6 billion Muslims and Arabs.

Can Arab and Jews in America overcome their instinctive mistrusts and work toward such a noble end that would strengthen President Obama’s hands in dealing with the hawkish pro-Israel pundits and lobbyists? The answer is an unequivocal yes.

A 2007 poll conducted by Zogby International affirmably concludes that strong majorities of both Arab Americans and American Jews still support the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both want an end to the forty years of occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (two-thirds of American Jews and 89% of Arab Americans). Over eighty percent of both Arab Americans and American Jews agree that the U.S. should support negotiations between Israel and Syria, and over three-quarters of both communities favor a diplomatic approach over a military confrontation with Iran. The poll decidedly confirms the belief that a more vigilant and sustained US engagement in the peace negotiations is essential to the desired conclusion.

I have worked with several Jewish groups on an array of interfaith projects, community soup kitchens, and immigration matters. In fact, a recent Clifton, NJ interfaith gathering was almost conditioned on the exclusion of the Middle East as a topic of discussion. A misconception permeates such gatherings that advocate a dialogue only over the common denominators of the three religions. Disagreements, theological or political, are left out as not to stifle mutual understanding and further engagement. But it is a fact that there is much agreement on the core issues of the Palestine-Israel conflict. It seems that when it comes to tackling the Palestine-Israel issue, however, all bets are off and we revert back to our cocooned and exclusively biased political turf. This condition must and can be changed if religious and community leaders, by rejecting the status quo, commit to espousing such a proactive mission. We should not succumb to distracters and extremists from both sides.

We have all celebrated the tremendously proud moment when prominent people of faith came to the aid of Imam Mohammad Qatanani of the Islamic Center of Passaic County during his 2008 deportation trial. The immigration judge rejected all government allegations and granted permanent residency to the Imam and his foreign-born children-a decision that is being appealed by the US government. I attended the four-day hearing and can attest to the uniqueness of the moment when a Rabbi so powerfully defended the Imam and his faith. The historic significance was no less moving when a Christian minister, so tellingly and fondly spoke of the personal and spiritual worthiness of the Imam.

Can we build on this momentum? Are these great and inspiring friends, members of the Abrahamic tradition, perhaps aided with a much needed divine blessing, ready to undertake the awesome task of bringing Jews and Arab in this country to forge common grounds? The framework for this new adventure has already been formulated on the basis of a two-state solution where both Palestinians and Israelis may live in peace, security, and dignity.

I am hopeful the three great friends who so inspired us about the rewards of interfaith relations in this country will heed our urgent appeal to formulate an historic statement to their followers, elected politicians, and to our president: That Arab and Jewish Americans are ready to commit to working together with other ppro-peaceAmericans, to end the conflict in the Middle East. That, they reject forever remaining polarized and forever enslaved by their selfishly tribal instincts.

Expectedly, prejudices and seemingly insurmountable obstacles will arise. There will always be those who will argue the futility of such an undertaking. If the past is a measure of our commitment to peace, then we have failed. President Obama’s “Yes we can”, should resonate in our midst. It will measure the depth of our American citizenship and loyalty to the ideals on which this great nation was built. We must set a powerful example of both kinship and cooperation to Arabs and Jews in Palestine-Israel. The cause of peace and justice demands nothing less for it is a precious divine gift to mankind. If President Obama has committed to be the new prophet of change, who amongst us will bear the honor and duties of being his apostles? Blessed are the peacemakers.


Aref Assaf, PhD, a Palestinian American, President of American Arab Forum, a think-tank on Arab and Muslim Affairs based in Paterson, NJ.

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