At Al-Hewar Center
On September 22, Al-Hewar Center, a discussion forum in metropolitan Washington, D.C., hosted a panel discussion on "How to Discuss Jerusalem with the American Public." The panelists were Mr. Khalid Turaani, Executive Director of American Muslims for Jerusalem, and Mr. Khaled Elgindy, an Arab American activist involved in many community issues, including Jerusalem. After Mr. Turaani, who spoke in Arabic, opened the discussion, Mr. Elgindy provided his own personal insights into this very sensitive issue.
Mr. Elgindy called the community’s attachment to the issue of Palestine in general, and the issue of Jerusalem in particular, "magnetic" and symbolic for Arabs as well as the global Muslim community.
He discussed watching the area evolve over the years since his first visit shortly after the Gulf War, before there was any talk of "normalization." "Those were difficult times in Palestine," he said, "and I’ve been back several times since then and I’ve watched the evolution – psychologically, demographically, in terms of construction, the settlements over the years and it’s been really incredible both in positive ways and in negative ways."
"Jerusalem is the single most recognizable aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict," he said. "…It’s in the Bible. It’s part of the Judeo-Christian heritage. It means something to most people." If you ask people about settlements or refugees, they usually know very little, he said, but Jerusalem has a very visceral hold over people. "Our job is to help them redefine and unlearn some of the things that they have been taught because I would say that the average American has what I would call a ‘Sunday School’ knowledge of the Middle East." He also mentioned that many people tend to think of Arabs in terms of the ancient peoples referenced in the Bible – Babylonians, Canaanites, etc. and they think of Egyptians in the same context – Pharaohs and Moses, etc. So it is important to be cognizant of these perceptions and to not jump too many steps ahead, while we help bring about an understanding of the existing peoples of the region.
He also mentioned that reporters are usually not very well informed about the region, and that this presents us with a good opportunity to get our point-of-view across. Very often they will take information from us verbatim "and they will rely on us if we step up to the plate, if we meet the challenge," he said.
Mr. Elgindy then turned the discussion to the Congress, which he called "perhaps the greatest single challenge that we face in raising the issue… because the ‘other side’ has done a tremendous job of monopolizing the discourse on Capitol Hill when it comes to Jerusalem." He talked about the pro-Israel lobby’s legendary influence on Capitol Hill, which many people in our community view as almost mythical; but it is important for us to remember, he said, that they are not unbeatable. And sometimes they wield their power arrogantly, which may prove to be their Achilles Heel.
The Jewish lobby is powerful because they are electorally active, said Elgindy. "The Jewish community is known all over the world as probably the single most active community given their relative size in the United States – and that includes African Americans who comprise 15% of the population; whereas Jews comprise 3%. They have more electoral strength and more influence because they know where the power is and where the points of access are and they exploit them. Our job is to do the same."
Our community is in a better position that we sometimes realize
"What we have going for us," said Elgindy, "is the moral high ground." Whereas the Jewish lobby has the art of manipulation, the skills and the experience, our community has the "weapons" of truth and justice in our arsenal. He said that often when we give information to reporters, who usually have a lot of preconceived ideas, they are astounded. Elgindy said that there are even Congressional staff members begging for information from our community, and he noted that when he worked on Capitol Hill, not a day went by when they didn’t receive a fax from some Jewish group, not just AIPAC, but usually from small local groups.
It is important for us to send members of Congress Fact Sheets, because, at the very least, it will go into a file marked "Jerusalem" or "Middle East Peace Process" or something similar and our information will be right next to AIPAC’s, said Elgindy. In fact, we should be carpeting Capitol Hill with our Fact Sheets, Action Alerts, Policy Papers, press releases, etc. Everyone should be involved in this from the largest organizations to the smallest most local group. This will be a difficult task, but it is important that we set out to accomplish this.
There is currently legislation requiring the U.S. to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, implying a recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem. This has now become an election issue. George Bush has taken two stances; initially, he was against it, then he was for it. Interestingly, Al Gore, who is probably the most pro-Israel of the entire group of candidates has come out against it because he had to adopt the Administration’s stance. What you’ll often find is that a candidate will say different things than the person who is elected president. Bill Clinton the candidate said that he would move the embassy, but as president, he has done everything in his power to not move the embassy, including what some Congresspeople see as a violation of the law that they passed, and they are taking action.
Congress is a very tough nut to crack, said Elgindy, and we have to be in on the ground floor. That means not just lobbying, but also supporting their campaigns and being active and voting, so that they feel that they have something at stake. Our community does not vote, often because we don’t think we can make a difference or beat the other side. However, what we have seen is that wherever the community is active, like in Michigan, for example, the Michigan delegation is one of the greatest Arab American success stories, and they are supporting our issues. Take David Bonior for example. He is the second most powerful Democrat in the House of Representatives and he supports us on everything – secret evidence, Iraq, Jerusalem – and he is always one of the handful of very lonely House members who votes against the Israel lobby. We must support those people and we must cultivate relationships with others where we are strong, like right here in Northern Virginia, for example. Our community here does not turn out to vote in the numbers that it should. What we find is that the more we participate the more these policies will change. In every community where we are strong, the candidates listen to us.
There are also people like Jim Moran, Cynthia McKinney, Tom Campbell, and others who take a stance on principle, even though they don’t have large numbers of our constituents. Jim Moran has been very strong in supporting the rights of Palestinian Christians and Muslims to have access to their holy sites in Jerusalem, and resisting efforts to recognize Israel’s illegal sovereignty in Jerusalem.
The change that needs to take place is not just in the policy and in the media, said Elgindy, but in ourselves. We have to encourage people to participate in the process. There has to be a fundamental change in our community’s values. Most Arabs don’t believe that politics is a noble profession, because maybe it isn’t noble "back home." But here it is a different game and either we play or we are left out, he said.
Another thing we can do is to send our young people to the region to spend the summer in Palestine, visiting the holy places and connecting with the local institutions (churches, mosques, schools, women’s groups, etc.). We need to build those ties between our community and those institutions in Palestine. We need to not discourage our young people from going there, because it is in a lot of ways a pilgrimage: a political pilgrimage; a religious pilgrimage. Jerusalem is in many ways a symbol of our struggle. We need to have a shift in our attitudes. We need to go to Jerusalem and even spend money there – as long as it is in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
We also need to build coalitions and alliances with others. We have a natural base of support in this country among main-line Protestant and Catholic churches, to say nothing of the Eastern churches. This is in addition to groups such as the Quakers and the Mennonites who are sometimes even more active than we are. We need to do a lot of outreach to the main Protestant churches – the Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians. They are part of the National Council of Churches, which has a very good stance on Jerusalem, but most of their congregations at the grass-roots level don’t know that their church has a stance on Jerusalem that is different from their member of Congress, for example. So that is an obvious starting point. There are a number of reform Jewish temples that we could do outreach to, maybe as part of a separate strategy, he said. The mosques are already involved in inter-faith dialogues and activities and those activities should touch on the issue of Jerusalem -- not just what we have in common theologically, but on our common interest in seeing Jerusalem not monopolized by a tiny group, but being accessible to One Billion Muslims and One Billion Christians. This is a message that would resonate, he said, and many God-fearing members of Congress would be forced to listen. We won’t do it on our own – we don’t have the numbers, but if we do the right outreach in the right way, we can have a very important impact, he concluded.
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