Tuesday, April 27, 2010

SYNDICATED: Yalla Peace: Stop saying tolerance/neither Palestinians nor Israelis seem to show much tolerance for each other

Bookmark and Share

SYNDICATED: Yalla Peace: Stop saying tolerance

Until everyone starts accepting the other’s views and even their historical narratives, I am not sure either side should be building museums of tolerance.

I met Simon Wiesenthal as a cub reporter in the early 1980s. I was one of the only Palestinian Americans working as a full-time reporter at a daily paper in the country. My editor, who was Jewish, must have thought it funny to assign a Palestinian reporter to cover Jewish American and Holocaust events.

I didn’t mind, though. Wiesenthal received an honor from the Decalogue Society, the association for Jewish lawyers in Chicago. I interviewed him and we had a great conversation. He was fixated on me being Palestinian, but in a positive way.

At the end of the evening, he gave me his autograph, which I put alongside autographs from other Middle East luminaries including Abba Eban (whom I debated on national television when I was 25), Menachem Begin and Yasser Arafat.

Wiesenthal told me he believed the Palestinians deserved a state, and hoped violence would be overcome by peace. He said Palestinians needed a visionary leader who could see peace and work toward it, and not be distracted by the ongoing violence.

Wiesenthal, to me, was a very tolerant person who seemed to consider the feelings of others in his quest to hunt down Nazi war criminals. That’s why I am concerned, as are all Arabs and Muslims, with the Wiesenthal Center’s plans to build a “Museum of Tolerance” on land adjacent to what was once a prominent Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem.

The Wiesenthal Center defends the decision, arguing the land was used as a municipal parking lot by the government for many years and no Muslims complained.

Well, they did complain, but who listens when a Palestinian complains about anything in Israel? (No one listened when Israel bulldozed dozens of Arab homes and expelled the residents around the Western Wall in order to expand it.) It’s not a good defense to argue, “well, Muslims didn’t complain when concrete was laid on top of the cemetery and cars were parked there.”

The other argument is that Muslims planned to build something on it years ago under the British Mandate, but are opposed now because it’s the “Jews” who want to build on it.

MY ATTITUDE is simple, and I am a very tolerant person. If Muslims want to do something with a Muslim cemetery, that is their business and their right. Jews don’t have a right to do anything with a Muslim cemetery. And Muslims don’t have a right to do anything with a Jewish cemetery, either. Sadly, that has happened, too. Arabs have desecrated Jewish cemeteries.

These acts of desecration have been the result of our unending conflict.

It’s not unusual to have an Israeli institution built on top of something the Arabs and Muslims hold sacred. Israel rarely worries about what Arabs think, whether they are citizens or neighbors.

Yad Vashem, for example, is built in close proximity of the land of Deir Yassin where the pre-state organizations, the Stern Gang and the Irgun, killed about 100 Palestinian civilians.

I understand the building of a memorial to the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis. But to do so on a spot sacred to others, and where others were killed? Some might not see that as being very tolerant at all.

Certainly, there is no equivalency between a mass campaign to murder 6 million Jews and the killing of “only” 100 civilians.

The sad truth is, intolerance is rampant on both sides. Palestinians’ continued support of extremism and violence against Israeli civilians gives Israel its best defense: Hey, the Arabs do it! Palestinians and Arabs have massacred Jews.

That is not a good defense. It is an intolerable defense. You can’t defend a crime, a killing, an unethical or immoral act or policy by saying, “Well, the other side did the same thing.”

I’m not just picking on the Israelis. As I have said, Palestinians do it too.

Here’s a great idea. Maybe we should all stop. Maybe Palestinians and Israelis should spend a little less time on intolerance and a little more time showing compassion and concern. Yes, tolerance for each other.

What Palestinians and Israelis clearly seem to lack is tolerance. Until everyone starts tolerating each other better and tolerating their views, grievances, claims for justice and even their conflicting historical narratives, I am not sure either side should be building museums of tolerance. Or claiming to be more tolerant than the other.

We can’t claim to be tolerant of challenges facing the world when we can’t even be tolerant of the challenges that face us in our own little space in Israel and Palestine.

Maybe the Wiesenthal Center might consider building a Museum of Palestinian-Israeli Tolerance and Peace.

I’d support that. I bet the late Simon Wiesenthal would have supported it, too.

Named Best Ethnic Columnist in America by New America Media, the writer is a Palestinian- American columnist and peace activist. He can be reached at www.YallaPeace.com

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Jerusalem Post/Yalla Peace: Palestinians need an A Street, too

Bookmark and Share

Yalla Peace: Palestinians need an A Street
20/04/2010 Jerusalem Post Newspaper

At a recent event hosted by J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami, I was inspired by the man’s dedication to principle and morality.

AIPAC is both praised and criticized as the powerful Israel lobby. It hasn’t done a good job of promoting peace, however. There is a new kid on the block doing just that, promoting peace. It’s called J Street and it’s headed by Jeremy Ben-Ami. I recently had a chance to hear Ben-Ami speak to a tough audience of American Jews at Am Yisrael synagogue in Glencoe, Illinois.

His words inspired me because of the clarity of his dedication to principle and morality. It made me even wish there was a Palestinian version, maybe called A Street. All we Arabs have are the extremist activists who dominate public discourse and the ineffective Arab League, which spends a fortune doing nothing. The closest equivalent of Ben-Ami in my community is probably the articulate intellectual Hussein Ibish.

But if we wait for the Palestinians to get their act together, we’ll probably wait forever. Is that a reason not to pursue peace?

J Street, founded in April 2008, is fast becoming the impetus for a revival of the peace process and reinforcement among many that peace is possible, including among many Arabs and Palestinians I know.

BEN-AMI is no Jewish quisling, nor a self-hating Jew, and not anti-Semitic. He’s not anti-Zionist and not some leftist activist looking to achieve the impossible, to turn the clock back to 1947 and achieve “one state.” He’s hard core Jewish, Zionist and very pro-Israel.

But Ben-Ami makes points I make all the time: Jews don’t have to abandon their diehard support for Israel (nor Palestinians for Palestine) to support a peace plan that brings peace and safety to both.

Ben-Ami’s grandparents were among the founders of Petah Tikva in 1882. His father served in the Irgun.

He candidly laid out Israel’s three choices: hang on to all of the land, hang on to Israel’s Jewish character and hang on to Israel’s democratic tradition. Israelis can only pick two of the three.

Ben-Ami argues convincingly that the majority of Jews, including in America, support two states and compromise. He said, “This conversation we are beginning is not about American foreign policy... but about who we are as a people... How Jews act and behave when we are not the minority. When we are not powerless, but the powerful.”

I could not have been more inspired as a Palestinian. He quickly won the support of the more than 250 Jews and others in the synagogue, with the exception of a small handful of sometimes disruptive foes of peace.

He answered the tough questions and dispelled false rumors, like the one put forth, he said, by Alan Dershowitz, that Norman Finkelstein, the extremist anti-Zionist Jew from Chicago, was a speaker at a recent J Street event. (My support of two states, attacks against extremists and condemnation of Hamas as a terrorist organization have drawn Finkelstein’s ire.)

Ben-Ami warned the audience the clock is ticking on the two-state solution, something the fanatics recognize too. They’ll stop at nothing to block peace. “Time is not on the side of peace. Time is no longer on our side,” he said.

He reflected many of the views I embrace: The wall is needed, but not in Palestinian territory. It should have been built on “recognizable borders.” Israelis and Palestinians need a time separation, especially once peace is established, to help overcome natural animosity from a century- long conflict.

Jerusalem is already a divided city, but that division can continue in a peace accord with Israel controlling the Jewish areas and Palestine the Christian and Muslim areas.

Ben-Ami said Hamas is both a terrorist organization and a political voice that represents a sizable segment of the Palestinian population. But, he added, Israelis and Jews “must recognize that every movement will use violence, and I speak from my own family experience.” Two-states can be achieved through a swap of land on a one-to-one basis. As many as 75 percent of settlers could remain in the West Bank.

He was especially outraged at the hateful campaign against the renowned jurist and international legal scholar Judge Richard Goldstone who headed the UN inquiry into allegations of war crimes committed not just by Israel, but by Hamas as well during Operation Cast Lead. Ben-Ami stressed that many Israeli leaders believe the allegations should be investigated, but said “the vilification of Judge Goldstone is ludicrous and out of bounds.”

FINALLY, BEN-AMI was asked why he isn’t as critical of the Palestinians as he is of Israel (which isn’t true).

“We do a disservice if we refuse to look at the reality of the West Bank... to call the West Bank a terrorist breeding ground does a disservice to the reality and to people like Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad who are working for support peace,” Ben-Ami said. “There will be violence from both sides” as we get closer and closer to peace.

He stressed that he is Israeli and a Jew. His responsibility is not to tell the Palestinians how to forge their own society, but to help improve, strengthen and define Israel and the Jewish people.

It’s a similar message I make when addressing Arab and Palestinian groups. As a Palestinian, it is not my place to tell Israelis what to do with their country. Is it Jewish or not Jewish is up to them.

“My focus is on what my people and my country are doing,” Ben-Ami said.

In other words, Jews and Palestinians can help the process not by blaming the other side or telling the other side how to act. As a Palestinian, my responsibility is to do more to end the campaigns of violence against Israel and to speak out more forcefully against the voices of extremism in the Palestinian community.

Palestinians can’t keep pointing to what Israel does as an excuse to ignore what Palestinians are doing to Israelis. That goes the same for Israelis.

The battle is not between Palestinians and Israelis. It is, as Jeremy Ben-Ami so eloquently argued, “between those who support compromise and those who do not.”

Named Best Ethnic Columnist in America by New America Media, the writer is a Palestinian-American columnist and peace activist. He can be reached at www.YallaPeace.com

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Jerusalem Post/Yalla Peace: A peace plan Obama might embrace

Bookmark and Share

Yalla Peace: A peace plan Obama might embrace
13/04/2010 The Jerusalem Post

What can the US president offer? Attitude. A tough, strong and undeterred approach to peace.

President Barack Obama will reportedly offer his own peace plan to Palestinians and Israelis. Although the two sides have been working on peace for nearly two decades, nothing has succeeded.

There are too many people who oppose peace – Hamas and religious fanatics on the Palestinian side, and some settlers and religious fanatics on the Israeli side.

They don’t want peace because they each believe they can get it all if they can just keep the conflict going.

So what can Obama offer that hasn’t been offered? Well, he can offer attitude. A tough, strong and undeterred approach to peace. Obama can tell both sides to shake hands the way former president Bill Clinton did in 1993 on the White House lawn with Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin – an event I witnessed firsthand.

I’VE OUTLINED my own peace plan. It’s a part of my PR stunt to run for Palestinian president, but my real goal is to run for the Palestine Legislative Council from east Jerusalem. It’s simple, and detailed on my YallaPeace.com Web site.

Basically, draw the boundary roughly on the 1967 borders. Israel keeps most of the settlements, and gives Palestine land mass equal to land annexed from the West Bank.

The Palestinian refugee issue is resolved using the rule of reason not the rule of law. Refugees would surrender the “right of return” in exchange for financial compensation from an international fund and resettlement in the Palestinian state or assimilation into the Arab countries where they now reside.

Both sides would apologize to each other for the past and embrace this vision of moving forward.

Also on the table for discussion is my plan (which the Financial Times “borrowed,” to put it nicely) requiring Israel to take back some refugees, based on how many settlers remain in West Bank settlements. “Refugees for settlers” is a concept that needs to be explored.

The Arab countries, too, would work with Israel to compensate Jews who lost lands and homes as a result of the conflict. (How Palestinians and Jews “lost” land and property is irrelevant in this discussion. It doesn’t matter if they left voluntarily or were forced to flee.)

The status of citizenship would remain the same. But Jews who wish to live in Palestine could do so and retain Israeli citizenship for voting purposes, although they must abide by Palestinian laws. Jews should be permitted to live in any area of Palestine, including Hebron.

The same for Palestinians. Refugees who “return” to Israel under the “settler-refugee exchange program” would be given Palestinian citizenship. And, Palestinian citizens of Israel could receive dual citizenship too, living by Israel’s laws. Settlers in settlements not annexed by Israel and surrendered to Palestine would be given the same option to keep Israeli citizenship.

It’s worth exploring at a higher, more detailed level.

The Old City of Jerusalem would be shared, with Israel taking the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall and Palestine taking the Armenian, Muslim and Christian Quarters. There, Palestine can establish its capital alongside Israel’s, which would be recognized by all.

The West Bank and Gaza Strip could be linked by an underground subway, or by an air corridor of shuttle flights.

The Arab world would normalize relations with Israel, and each would open embassies in each country. Palestine would be a non-military nation for the first 20 years, and would eventually partner with Israel to form a Palestinian-Israeli military, even creating merged Palestinian-Israel police.

Maps that exist today would be replaced with maps that show both country names and boundaries.

NOW, WE all know that violence will not disappear. The fact is regardless of whether it is peace or not, violence will continue, though it will be diminished considerably.

Extremist Jews and extremist Arabs will continue to sabotage the peace plan just as they undermined the Oslo Accords, but once there is peace, the major flash points will end.

Laws would be adopted to ban hate speech, and while Israelis and Palestinians can continue their own different narratives of history, a Palestinian–Israeli commission would be formed to forge a common consensus of a “peace history.” Eventually, both Israeli and Palestinian children would learn the two different narratives and the consensus peace narrative to help improve relations.

Israel would work with Palestine to create a major port in the Gaza Strip to develop an economic engine for commerce and international trade. A fund would be created that would provide grants to encourage Palestinian and Israeli cooperation to create businesses together.

Both countries will join a commission of conciliation in which grievances and failed promises are discussed. The US and several Arab countries would send representatives.

Finally, on the Palestinian side, we would also have to reengineer the existing election system. Right now it does not work. The process should be changed to permit political parties to hold primaries to elect their candidates, who would then run in a general election.

The winner of the election would not be the candidate with the most votes, but the candidate who receives 50 percent plus one vote of all votes cast.

Admittedly, this is my “anti-Hamas election rule” to prevent a radical minority from holding the entire country hostage with not a majority vote but a plurality vote. Only political parties that embrace nonviolence and the peace process could participate. Those that refuse can be shown the door.

I believe, and many other Palestinians and Israelis I have met believe, that this plan is doable. It requires both sides to make concessions, each difficult in different ways.

It’s a simple plan with simple rules. Palestinians and Israelis need peace badly, and they need it now.

It’s just an idea, but one that best encompasses most of what both sides would accept.
Obama can’t make everyone happy. But with a good peace plan, he can help make both sides safe.

Named Best Ethnic Columnist in America by New America Media, the writer is a Palestinian-American columnist and peace activist. He can be reached at www.YallaPeace.com

Jerusalem Post/Yalla Peace: How about some compassion from the Jewish people for Palestinians

Bookmark and Share

How about some compassion
06/04/2010 Jerusalem Post Column

Israel should start acting like the Jewish state it claims to be.

When I was young, I read all the horror stories of how the Jews were persecuted over the centuries – mainly by non-Arabs. I read about the tragedy of World War II and the Nazis, and what we now know as the Holocaust. My dad, who was born in Jerusalem, knew even better. As Palestinians, he and his brother fought during World War II to liberate Europe and end the Nazi persecution of Jews, and many others.

So I am not trying to make Israel stop being a Jewish state. In fact, I am trying to make it be a real Jewish state – a Jewish state with a conscience embracing the Jews’ history of suffering.

Why is it that suffering often does not bring compassion, but rather meanness? Yes, meanness. That’s the only way I can describe the way many Israelis and American Jews are acting.

How else do you describe what is taking place in the Gaza Strip, pushing people beyond frustration and despondency? And when they explode in violence, Israel strikes so powerfully, as if it believes that beating someone teaches them to obey. It doesn’t. It feeds more rebellion. But I fear many in the Israeli government know that; the violent reaction of Palestinians in Gaza is exactly what they want.

The best defense Israelis offer is that they do their “best” to minimize civilian casualties. Oh well, if many civilians die, it happens. That does not portray Israel’s “best” at all.

Collective punishment. Targeted killings. Land confiscations. Are these the principles of the Jewish people? I don’t think so.

THEN THERE is the peace process that the Israeli government insists Palestinians are stalling. Really? Since 1988, the Palestinians have formally accepted Israel’s “right to exist.”

But have Israelis recognized that Palestinians exist? Most do not, insisting there never was a Palestine or a Palestinian people.

With each step of the failed peace process, the Palestinians compromised and are now willing to accept what’s left: the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and most of – not all of – east Jerusalem.

What’s Israel’s response? After the murder of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, his successors fought hard to stop the compromises and reverse the peace process. They openly vowed they would not dismantle settlements. They would not share Jerusalem. They would not compensate Palestinian refugees.

If I were Jewish, I would be ashamed of myself. I would be ashamed of the conduct of my country established to give Jews a place where they could stand up as a people based on the rule of law, morality and principles of justice and compassion.

Israel keeps saying it acts to protect its citizens from “Arab terrorism,” but everything it does goes one step further. Israel builds settlements in the West Bank after it is captured in 1967, claiming they are merely security enclaves to prevent Palestinians from trying to attack the new state. And then these security sites become fast-growing settlements on land owned by Palestinians. And they expand, grabbing all the nearby resources. Wide areas are cleared so these settlers can not only have new homes but also enjoy a buffer zone and special roads... all on land that is not theirs.

Then it decides to build a wall with lookout towers and checkpoints. It is a concrete wall when it is near Palestinian populations, and a fence when it is near less-populated Palestinian farmlands.

Worse, instead of being built on the Green Line, it is built deep in the West Bank, and it snakes around the most precious commodity besides land – the water wells. Every one of them is now on the Israeli side.

AND WHILE Palestinians are struggling to keep the frustrations of a brutal occupation from making matters worse, Israel shrugs its shoulders. Sure we want peace, says Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. But why should we stop expanding existing settlements?

Why? Maybe it might help make peace a reality? If that is really what Netanyahu wants. He long declared that he would not support two states. Now he does. Kind of.

In east Jerusalem, instead of trying to find ways to help both sides, Israel’s government is confiscating land and property and turning them over to Jews. When someone complains that this is “Judaization” of Jerusalem – something some Israelis openly claim – he or she is denounced as an anti-Semite.

Do I want to destroy Israel? No. I want Israel to start acting like the Jewish state it claims to be. Because right now, Israelis are not doing a good job of being Jews, Jews with compassion, Jews who believe in real peace. Jews who suffered so tragically that they know what it is like to have their land, homes and possessions taken.

I remember Jews leading the civil rights movement in America to fight for the rights of blacks, and who stand by silent as Arab citizens of Israel claim they are being discriminated against. No civil rights movement for them. I remember Jews leading the world with great discoveries. And I ask myself, where has it all gone?

Yes, I recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The real question, though, is when will Israelis start to recognize Israel as a Jewish state too?

Named Best Ethnic Columnist in America by New America Media, the writer is a Palestinian-American columnist and peace activist. He can be reached at www.YallaPeace.com