Hilton Obenzinger is a member of the executive committee of the November 29 Committee for Palestine, and on the staff of their bimonthly, Palestine Focus. His book of poems, This Passover or the Next I Will Never Be in Jerusalem, was reviewed in our February 1982 issue. Joel Beinin interviewed him in San Francisco in February 1987.
Tell us about the kind of organizing work that you’ve been involved in with the November 29 Committee.
I’ve been involved in the November 29 Committee for Palestine since its inception. We were formed as a coalition in 1981 after the UN declared November 29, the partition anniversary, as the day of international solidarity with Palestine. Earlier, I was involved in the Jewish Alliance Against Zionism, here in San Francisco. November 29 now has chapters in 30 cities. US intervention in the Middle East is a crucial issue for the American people, and the Palestine question is central to the Middle East crisis. There is also the question of the enormous amount of aid that goes to Israel, which is part of the Pentagon budget. We are of course working in the most pro-Israel country in the world. So to establish the November 29 Committee has been a long-term process. November 29 is an organization of core activists who will work with other people not engaged full-time with the Middle East. Our goal is this: to make the issue of Palestine and US intervention legitimate for political debate in this country. Our immediate task is to raise “No US intervention in the Middle East” as the main slogan at the present time within the peace movement. The peace movement should unite behind the goal of self-determination for the Palestinians, too. But our main focus is US intervention. We also focus a great deal of attention as an anti-racist organization in developing a reliable base both within the peace movement and within minority communities in the US to take up this issue of Palestinian rights.
How did you get involved in this issue of Palestine?
I was raised as a Zionist. Most of my family had been murdered by the Nazis in World War II. I went to Israel when I was bar-mitzvahed. But even then I felt uncomfortable, though unconscious of what was really going on. When I got involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s, the contradictions between Israel’s progressive, socialist image and the reality became unavoidable. I felt powerless when the war broke out in 1967. I felt great anguish and pain. What I did was what a lot of progressive-minded Jews in America have done: I said nothing, because it was too difficult.
By the mid-1970s, my views had become clear, as I worked with the peace movement and the American Indian movement. But I could only deal with them comprehensively through the process of writing my book, This Passover or the Next I Will Never Be in Jerusalem. I had to explore all aspects of the Jewish question and Palestinian history in order to be able to deal with my family, with others who survived World War II. Through writing the book I was able to resolve a lot of the issues that had really paralyzed me. Working with Jewish Alliance Against Zionism was the next step. That was a very positive experience, although as an organization it was unable to sustain itself.
Looking back over the last several years, how has Middle East work changed?
More easy and more difficult. There is much more openness to taking up the issue of the US role in the Middle East and the issue of Palestinian rights. Some of this is due to persistent organizing work but I think principally it has to do with objective reality. The role of the US has become more and more evident. Now at least a section of the ruling elite is questioning US policies in the Middle East. Now people are beginning to talk about Palestinian self-determination. People are beginning to question the disinformation campaigns of the US government. Still, there has not been a major break in the pro-Israel consensus in this country. A total reassessment of US policy has not happened, and there will be more and more resistance towards doing that. That’s the kind of attacks that were levelled against Jesse Jackson, which was not only because of the Middle East, but because he was a black politician with a progressive agenda. But we have seen at least among progressives opposition to US intervention in the Middle East and openness around the question of Palestinian self-determination.
Here on the West Coast, at the Breaking the Silence conference, an underlying theme was that the major task is to promote dialogue between American Jews and Arab-Americans, Palestinians in particular, and that the peace movement needs to take up this dialogue and speak to people’s insecurities.
That’s very valuable and very necessary for many people, but there’s a political question to deal with, a question that affects all of us, not just Jews or Arab-Americans. Very often this kind of conference ends up being a dialogue heavily weighted in terms of Jewish concerns — progressive Jewish concerns, but nevertheless Jewish concerns. In our opinion, the black community has a very strong concern for peace in the Middle East, the Chicano community has a very strong concern for peace. Overall, the American working people have a very strong concern for peace and they’re open to it. To limit the framework to dialogue between the Jews and Arabs means that you do not encompass, really, those who have much more of what we would call a reliable stance, a potentially reliable stance around this issue. It is very important to reach out to the Jewish community. But frankly, we do not think that the social base for a new US policy in the Middle East will be found in the American Jewish community. The American Jewish community is so dominated by the Zionist leadership that in our opinion it will almost be the last community to move. It is when there is substantial motion politically that encompasses a progressive agenda, that involves the black community and other minority communities and the peace movement, that the differences within the Jewish community will become more and more significant. It’s not that people shouldn’t engage in this dialogue. But it doesn’t get to what we should be doing, and we have a somewhat different objective.
When the peace movement does address the Middle East, there is great concern with the question of violence and armed struggle.
We try to educate people as to what is behind this campaign on terrorism. There is violence in the Middle East, small-group violence, some violence that you would say would be terrorist by definition on behalf of the Palestinians. But most of the violence that goes on is the day-to-day dispossession of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the day-to-day violence of bombings in Lebanon, the kind of violence where the Reagan administration bombed Tripoli. This is a violence that is so immense because it does not get acted out in sensationalized ways such as the Vienna or Rome airport attacks, which have not done anything to help the Palestinians. Because an Israeli pilot wears a uniform, things are way out of balance in terms of how people perceive them. We talk about the core problem of the Middle East. And we defend the right of the Palestinian people to take up arms for their rights just as other people have. The peace movement understands that the African National Congress has to do that in South Africa, that the FMLN-FDR has to do that in El Salvador.
Can you think of things that have been successful in putting the Middle East and Palestine on the agenda of the broader progressive movement?
We have raised Israel’s relationship with South Africa. That is now on the agenda of the anti-apartheid movement. Also, the Jesse Jackson campaign raised self-determination for the Palestinians to the level of national political debate in this country. This is a major breakthrough, one which we hope to sustain. The international NGO Palestine network is using 1987 to commemorate the anniversaries of 1917, 1947, 1967. This shows that the movement here in the US is part of an international movement.
In terms of setbacks, the April mobilization of the peace movement did not address US intervention in the Middle East. Because of the broadening of the peace movement, we are going to have to struggle again in a constructive way to raise the importance of this issue. Another failure is Reagan’s success in blunting criticism of Israel in connection with the Iran-contra issue. And the disarmament movement has not addressed the fact that Israel is the one present nuclear threat in the Middle East.
In the coalitions, a number of people have put forward the question of mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO as a condition of unity.
We are glad that people are raising recognition of the PLO, but the slogan of mutual recognition we don’t agree with. It is not as if that could not happen as events unfold, but we reject posing it as a test of who is in the movement for peace and justice in the Middle East and who is out. What needs to be raised is Palestinian self-determination and no US intervention in the Middle East. We have been working with broad coalitions around the UN proposals for peace: the international conference, the right to an independent state for the Palestinians, the right of return, Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, security for all states and, of course, comprehensive negotiations involving the PLO, Israel, the US, the Soviet Union and the Arab states. That international framework can be interpreted as incorporating two states.
In the present context, mutual recognition means putting pressure on the PLO to recognize Israel. The pressure should be on the US and Israel to recognize the PLO. Israel already exists. There is no Palestinian state. Mutual recognition goes on between states. Inherent in the mutual recognition framework is a Zionist orientation seeking above all to protect the Jewish state of Israel. Within our organization, we do not take a position on what the final solution is to be, but we do take the position that whatever solution is going to arise will not be one that insures the continuation of Zionist discrimination and racism. So whether there are two states, one state, or three states is something to be worked out as part of a comprehensive solution of the people involved and the UN framework provides that. There is no other country or movement in the world where you have this slogan for mutual recognition. We do think that people need to be sensitive to talk about the rights of Israeli Jews to live in peace and equality with other people. We think these are all legitimate issues. But the framework of mutual recognition does not embody that. We respect a good many people and organizations that adhere to this line, but as an organization that takes the perspective of supporting Palestinian self-determination, we cannot be put in the position of pushing the PLO to take one stand or another. I don’t think anyone in the peace and solidarity movement in the US actually wants to go around telling liberation movements what their policies ought to be.