Jim Zogby is the director of the Arab American Institute in Washington. He was a founder of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign (PHRC) and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). Joe Stork spoke with him on March 18, 1987.
How did you get engaged in Middle East organizing?
It had nothing to do with being of Arab descent. In 1967, though, I remember watching the UN debates, listening to [US Ambassador] Arthur Goldberg and saying to myself, “He cannot represent me.” The other part of the experience in 1967 for me was Vietnam Summer. This was planned as a massive grassroots education campaign. Thousands of volunteers would go door-to-door in cities and neighborhoods across the country to discuss the Vietnam War with people. The 1967 war literally put an end to Vietnam Summer. The contradiction was so stark. So many American Jews who were planning to be part of Vietnam Summer, two weeks after the June war they were waving that issue of Life magazine with bloody pictures of Egyptian bodies and shoes abandoned in the Sinai. They weren’t part of any peace movement I wanted to be part of.
I felt a great sense of alienation then, but actually didn’t get involved in Middle East work until 1970, 1971. That’s when I went to the Middle East for the first time, spent a couple of months there living in refugee camps and became rather intimately connected with some families. The day I left the camp, an old woman said to me, “All right, we’ve told you everything. Now what are you going to do?” One of the things I did when I came back was sell Palestinian newspapers on campus, not unlike what the LA guys are doing now. I got involved with the Arab student club at Temple and at the University of Pennsylvania. I did a little writing, and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod sort of found me. He was one of the great recruiters of the day. The Arab-American University Graduates was a school that many of us first went to and learned the issues.
I think that whatever progression there’s been to my work has been a reflection of my grounding in the peace and civil rights movements. When we founded the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, the question was this: How do we make the peace movement deal with the broader issues of the Middle East? How do we build a coalition on the Middle East as we built one around Vietnam? The effort to build ADC really was an important part of that coalition process. PHRC gave us the ability to build support among churches and other groups. ADC provided an Arab-American component to the coalitions in the peace and civil rights communities.
You were involved very prominently in the whole Rainbow effort. And you continue to work with people in the peace community. You’e also become much more engaged in ethnic organizing, with the Arab-American Institute. There appears to be a certain disjuncture there.
I see it really as all being part of the same process. 1984 taught me that it was in the context of national election campaigns that issues get raised and coalitions get built and solidified. In 1984, the Rainbow provided us — Arab-Americans, and people who want peace in the Middle East — with the broadest and most energized coalition that we had ever seen that could raise those issues. I stopped being schizophrenic in 1984. I didn’t have to say, well, here I’m Arab-American when I talk with the Arab community, and here I’m progressive and I work in a coalition. I could be an Arab-American in a progressive coalition and was respected as an equal partner of that coalition.
The Institute reflects the need to take the experience of 1984 and sustain it. Not to sit on our hands and wait until 1988, but to deepen the roots of political mobilization in the communities, where all politics begins. From Brooklyn to San Francisco we are engaged in local races. 1988 will amplify our voice, because we have become more organized and know electoral politics a little better now than we did before. And our relationship now with the various forces in the Rainbow is much stronger.
The Institute is bipartisan, because a characteristic of the Arab community is that it’s bipartisan. But my heart and my soul is with the Rainbow and with building the Arab component of the Rainbow. I am convinced it’s in the Rainbow and it’s in progressive politics that Arab-Americans will get their fairest shake as a community, and that Middle East peace issues will ultimately get their hearing. We’re now refining the skills of the community in electoral politics. In 1988 we can have a national debate on Middle East issues. But you need to have delegates at state conventions raising platform planks and having Black voices, Hispanic voices, progressive voices, progressive unions raising those issues in their constituencies and making candidates listen.
What are the types of planks that would be strategically wise to propose?
On the Middle East, the equation is rather simple. You can’t have silence, you can’t have candidates debating South Africa this time and not debating the Middle East, because it’s in the Middle East that lives got lost; it’s in the Middle East that hostages are held; it’s in the Middle East that we’ve spent billions and wasted lives only to worsen the situation. We need to frame the issue in such a way that more of the same is unacceptable. I think that Jesse Jackson has the formula and we will work within that formula: an international peace conference, negotiations with the PLO and a policy that seeks to bring people to negotiating tables rather than to battlefields.
There are clear strategic reasons why American policy has evolved the way it has. It’s one thing to get candidates to say the right things or at least talk about the right issues, but actually changing policy is another story.
Ghassan Kanafani used to say: You don’t need to have the leopard change his spots. If you could just pluck a tooth out of his mouth, you could create breathing space for people to make change for themselves. I don’t believe that we need to transform the entire American political system and the forces that define US strategic interests in order to get a Palestinian state, or to get a different kind of configuration around peace in Lebanon. A popular movement and an electoral movement that can elect or un-elect will create a national debate that makes it unacceptable to pursue policies such as the ones we’ve pursued in the past. This will invariably pose some conditions on aid to Israel — active negotiations with the PLO or a call for an international conference which includes the PLO or restatement of the principle of self-determination. All of those things can happen without change at the elite level. Rather, they will be based on mobilization at the grassroots level of electoral politics, and that’s the level that I work at right now.
To have a debate at a university is one thing. To have an issue debate on the floor of a convention is another thing entirely. To have that issue debate between candidates on television is something else. Jesse Jackson, we know, will be out there in 1988 raising those issues. Can we strengthen his hand, create another candidate or two who can raise those issues, and then keep the issue out front? In the post-Lebanon, post-Pollard and post-Iran/Israelgate situation, I’m convinced the candidates are going to have some answering to do, depending on our ability to keep those issues out front.
Lebanon is a good case to mention, because immediately after the invasion it disappeared as an issue.
But it vanished in part because we didn’t do the work that needed to be done. Part of it is our responsibility. The extent to which we can build a coalition around these issues in 1988 will determine whether or not the issues will be raised, debated and talked about. It won’t happen by itself.
The media silence after 1983 was not accidental. It was not the absence of news value, certainly. There was a well-financed and well-organized pro-Israel campaign, abetted by the administration, and a timorous press.
To some extent they helped frame issues better, but part of it again goes back to our fault. This weekend we got coverage when Dole and Jackson came to our conference. The media responds to the extent to which you understand what chord to strike to get a response. They have a reporter who covers “Politics ‘88,” so we got the guy coming because Dole came. The story didn’t just say Dole came; the story said Dole came and Arab-Americans are organizing. Part of it is their insensitivity and their ignorance, but part of it was our inability to relate to them. We’ve turned a corner in terms of our relationship with the media, and with the society as a whole. Each time we are attacked we get more coverage than the attack itself. We’ve been able to turn obstacles into stepping stones. Some candidate gives back a campaign contribution from an Arab-American: we get copy for the next three days about that issue. I call that the best money we never had to spend.
Is the Arab-American constituency key to your strategy of insuring a debate over US policy in the Middle East? What about the peace community and the Rainbow?
Black Americans in particular, for several reasons. Since the cultural nationalist movement of the early 1970s, there is a deeper sense among black Americans that Third World issues directly are their issues. Arab-Americans need to feel that kinship, too. We need to be as out front on South Africa as black Americans have been on the Middle East. The statement of the Black Leadership Roundtable after Andrew Young was fired as UN ambassador in 1979 nailed the question: How can we be expected to fight in wars and not be a part of shaping the process that determines those wars? There is a black-led electoral coalition that is fighting for a new policy in the Middle East. Arab-Americans really are allying themselves with this black-led political coalition.
This is something broader than the Rainbow?
Deeper than the Rainbow, but not broader.
What about the predominantly white peace movement?
To the extent to which it’s predominantly white and does not involve a black leadership and does not understand and relate to black leadership, to that extent it will be hampered in its ability to move on all issues, not just Middle East. PHRC’s application to the Coalition for a New Foreign and Military Policy was rejected twice. A black woman who was organizing secretary at that time called me a couple of months after we’d applied to say, “Look, your application is here, you’ve got a majority vote, you ought to be in, but there’s real hanky-panky going on.” In fact, two Jewish groups said, “If you let them in, we pull out.” We didn’t get in. When I was at ADC, we reapplied, and the same two Jewish groups protested. We didn’t make it. I was hurt personally because of the insult that that represented to us. More than that, I was angry at the ability of these people to just ignore the fact that we weren’t an Arab lobby, we were an ethnic group, trying to relate in a progressive way on all the issues. We had made it clear in our application what our positions were on general peace issues.
So we laid out a strategy for a year. We made a list of all the groups that voted against us, we visited them, we met with their boards. We worked one by one, and then we had the big meeting. And we went to that meeting, and David Saperstein and the guy from ADA [Americans for Democratic Action] got up and launched into an emotional pitch about Jewish fears and concerns about the Holocaust, and how, because of this, the coalition needed to be sensitive to Jewish insecurities. We were not silenced by this; instead, we responded with a statement of our own pain, because we have as much pain — our Holocaust has not been one quick historical event, it’s gone on for a goddamn century. But when you begin to tally up the human suffering and the loss of life and the victimization by imperialism, we’ve got a story to tell. And we won the vote.
But I learned something as I looked around that room. The Coalition for a New Foreign and Military Policy did not have one single ethnic minority group in its ranks. They had Central American groups that were white. They had South African groups that were white. I said to myself, you know, maybe this coalition isn’t where we need to be. We got in, but actually this coalition needs to be a coalition. It’s only part of a coalition.
At PHRC we had set two goals: one that the leadership of the civil rights movement would come to work around Palestine, and that the leadership of the old Vietnam struggle would come and work around Palestine. Our 1979 conference brought all that together for us. Jesse Jackson and Walter Fauntroy and Joseph Lowrey and Dave Dellinger and Don Luce came. And I felt we were ready to move. We put together the Middle East Peace Action Coalition. We had something like 15 groups, including almost every major Black political group in the country, two American Indian groups, three Hispanic groups, and a couple of other groups — New American Movement joined at that point, and Methodist Federation for Social Action, and others. Well, we went up to New York to a meeting with some other groups up there, and I’ll never forget the reaction I got from the American Friends Service Committee. They said, “Your coalition is too narrow.” I said, “What do you mean, too narrow?” They said, “None of the white peace groups are in it.” Well, I thought, they had some gall, talking about narrow, when they were narrow. We represented the real progressive movement among Third World people in this country calling for a change in policy, and they were sitting up there, you know, nice folks, I’m with them, but they had no business calling us narrow. What the Rainbow does is set the order straight. It is a black-led electoral, political coalition. To the extent to which the peace movement is a real peace movement, it will be a part of the Rainbow. To the extent to which it’s not a part of the Rainbow, it’s playing around with inadequate vision and insufficient forces to produce real change.
In 1984 it was not a part of the Rainbow.
It’s going to be this time around. The Rainbow has expanded considerably in areas that we had never moved before: farm, labor and, I think, a deeper involvement of white progressives and peace movement people. Gary Hart and Joe Biden are not where the peace movement needs to be. Jesse’s leadership role on the disarmament struggle has been significant and has created an entirely new condition in the peace movement. SANE today has a nonintervention orientation; it did not have that before. Not just a non-intervention platform, but they are looking at the Middle East. During the bombing of Libya, SANE was one of the first groups out front. I expect 1988 to be a much broader coalition than we had in 1984.
How do you assess the importance of the Farrakhan experience in 1984?
The media had wanted to see Jesse’s campaign as a threat to Jews, and that’s all they understood it as. Farrakhan represented an element of the black community, the black nationalist element and the Muslim nationalist element coming aboard into electoral politics and into a unified black movement. The “black gap” was getting closed. Farrakhan and what he represents cannot be driven out, as much as some people want it driven out, because Farrakhan personally, and in his ideology, is a measure of black alienation from white America. When white America sees Farrakhan, it says “Oh my God, what’s he saying?” It’s not just Farrakhan and 5,000 followers, it’s the fact that there’s a massive support base around those concerns and that depth of alienation that he represents and gives voice to. Those who want Farrakhan denounced understand that, and are using it to destroy the unity and independence of the black community created in 1984. Jesse Jackson did not merely raise issues; he threatened power equations. People understood that. Jesse didn’t just raise the Middle East issue in the Democratic Party; he raised the power equation in the Democratic Party. For the first time, more blacks voted in New York City than Jews voted in New York City. Blacks in New York cannot be overlooked as they have historically always been overlooked by people seeking the “New York vote.”
Part of my question was, to what extent did Farrakhan complicate how you raise Middle East peace issues?
I don’t think that Farrakhan will be aboard this time around. But those who want to silence the voice of those who call for a change in policy will seek out some other way of discrediting that voice. That time around it was "Hymie" and Farrakhan.
There’s a lot at stake in this debate. One must expect when one goes into such a battle that there’s going to be some pain, and there’s going to be some people who are going to get mighty scared and seek at all costs to stop it. As we move toward greater respect in the society and greater visibility, there are those who want to silence our voice and stop our advance. And they will use violence. Or they will blacklist us. I don’t feel that I can sort out the JDL and ADL responsibilities as easily as some others might. Major Jewish organizations bear a responsibility for violence, because they create the context in which that violence either takes place or is justified. After hearing the shrill rhetoric of the American Jewish Committee calling us supporters of terrorism, some simply accelerate that rhetoric to the level of action and violence.
But then there’s the other side of the equation. We’ve now arrived at a point as a community where there’s no turning back. I think we need to sharpen our analysis of that so it’s not perceived as a general American attack on Arab-Americans, but understood for what it is: a very specific threat against Arab-Americans, by a very specific group that wants to silence our voice and stop our advance. Arab-Americans aren’t isolated. Rather we need to isolate that group that is seeking to stop our advances. And I think that in this instance the Anti-Defamation League, for example, needs to be made answerable for its blacklisting techniques, needs to be made answerable for its spying and intelligence gathering and its sharing with the FBI and sharing with Mossad, and needs to be answerable for the climate of hatred and repression that their tactics have created.
A lot of these issues arose in 1967. Even this question of black relations with the peace movement. The New Politics Convention in Chicago late that summer split apart over black statements on the Middle East. And US policy is more miserable than ever. The initiative still rests with the state.
But the forces that can restrain that policy are much more developed. We didn’t have that in 1967. Fayiz Sayigh said in 1965 that when Zionism appears strongest, it’s actually at its weakest point. I really think right now that it’s a lot weaker than it appears. They control the Hill but we’ve got a lot of the positions around the Hill. We have a lot more allies than we ever had before. And we have a lot more people who think and feel as we do than we ever did before. I remember in the early 1970s somebody saying, it’s going to take 20 years. Well, here we are 20 years later, and we’re looking towards the next 20. I think if we apply the lessons of the Vietnam experience — they had a dozen Congressmen, and they did not just bring politics from Washington out to the streets; they had to win some elections. We’ve got to bring that debate into the electoral arena. We’re on the track toward power.
There’s still a leap to make from electoral strength to changing policy.
I don’t think that we need to elect a president or a Congress that will say, “No aid to Israel, and recognize the PLO, and give them the whole thing back.” If we can simply arrive at a position where a debate takes place, and Congress decides next year not to increase aid to Israel, and SDI gets cut, and the SDI funds that Israel needs to offset the funds that they’re not getting elsewhere get cut, or there’s no special NATO treatment for Israel because we create a debate over Pollard and the Iran thing. It’s not like we need to change the NSC’s position; we don’t. Say we get a Congress that says that we’re going to cut aid to Israel 10 percent — the Pollard penalty. What repercussions does that have back in Israel, and in the West Bank? What would be the internal dynamic at that point? We don’t know. Our strategy is to get a national debate, and to create a deeper sense of community, to build a coalition that can provide the restraint that we’ve had in South Africa, or in Central America. What we don’t need is an American president who says: I’m going to convene the Arabs and the Jews and make peace in the Middle East. That not only won’t happen, but that shouldn’t happen. America doesn’t hold all the cards, but it holds enough of them that if you can just deal one out of the deck, then you change the equation back there and you change the equation here in turn.
We used to argue back in the early 1970s, you know, Israel is an ally of imperialism, and these great social democrats were saying Israel is a progressive vanguard. No one with a straight face can do that one anymore. Everybody knows what Israel represents. The question is getting them to act on it. I do not see the disarray in the Arab world as necessarily a setback for us here. We don’t need a unified PLO to be able to do any work. In the West Bank and Gaza, the resistance is there. That is where the sharpest contradiction between Zionism and the Palestinian movement has always been. The kids won’t let you ignore it. When I was teaching college, back in the early 1970s, those kids were being born. Those kids are leading the struggle and teaching us all today what it means.