Posted on April 11, 1996 in Washington Watch

This has been a brutal month. Still reeling form the inhumane closure of the West Bank and Gaza, peace was dealt a new blow with Israel’s barbaric assault on Lebanon.

Seven thousand miles away from the shattered lives and rubble of Lebanon, the Arab American community nevertheless deeply feels the pain of the unfolding tragedy.

U.S. press and television coverage have every day brought powerful images of death and destruction. The scenes all too vividly reminded us of past aggression in 1993, 1982, 1979 and 1978, and back even farther to the painful beginnings of our people’s dispossession.

It was as if Israel had pulled scabs off old wounds, creating pains as fresh as the first hurts. The impact has been real, and may be immeasurable.

Struggling to make peace these past three years has not been easy. It has meant struggling to put aside past pain, forcing forgiveness. It was necessary but, at times, very difficult. There have been times in the past few days when it has seemed impossible.

Compounding our fury has been our frustration with official White House acquiescence to the Israeli assault and the silence of the American Jewish community.

For days, the State Department refused to criticize Israel’s actions. As the massive bombardments continued, with Lebanon’s civilian population and infrastructure its primary victims – the Arab American community became remarkably unified. Factions that had not agreed in two decades came together out of concern for Lebanon.

In all of this, the behavior of many major American Jewish organizations has been inexcusable. Mimicking the arrogant falsification of the Israeli government, the organizations refused to bend, even after the hideous massacre of Lebanese civilians in Qana.

When Israelis were victims of terror, Arab Americans responded with consolation and condemnation. Why, we asked, were American Jewish leaders now silent?

But despite our shock and anger and feelings of betrayal, our community moved into action.

There have been demonstrations against the Israeli assault in most major American cities. Congressmen have received numerous calls and visits from Arab Americans, and some have responded by issuing condemnation of the killing and calls for an end to the bombing.

In an effort to press the Administration, a Summit of Arab American leaders gathered in Washington last week. We presented unified criticism of the Administration silence at a White House meeting with the Acting Secretary of State and leading White House officials.

Our call to the Administration was direct: call for an end to the bombing, express condolence to the victims of the Israeli attacks, and work toward an end of Israel’s occupation of the south of Lebanon.

Our message registered. Since the meeting, the White House has remained in constant contact with our community. In fact, we were informed that the President’s response to the massacre at Qana was crafted to meet at least some of our concerns.

Next week Arab Americans will gather in a national demonstration in Washington. Senators, Members of Congress and religious leaders will address the rally – and the Arab American leadership will meet again with White House officials.

Our effort at this point will be to press hard for a definitive U.S. commitment to end the hostilities and the Israeli occupation, and to seek reparation for the damaged infrastructure of Lebanon.

In addition to our appeal to the Administration, our Summit also issued a firm challenge to the American Jewish community to speak out against Israeli atrocities in Lebanon and the collective punishment of the entire Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza.

Our call, broadcast on television and appearing in major U.S. newspapers, stressed that peace requires mutual respect and concern. It is unacceptable to Arab Americans that American Jewish leaders have not matched their stated commitment to peace with actions and words that bring us closer to peace.

And even here, our challenge has brought some rays of light. Some American Jewish leaders have responded to our call and have joined us in writing a joint declaration calling for a “withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon,” a U.S. commitment to “strengthen Lebanon” and an Administration commitment to ease the burden of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

It has been a brutal month and an exhausting month. The emotional impact of what we have all experienced has been extreme. And the challenges we have faced and the work we have been forced to do have been extraordinary.

But we have resolved not to surrender to the pain or the anger – that would accomplish nothing. We have also resolved to neither pity our weakness nor curse our fate. Even with our limited resources we have found the strength to respond and act effectively.

Tragedy has given us moral authority, and our resolve to act has given us the ability to reach out to allies and people of conscience both inside and outside of government.

As I sit here in Washington writing these words I see the face of that Lebanese father carrying his dead baby, the scene of shredded bodies in Qana, the fear on the faces of Lebanese citizens fleeing and becoming refugees for the fifth and sixth time in their short lives, the pain of jobless Palestinians in Gaza unable to feed their families, and the humiliation and indignity suffered by millions living under yet a new form of Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.

It is those sights that make me frustrated and angry, and that remind me that Israel and its supporters have not yet chosen peace.

But it is those scenes as well that make it clear to me that we cannot afford the luxury of more anger or frustration. They require not putting aside pain – but working to alleviate pain, ever mindful of its persistent presence.

At our White House demonstration we will carry signs. Some will condemn the bombing and killing, and some will call for reparations for Lebanon. Some signs will bear the simple slogan “We vote, too” – a challenge and reminder to elected officials and to ourselves that we will no longer accept being ignored; and that we will only be ignored and weak if we do not accept and meet the challenge to work to strengthen ourselves and demand our rights, and defend the rights of our people.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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