Posted on April 17, 1995 in Washington Watch

After working 18 years as a full-time Arab American advocate in Washington, one learns a number of important lessons. Principle among them is the that political and personal attacks are to be expected, and one must both endure and learn from them to remain effective.

It should, therefore, have been no surprise that in the past few weeks I would have encountered a spate of attacks – from both some Arab Americans and some American Jews. However, both did catch me off guard because, in each case, the attacks focused on a single issue – my involvement in the U.S. organization, Builders for Peace.

Both instances, the criticism from a few Arab Americans and those emanating from the other side, expose a common flaw in our political culture; that is the difficulty that some have in engaging in open and respectful political discourse. Instead of learning to agree to disagree on points of difference and working toward shared goals where this is agreement, some insist on playing a selective and destructive game of all-or-nothing.

Within the Arab camp, this tendency impedes efforts to work together in a unified and mutually supportive coalition. And with regard to engagement with the Jewish community, this problem simply highlights the difficulties involved in working together toward peace.

At the time of its founding, Builders for Peace was seen as having a limited and defined objective: to promote economic development in the West Bank and Gaza. It was not a political organization but an economic improvement and empowerment project. The group based its actions on the simple conviction that Palestinians had to experience benefits from peace. And while economic development was not, by itself, sufficient to produce peace, without it peace would be impossible.

The fact that scores of leading Arab American and American Jewish businessmen joined the effort was encouraging; just as the fact that the group encountered serious difficulties has been a source of shared frustration. The Builders for Peace members are, however, learning from those impediments and have been able to produce a number of policy suggestions which, if implemented, will make investment in the West Bank and Gaza both more likely and more secure.

Obviously, the Builders for Peace members are disturbed by the difficulties in the peace process and each has his own views on these political issues. At the outset of our work at Builders for Peace one of its leaders said, “We have come together to promote a single objective. We still disagree about the past and we disagree about the future, but we agree on the present need to promote Palestinian economic development.”

But this is the point at which problems begin. I have been critical of both the Israeli performance and the absence of U.S. leadership in the peace process, as my regular readers well know. This has not led me to withdraw my support from Builders for Peace because I believe that it remains an important and useful vehicle through which to promote economic opportunity for Palestinians.

For some Arab Americans, however, this is unacceptable. For them, any association with the American Jewish leadership is wrong – even in a the context of a narrowly defined coalition working toward a worthwhile goal. Not satisfied with criticizing the peace process or even Builders for Peace, they seek to question the motives and integrity of those Arab Americans who continue to work with this effort.

In any coalition the participants agree only on a single agenda and work toward a single goal. This issues outside the framework of the coalition may at times be quite troublesome to the unity of the coalition, but they should not destroy it.

The Arab American critics, about who I am writing, refuse to recognize this lesson of practical politics. They judge mere participation in a diverse coalition as an act of defilement; and therefore see any who support it as tainted by the personal and political “faults” of others who are in it.

On the Jewish side, my recent and severe critics similarly refuse to appreciate the nature of cooperative, single-focus activity. For them, my criticism of Israeli policy (especially my recent critiques of Israeli behavior in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem, and the efforts by some pro-Israel groups to de-legitimize the U.S.-Saudi relationship) is sufficient to call into question my commitment to working together toward the shared goal of economic development in the West Bank and Gaza.

Both of these cases are variations on the old all-or-nothing theme.

It appears that for some Arab Americans the very notion of working with those with whom they have deep differences is unacceptable; while for some American Jews working together means that it is unacceptable to express differences. I reject both views as immature and unproductive.

My message to Arab Americans is the same as it was in August of 1990 when we were in the midst of a heated and divisive debate brought on by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. In a speech I gave then to a community leadership meeting, I spoke, as follows, of the looming crisis in our community:

“This is a crisis not because we differ, but because of the meanness of the accusations that accompany the debate. ...what unites us ought to be stronger than what divides us…as we engage in this debate we should not rupture those bonds, because to do so will only cause irreparable harm to us all.”

To the American Jewish community, I say, “Be respectful and do not seek to dominate or silence Arabs or Arab Americans. Doing such things only creates resentment and frustration. (I READ THIS AS YOU SAYING DIRECTLY, “I RESENT YOUR CRITICISM.”) Appreciate our differences and respect the fact that all of us have our integrity, our own deeply felt beliefs and fears, and our own needs. To insist on silencing critics only brings harsher criticism and, in the end, is self-defeating.”

What we are encountering in our work in the U.S. may provide a small mirror reflection of some of the same difficulties being experienced in the Arab world. Our successes and our failures can be shared. The lessons we learn from our difficulties may, I hope, have some broader application.

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