Posted on August 02, 1993 in Washington Watch
As Israeli bombs rained down on Lebanon and the tragedy of the Lebanese people was repeated, those of us in Washington who have spent our lives working on Arab issues took a long, hard look at ourselves.
The questions we faced were difficult: after years of organizing, struggling, and fighting to win some concern for our issues and our human rights, why was this happening again and what could be done about it?
I’ve been working here in Washington full-time for 16 years now. Throughout that entire period, Lebanon and its continuing tragedy, like the continuing plight of the Palestinians, has weighed heavy.
All of us here are in turmoil. My office, in addition to our ongoing work, now must confront this new Israeli war on Lebanon.
As we survey the carnage and wreckage in Lebanon depicted in the daily news, there is a disturbing sense of deja vu: Lebanese children in bomb shelters; Lebanese and Palestinians with suitcases packed, stuffed into cars fleeing north; a Lebanese village already in rubble from an earlier bombing, with yet another bomb exploding redundantly in its midst and today, a Lebanese child in tears, waiting for ambulances to take away her wounded mother (who’s bleeding, unconscious face can be seen in the photo’s background).
I keep telling myself: “I’ve seen those faces and pictures before.” Was it 1977, 1978, 1981, 1982 or when?
In all those previous one-sided wars, we fought with the media and urged them to be fair. Their idea of being fair then was to give equal treatment to the one Israeli killed with the 383 Lebanese and Palestinians killed in the 1981 Israeli bombing of the Fakhani neighborhood in Beirut. There is a victory in this, but it is a tragic one at best. The Arab dead and wounded, and the Arab refugees and the Arab rubble finally get their due.
I wonder at the burdensome familiarity as I scan the weary Lebanese and Palestinian faces in the newspapers and on the television screens, as they flee north or look helplessly (again) at the destroyed homes where they once lived.
I wonder how many times those cars have made the same trip north under these same conditions. Was that pile of rubble a house that had been rebuilt after having been destroyed in an earlier raid. Now, leveled again….
There is a madness to it, to be sure. How many times can a family find the emotional strength to start over, to recapture what has been abruptly and tragically lost? And was the woman who’s unconscious, bleeding face I saw today a child I saw in 1977 or 1978? When her eyes were open then, what did she see?
The timing of this attack is particularly brutal. Lebanon was well on its way to healing some of the deep wounds that had nearly destroyed the country during its 16-year civil war. There is, in this Israeli action, a cold, and brutal kind of destructiveness that almost defies description.
Those of us who have worked to change attitudes in the United States must still listen to the same distorted rationalizations from the Israeli apologists, but there is a difference today that is worth noting.
At our office there are press calls from radio, television and newspapers. I and others have done dozens of interviews, appearances, debates and call in-in radio and television programs this week. In the 1970s, we were not called at all.
In those days, Jewish leaders debated each other on television about the wisdom of this or that Israeli action. By the 1980s, however, we had, through hard work and organization, reached the point where we were included in the debates. Frequently, now, Arab Americans appear alone and we are allowed to interpret our own history, suffering and ideas.
Other things have changed. The attitudes of the reporters and even those calling to express their concerns have changed. It’s still a difficult battle, but most reporters I’ve spoken with share many of our concerns and many of those who call in to radio shows I’ve appeared on to discuss the issue are as outraged as I am by what is happening in Lebanon.
Even the Jewish leaders with whom I debate seem different. They’re not as aggressive this time and even when they try to be, they often fall strangely silent when I respond to their claims. Their heart doesn’t seem to be in this fight.
We’ve received a great many calls from Arab Americans this week. Some call for news, some to cry or vent their anger. More often though, Arab American activists are calling to seek guidance and information – or to report on what they’ve done. They are demonstrating, raising money for Lebanese relief, visiting Congressmen or doing local press appearances.
Back in 1977, when I first began in this work by founding the Palestine Human Right’s Campaign, there were only a handful of us working in Washington on Arab issues and our collected Arab American membership was a few thousand.
Today we have major institutions with almost 100 staff working this summer and tens of thousands of members. Not enough to stem the tide, but a beginning. And most of them are too young even to remember when Israel first occupied south Lebanon in 1975.
I’ve met or spoken this week with most of the U.S. administration officials involved in the peace process. And here, too, there is a change. Never before have Arab Americans had such open and regular access to government and the meetings we attend have a different tone.
In previous years, as in 1977 and 1978 and 1982, the meetings with the Administration, when they came, were confrontational. We heard only spirited defenses of Israel’s view. In 1982, it took Reagan until September to speak critically of Israel’s invasion. This time only on the first day did the Administration attempt to present a coordinated critique of Hezbollah, implicitly (but never explicitly) supporting Israel’s actions.
While their timidity and lack of political courage still troubles me deeply, no one in the Administration has defended Rabin’s actions. And when we specifically requested a criticism of Israel’s forced evacuation of Lebanese and Palestinians from their villages, though more mild than we wanted, it was immediately forthcoming.
Some officials are frustrated because the Israeli war on Lebanon threatens to disrupt the peace process in which they have invested so heavily. Others feel that Rabin walked into Hezbollah’s trap. And one member of the Administration admitted that the reason for their timidity was, quite simply, domestic political pressure (meaning fear of the strong pro-Israel lobby).
Our demands as a community remain the same: an end to the U.S. double standard, enforcement of UN resolutions, especially, in this case, UN resolution 425; enforcement of U.S. laws that prohibit U.S. military and economic aid to countries that use them in violation of international law. But, here too, there has been a change, a sad one, at that.
Maybe we’ve become like some in the Arab world. We repeat these demands almost by rote. We’ve lost the feeling (and perhaps the naivetÃ©) that politics and morality were a connected whole. In fact, we learned that politics is about power. And so while we repeat the formulas, some here have lost faith in them. Are they repeated simply to be heard?
We’ve been down this road too many times before. Like those Lebanese and Palestinians fleeing north for what might be the 4th or 5th time, we are feeling weary, as if we have made the journeys with them.
The fact that we have Arab American organizations and leaders who have changed the press, entered the media debate, gained access to the administration, organized tens of thousands of Arab Americans and provide them with information and guidance as big issues – all this must be noted.
But as I look at the pictures, and see the timidity of my government, listen to the brazen lies of the Israelis and see the horrible damage they have wrought on Lebanon and its people, I cannot help but grieve that we cannot stop the wounding of another generation of Lebanese and Palestinian children.
We’ve a come a long way, I tell myself, but not far enough. There is in the history of the Jewish community a lesson for Arabs and Arab Americans.
Their nightmare came in one powerful devastating blow when as many as 6 million people were murdered in 5 years by a brutal Nazi regime. When the shock had worn off, the survivors in the Jewish community vowed “never again.” They organized, raised money, and worked to ensure that “never again” would they be vulnerable or so tragically passive when their own were destroyed.
Our Arab holocaust has been a century-long pogrom at the hands of so many colonial masters. We were subjugated, dispersed, divided, occupied and killed. Maybe because it has gone on so long, we’re still in shock or maybe we still have not learned the lesson. We too need to commit to saying “never again” and put an end to this nightmare.
While many Arab Americans are working and contributing and making a difference in politics, so many more are inactive and fatalistic about the possibilities of change (like some of their counterparts in the Arab world) and almost unconsciously believe that we lack the ability to win. Therefore instead of seeking politics as a real path to power, they complain or put their faith in some messianic vision of a great leader with military power who will win for them and therefore absolve them from the hard, slow work that brings real empowerment.
Two decades ago some Arab Americans resolved that this was unacceptable, we began to work to make change. It’s come, but too slowly.
We know that we must make more rapid progress in our political development, in organizing our resources and in collectively developing strategies to win. We must have not only the will to win, but we must convince others that we can win. We need not only the desire to win, but the resources and the strategies that enable us to produce a better U.S. Middle East policy.
Otherwise, all the while we make our slow and steady progress, the load will become heavier and heavier.
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