Posted on December 12, 1994 in Washington Watch
It is an axiom in politics that the side that defines the issues in a political debate will almost always win that debate. The debate is not won by facts or by political realities or even by concepts such as justice, but by the way the it is shaped. For over 60 years now, pro-Israel forces have been aggressive in shaping the U.S. debate on a variety of Middle East issues. And they have been winning.
From the earliest days of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it was the pro-Israel forces, not the Arabs, who recognized the power of ideas in shaping policy, and so it was they who first brought the debate to the American people and defined its terms. The pro-Israel definition of the conflict was a simplistic equation. As expressed in 1936 by the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, the Middle East was the scene of a struggle between “the forces of civilization and the forces of the desert, destruction.”
While there have been many variations on this theme, this essentially is the message that Americans received during the past six decades of the one-sided non-debate over U.S. Middle East policy. In this view, there is no other side; Israelis are seen as the only human beings in the Middle East.
Framed again in the film “The Exodus,” the Jews once more defined the terms of the debate, and they established parallels familiar to Americans. In American eyes, the Israelis became the victims fighting for their lives. Having escaped the horror of Nazi Germany, they came to a “new land” only to find themselves and their desires for a better life opposed by heartless Arabs. For Americans, it was a replay of the “pioneer versus the Indians.”
In the public mind of America, informed in this one-sided manner, Israelis were understood to be complex human beings with hopes and fears. They came to exist in the public mind as individual people who had suffered and continued to suffer. Americans knew them, they could see them in their mind’s eye and identify with them.
On the other hand, Arabs, and Palestinians in particular, were viewed not as people but merely as an abstract “political problem.” When they were presented at all, it was in caricature or in the collective. They were Palestinian terrorists (objects of contempt) or Palestinian refugees (objects of pity). When they were bombed by Israeli jets, their homes became Palestinian “strongholds” or Palestinian “targets” (objects of invisibility). They were, in any case, “faceless” objects.
Lebanon and the Lebanese fared no better in the public mind. For years, Lebanon existed in the American mind only as a “beautiful place.” More recently, Lebanon came to be described as a “once-beautiful place.” In fact, Lebanon became in the public’s mind no more than a “vacant lot,” where Israel fought first the Palestinian “problem” and now “radical Muslims,” and where the Lebanese fought themselves.
Throughout the past few decades, Lebanese, as real people, have not been seen; and Lebanese, as individuals, were not known. Lebanese were reduced to caricatures; they were “militiamen” or “terrorists.” And Lebanon itself was reduced to a pawn in a strategic game between Israel and Syria.
The same has been the fate of the rest of the Arab world, which was also grossly caricatured. Arab wealth is resented: it is viewed as ill-gotten gains and is therefore held in suspicion and/or contempt. Each year, for example, my congressman sent the voters in his district a questionnaire polling their attitudes on issues of both domestic and foreign policy. Yearly, he would ask a question like “should we forsake our alliance with the tiny democracy of Israel to work more closely with the feudal oil barons of the Arab world?”
Given this gross misrepresentation of Arab humanity and Middle East realities, is it any wonder that there has been, up until recently, no serious public debate in the U.S.? If, as the public had come to perceive the situation, Israeli humanity was struggling for survival against the “Palestine problem,” or “forces of destruction,” most Americans saw no reason for discussion. Of course, they would say, we should support humanity. And since Palestinians were only a “problem” to be solved, and didn’t really exist as an equal people with rights and feelings, then why shouldn’t Israel’s security concerns be the foremost concern of U.S. politicians?
These perceptions were not, of course, in even the roughest conformity with reality. But reality has not been widely known and is not a part of the debate because Arabs have not engaged in the U.S. debate as vigorously as have pro-Israel forces.
There have been a few remarkable exceptions. The Kuwaitis, for example, made a significant effort to shape the public debate during the confrontation with Iraq. Had they not waged a successful public relations campaign, it is debatable as to whether George Bush could have mustered, on his own, the public support needed to wage a war.
Money and organized political power are obviously key components in the making of public policy – but information work is a critical component in shaping the debate over that policy. Policy is not made in response to political reality or the requirements of justice (if it were, Arabs would have won a long time ago). Policy is made in response to perceptions of reality – perceptions that are created by information campaigns.
Our problem is that Arab information work in the U.S. has been, at best weak, and for the most part nonexistent. And while Arab Americans have been waging a valiant struggle for the past 20 years – and with some success – we cannot do the job alone.
Arab leaders seem to feel that discussion with U.S. government officials are enough. Arab intellectuals seem to feel that complaining in the Arab press (as if the side that complains the loudest will win) is enough. Neither is the case.
American policy is frequently wrong. But it is wrong because Arabs do not engage aggressively in the debate in the U.S.
With all of the resources that could and should be brought to bear in information campaigns in the U.S., where are the Arab challenges in the U.S. to current pro-Israel campaigns like:
Â· The campaign to show Saudi Arabia as an unstable and nearly bankrupt country incapable of being as effective a U.S. ally as Israel?
Â· The campaign to show Islam as essentially an anti-Western and increasingly violent religion?
Â· The campaign to emphasize Israel’s security needs and not Palestinian political and economic needs or Syrian and Lebanese territorial and security needs as just requirements for a peace settlement?
Â· The campaign to discredit Egypt as increasingly insignificant and unstable as a U.S. ally?
All of these campaigns are currently underway in the U.S. And critical issues of public policy will be decided based on the outcome of these campaigns.
Daily, the Arab world press is filled with articles confronting these pro-Israel and anti-Arab efforts. But what is needed is an intense and sustained effort to confront them here in the U.S. Arab Americans, with our very limited resources, are engaged in this effort. But we cannot succeed by ourselves. My invitation to Arab leaders and intellectuals is simple: join us.
Come to the U.S. Travel here. Publish here. Address public policy forums, meet with editorial boards, civic groups and elected officials. Invite U.S. opinion leaders to the region. Show them reality and engage them in debate.
We should even take the initiative and begin to form the debate on Arab terms – and begin our own campaign in which Arabs determine the shape of the debate, define its terms, and shape public perceptions of Middle East realities. Help us balance the debate here, where it’s taking place.
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