Three months ago, James Zogby of the Arab American Institute, who had served on Bernie Sanders’s committee to draft the Democratic Party platform last summer, spoke at the Jerusalem Fund in Washington to compare the year 2016 to 1988. “In both of these presidential election years, the issues of the Palestinian rights factored into the internal Democratic Party platform debate; and the issue of Palestinian rights, the efforts, were led by progressive presidential candidates both times: Jesse Jackson’s in 1988 and Bernie Sander’s as 2016, and they both galvanized significant multi-ethnic, multi-racial coalitions,” Zeina Azzam of the Jerusalem Fund said in introducing him. Dr. Zogby’s speech was so revealing of the status of Palestinian rights inside the Democratic Party, including revelations about Chuck Schumer’s views of fundraising off Palestinians in 1988 and Wendy Sherman’s views on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) in 2016, that we asked Dr. Zogby and the Jerusalem Fund for permission to republish it. Dr. Zogby edited the speech for clarity. –Editor
Thank you, Zeina. I usually conclude the lecture with the lessons learned. I’ll tell you what the lesson is from up-front. Never invite an old guy to tell stories because he doesn’t know when to stop. I thank you for giving me, though, this opportunity to reflect on some history, some of it personal and some of it larger than personal.
The ‘88 and ‘16 conventions and their platform processes were, for me personally, quite transformative moments, and were very instructive about the political process and about where we were as a community and where the Palestine issue is an issue in our national debate. Both shared some common features, Zeina pointed to one, and that is there was a Jesse Jackson and a Bernie Sanders and–let’s be honest, despite the fact that some of the activists in our community were, “it was from the grassroots that led this,” If it hadn’t been for Bernie Sanders, the issue wouldn’t have made it at all; and, if it hadn’t been for Jesse Jackson the issue wouldn’t have been there at the national stage either. It takes a champion to be able to push you to the point where the issue you care about surfaces above the level of invisibility. There also was an empowered Arab community and a community of supporters, who were able, once the wave was created, to ride that wave and carry it forward, and when, at times, the champion may have gotten weak kneed, the wave was able to carry them as well, and keep them going. And, then obviously, the other similarity in the two was these were the only times that the issue of Palestine was debated on the national stage in American politics.
But there were also differences in the two periods, in the two conventions, and I want to discuss that a bit. First, by giving a little of the backdrop to 1988. It was a different time and a difficult time. For me, the story begins with the Palestinian Rights Campaign in the late seventies. When I came to Washington to do the Palestinian Rights Campaign, Amnesty International wouldn’t touch the Palestinian case–it was too controversial. They didn’t want to lose their supporters, so only Amnesty London touched them. Sunday Times did a magnificent feature on Israeli torture. No American group that dealt with human rights would pick it up. We targeted, in the beginning, by opponents who wanted to silence us, but were also successful in winning the support of the Methodist Church, the Lutherans, a number of the main line Protestant churches. We also succeeded in winning the endorsements of all of the major folks that have been in Martin Luther King’s circle–with the exception of Andy Young–every one of them joined our board. The only one that didn’t was Andy Young because he was at the UN at the time. And we went after and won the support of all of the major leaders in the anti-Vietnam peace movement. Including Dave Dellinger and Don Luce. And people like Dan Berrigan and Peter Seeger. All of them joined our board. We had built a tremendous coalition across the country that was quite substantial. And we were coexisting at the time with a group call Breira, which was what Jewish Voice for Peace is today–it was a progressive group of American Jews who were fighting for justice in the Middle East. Their name Breira came from the Zionist slogan, “ein breira,” “there is no alternative”, and they changed it to say “there is an alternative”. And the alternative was peace with justice.
Back then, we, the Palestinian Rights Campaign, tried to join the coalition for a new foreign military policy – that was the coalition here in Washington that included some sixty-plus American church and peace organizations. We were put to a vote. We won the vote 58-3. Three groups objected and said that if you let the Arabs in, we’ll leave and you’ll lose all your credibility on the Hill. We were asked to withdraw the application. We were targeted in ways that were quite harmful and hurtful, including at one point my office was firebombed. And we were called “Arab terrorists”; we were called “PLO front group”; we were excluded. For me, I was invited to the White House to a meeting with Vice President Mondale, and three days after the meeting, I was called by the White House to say, “I’m so sorry but we can never have you back again because people objected that we had an Arab at the meeting.” It was a very difficult time, and we learned a lesson back then that was kind of a balance between the greater the empowerment, the more the backlash to stifle the empowerment.
And so in 1980, when former Senator Jim Abourezk said, let’s start the anti-discrimination committee, I had not wanted to give up the Palestine Human Rights Campaign but thought that this would grow it and build beyond it, and do the one thing that had been missing, which was there was no organized Arab American component. We did it. And Abourezk had star power and mobilized the community. He was an exciting person to be around. And I did the grunt work of building the organization. By 1984, we were the largest organization of its kind ever in the country. We had almost 20,000 members, and it was really quite a significant movement. We were very proud of it.
At the end of ‘83, Jesse Jackson came to me and said, “Would you be my deputy campaign manager?” And I said to him, “Reverend for the last 4 years, I’ve been organizing Arab Americans. I’m not ready to give it up.” He said, “You will do more for your community in the next four months than you’ve done in the last 4 years. Try it.” So, I did. And he was right. The community got energized in ways I hadn’t seen. Jesse’s slogan at the time was, “Our time had come.” And it was a slogan directed at the African-American community, but clearly my people felt it as well. There had never been an American political campaign that had included Arab Americans by name. There had been a Lebanese committee for Carter, and a Syrian committee for Reagan at one point, but there had never been Arab American committee. We’ve never been called out by name and Jesse did just that.
He also raised the issue of Palestine. And look, you know I do not want Arabs to be reduced to Palestine, but I do not want to ignore the importance of Palestine either. It is a centerpiece of our issue concerns, because in some ways it capsulizes, it brings together all of the other concerns that we’ve had. It’s the sense of betrayal, it’s the sense of exclusion, it’s the sense of denial. It is an issue that resonates for the community. It’s interesting when we do our polling–we poll first, second, third generation Lebanese and this issue resonates with every sector. You can take, in the middle of the Lebanese Civil War, a third generation Maronite guy who says, “I’m not Arab, I’m Maronite, I’m Phoenician”–talk to him about Palestine and it resonates. It’s an issue that matters, because it speaks to us on so many levels. So when Jesse raised it, it said to people, “this guy cares, he understands.” And they joined the campaign.
At the end of that campaign, we had a choice to make, and the choice we made was to build on the experience we had in 1984. And so we founded the Arab American Institute to continue that empowerment process and to build on the lessons we learned in that campaign. And so we focused on voter registration. We mobilized people into the political parties, even though, at first, the political parties would have none of us. Democratic Party would not meet with us for four whole years. They said why should we meet with you, we’ll lose the support of others, and we knew what that meant. And so, we just continued to do our work. By the time we got to 1987, we were in a very different place. We had done voter registration, we had done voter empowerment, we had built clubs across the country, and we had laid out a strategy for involvement in the campaigns that enabled us to do something else that we’ve learned that you could not only run for delegate, you could not only run for state delegate and be part of a state political process, you could also bring issues to the state conventions. In 11 state conventions in 1988, we had elected enough delegates and had built a broad enough coalition base that we passed resolutions on Palestinian rights. It had never been done before on that scale. It had been done by a couple of groups in a few states in 1984 – but not on a national level. We did it in Washington, for example, Maine, Vermont, and in Iowa. Progressive Jews and some Arab Americans got together and did it. The resolutions they introduced just made sense. So when delegates came to the convention and were confronted with a resolution that said there should be justice for Palestinians and justice and peace for Israelis and Palestinians together, people said, “Of course,” and they passed it. In ‘88, we had built such a momentum and again with progressive Jews, and again this time with African-American supporters, we did it in 11 state conventions. These were the conventions where we actually could do it.
It was interesting that the resistance we got was huge. They brought in Tom Daschle from South Dakota to try to defeat it; they brought in Tom Harkin in Iowa; they brought in the leadership in Texas. They even tried to move the site of the convention at the last minute without telling delegates, try to get a rump caucus to move forward. They couldn’t do it, we passed them in every state that we went into, didn’t lose one. And it worked. It elevated the issue on the national level, it actually was the Illinois one when African American elected officials and the Arab Americans there combined, and they brought in the state leadership to try to defeat it, it made a story in the New York Times, which sort of brought the issue out into the forefront. Jesse raised it, but here you had a grassroots movement actually winning on it. And, in the face of Tom Harkin, overwhelmingly passing it; in the face of Tom Daschle, overwhelmingly passing it. There was simply no way to defeat it because it made sense.
We got to the national convention, and the proverbial shit hit the fan. We entered into negotiations over the platform, and if you look at our website, AAI USA, we have the language of all of the party platforms there. In the language that they had proposed was, we believe this country maintaining a special relationship with Israel founded upon mutually shared values and strategic interests should provide new leadership to deliver the promise of peace and security through negotiations that has been held up to Israel and its neighbors in the Camp David Accords. It was just unacceptable. We were in the middle of an intifada, there was a huge crisis in the world over this tragedy that was unfolding in Palestine, and that was the best we were going to do? At one point in the negotiations, I remember a very prominent Democratic foreign policy leader said to me, “You’re going to destroy the Democratic party if you keep doing this, and you will never have a place in this party again. You’re done.” I said, “Don’t play Chicken Little with me, the sky’s not going to fall. We’re going to have a debate, we’re going to go home, and everything is going to continue on. Don’t blame me if Dukakis loses, it had nothing to do with this issue at all.” And frankly, I didn’t put the helmet on his head when he got out of the tank–plus, if somebody had asked me if your wife got raped, what would you do, I’d have a different answer than being stumped.
In any case, we persisted. We tried in the negotiations to come up with some fall-back language, not wanting to have a total explosion. But we said, just add to your language about the Camp David Accords, “including the legitimate rights of the Palestinians”, which is in the Camp David Accords.” They said, we couldn’t put the ‘P word’ in the platform. Not ‘poop.’ It was Palestine. And they wouldn’t accept it. And so, we were left with no recourse but to go to the floor. But in the campaign, there were also people who were saying, “Jesse, don’t do this, it’ll be a problem.” And there were those in the campaign, some of whom you will know, who put real pressure on me to stop it and not do it. In the end, we had to go to Reverend, and Reverend said, “We stick with principle.” But then he turned to me and he said, “Don’t blow the party up.” And so the compromise solution that we came up with was, we would introduce the plank as a minority plank because we had the votes, we had 1200 votes. We had them signed on a petition. New York Times, interestingly enough, reported the story, ‘Arabs and Jews Fight at Democratic Convention.’ I said the story actually should have been ‘Jews vs. Jews’ because we had more American Jewish delegates in the Jackson coalition than we had Arab Americans–we only had 55 Arab American delegates actually at the convention, and there were many more American Jews, it was a progressive caucus of people committed to an issue.
And we went forward. Introducing the plank, having the debate, having a demonstration on the floor, which for me was maybe one of the great moments of my life, because I had grown up in politics. I had seen the demonstrations on the convention floor over South Africa, over Vietnam, and I thought, will we ever be able to do that for Palestine? And we did. I just want to show you a news clip that my office found just recently going back then. It was from the evening news.
It was a heavy time. I mean, looking down over the sea of the Convention delegates, and seeing those Palestinian shirts, and seeing the banners and hearing the crowd talking about Palestine was really a great moment. We lost, but we didn’t. We actually won a moral victory of having the issue breaking the deadly silence. There’s a brochure that we printed up back then called “Ending the Deadly Silence” that quotes some of the Israeli press. And it quotes AIPAC. AIPAC actually did a fundraiser based on the event, which I must tell you, we then turned into a fundraiser for us, saying, “Look, AIPAC is making money off of this, would you contribute to us?” We actually did pretty well.
I should add–one name I will mention because what he did was so distasteful was Chuck Schumer. I presented the resolution calling for “mutual recognition, territorial compromise and self-determination for the Israelis and Palestinians, Chuck Schumer presented the opposition. Congressmen Merv Dymally then presented the rebuttal. And then Senator Dan Inouye presented the final of the closing argument. The agreement that we reached was that we would not engage in personal attacks. And Chuck Schumer got out and said something about, “The last speaker was disgraceful, dishonest, disingenuous, whatever,” and people started booing. Booed so much that he got pulled off twice, and they had to pound the gavel to get the convention back. After it was over, Schumer comes to the back and he puts his arm around me and says, “Zogby, you have no idea how much money you raised for me in Brooklyn last night.” And I was, really? Is that what this was about? Point is, we had done it. We had actually been able to break through.
The last day of the convention, something happened that I will never forget. I was standing there, obviously beaten up by the party leadership. And Percy Sutton, who had been borough president of Manhattan and was a Jackson stalwart, he was chairman of the campaign back then, and another guy came up to me. Percy gave me–I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Percy Sutton, he was a bear of a man–he came up and he gave me a hug, he like squeezed the air out of me, and he said–maybe this is the most meaningful thing anyone had ever said to me about politics–he said, “What you did tonight was what we did in 1948 with the issue of civil rights.” He said, “I know you’ve been beat up and I know you’re taking it hard, but you just did a breakthrough.” And I looked, and the guy standing next to him was crying. It was Ron Brown’s dad. And Ron Brown was always the guy I would go to for help. After all those years of exclusion, the first day Ron Brown was on the job as the chairman of the DNC after the election, he called me, he said, “I’m sitting at my desk, I’m not meeting with anybody until you come over here. We’re ending this situation. This party’s open to Arab Americans.” Introduced me to political director Paul Tully. He asked me 3 questions. He said, “Do you have people? Do you know where they are? And can you organize them?” I said, “Yes, yes, yes.” And I had lists to prove it. And we were in. And so that, it was Jesse who knocked on the door but it was Ron Brown and Paul Tully who opened the door and let us in.
A very close friend back then, Jack O’Dell, who had been one of Reverend’s chief advisors, said to me, he said, “Never think you won, because the minute you win and let your guard down, they’re coming after you.” And that’s what happened. But what happened was not just that we got in and then there was an assault on us. But there also was a fragmentation within the community, because the Gulf War divided us. Oslo divided us. With Oslo, the narrative changed. The narrative changed from “Justice for Palestinians” to “Why aren’t the Palestinians doing more?” What about Israeli security? It became an Israeli security narrative rather than a Palestinian justice narrative. Even to the disgraceful point where it is today when groups that call themselves ‘progressive’ say, “We need 2 states, so that Israel can be secure and democratic and Jewish,” meaning get rid of all the Arabs, which is what it translates to. And that idea gelled during that decade–that Arabs were saying no, Israel was saying yes, even though settlements were doubling. Poverty was growing. Freedom of movement denied. There had been 140,000 Palestinians doing day labor jobs in Israel during the occupation, after the occupation and after the massacre in Hebron when the checkpoints and the borders got closed, they lost all those jobs. And so the single biggest employer in the West Bank became the State because there were no more jobs, and, because they couldn’t import and export, they couldn’t grow a domestic economy. And they were crippled. And so, it was like blaming the victim for not being able to do more to make peace and make Israelis feel secure. And terrorism, for sure, was a hideous blot on the Palestinian landscape. But it does not excuse the behavior of the occupying authorities, the dominant power who denied this freedom of growth, development, and movement of an independent Palestinian entity. And then, you know the myth of the “Best Deal Ever” that Arafat turned down, and then the second intifada, and then the entire neglect and abuse of the Bush administration of this issue, resulted in the deformities that we see playing out today, and change the political narrative here in America, the dominant political narrative here in America.
But under the surface, something else was happening. We talk about the partisan divide when we do our polling. Well, one thing I became aware of, as we saw during the Clinton administration, what happened was, AIPAC came out on one side, but ZOA, the Zionist Organization of America, pushed them further to the right. You had a Republican congress supporting Likud and opposing a Democratic president who was supporting labor. You had a split in the Jewish community that began to emerge. You also had a split in the partisan divide that began to grow bigger. Remember, it had been Bush and Baker who’d been the champions, now it was Clinton who was the champion. He was the one meeting with Arafat, he was the one pushing 2 states, he was the one pushing–not 2 states–but pushing Palestinian rights, whatever, and trying to get back at Netanyahu. That divide started and began to grow. And interestingly enough, in the polling that we saw, by the time you get into this century, the partisan divide became clearly a demographic divide. And the demographic divide is real. On one side, there are millennials, “minorities”–African-American, Asian-American, Latino-American and educated Americans. I saw an article the other day that said, “Democratic party is getting less religious, more Black, and more Atheist–no, and more educated.” And I said, oh, so an educated African-American Atheist is the new Democrat. It doesn’t mean that. It means that those are the trend lines, those are the tendencies, the groups that lean in that direction, and that’s what we see on the Palestinian issue as well. And President Obama was the coalition that brought it together. But he brought it together without this issue. He spoke rather forthrightly, I mean he actually said things that maybe no presidential candidate had ever said before about Israel-Palestine. But he said them to Jewish audiences in private. They were leaked out afterwards. The meeting in Cleveland where he said, you don’t have to be pro-Likud to be pro-Israel and he also spoke about settlements, and he went on about that as well. I mean, there’s some pretty stunning things that he said back then that had not been said, but, again, they weren’t public and they never became part of the campaign. And so, as the issue gelled and we got to the 2008 convention and the 2012 convention, if you look at the language of the 2012 platform, for the first time Democrats were able to say, “We support 2 states”–because now George Bush had said it, so they could say it–but it was mostly about Israeli security. And then when it said 2 states, it was to secure Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. And then it had caveats about a demilitarized state. In other words, we’re not going to–as they said to me this year, on the side, they said, “We’re not going to litigate the issues in the platform.” And I said, “Oh, you don’t want to litigate the issues unless you want to litigate the issues.” So Jerusalem is off the table, refugees are off the table, this is off the table, that’s off the table. We’re not going to litigate the issues. So don’t talk about settlements and don’t talk about occupation.
But none of it was here. When Palestinians were talked about at all, it was to insist that any Palestinian partner must recognize Israel’s right to exist, reject violence, and adhere to existing agreements. True enough, but one might also want to say the same thing about Israel, but that wasn’t in the document. And so it was an Israeli-centric platform.
What Bernie did was actually build on the same coalition. And build it in a different way. The circumstances were different in 2016 because there had been expectations raised by the Obama administration that had been let down. And despite the fact the President had done and magnificent job on the economy and a magnificent job in restoring America, in so many different ways, there was a sense that greater things could’ve happened or should’ve happened and didn’t happen. And especially in foreign affairs, the expectation level in the Middle East went way up and then dashed to the ground. And only today is resurfacing, in part because America’s footprint has been softer, and the less we’re there, the more kindly they think of us because we’re not screwing up as badly as we were. At one point, the President said to me, when I told him the polling numbers were down, he said, “Because their expectations were too high,” and I said, “Yeah, but you raised them. You raised them.” And, it was true here at home as well, a generation of young people who had their expectations raised and now felt a bit deflated.
And here comes Bernie Sanders, who nobody expected. I mean, this old guy–I actually loved it when I saw young kids screaming at him. I thought, maybe there’s a place for us old guys yet. You know, it was interesting when I got involved in Bernie’s campaign, I found there were 2 distinct demographics. There were my guys–the faded, jaded peace movement activists from the Sixties, and young kids. And, for me, in many ways, it was a Jackson reunion. There were a lot of folks from the old Jackson campaign who came back.
I actually signed on before, I mean I’d done a couple briefings for him, on ISIS and on Syria, and we had a long talk about Israel-Palestine. I wasn’t quite sure it was registering, you know, and then when he was going to do a speech, and he wasn’t going to do it at AIPAC, we knew it. He was going to do it elsewhere. I got a copy of the draft to work with. I was stunned that he was going to say this stuff–didn’t believe it. So they said, make some adds, so I made some adds, here and there–still not thinking it was ever going to happen because it was never quite sure if it was going to happen, and then he did it. And when he did it, and then in the debate in Brooklyn, doubled down, and went even further, and got cheers for it, it registered, like Jackson and the wave: This one works. This is where my progressive coalition is on this issue, and so it stuck with him, as something that while it had been sort of an incidental issue, it became something that he had embraced and owned. I was, frankly, surprised when he asked me to join the platform team, and thrilled actually, that I was part of what–somebody did a cute little video– called the “Dream Team” and the Native American woman was just remarkable, Bill McKibben is one of the really fine intellects I know. The whole group was just a marvel to work with, including folks on the other side. It mean it was a great group that got assembled, and we spent days in hearings, and we debated the issues with those who came before us. When it came to Palestine–we thought that the issues would be something else; but, when it became apparent to us that, the dividing line was going to be the words occupation and settlement, I was floored. I could not believe that was going to be the things we were going to end up fighting about. When we saw the draft language, and there was the BDS language, and there was still the Jerusalem language, the one that had gotten booed down on the floor three times in 2012, I was like, “Oh man, we’re going to fight Jerusalem, we’re going to fight BDS.” I never thought we were going to end up fighting occupation and settlements–I thought that was a no-brainer and a given. But they made them the issue, and so we embraced it. We said this is what we’re going to fight on. We had won in-state conventions, interestingly in states that we hadn’t won before, Colorado was great. I mean there were states all over the country where the same process happened as in 1988, with community folks and with a different generation of people, in many cases not Arab American, not Jewish American, just party activists saying “This issue’s a Bernie issue, I’m with Bernie.” It was a different era in that the issue had sunk deeper into the public consciousness. Bernie awakened it, but it was there and resonated. In 1988, the issue was there, but it never penetrated the whole campaign. With Bernie, it penetrated much more widely. It was embraced much more wholeheartedly by Bernie’s crowd. I wasn’t the odd man as I’d been in the Jackson campaign, “Oh there is Zogby, he’s going to do the Middle East thing.” With Bernie it was, “Oh there’s Zogby, he’s going to raise Bernie’s issues.” Because I’d been involved in a range of issues–I did the death penalty, I did the healthcare one, I did a bunch of them.
It wasn’t just the one, but this was the one that meant a lot to me to be able to be in the position many years later, doing it again. We lost. We lost the debate. We had a heady debate at the platform sessions, and I think if you get a chance to look at the videos of it, it was kind of interesting; and one of the things that was interesting was that while Wendy Sherman, that went up against me on the Clinton side, had been one of the people– not the person I said who said that awful thing to me– but had been one of the people who’d been on the Dukakis side in ‘88. She acknowledged; she said “You know, Jim and I are back at it again.” But, it was different this time. It was different because the language had shifted; and if you look at the language of the platform, they attempted to preempt some of our concerns the resultant platform while not perfect, was certainly better than the previous platform. Understand the progress was made here. It was not a rejection. When the language says “This is the first time in history.” This was the first time in history that the platform speaks of recognition of Palestinians as having rights, not as a
matter of Israeli self-interest to preserve the Jewish democratic state. The platforms says instead, “Palestinians should be provided with independence, sovereignty, and dignity. Palestinians should be free to govern themselves in their own viable state in peace and dignity.” That had never been said before. They were preempting our objections and our debate by inserting that language. And when I objected to BDS, here’s what Wendy said: She said, “We’re careful,” if you read the language, she said “We’re very careful not to outright oppose BDS.” They only opposed it if it de-legitimized Israel. My response was, “Israel is de-legitimizing itself. We don’t have to do that.” But the point is that this is about occupation and settlements and BDS is about that, not about de-legitimizing Israel.
The point is that they were proposing language, but in public saying that that language didn’t quite mean what people interpreted it to mean, that it actually was much less. The threshold of their objection was much lower. We lost, but we elevated the issue again in a national way. Bernie had been responsible for that. The coalition was deeper. The coalition was more, I think, embracing of the issue, and reflected this millennial movement that has found expression on college campuses all across the country, that is not reversible. I mean, they can do all the anti-free speech stuff they want, they can do all the anti-BDS, legislation they want. There is a movement among young people for justice that is simply not going to go away. But remembering Jack O’Dell’s words, “This is not a time to sit on one’s laurels, because you can end up squashing them with your butt if you do.” You really have to pay attention to the fact that there is this onslaught attempting to roll back the change that has occurred in the consciousness of young people, in the consciousness of progressives, whether they be Black or White or Latino, in the consciousness of labor folks who were central to this debate in many cities, and of course, in the consciousness of a network of American Jews that have become as central to this debate, and in some cases more central to this debate, than Arab Americans. Yet, were part of it of course but we’re not the odd man out at this point. This is an issue that has become bigger, and yet the rollback can occur. Continuing the movement and focusing it on this issue is going to be the challenge that we face. I don’t want to have to wait another twenty-eight years for the next convention to raise the issue of Palestine and I want someone who will run the next time who will say, “The table’s set. This is part of the national discourse. I’ve got to embrace this issue as part of the pack of issues because that’s a winning formula for me.”