Nadia Hijab is a leading voice on Middle East issues. The author lately published (along with Ingrid Jaradat Gassner) an important piece on how to think about Palestinian conditions at al-Shabaka, the thinktank Hijab directs. I sat down with her last month to ask her about her ideas.
Q. I think of you as an optimistic person, yet you’ve spent years on this issue, much longer than I have. How have you done that?
Nadia Hijab: I’m pretty glass half full. I think you have to be a person of an optimistic nature to do this work. I always think it’s such an insane piece of work to do. And that’s the Middle East Eye piece I wrote [“Things will get worse for the Palestinians. Why I still have faith”]. Really you see the world ranged against you– and you’re right. All the superpowers and the big regional power that is now Israel– and you have to have faith and you have to believe, you have to have the optimism to think you can change things otherwise you wouldn’t carry on.
Every once in a while you can get despondent or feel hopeless but what keeps you going is that there are so many others going with you, so I think we reinforce each other and we reinforce our ability to move forward.
Q. You told me that the presence of Jews in the struggle has been an important sign to you. Since when and why?
I’ll talk about the expansion of the Jewish presence as I experienced it in the Palestine solidarity movement as of the year 2000. That’s when I started collaborating, in 2001, with Phyllis Bennis and several others to co-found the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, as it was known then. We were dedicated, we were a smallish number, but the idea was to reach out and establish a coalition of organizations.
And people like Phyllis who happens to be Jewish had been in the movement a very long time. And there were other Jews that had been in the movement a very long time. But I didn’t get the sense that the numbers were many; and it was part of a larger radical politics. In fact at that time, a lot of the Jews who were in the progressive movement wanted nothing to do with Palestine–completely unlike Phyllis of course who dedicated much of her life and time to Palestine– but there were as you know Progressive Except for Palestine types and that applied to a lot of the Jews in the progressive community.
There were a few people at the first launch conference of the US Campaign, which was in Chicago in 2002: a couple of young people there who wanted to dedicate themselves to taking this campaign forward. And one of them became one of the few staff members of the US Campaign and for a very small amount of money—Josh Ruebner, set up the systems and processes of the US Campaign. We started building, and it grew.
And I don’t have to ask this question anymore. But at that time I would say to Josh, why are you doing this thing and how do you as a Jew see this conflict? Because I don’t know that many Jews who really see this conflict pretty much in the same terms as I do, as a Palestinian.
He would say– well he had his own story that he could speak to– but he had an experience that made him think, well life’s too short and I need to do something with my life, and so he started working on this issue. He tried other things, but somehow he came to the first campaign conference and became part of the US Campaign.
And in building the US Campaign, I came across others. One of them I will never forget. It was one of those lobby days, in 2003 or ’04, we were striding along on the Hill going up to Congress because we both had the same New York rep. And she was petite and I’m tall, and I said, Erica, and for some reason I remember her name to this day, Why do you do this work? And she said, Well I was in Bosnia and I saw what was happening to the Bosniaks there and the attacks on them from the Serbs and the demolition of homes and all of that and I realized that the exact same thing was happening in Palestine.
And I looked at this young woman, and the understanding and awareness and intelligence that you could bring to the question, then I asked the question that I always ask, or I used to ask. “So what do your parents say?” And she said, “My parents are proud of me.”
But of course Jews would say, I have a problem with my aunt or my grandmother. But here are these supportive parents who may not agree with this but they’re supportive. Because they love their kids and they’re proud of them.
Then the numbers grew so many that you no longer ask. For years I haven’t felt that I wanted to ask the question!
Q. When you meet Palestinians, you don’t have the same question. There’s an obvious reason they would be engaged.
Yes exactly. I mean, Palestinians would have a personal trajectory, from being someone who was trying to get on in life in a material way and had to sacrifice in order to get into activism. But with another Palestinian, as indeed with many Arabs, I don’t have to ask. With Palestinians, you click at once, it’s the natural thing to do. Unless– there are obviously a lot of Palestinians who think very differently.
What’s been frustrating for Palestinians, in the present time is that there’s a movement for Palestinian rights in the U.S. but there’s been no clear Palestinian leadership of that movement. And no strong Palestinian organizations to lead it. And what I hear from young Palestinians is that you know, we’re very active in Students for Justice in Palestine, which is a great multi-ethnic multi-religious multiracial movement—but then when they leave university, there’s no natural home.
Q. What makes Jews important? Hispanics, blacks, Europeans, a lot of people are called to the question.
On the whole a lot more Jews are called to this question than other groups. I once saw the volumes that listed the number of American Jewish organizations that represented the Jewish community: obviously the Jewish community in the United States is very organized, in many different ways and different spheres, and so on. And I want to be very cautious of not stereotyping, or not making generalized statements.
Q. I can do that part.
You can and you do! But first of all, if Jews make this their issue, they’ve been in the system in the United States much longer than Palestinians and Arabs and they know how the system works and they know how to make it work. A lot of Palestinians and Arabs are now coming on stream that have that knowledge, but Jews have that historical depth with the system.
Secondly, no one can tell them that it cannot be their issue and they are better placed than anyone to challenge the Zionist discourse. They are– it’s just a fact. Now I’ve had a lot of arguments with my dear friend Phyllis, as to: Everybody should have a right to challenge. Yes, in theory, everyone has a right to challenge—but Jews are really, it’s a fact, much better placed to challenge.
Q. Jews started Zionism!
Yes, some Jews started Zionism. Because not all Jews did. And a lot of Jews were anti-Zionist and fought Zionism and didn’t want Zionism.
Q. But then the establishment Jewish community solidified behind it.
They did. A lot of it did. So they are in a position par excellence to challenge Zionism. But I really want to make a distinction. I never want to use the term “the Jews”. I think that’s a pitfall to fall into.
But when you have a large cluster of Jews who are extremely tenacious and are fighters on this issue and are not going to go away, and their numbers are growing, which they are– then it’s a challenge to the established Zionist organizations. Those organizations, if they want to question Israel’s policies, want to do it on their terms; and they have a very narrow definition of how to question Israel’s policies. Which is, that what should come out of it is that Israel would remain a Jewish majority state that would have to by its own definition continue to discriminate against its own citizens.
I’m not forgetting about the occupied territories and the refugees. To have a Jewish majority state you would have to make sure that for example the Palestinian citizens of Israel wouldn’t be free to marry Palestinians from other countries and bring them into Israel. And in fact there’s a law against that.
But I think there’s a real concern now with many of the established Zionist organizations that Israel has gone off track and that by wanting it all, it’s going to lose it all.
Q. You perceive that anxiety?
Absolutely. Because the actions of the right wing in Israel, which are actually taking the trajectory of how Israel began to its logical conclusion, are unpalatable in the 21st century. You can’t defend them.
Q. You’ve observed that fretting?
Yes because they put the whole thing in jeopardy. I think why John Kerry was working on this issue so hard was to save Israel for the liberal Zionist Jews. I’m convinced that that’s why he was working on it so hard.
Q. Because he believed in it?
Because he believed that Israel was necessary and the liberal Zionists that he knows in the U.S. need an Israel and want an Israel but they have to have an Israel that’s not going to be an apartheid state. I have no evidence, but that’s what he was so concerned about. The maximum that they want to see happen is set out in the Kerry parameters.
Whereas the Jews who are active in the movement for Palestinian rights have a completely different and a very sophisticated understanding of what the issues are and what to do about them and what the ultimate goal should be. I’m calling it the movement for Palestinian rights rather than the Palestinian solidarity movement, because the movement for Palestinian rights involves Palestinians. Many Palestinians have made the point, why am I a Palestinian in the Palestine solidarity movement. I’m me, and these are my rights I’m talking about. I can’t be in solidarity with myself.
Q. To return to your friend on the Hill: Erica did not need a lot of education, doctrine, information. She was brought to one injustice and she made the analogy. She didn’t get stopped by the hasbara, oh, this is different, for this reason.
That’s exactly right. People are getting it.
But you see this was why I spent a couple of years working with a group of liberal Zionists in New York and I had the highest respect for them. These were liberal Zionists that wanted to support Palestinian rights, within the framework of two states, in which Israel is a Jewish state. They were willing to go very far but there was a limit to how far they could go. But at the same time I had enormous respect for them because by taking the positions they were taking they were alienating themselves from the people that they loved. And for want of a better word, from their tribe. They were taking personal risks with their jobs. So I had a lot of respect for that.
Q. When was this?
It was in the late 90s. I was still at the U.N. then.
Q. Did you believe in two states then?
I’ve been agnostic on the state issue, and that ties into my article, because there are some dangers in getting the discourse wrong. But at that time, two states seemed to be the thing that was achievable, if one could get enough power behind it, so perhaps one had to go through that naïve or less politically aware position.
But after about a year and a half, two years, I stopped working with the liberal Zionists. I will happily speak to any community that wants to invite me to speak. And I found that when I spoke at synagogues, people were very respectful, they were very open to listening, even if they didn’t agree with you, it used to be quite fantastic. Now the issue’s in a different place, there’s an attempt to shut down the discourse. But at that time people were open to listening.
Q. Much more is in play now?
Yes, much more is in play. I stopped working with them, why? Because I realized the limits of liberal Zionists. With all the respect I had for them in taking these risks, the limits—in the final analysis if it came to a choice between Israel’s security versus human rights, Israel’s security tended to trump the human rights piece of it.
There was not a well defined, common, agreed frame of reference, of values, where once you had that frame of reference you didn’t have to keep negotiating the issues all the time, and I realized the limits of that experience. Then it was soon afterward that we went on to co-found the US Campaign with that clear framework of principles and values that made us move very quickly. There was no need to continually renegotiate: We were all on the same page as to what is meant by Palestinian rights.
Q. Were there liberal Zionists who have moved since then?
I can’t think of a specific person.
Q. Maybe some in the movement now are the children of liberal Zionists.
What I’ve found is that they grew up in homes where they were inculcated in a very strong set of morals, and so what is Israel was doing was offending that moral or values or rights framework, whatever, and they couldn’t deal with it.
Q. Norman Finkelstein says the international consensus is two states, the best that anyone can get is two states, even Bernie Sanders won’t go past that, on the left. So for anyone in the real world of politics, the two state solution is the only game in town.
What undermines Norman’s theory completely, with all due respect, is that this has been international consensus for 50 years. So where is the two-state solution? If they’re so behind it, where is it? And there was a very powerful Palestinian movement behind it [in the 1970s and 1980s], and a very powerful international movement behind it, still it didn’t happen. I find it hard to conceive of the kind of movement that would need to happen differently from the previous movements, to actually bring about a two state solution.
However, at the same time, there is an international consensus that these are occupied territories, and that everything Israel is doing in them is illegal. You know, all the changes that they’ve done to the nature of occupied territories is unlawful, as experts like to say, rather than illegal, and that they must be reversed.
The Palestinian leadership was not strategic and put itself in the position of negotiations with Israel, and they should have been able to spot this in the early days and then get out of it. Unfortunately, when they did spot it, a decade after the end of the first intifada and the Oslo process– oh this is not going anywhere — the response was not strategic. The response was the second intifada.
And it enabled Israel to then reoccupy the cities and develop a military solution. That’s when the PA [Palestinian Authority] decided to become really the subcontractor to Israel. So Israel’s acts are unlawful, and they have to be addressed.
The approach that has been used to address them is through negotiations between Israel and the PLO, and that is a nonstarter. That should have been a nonstarter from day 1, because you cannot negotiate with your occupier, the far superior power. Remember what happened to Mahmoud Abbas, going to a negotiating meeting and not being allowed to pass the checkpoints to get there. Those kinds of games were played all the time. So the whole notion that the only way you can reach a resolution of the conflict and achieve a two state solution is through negotiations has been the worst nonstarter, the worst thing to happen really to the Palestinian people.
So the value of the fact that what Israel is doing is illegal or unlawful is something that we should make use of as a movement. And therefore we should not be focused on the ultimate political settlement. Whatever the ultimate political settlement is, it’s going to be some form of state, OK? It’s going to be one state or two states. Whatever the ultimate political solution is going to be it’s going to have to guarantee the rights of all its citizens. Otherwise it’s going to be abhorrent to moral people, to all of those of us who want to see human rights.
So what’s happening in that debate between one state versus two states and what the solution should be is that a lot of people are losing track of what our sources of power are, to get from here to there and what we need to do to get from here to there.
And that is the piece that Ingrid [Jaradat Gassner] and I tried to address, that we’re at risk of throwing out the baby out with the bathwater. We need to hang on to the Green Line. I’m not making a case for two states, I’m making a case to hold on to one of the most effective ways that the international community has to take a position against Israel’s unlawful acts in the occupied territories, and to put pressure on Israel. We have to push for that, irrespective of what the ultimate political settlement is.
First let’s agree that what we need as an ultimate political settlement is either a one state solution or a two state solution that guarantees the rights of all their citizens. And that, actually recognizes that Israel needs to make reparations to Palestinians for what they’ve been through, and the losses that they’ve incurred, and that Palestinians’ self determination has got to be recognized. And therefore we need tools and sources of power to bring about this recognition by Israel.
Those tools include many of the things associated with the state system, i.e., the fact that a prolonged occupation and changing of the nature of the status of the people living under occupation, and using their resources without justification are all unlawful.
That’s a source of power. Being able to take Israel to the ICC is a source of power, being able to use the UN system is a source of power. Being able to call for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions on Israel till it withdraws or ceases those actions is a source of power.
The BDS call implicitly recognizes Israel, because it calls on Israel to do three things. To recognize the Palestinians’ right to self determination, and as part of that recognition, to end its occupation, guarantee the equal rights of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and guarantee the right of the Palestinian refugees to return. There’s an implicit recognition of Israel there.
Q. At a Hadassah panel last night in New York, Zionist feminists said that BDS calls for dismantling of the Jewish state. Is that accurate?
It calls for equal rights for the Palestinian citizens of Israel. If you can have equal rights for all your citizens as a Jewish state, then great, go for it, show us how.
How can you be a state that privileges one religious or ethnic group– depending how you define yourself– over others. That’s anathema in the 21st century. Israel exists. Nobody is saying that Israel does not exist, and it exists by virtue of being a recognized member state of the United Nations. It has relations with a number of world powers. There it is! What is the problem with Israel is its policies. Toward the Palestinians under occupation, toward its own citizens. And its policies with regard to the refugees which it promised to allow home
Israel’s existence is not the problem anymore, and that actually is a victory that Israel has achieved that it is now putting in jeopardy.
That’s why the liberal Zionist establishment is so fearful. Zionists have successfully created the state of Israel.. Israel’s policies are putting that state in jeopardy: its discrimination, its human rights violations. It’s Israel that’s putting Israel in jeopardy, not BDS.
Q. Where do you see the freakout? They haven’t pulled Israel back.
They haven’t been able to. The biggest evidence is Kerry. There are different Zionist institutions that have protested Israel’s policies. Like J Street– but even more establishment organizations have protested Israel’s policies.
But I think Kerry’s push to get a solution and his push to get those parameters agreed is the biggest evidence that the liberal Zionist community wants to see this thing sorted while it still can claim that you can be a Jewish state and not actually discriminate against your citizens, that it’s OK to be a state that is Jewish. While it can still push that.
Q. Netanyahu et al say the middle east is in turmoil. They say there are a lot bigger problems than the apartheid and second class citizenship. Does that hurt the movement?
Of course it hurts. And it’s a tragedy in and of itself. What happened to Iraq is a horrible horrific tragedy that should never have happened, and happened in violation of the U.N. charter. The U.N. charter does not allow for the Bush and Blair attack on Iraq.
But irrespective of that, Israel has no right to be colonizing the occupied territories. Israel has no right to be discriminating against its own citizens. Israel has no right to continue to deny the rights of the refugees to return home.
It is using disarray in the Arab world, and the power play between Saudi Arabia against Iran, to distract. There should be no linkage between Israel’s own actions in the lands it occupies and the state it established and the refugees, on the one hand, and the tragic conflicts in the region, on the other – there’s no linkage.
Q. Khalil Shikaki says, young Palestinians are increasingly saying two states don’t work, let’s go to one state.
This is the problem. People are saying two states aren’t working, let’s go to one state. This is not the question. The question is how are you going to get from here to there? How are you going to get either to one state or to two states? What you need is as a minimum Israel to recognize your self determination and get Israel to pay reparations to you.
Let’s assume you want to work for one state. You are going to have to use as many of your sources of your power as you can and one of those is that Israel’s occupation is unlawful. Just don’t make a statement that you want one state. Make a statement that we need to get Israel to recognize our rights, and once it has recognized our rights, we can go and negotiate a political settlement that achieves those rights.
If it’s one state, great. If it’s two states, fine. It would have to be two states anyway that are very closely joined together in many respects.
But people are ignoring the issue of how we get from here to there. That’s one issue that’s confusing the discourse about the Palestinian question because we need a huge movement to change the power dynamic to make Israel do what we want it to do.
We are way not there. And to get there, we need to be able to challenge it, for example at the ICC. We need to be able to challenge at the ICJ.
A lot of those tools are state tools. That doesn’t mean you recognize the state. But you call on all states for example to ban settlement goods like Amnesty International just did. If states took a serious position against Israel, that would make it think twice.
If the European Union said that actually everything you’re doing is violating the terms of agreement, that would make Israel take notice.
Then the other thing that is muddying the waters of this discourse is, What is Israel doing? Is it settler colonialism? Is it discrimination? Is it racism? Is it ethnic cleansing? Is it an attack on indigenous peoples? What is the intellectual frame of reference?
Q. That’s in the article. Why is that important?
It’s important because what is happening is a whole bunch of arguments between a lot of academics, and also a lot of policy analysts, and activists, that we need to call it what it is; we need to call it settler colonialism. Oh no, we need to call it what it is, we need to call it apartheid. No it’s ethnic cleansing!
So people are debating this all the time. And what is it? Because unless you have a consensus and an agreement on what it is then you cannot develop the messages and you cannot develop the tools. Like indigenous peoples’ rights: it has a lot going for it, it’s recognized by the United Nations. Settler colonialism has a lot going for it as a framework of analysis. It also recognized as a wrong in the United Nations. And racial discrimination, there’s a UN convention against it, to forbid racial discrimination.
So a lot of these frameworks of analysis have a lot to recommend them. So how do you choose?
What Ingrid and I argue is we need a framework of analysis that’s strategic. And what do we mean by strategic? It needs to be a framework of analysis that’s going to help us build up the sources of power that will push Israel to recognize Palestinian self-determination and to make reparations. So we zeroed in on two frameworks of analysis.
One is apartheid and one is settler colonialism. and we found that apartheid actually is by far the more robust of the two. Why? Because the settler colonialist framework in the international system of states—and we have to be realistic about states– will only apply to Israel beyond the green line. Whereas the apartheid framework applies to what Israel is doing to its citizens in Israel, to what it is doing in the West Bank and to what Israel is doing to the refugees.
That was very well set out in the ESCWA report by Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley; and they said apartheid applies to all segments of the Palestinian people.
We’ve come to a similar conclusion but in a different way of getting there. Which is, that the apartheid frame of reference is the most strategic for the Palestinian struggle, and it is one that can frame the messages, if we can get people to get it.
We need to have a lot more discussion and education stemming from the analysis she and I did, to get there. It’s one of those difficult things that you need to talk through and then internalize. Because if you don’t internalize it, it will always get away from you when you try and explain it.
Q. I have a question about self-determination, through my own lens. I’m not an abstract thinker. I live in this country as a Jew, and Jews don’t have self-determination. I’m one of them, we all vote. Whereas in Israel and Palestine, this two peoples with competing claims model, that’s problematic. These settlers Zionists have been burying their families there for generations, they feel connected, they have a bizarre mythology. Obviously I think the Palestinian connection is a more robust and valid one, given the ethnic cleansing. But I think that ultimately, and being subjective, I say, you guys got to learn from me. You are going to be one people there, and with a self determination model, they’re mutually exclusive.
They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive. The Palestinian right of self determination is different from what Israel is setting out as its right to self determination. There are many contradictions at the heart of the Zionist project, one of which is, How you define a Jew? I have a friend who married a Jewish woman and he converted. So he goes to Israel, the family wants to settle there. Does he have a right to self-determination? How do you define a Jew?
Q. I reject that out of hand. I don’t want that right I think it’s wrong.
How do you have that right?
Q. Through Zionism. Zionism established it.
Zionism can’t establish it. There’s a number of Jews who want nothing to do with Israel. Does that mean they’re giving up their right? At a certain point Israel has to become the state of its own citizens. Like Switzerland. Immigration has to involve certain criteria that don’t involve your ability to go there only because you’re Jewish; and many people feel that Judaism is a religion, it has nothing to do with a piece of land somewhere. That has to be recognized too. This conflation of Judaism and a right to a Jewish state is something that eventually is going to be picked apart long after we’re dead, because it makes no sense.
The people who are living there now they can’t be eradicated or displaced. Israel has tried to do that to the Palestinians. Nobody is doing that to the Israelis. Even if they have the power, they shouldn’t at this point do that.
Q. You said there’s another reason that the growing number of Jews in the movement is important.
It’s because what’s coming out of the Jewish activism for Palestine in the movement for Palestinian rights, and here I’m thinking specifically of JVP, which is very strategic, and we need that kind of strategic thinking in the US movement, we don’t have very much of it. There is strategic thinking coming from the Palestinians, including the call to BDS. That is a very strategic call.
Q. Why is it important?
You have to compete to counter Israel. Israel has a very, very powerful capacity of constantly scanning the external environment and positioning itself to respond. It’s trying brute force to deal with the challenge, and so far, touch wood– we have to keep at it, because if we don’t they can succeed, through brute force. I mean legal tools that they’re using and the attempt to shut down the discourse by calling people anti-semitic. These are all very difficult things to push back against. That’s why it’s very important to have a group like JVP; which is very strategic.
I’ll give you one example, Israel’s attempt with the organized Zionist community to shut down the discourse is by conflating criticism of Israel with anti-semitism. And conflating criticism of Zionism with anti-semitism. And so at the JVP conference this year, the first plenary of the first full day, was, oh, you want to conflate Zionism and anti-Semitism, ok let’s talk about Zionism. Go right to the root cause of the conflict– that is so strategic. Because it’s not just a panel, it also kicked off a year of discussion and learning and study and debate, about what is Zionism really, and how has it impacted the Palestinians.
That’s the strategic thinking and positioning we need.
Q. Meanwhile there’s ethnic cleansing and transfer and annexation. Does the possibility exist that Palestinians will be even more defeated in a year or two or three than they are today?
Yes. Sure. Absolutely. Not only does that possibility exist, it will happen. Israel will ramp up. They really want to legalize their occupation and they want to empty out the land as fast as they can before they’re stopped, assuming that they are or they might be stopped.
And it’s going to be very bad for Palestinians in the next two or three years. Things are going to get worse for the Palestinians.
Q. So why do you still have faith?
Because the harder they try to legalize this illegal enterprise, the worse they look, and the worse they look, the more unpalatable the whole thing becomes.
Q. Is it possible we will be sitting here in 30 years and saying, We failed. You know what, We tried, we had fighters, we fought the good fight, we failed.
I don’t think it can happen, and that’s because so many people are galvanized now, and that includes the Jews. I mean, Do Jews really want a Saudi Arabia?