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I was told, ‘If you even put the P-word in the platform, all hell will break loose’: An interview with James Zogby

Jim Zogby on the uphill battle over Palestine within the Democratic party
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Arab American Institute co-founder and author James Zogby has been on the front lines of the political battle over Palestine for years. He held positions in Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 campaigns and was a member of Bernie Sanders’s committee to draft the Democratic Party platform in 2016. He also served on the Democratic National and was a member of the DNC’s Executive Committee for 16 years.

I spoke with Zogby about the function of party platforms, the historical importance of the Jackson campaigns, Bernie, and the current state of the debate in Washington.

Can you explain to people why a political party’s platform might be important generally and whether it matters if we get Palestine into the Democrats’s platform specifically?

There are two measures that I look at historically. One is where public opinion is and, for that, I turn to polling. The other is where the balance of forces are in the actual political debate within the two major parties. For that, you look at the platforms.

For example, [former president George H.W.] Bush and [former Secretary of State James] Baker pushed for the Madrid Peace Process [in 1991]. This was after the Gulf War and Bush was riding high. A Palestinian-American friend of mine, who was on the Republican Party platform committee, tried to push a resolution into the platform to support Bush and Baker in convening that peace process. He couldn’t get a second for that resolution. So, while Republican public opinion back then was very heavily pro-Bush, and views on Israel/Palestine were much more balanced among Republicans than they are now, he still couldn’t get a second in the platform committee. Why? Because the balance of power in the power within the party was so skewed in favor of the Pat Robertson, Reagan, Christian Evangelicals, and the Neocon crowd. 

Now we have this situation on the Democratic side. We’ve traced party platforms going all the way back to 1968. You see, on the Democratic side, there’s been a tremendous shift in public opinion over the years. Today most Democratic voters support Palestinian rights and a balanced solution. Most of them even support sanctioning Israel by cutting aid if they continue building settlements. Many support BDS and feel that boycotting is a legitimate, nonviolent political tactic. You couldn’t get those issues heard in the Democratic platform. In 2016, we couldn’t even get the words “occupation” and “settlements” in the platform. So public opinion is one thing, but the platform gives you a sense of where the power is in the party and how the party elites view that. 

The platform is important only in that way. Does it get listened to? It doesn’t. On the Sanders team in 2016, we won a whole bunch of progressive planks in the platform on a number of issues. I dare say that they would not have been adhered to if Hillary Clinton had been elected. I chaired the DNC’s resolutions committee for many years. One of our members introduced a resolution saying that the party platform should be adhered to by Democratic members of congress and they should be held accountable for it. He wanted to make a scorecard showing whether congress members had supported the platform on issues like minimum-wage, environmental issues, etc. He couldn’t get it through the committee. The party lobbied hard to get it defeated. So, the platform doesn’t form the agenda. It just tells you where the party elites see themselves in relation to the issues they have to deal with. In that sense, it is important. It is a fight worth waging because it gives them a run for their money and makes them nervous. On the other hand, it does not shape policy and doesn’t dictate the agenda if the Democrats win because the winner might have their own political calculations on where political power is and what they need to do in order to court donors or keep lobbies at bay.

The Bernie campaign obviously drew a lot of young people to progressive politics and some of them might not be familiar with Jesse Jackson’s campaigns in the 1980s, which you were a part of. In regards to those platform fights you have said, “We actually won a moral victory, having the issue break a deadly silence.” Can you explain what you were referring to there?

Beginning in 1984, the Arab American Institute and the New Jewish Agenda (a group that existed back then and was to the left of where J Street is currently), started bringing resolutions to state party conventions. In 1988, we really geared up and (working separately, but in some states together), we passed resolutions in eleven different states. In 1988, the Intifada was raging, there was a sense that this issue had to be heard and Jackson was the one who was raising it. Maybe the language we used was limited, compared to some of the language we want to introduce now, but Jackson was talking about Palestine and no politician up until then had done that on the national stage.

So we passed resolutions in eleven states and when we got to the national convention we fought for a minority plank. If they weren’t going to put anything in the platform, we at least wanted a debate. The [former presidential candidate Michael] Dukakis people went ballistic. I was actually told by the Dukakis people, “Zogby, if you even raise this issue, you’ll destroy the Democratic party.” I offered a compromise. I just wanted the word “Palestine” in the platform. I said, “Look, you say ‘peace should be based on the Camp David agreements and the Camp David agreements talk about land for peace and the legitimate rights of Palestinians. Why not put that language in?” I was told, “If you even put the P-word in the platform, all hell will break loose.” Well, I wasn’t taking no for an answer. Some folks who had come onboard with Jackson late (some of the very same people who are today in this lobbying group Democratic Majority for Israel) were pushing Jackson not to raise this issue. We knew that just raising it was so threatening to them, that we just had to go ahead. 

Jackson completely sided with us on it and he told me, “We have been raising this issue since the beginning, we will stick to our principles.” He told those opposing me that I had the go-ahead to do it, so we had a debate from the party podium. We had made shirts that said “Palestine Lives”, we made posters that we had distributed all through the floor, we had over 1,100 people signing a petition to support the plank, there were Palestinian signs and flags everywhere. As a young person looking out at all that, it was just stunning. It was something I never dreamed would happen and it was really exciting. What was even more exciting was seeing the Israeli press get hysterical about it during the following days. In the end we called for “no vote” because Jackson felt that it would put African-American members of congress in the crosshairs, but we made our point. We broke the deadly silence. It was a great moment.

We lost a lot of energy when we got to 1990 and there was such division in the country over the Iraq War. The Arab community was divided on that question and I think the progressive movement did too. Jackson didn’t run again, so we didn’t have a candidate to bring a focus to the changing debate until Bernie came along. 

Speaking of Bernie, you worked on that campaign in 2016. That was before Trump was president, before congress members like Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were elected, before some of these big, public debates on BDS. Palestine seemed to come up on the campaign trail more this time around, candidates even got asked about conditioning aid to Israel. Can you give your impressions of how the issue moved forward from 2016 to Bernie’s most recent campaign?

Bernie Sanders and James Zogby (Courtesy James Zogby)
Bernie Sanders and James Zogby (Courtesy James Zogby)

A great deal has changed. There’s great familiarity and comfort with the issue. Polls have changed rather dramatically. People who didn’t have an opinion four years ago do now. There’s two reasons for that: one is Netanyahu and the other is Trump. Netanyahu has become a virtual bride of Trump and made it more comfortable for Democrats to focus on the issue. So many high-profile moves by the Trump administration…moving the embassy, his bogus peace plan, etc…I think have sharpened the focus of Democrats. Also, the apartheid policies pushed by Netanyahu. Even when they aren’t covered, people who pay attention to alternate media have a better sense that they’re going on.

Then there’s the growth of more organized progressive politics, the greatest sophistication of the Arab-American community and the emergence of strong progressive groups in the Jewish community. There’s long been a split in the Jewish community and that split has now become deeper. With those on the pro-peace, pro-Palestinian side having gone political. They’ve entered into the political arena in a way I haven’t seen since the Jackson campaign. I remember when we raised the issue of Palestine at the Democratic convention in 80s, the New York Times had a headline, “Arabs vs. Jews at the Democratic Convention.” When I looked at our Jackson delegation, we actually had over 50-something Arab-American delegates, which was a huge record. I think the most we ever had before that was four? But we had progressive Jews on our side as well. So, it was actually “Arabs and Jews vs. Jews” at the Democratic convention. Many of our Jewish delegates were New Jewish Agenda folks and other left groups who had joined the Jackson campaign. Today with Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, you have an organized, politicized component in Jewish community ready to take direct action. They were the people in New Hampshire who were challenging candidates on this issue and that is something only we had done up until this point. It’s one thing for Arab-Americans to challenge candidates on Palestine, it’s another for Jewish Americans to be doing it. When we do it together, it makes it even greater. 

The Republican platform has changed in recent years too. They’ve stepped back from their overt support for a two-state solution. I saw that [DNC Chair] Tom Perez recently put out a statement assuring Jewish Democrats that the Dems are going to support a two-state solution in their platform, seemingly as a response to these Republican moves. Democratic leaders often criticize BDS by pointing out that it impedes the two-state solution. I spoke with you the other day and you referred to this rhetoric as “two-state absolution.” Can you explain what you meant by that and what you think of this strain of the debate?

The debate’s always been smaller than it should be. At one point, the only major difference between the two parties was not that Jerusalem was occupied but whether Jerusalem should be a unified capital or not. Both parties agreed it should be the capitol differing only as to whether it should be unified. I remember even when [former president Bill] Clinton  was sticking firm to the Oslo Accords, in 1996 the party platform talked about Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Not the unified capital, just the capital of Israel. I raised holy hell and got the White House to issue a disclaimer saying, ‘This is the position of the party, but not the position of the administration.”

So, it’s always been a test of wills with AIPAC on the Democratic side and the Christian conservatives on the Republican side. They drive the debate and decide where the red lines will be. As for Perez, it was pretty frustrating that the head of the party would tell a Jewish audience, “Don’t worry about the platform, here’s what it’s going to say…” There hasn’t even been a meeting of the platform committee. So, by rights, we shouldn’t even know what’s going to be in it. We’ve always argued that a lot of this process has no transparency. I was on the drafting committee in 2016, we didn’t write the draft. We got handed a draft and then we were supposed to sand down the rough edges. Who writes it? How dare the chairman tell people what the platform is going to say. It makes the whole thing a farce.

As far as the two-state stuff. I call it the “two-state absolution” because I remember at the beginning of the campaign, the New York Times asked all the candidates what their positions on a range of issues and one of them was Israel’s human rights record. When they were asked this, they looked like a deer caught in headlights. They looked like a third-grader who has just been told by the teacher there’s a pop quiz. You could see their eyes rolling back in their heads and them thinking, “Wait, what did my consultants tell me to say about this? Oh yeah! I support a two-state solution!” Then they exhaled like, “Whew, I got that right. Now can I get out of here?” It’s become an absolution, you don’t have to talk about any more details. The problem is that when either liberals talk about a two-state solution, look at what they’re talking about. They’re not talking about Palestinian rights or concerns about what the occupation has done to Palestinians. They’re talking about not wanting to screw up Israel as a Jewish state and take in this demographic threat of Arabs who they think will pollute the population. Maybe there would be an equal number of Arabs and then who knows what would have to happen next? You’d have to give them rights and then what? They might even get married to one another.

That’s the problem I have. Behind the argument for the two-state solution these days is racism. Even the arguments against annexation are racist. I mean, look at this letter that 120 Jewish leaders sent to Trump arguing against annexation. It said that if the West Bank gets annexed, it will force Israel to deal with a whole bunch of other problems. They would rather continue to support two states, but allow the things that happen on the ground to continue. What’s happening is a cancer that is eating up the territories. Settlement expansion, settler violence, extending property lines to encroach on Palestinian areas, house demolitions. Even when people talk about ending the settlements, there’s no help at all. [former president Barack] Obama said continued settlement expansion is illegitimate, but what about the ones that are already built? They became existing realities that we were expected to adapt to. So the point is, it’s illegal if you create new ones, but once you create them it’s a reality and you can’t do anything about that. So that’s become the debate on the establishment Democratic side. What I want to fight for is language that talks about human rights, language that talks about settlements and how all settlements are illegitimate. Israel has taken land that’s not theirs and there has to be some accountability for that. To say, “Ok, let’s stop where we are,” you’re creating a situation with a subordinate people and the only name for that is apartheid. It’s what currently exists.

So language in the platform matters, and I will fight for democracy, for human rights, and equality for all people. The solution we propose should treat Palestinians like equal human beings and not a subordinate people. Saying “We want two-states, but Israel can keep everything” is not acceptable. They want to keep the land, but get rid of the people. That’s unacceptable and calling it a two-state solution doesn’t make it prettier.

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I’ve got a feeling that in Dearborn many of the Bernie yard signs from the primary may get replaced with Amash yard signs in the general election.

A ray of sunshine: http://www.dci.plo.ps/en/article/15139/PLO-Executive-Committee-ICC-Prosecutor’s-conclusions-are-a-positive-development Palestine Liberation Organization Press release: “PLO Executive Committee: ICC Prosecutor’s conclusions are a positive development” April 30, 2020 “The ICC Prosecutor’s response to Pre-Trial Chamber I concludes the deliberations over the issue of territorial jurisdiction of the Court in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem. The 60-page document responds to submissions of over fifty amici curiae, legal representatives of victims, and States regarding the Prosecutor’s request from the Pre-Trial… Read more »

In 1984 “the New Jewish Agenda (a group that existed back then and was to the left of where J Street is currently)” – I had forgotten that, if I ever knew it! I wonder if the NJA leaders remember.

(And do I have to register every time I want to comment? If so, why?)