Moving forward

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Jewish American peace group invites Palestinians to speak

I just returned from the Brit Tzedek v Shalom (Jewish Peace Alliance) annual conference. I am encouraged and burdened with the task of how to do something similar in my community. Offer the vehicle for expression and growth in the Palestinian American community. And, offer legitimate ways to contribute and work with others interested in the self-determination of Palestinians and the creation of a Palestinian state.

The Jewish Americans of Brit Tzedek v Shalom love Israel but don't love it so blindly that they forget about or negate the basic human rights for the Palestinians. They are the silent majority of Jews that are speaking up, organizing, enabling proactivity in their community and opening the door to our community to work together.

They want to challenge the status quo because it does not reflect what they represent. They understand that criticizm of Isreali government policy does not mean the "end of Israel" when they do it. They need to understand that the same holds true for our community too. We should be able to criticize and not be attacked and we need to stand together here in the U.S. where WE really CAN make a difference. Brit Tzedek v Shalom provided the voice for that message.

Note: The actual presentation may have been slightly different as I ad-libbed and cut short pieces in the interest of time.

Presentation to Brit Tzedek v Shalom
2/20/05 and 2/21/05 - New York City, New York
by Saffiya Shillo

I want to thank BtvS for having me and the opportunity to address you. I know how difficult it is to organize around peace work and open the door for the “other” to be heard.

Putting together a conference that includes listening to our voices—the voices of the Palestinian community is so critical. And, I commend you all for being here to listen. I too put together events and conferences bringing together our voices and I understand the challenges in doing so.

One of the main issues I want to stress here today to a predominantly Jewish audience is a Palestinian perspective on the status of the struggle for my community to be heard.

This lends to our organizational capabilities and our ability to be acknowledged.

When I was trying to describe how Palestinians organize, live and what we need, I realized that there are several overlapping challenges that bind my community and that muffle the voices of the moderates who are the majority and who seek peace based on a compromise that is just and fair.

Palestinians have lived a life based on a dream. We dream about a time when Palestine will be re-established. We dream about a time when there will be no conflict; when we can visit our homeland without fear. We dream about a time when our people can live normal lives on a land that we can call our own without someone else wanting to come and control it, occupy it, settle it or take it.

Occupation “the buzz word” It is both loaded for your community and mine.

Palestinians live in a multi-layered occupation. We are occupied … that’s not in dispute. We are and have been occupied from time immemorial by someone. But, we are also occupied not only by foreign nations and armies and people, but also by ourselves.

The people. Peer pressure. Social pressure. We live in a society where people are afraid to speak their minds, where one extremist can damage the freedom of thousands of people.

I do not support suicide bombings. I don’t even believe in the use of violence to defeat an enemy and I believe instead in the proven power of non-violence that can defeat the mightiest of armies.

But we are not allowed to speak because our people are occupied by emotion, anger, suffering and the hurt of the continued military occupation. There is a rage that comes from this that is illogical and unbending and uncompromising. And this rage is not only driven by emotion and the pain of seeing a friend, relative, child or parent killed in this conflict, but it is exploited by those who oppose freedom and Democracy and who use it to control others. This rage speaks louder than reason. And because of that, the moderates, who are the majority, find it hard to break through.

And now, here in the U.S, Palestinian Americans find themselves struggling to be invisible and yet at the same struggling to be heard. All this under the burden of so many conflicting emotions. Many Palestinians directly support their families and extended families back home. I don’t know of one family that doesn’t send money to relatives two, three, four or five times removed. In Chicago’s Palestinian community and I would guess other areas a large majority are small business owners that work up to 70 hours a week. Children don’t see their fathers, mothers are single parenting. All this to put food on the table here and there. They are consumed with trying to make a better life that they fear being vocal may jeopardize that. It really doesn’t matter what type of job they have or what class level they are, they are perplexed at how to manage their stresses. The stress of not speaking out at injustices on both sides. Watching television is a nightmare. Everyone basically talks back to the television… cursing and responding.

We find ourselves frustrated with no outlet for expression, afraid, lonely confused, with our situation. We desperately want an end to all of the suffering.

We live in a communications world where we are not able to communicate. Communications freely bash us, surround us, suffocate us, deny us, provoke us, undermine us, and yet prevent us from communicating.

On other levels we have had successes… our women’s group in Chicago held daily peaceful demonstration against the SunTimes for its derogatory portrayal of Palestinians. We made a concerted effort to get the Arab men business owners to stop selling the paper. It worked and they gave in to more positive stories for a while. I can only imagine what a difference we would have made if we were American Jews and Palestinians standing together.

The women are continually working to show the humanity of our people to the world and to our children who are bombarded with negative examples. Here in the U.S. and back home. We bring in speakers and role models to say the things that need to be said. Violence is not the way. We are better than that and we can succeed—that’s our message. As women we see ourselves as responsible for the next generation’s mental health and well being. I work in social services in the Arab community. I deal with immigrants who come here and are devastated from the lives they had in Gaza and the West Bank. The most recent immigrants of two to four years are suffering on so many levels—no one can even begin to explain the effects of occupation, restriction of movement, daily witnessing of death, homelessness and chaos—I will not try, but I can say that the remedy will be generational. I understand that and don’t want to see it continue… so we organize and keep active to keep the humanity of ourselves and our children safe. We are up against a world that continues to portray us as barbaric, it’s not fair. We are not able to define ourselves in the communication world.

The media not only amplifies the voices of extremism, they mute the voices of moderates. The newspapers do not want moderate proclamations or views. They do not want moderate Palestinians voices. When Palestinians are given a voice, they are imprisoned in a system that dictates that they speak as extremists, always responding to attacks rather then seeking to educate the audience and open eyes of reason.

There are only one or two Palestinian American nationally syndicated columnists that I am aware that write about the Palestinian/Israeli conflect and one I know very well that writes from and in Chicago, Ray Hanania, They are forced to be “respondents,” required to always provide the “other side” … and the media expects the otherside to fit a certain pattern of thought and they demand that those voices meet that criteria.

What we need to do and what we can do is write in to support these people to show a demand for their writings, to show them support too. That’s something we can do collectively.

We can’t explore a future of peace if we are constantly forced to defend ourselves or respond to the other side.

Organizing in my community…

Organizing is a difficult topic to address and difficult to explain. In many of our organizations, we are asked to follow, not participate, not lead, not challenge.

After September 11, people do not want to write checks to an Arab organization or be seen at an Arab event. It is absolutely impossible to raise funds in this environment.

Our problem is not the structure, our problem is the environment in which we operate.

We are constantly on the defensive. We are forced to respond, so we cannot explore the future vision of peace and compromise.

We have a great pool of talented leaders, writers and voices who support peace based on justice, fairness AND non-violence. But instead of being seen as people supporting justice, fairness AND non-violence, we are treated by all sides as unwanted orphans of a system that does nothing to support, encourage or reinforce.


The answer is on our shoulders to break free from this challenge, Palestinians need to stand up and speak out against unjustified violence, and do a better job of speaking, not being inhibited by emotion. We need to speak with strategic voices, not emotional voices. We need to speak with reason.

Yet, as we struggle, we also need partners in the society where we need the most to stand up and be heard. Here in America. Our strongest opposition comes from the very community that would benefit from our success, the very community that needs strong, moderate voices.

You. The pro-Israel community. The moderate Jewish American community.

I understand your challenges. They are different from our own. You need to balance off your own moderation against a force of extremism that exists around you in your own community, too. You watch your words and your actions and are strategic.

But you have voices and you need to raise the volume.

If this conflict has damaged you, it has made you insensitive and too sensitive, maybe, of criticism. You fear that any criticism of Israel that does not come from your organizations is a criticism that will lead to the destruction of Israel. When a Palestinian criticizes Israeli government policy, that Palestinian is doing so from a very unique stance: they are criticizing with moderation and they are criticizing in an environment that pushes them emotionally.

As a result, instead of hearing the good that is in that criticism, you fear the excess that is the result of a difficult environment that is constricting.

We have to protect ourselves not only from your critical responses and sometimes attacks from the extremists in your ranks who will denounce us as anti-Semitic, but we also have to fight the challenges from within. The extremists among us who can stand up and attack us and denounce us and undermine us to such an extent that our leaders and our organizations would rather appease their extremism than standup for moderation.

It is so much easier to not fight back those behind us, because we are already consumed and overwhelmed with the struggle in front of us.

We are fighting two battles and the extremists behind us have more influence over us than those with which we seek to make peace in front of us.

That is the balance that has to be changed. We need to be strong enough to turn away from those who seek to undermine us for saying what needs to be said, and instead focus on the challenge in front of us and say what needs to be said.

I believe we both seek the same thing. An end to the conflict. And end to the violence. And end to the suffering. Two-states, side by side that are free and that are safe and secure. The growth of freedom.

I even believe that you also support sharing Jerusalem, in an environment where sharing is not a threat. Two states mean separation. Sharing means coexistence. You must accept the fate of sharing as the natural consequence of two-states. Jerusalem must be shared.

Supporting your rights will not undermine my rights if we both work together. Supporting my rights will not undermine your rights if we both work together.

What we need to do is act and set an example and change the way this conflict progresses in a real, balanced manner that allows us both to move forward.

Most importantly, in this fight here in the U.S., what we’re losing that is most valuable is the ability for us Jews and Palestinians here to come together and stand together against policies that are killing our people and creating ongoing struggle that will see others like me standing in a room like this, speaking to crowd like this, saying the same thing because nothing changed… nothing moved forward. It doesn’t have to be that way.

This conflict is not about Jews and Israelis versus Palestinians and Arabs. Instead, there is a new equation we have to recognize. It is a battle between extremists and moderates. The dividing line is not between our two communities but amongst our two communities. We have to define that line clearly for both of ourselves, and then decide for ourselves which side we want to be on.

But, if we do not draw the line, and clearly define which side is which, our communities which are caught up in a heated, emotional and very complex fight will not be able to see the path to moderation, even though they are moderates. The moderates are lost in a maze and it is up to us, as Palestinians, Jews, Israelis and Arabs to work together to define that path and lead them to the promised land.

Thank you