Editor’s note: Yousuf Ali was the overall winner of the TMO Foundation essay competition and won $1,200. TMO will publish all the essays in sequence starting from the first place winner.
A solution can only be found once the nature of the problem is understood. Those who feel strongly about the Palestinian cause and the Middle East in general inevitably feel disappointed by the role the United States plays in perpetuating the conflict. This comes about because Israel feels protected by the United States whenever it commits crimes. Indeed, the United States often finds itself the only country that opposes a U.N. resolution that contains language condemning Israeli crimes and the crimes its antagonists on the grounds that it is “bias”. Of course, this approach does not faintly resemble balance, and many factors contribute to United States’ unbalanced approach.
First, one must understand the dynamics of the American political process before one can know why a particular policy endures. Political campaigns in the United States depend heavily on special interest groups; consequently, those groups that organize the best and have the most funding will have the most say in policy making. In the case of Israel, a significant group of Americans ranging from liberal American Jews to rightwing Christian Zionists makes it a point to ensure that our elected officials do not take any action against Israel when it commits crimes. By contrast, pro-Palestinian groups have significantly less headway, so any voices raising objections to US policy vis-à-vis Israel and Palestine find themselves drowned out by the same cliché talking point of Israel’s “right to defend itself” and “threats to its existence”. This leads to the maintenance of the status quo even with the presence of some well-intentioned people in American politics. To further understand this, an example of this dynamic in action would help.
J. William Fulbright was an influential senator during the Cold War era who had a reputation for taking maverick positions regarding United States Foreign Policy. This tendency was so strong that he opposed the Vietnam War even when the overwhelming majority of his congressional colleagues publically supported it. In fact, he was one of only 2 senators to vote against Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which substantially increased United States involvement in Vietnam despite the support of President Johnson who shared Fulbright’s affiliation with the Democratic Party. Fulbright’s dissent extended to the case of Israel as well when he enraged the pro-Israel segment of American society by authorizing the examination of the Jewish Agency-American Section because its mission included “state building” activities for Israel. Not only did private individuals and organizations in the United States accuse Fulbright of anti-Semitism, but the opposition from Fulbright’s congressional colleagues to these positions on Israel was so widespread that he called the US Congress, “Israeli Occupied Territory”. As a result of his dissenting positions on foreign policy, the Senator faced a tough primary from the popular Pro-Israel governor Dale Bumpers. Bumpers appealed to the voters largely due to his attitude being more amiable than Fulbright’s and won the primary election in a landslide with 65% of the vote. From this example, one can appreciate just how effectively pro-Israel groups deal with those who oppose them.
When one considers the fact that Senator Fulbright was one of the most influential Senators and the namesake of the Fulbright Scholarship, the fact that the Israel lobby was so successful in promoting his opponent and smearing him reveals the power of effective lobbying in influencing the outcome of elections. Consequently, any person running for office knows that they cannot cross certain red lines when it comes to the Israel-Palestine issue. This does not mean that no one in congress genuinely supports Israel. In fact, many Jewish members of congress are staunch supporters because they see Israel as the only defense against a second Holocaust. Likewise, a substantial portion of congress subscribes to the ideas of Christian Zionism: an interpretation of the Bible that argues that the state of Israel fulfills prophecies and plays a crucial role in the End of Time; however, these two groups alone cannot account for the near unanimous support from congress for Israel in the form of military aid and bills expressing one-sided support for Israel’s routine “self-defense” operations. Sadly, the rest of the members of Congress go along with their colleagues’ ideologically-based support due to apathy. The vast majority of them know nothing about the Middle East, let alone the Palestinian Struggle except the propaganda that they hear from their colleagues. They do not bother find out because it does not directly affect them and care more about their next election then finding a reasonable and balanced position on this issue. Additionally, the organization and resources of Pro-Palestine lobbying groups pales in comparison to those of the Pro-Israel lobbying groups. So long as this disparity in the quality of the respective lobbying groups persists, the policy that the United States adopts towards Israel and Palestine will continue to favor Israel with no regard for the rights of the Palestinians. Of course, any explanation of the United States’ policy towards Israel would not be complete without explaining the factors that cause the pro-Palestinian side of the debate to be ineffective when it comes to United States’ policy.
The demographic group in the United States that most passionately opposes the United States’ polices regarding Israel and Palestine is Arab-Americans. The first wave of Arab migration came largely before the First World War. This group was politically restricted due to a number of factors including lack of citizenship and the Great Depression that would soon follow. Consequently, this community did not have the ability to do anything in the years leading up to the 1948 founding of the state of Israel. This contrasts with early Jewish Zionist organizations that had already established themselves in the United States in order to advocate for the creation of the state of Israel. In other words, while Arab-Americans were working hard to make ends-meat, the Zionist organizations already took root in American politics. This problem of not being integrated into American society was further compounded by the fact that a second wave of Arab immigration came after World War 2. As years passed, Arab-Americans established themselves in American society and achieved affluence beyond that of the average American. Despite this, the policy of the United States regarding Israel remains unreceptive to the views of Arab-Americans. Many factors relating to the internal dynamics of the Arab-American community explain this. Firstly, the Arab-American is more fragmented when it comes to national heritage then Jewish Americans. This comes from the fact that the Arab World extends from Morocco in the west to Iraq in the east, and within this region, the populations have their own unique cultural and national heritages. In fact, the Arabic spoken by the average Arab from Rabat cannot be understood by his counterpart in Baghdad, not to mention the cultural variations that exist within any given country. By contrast, Jews almost always fled persecution by Anti-Semitic majorities in Europe and felt more affinity with their Jewish identity then they did with the European countries of their birth. As a result, it was much easier for them mobilize around the common cause of establishing a Jewish state then it was for the Arab population to rally around the Palestinian issue. As the generations come and go, Arab-Americans become more integrated and more comfortable asserting their political interests, and they will become more able to affect change.
There are people in the United States government who sincerely want to change the United States policy, but they know from the experience of Senator Fulbright and many others that publically advocating or voting for these positions carries immense political costs. Furthermore, the presence of those ideologically motivated individuals, both in and outside of Congress, make more sensible members of Congress feel that any attempt at dialogue or reform is impossible. Additionally, the relative novelty and division among the Arab community in the United States pose serious challenges to any attempt to form a movement that counters the pro-Israel lobbying groups. It is only when pro-Palestinian groups can get on their feet and pull themselves together that they can expect substantive policy change.