Critics of the American Task Force on Palestine get one thing right: Palestinian Americans have largely failed to make their voices heard in the mainstream American political and foreign-policy conversation. However, this is the fault of self-styled “pro-Palestinian” advocates who operate in a cult-like echo-chamber and advocate an approach that does considerable harm to the Palestinian cause.
It is often claimed that strident “pro-Palestinian” advocates are afraid to speak up. On the contrary, their voices are loud and shrill, but they champion stances that plainly invite marginalization.
Any position that rests on the dogmatic assertion that a two-state solution is a dangerous illusion is simply not going to be taken seriously. A two-state solution is the policy of the Palestinian national leadership and – according to all opinion polls – a majority of Palestinians in the occupied territories, as well as people in Israel, the United States, the Arab and Muslim worlds, the United Nations, and indeed the rest of the world (except perhaps Iran).
Those who spend all their efforts merely trying to show how bad Israel is and how victimized the Palestinians are, while offering no constructive input to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian problem, should expect the world to ignore their whining. Indeed, such behavior begs the question of whether these individuals really want a solution at all, or – in some material, intellectual or emotional register – are comfortable with the continuation of the conflict.
Their tired message of victimization and blame also fails to resonate among many Palestinians who refuse to define themselves as hapless victims, and are taking proactive measures in the occupied territories to improve their lives and build the basis for an independent state. Not surprisingly, these Palestinian efforts are also condemned by these so-called “pro-Palestinian” activists.
ATFP was created to eschew precisely such self-marginalizing approaches. We at ATFP have never claimed to represent, or speak for, anyone but ourselves. But we also understood some essential realities. The tools and resources of the American political system are open to all Americans. The only limitations are those that are self-imposed. Our best leverage is our ability to add value to the policy conversation. So, rather than angrily lamenting the state of things, we engage and proactively promote the American national interest in ending the occupation and bringing peace to the Palestinians and Israelis.
We have been successful beyond our expectations. We have obviously not succeeded in creating a Palestinian state, but we have injected a powerful, constant Palestinian-American voice into the mainstream American foreign-policy debate. Through ATFP, Palestine has indeed become part of the Washington establishment.
The noises made by our critics have not impeded our ability to influence the policy conversation, because these critics have no place in it. That is not to say, however, that such malicious activists have not been harmful to Palestinian Americans in other ways.
Appointing themselves guardians of political correctness in the community, this camp has created an atmosphere of intimidation. They have relied on bullying tactics, accusing ATFP of “treachery,” “collaboration,” “normalization,” “opportunism,” and so forth. These labels are routinely deployed in vicious smear campaigns against Palestinian and Arab-American activists who claim the full measure of their citizenship by engaging in our own country’s political system.
When I speak at campuses around the United States, I am regularly told by young Arab-Americans that they agree with ATFP’s general approach, but are uncomfortable voicing this for fear of these commissars of correctness. Each one of these bright, energetic young people who are intimidated from engaging with the American mainstream is a loss to the Palestinian cause. As a result, the vibrant and successful Palestinian-American community has shrill voices on the margins but a distinctly low presence in the very field Palestinians care so much about: American foreign policy.
There is a large measure of internalized racism in these attacks. Such critics simply cannot imagine that Arab-Americans can be serious participants in American policy conversations. Because they persist in the deep-seated belief that it is impossible for us to actually impact policy, they assume engagement means selling out or capitulating.
Such people may cling to the comfort of seeing themselves solely as perpetual righteous victims oppressed by Israel and America, but Palestine and the Palestinian-American community are paying the price for their self-indulgence.
Palestinian Americans have long lamented the lack of an effective “Palestine lobby.” ATFP is not, nor does it want to be, such a lobby. But as policy practitioners in Washington, we keenly feel the need for one. The more engaged Arab-Americans are in the system and in the foreign policy conversation, the more effective will our collective message be. Alienated critics might make interesting characters, but they can’t have any impact on American policy.
Activists living in a self-imposed ghetto need to understand that the Palestinian issue is not about them or their intellectual and emotional comfort. It is about real people who endure losses every day the conflict continues.