Ziad Asali
Columbia University
Keynote Speech to Arab American Student Organizations
April 20, 2007 - 12:00am

The following speech was given as part of a “Night of Arab-American Culture, Identity, and Solidarity’ at Columbia University. The event was sponsored by the Arab Students Association at Columbia University, the Young Arab Leaders Association at the Columbia Business School, the Rutgers University Palestinian American Organization, and United Arabs at New York University.

I am intrigued by the title of tonight’s presentation, “Educating the Gap.” What gap are we talking about? The gap between Arabs and America? Between Moslems and America? Between Arab-Americans and America? Between Arabs and Jews? Muslims and Christians? Palestinians and Israelis? Or is it the one between Arabs and Arabs? Jews and Jews? Palestinians and Palestinians? The possibilities are endless. The gap is wide between ourselves and others, but who are we and who are the others? And how do we begin to answer such questions? Edward Said frequently wrote about the imperative to create an inventory of the traces that different identity markers and cultural influences have had in our lives. Similarly, in his book, The Murderous Identities, the Lebanese-French writer, Amin Maalouf, rejected the need to choose between his French and Lebanese identities, asserting that he is both and more. He wrote: “Can anyone in the United States even today assess his place in society without reference to his earlier connection, whether they are African, Hispanic, Irish, Jewish, Italian, Polish or other?” Or “Arab” I might add.

Maalouf continues: “A person’s identity is not an assemblage of separate affiliations, nor a kind of loose patchwork; it is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” To this I might add, as I paraphrase Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”, “we are large, we contain multitudes.”

Identity is not solely defined by the attribute imposed upon us usually at birth and by which others define us, social categories such as race, ethnicity, religion or language. It also is defined by the choices you make, the will you exercise, and the self-knowledge and knowledge of others that define you and redefine you in your life’s journey. Being an American, whether a hyphenated or non-hyphenated American, allows you to avoid false choices that others impose on you. You are not either an American or an Arab; you are both and more. As Americans, and by your own free will and engagement, you care entitled to nothing less than the full rights, privileges and obligations of any American. You are not obligated to yield to anybody as you engage in shaping debate and participating in the full range of human activities that the system allows and makes available for the taking. Those who have yielded are responsible for the marginalization they have self-imposed on themselves.

The event tonight is about education. Much criticism can be leveled at the educational system in the United States except that it blocks the individual from getting education- even the best education in the world if he or she earns that privilege by talent, hard work and commitment. Education has been, and continues to be, the most predictable vehicle for personal success and contribution to a full and meaningful life. It is necessary but insufficient for great achievement. What you have in common, as Arab student organizations -- whether you are Arabs in America, Arab-Americans, or Americans of Arab heritage -- is a unique opportunity to educate Americans of all walks of life, including yourselves, about the need to “educate the gaps,” resolve conflicts and deepen your own understanding of what it will take to build a better future.

You have to grapple with and confront the legacies you have inherited at birth: a glorious but remote past of cutting-edge Arabic civilization and Islamic culture, which was followed by a decline and degradation for centuries that culminated in a century of defeat and humiliation centering on the Palestine question and the Arab/Israeli conflict. Your own image cannot exist in a pristine environment free of the influence, on others and even on yourselves, of the images of belligerence, backwardness and fanaticism co-existing with indulgence and corruption that dominate cultural representations of Arabs and the Middle East in the United States and the West.

There are many devices people can use to deal with these negative images, ranging from escape and complete denial that may lead you to shed all the traces of the “hyphen” that connects you with the Arab world, to delving into Islamic fundamentalism and confronting America with its garb and its fury. There is of course another choice, both more American and more dignified, which is to define the central problem at work and do all that is in your power to resolve it.

We, at the American Task Force on Palestine have set out, with our meager resources and unshakeable commitment, to do just that. We believe, as do many others, that the central conflict of our time, both regionally and globally, is the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Its resolution will not solve all the dismal realities and numerous conflicts that abound in the Middle East, but will remove what is by far the biggest single obstacle to rational debate and actions that can lead to improvement in all other areas. Our challenge is to define the parameters of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, to understand its history and its nature, figure out an arrangement that would end it, educate our government and fellow citizens at all levels available to us, and use all our resources to bring about a peace that transcends mere process and, at long last, ends the occupation and ends the conflict.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is defined by two wars that, like bookends of a shelf, teach the lesson that there is no military solution. In 1948, the Arab armies failed to put an end to the Zionist plan to establish a Jewish homeland by force and Israel, as we know it was born. The second is 1967, where Israeli armies occupied the rest of Palestine and started the longest military occupation in recent history. That military victory has failed to translate into a political one- Arab Palestinians preferred life under occupation and resistance to exile. Steadfastness, resilience, injured pride and the refusal to abandon their quest for independence and freedom for all time contributed to making this choice. The result of these two wars is what we have now: two peoples, occupier and occupied, living on the land in a fatal embrace.

This conflict is about two issues, real estate and dignity, and we have to make progress on resolving it on both tracks in tandem. The more we see of humiliation as a policy or of grabbing the land upon which the state of Palestine will be borne, the farther we will be from achieving the lasting formula for peace, a historic compromise where Palestine lives alongside Israel with security for all. Failure to achieve a two-state solution will lead to an open-ended struggle to build an equitable and viable bi-national state or a single, unified state, with no realistic prospect of success and with no end in sight. This process could, and perhaps would, lead to further radicalization across the Arab and Islamic worlds, and degenerate to a holy war that brooks no winner.

The parties to the conflict have changed over the past several decades. The clearly defined conflict that erupted in the war of 1948 was one between Palestinians and Arabs, and Jews and Israelis. It was primitive, tribal, ethnic and religious. Following 1967 however, it has been transformed into a conflict between those who have accepted the outcome in 1948 and its consequences and those who do not. Each group has Palestinians, Israelis, Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Westerns, including American supporters and advocates. It is now essentially a conflict between those who support two states and those who do not-- no matter what their allegiance, analyses, motivations, and abilities are. It is now a struggle for statehood before it is too late for a viable state, a struggle to end the occupation while there is still a chance to do that. Let those who oppose it answer for the ills that this failure will visit upon this young century and its inhabitants.

Once we are engaged in advocating for a Palestinian state and educating Americans about it, we can clearly see the power that we can derive from being American citizens fighting to define and defend our national interest. We can just as clearly see the self-imposed marginalization that Arab-American and American-Muslim organizations in the past subjected themselves to. Middle Eastern party affiliations imported into the American context -- whether Fatah, Arab Nationalist, Popular Front, Muslim Brotherhood or others-- were not only destined to fail but to also to complicate the march for Palestinian statehood and freedom. Adopting an overly belligerent stance towards ongoing U.S. policy can be and is readily used to define one as anti-American and opposed to the American system. This is just as damaging and ineffective as abject submission and obsequiousness to a policy that fails to deliver a state of Palestine.

Once the decision is made to impact opinion making in the U.S. in support of a two-state solution, the first order of business is to articulate the national interest of our country in establishing such a state. The arguments have to be made based on national security, combating terrorism, moral imperatives and values, as well as the economic impact of a moderate and peaceful Middle East.

Grand national objectives in the United States are almost always defined by coalitions of disparate groups working to achieve one objective that they share in common. Strange bedfellows have worked together to achieve success for NAFTA, the civil rights struggle, the fight against tobacco and many others. For Arab and Muslim Americans to proceed as if they could successfully advocate for a two-state solution by working mainly with disenfranchised and marginal groups would require a time frame that will far exceed the window of opportunity open for Palestinian statehood
The ingredients needed to establish this coalition are three:

- Credibility of the advocates. This can be achieved by a consistent message, articulated clearly, in all languages both privately and publicly.
- Delivering a receivable message. This is based on a shared definition of the national interest and must be articulated with dignity, passion and the sincere intentions at a time of grave national concern and aroused passions.
- Identifying partners in two national coalitions. This requires a future driven a by cool-headed assessment of all the forces across the national spectrum that support that two state solution. 70% of the American people and 70% of Jewish Americans are in support of this solution. Failing to identify Jewish Americans, organized or otherwise, as partners and potential partners is political malpractice.

The zero-sum game pitting Arabs against Jews is a recipe for continual conflict. This conflict can be either a win-win or a lose-lose proposition. Subgroups, ranging from bleeding-heart peacemakers to chauvinists and worse in both camps have to be recruited in this inchoate coalition to separate the Palestinian and the Israelis each in their separate states. Anti-Semitism, Anti-Arabism, and Anti-Islamism, in all forms covert or overt, applied by a sledgehammer or a wink, have to be shunned like the plague by members of this coalition. We should not ask enemies and previous enemies to love or like each other, but we do ask them to work together for their own interest, that of their country and their ancestral homeland. Other groups, whether liberal or conservative, ethnic or racial, privileged or deprived have to be called upon to belong and do their share in support of the coalition. It is a coalition that redefines and defends the true national interest.

Grievances are easy to recall and recount. Focusing on achieving objectives is hard. It is harder still when you depart beyond the political parameters emotionally carved out by the family, the peer group and consensus of your establishment. But it is making links with like-minded people outside your race, nationality, ethnic group and religion that will give you the power to carve out a better future. It is your future that is at stake and not that of your parents. Our generation has failed to cope with the challenge and the challenge is now yours. Be creative, honest and brave. You do not have to endure, as we have, the unjust criticism for working within the system. You will be proven right.

Later on this evening, you will hear a political statement, a sophisticated statement from the members of the comedy group the “Axis of Evil”. Working squarely within the system, they hold a mirror to America and to Arab and Muslim America. They poke fun as they pierce through ignorance and racism to reveal the truth. Between the most serious political discussions and a comedy routine lies a spectrum for you to work and to succeed. The challenge is yours.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017