Beyond Words: A Response to Hussein Ibish

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Two photos have been circulating like wildfire among the Palestinian-American community. As the number of email forwards increases, so does the level of outrage. The photos show a smiling Ziad Asali, President of the American Task Force for Palestine (ATFP), posing next to Michael Oren, the Israel Ambassador to the United States, at an “Independence Day” celebration hosted by the Israeli embassy.

Here’s the problem: What Israel celebrates as its “independence” is, for Palestinians, the Nakba, the “Catastrophe” in which more than 80% of the indigenous population of the Holy Land were forcibly expelled from their homeland by recent European refugees and immigrants. Thenceforth, racist Israeli state policies against the remaining native Palestinian Christian and Muslim population have spanned the full spectrum of oppression and apartheid, ranging from deportations, razing of villages, home demolitions, evictions, segregated road networks, economic deprivation, and other well-documented extensive human rights abuses, which have effectively extended the Nakba into a slow and deliberate process of ethnic cleansing.

The Nakba is a profound trauma in the collective Palestinian psyche. It has never been redeemed, never acknowledged. Our grandparents and parents died in refugee camps mourning all that was stolen from us. They died in the heartbreak of being disposable human beings, deemed unworthy of their own home and heritage.

For Ziad Asali to attend an Israeli “Independence Day” is tantamount to dancing on their graves. Palestinians are incredulous, angry, and hurt, particularly at a time when the current Israeli government—which Michael Oren represents—has pushed legislation to make public commemorations of the Nakba a punishable offense.

In an unsuccessful attempt to diffuse the mounting fury, Hussein Ibish, Senior Research Fellow at ATFP, wrote a defense of Asali, his boss. He called Asali a “visionary” and “trail blazer” and went on to enumerate a list of US politicians who have had dinner with ATFP. These ATFP functions might be relevant had they successfully stopped one eviction, dismantled one settlement, freed one political prisoner, or removed one checkpoint. But Ibish’s bluster was replete with clichés that were matched only by his avoidance of actually addressing the offense, which is this:

Ziad Asali, a man who purports to represent the interests of the Palestinian-American people chose to celebrate the demise of Palestine while Palestinians themselves mark this painful month with remembrance, commemoration, and a renewal of our commitment to create the kind of peace that would see our dignity restored and the land once again be a pluralistic and inclusive place, where no one is accorded privilege at the expense of another based on religion.

We commemorate this historic calamity with a cognizance that the violence and dispossession employed by the Israeli state against the indigenous Palestinian population in Israel-Palestine continues unabated. Accordingly, there can be no Palestinian-American leadership position for a man like Asali with such brazen disregard for his own people. As a result, we have published a petition to draw the attention of the ATFP Board of Directors to why so many members of the Palestinian-American community find Asali’s egregious behavior warrants his resignation.

Some individuals have refused to sign our petition because our demands do not go far enough. They want the ATFP to be dissolved all together, citing a list of other grievances. The Palestinian-American community will have to determine the best way to proceed in having discussions about our institutions, accountability, and the politics of representation. The main point of our petition is that regardless what your views are on the issues that Ibish’s response raises, it would be very difficult to find a Palestinian-American besides Asali (Ibish is not of Palestinian heritage) who could, in good conscience, defend Asali’s celebration alongside Oren at a time when the rest of us are shedding tears for the lives that we are continuing to lose. Our hope is that the current ATFP board will decide to establish the credibility of the organization by replacing Asali with someone more suitable who can truly serve our community and help us transcend this impasse.

It is Asali’s prerogative to meet with Israeli officials when and how he pleases, but to do so in our name, without sensitivity to the time, place, and event, reflects an abysmal disconnect with Palestinian-Americans. Asali is free to be the single Palestinian smiling at a celebration of the month when Zionist militias massacred us, drove us off our land, stole everything from us, and trapped our history beneath their bulldozers and subversion; but he will not do so in our name.