Remembering two iconic champions of Palestinian rights
M. Cherif Bassiouni recently passed away, ending a life of struggle against justice including for the rights of Palestinians. Bassiouni was one of two great icons who mentored me into activism for Palestinian rights when I was younger. What they once represented is often difficult to find in today’s activism world
By Ray Hanania
(Originally published in the Arab News Newspaper, Oct. 18, 2017)
One of the first two people who recruited me to activism after I completed military service during the Vietnam War were Palestinian scholar Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and Egyptian scholar M. Cherif Bassiouni.
They were formidable and brilliant role models for a young Palestinian trying to figure how best to help his people, and among brilliant champions of Palestinian and Arabs rights including the powerful orator the late Ambassador to the Arab League Clovis Maksoud.
Abu-Lughod authored the only book worth reading about the Palestine conflict, “The Transformation of Palestine,” while Bassiouni was instrumental in defining Arab civil rights and the chief architect of the International Criminal Court.
Both men gave voice to the growing American Palestinian movement. Abu-Lughod later retired as a professor at Birzeit University and Bassiouni continued to pursue a celebrated career in International Law.
They each shared a fundamental approach to the Palestine-Israel conflict many activists ignore: You cannot achieve 100 percent. What you can do is achieve what you can, respect for truth, and then building the foundation to achieve more.
When Abu-Lughod asked me to become involved in fighting for Palestinian justice, becoming the spokesman for the Arab American Congress for Palestine, I couldn’t say no. I wanted to a doctor, like several relatives, but with Abu-Lughod’s guidance, pursued communications and journalism, two things lacking in our community.
It was through Abu-Lughod that I understood the challenges Palestinians faced in America. Anger did not work to influence Americans, he explained. It distorted our cause and was often mischaracterized as hate. Palestinians don’t hate Jews. But their anger over Israel’s atrocities can be so intense it appears like hate.
Abu-Lughod believed Palestinians needed to establish common ground with mainstream Americans. We needed to make a strong connection. A Bond. In America, “perception is reality,” he would often explain.
That became my mantra. The solution was clear. Change perception and change American foreign policy. Our cause needed to look like “their” cause.
Americans would listen to a Palestinian activist who looked like them, sounded like them and didn’t just speak “English,” but spoke “American.”
It was a decision by my father, George. Dad insisted I learn English, not Arabic, even though for the first decade of my life, my mother, Georgette, often only spoke Arabic to me. That made me as American as everyone else. It made the message I conveyed more effective in connecting with the American sense of fairness and justice. I wrote hundreds of Letters to Editors complaining about biased, inaccurate coverage.
The idea of perception was so strong, Abu-Lughod selected me to publicly debate key Israeli figures, including Foreign Minister Abba Eban on national TV when I was only 22.
Bassiouni was another great influence, often participating with Abu-Lughod in Arab community events, although years they each went their own way.
Bassiouni taught me success is often built from failure. In other words, people who are successful often became successful by acknowledging and understanding their failures. If you ignore your failures – pretending they never happened – you are doomed to live in those failures forever.
I ended up going into journalism as a profession on the basis of those lessons. Bassiouni was one of my first major interviews.
He also believed Palestinians needed to become more “American” in order to influence Americans. We had to establish that bond of understanding and support by building that friendship.
I quickly discovered Palestinians often can’t break free of their anger. Instead of pursuing solutions, we pursue punishment. We want to punish Israel. Recognizing failure is foreign to our culture. Pride is more important than even doing what needs to be done.
When Americans look at Palestinians, they see anger. They see foreigners. They see the image painted by Israel. We feed into that false image with our anger and by acting “foreign.” Palestinians in America were pushed into a stereotype painted by racist Hollywood movies and the mainstream American News Media driven by pro-Israel propaganda.
With the help of the American mainstream news media, Palestinians were made to look bad. And we helped that process through our anger, our frustrations, and by failing to connect with Americans.
Compromise is an essential aspect of victory. Rejecting compromise leaves only two outcomes, victory or defeat. Arabs can’t achieve victory, so we learn to live in defeat.
Even till this day, many argue that the American people are slaves to Israeli propaganda, and yet they don’t think it’s important to create a propaganda of our own to counter Israel and change the perception of Americans.
“Just give them the truth,” I am told by activists who then dive into an angry and endless denunciation of Israel’s crimes, which are many. But maybe they are too many for Americans to clearly see.
Both men died, Abu-Lughod on May 23, 2001 and Bassiouni recently, on September 25, 2017. The logic they espoused is absent from many of today’s activists who believe they can force Americans to see the truth through confrontation, protests and attacks rather than through effective strategic communications and compromise as persuasion.
They used to refer to the “wandering Jew.” But I think that label has been taken over by Palestinians. We have no leaders advocating professional communications or clever messaging as strategies to win over American public support.
In fact, many Palestinians and Arabs believe it is a waste of time to lobby Americans, even though they often complain about all the support America gives Israel in terms of money and politics.
It might explain why this conflict has gone on so long. As a reminder of how long it has been, next month, we will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. With no real leaders in America, Palestine is more enslaved today than it ever was.
(Ray Hanania is an award winning Palestinian American columnist and author. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)