Ways to advance the Palestinian cause in America

Drew Christiansen

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Ra'fat Al-Dajani

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Most of the world recognizes the Palestinian cause as just, and most believe Palestinians are in need of justice. They and their descendants have lived on the land of historic Palestine since time immemorial, yet today, close to 4 million of them live in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem under different forms of Israeli military occupation. At 47 years and counting, this is the longest military occupation in modern history.

Yet Palestinians have also suffered from their inability to generate sympathy for their just cause among the American public and especially among American policymakers. While this is slowly changing, especially among young Americans, a majority of Americans and an overwhelming majority of U.S. politicians view the Palestinian cause unfavorably. This is ironic for a country that fought for independence from a colonial power, Great Britain, and whose founding documents are a beacon of hope for subjugated peoples worldwide.

There are a number of reasons why American audiences have not been receptive to the Palestinian narrative while making the right-wing Israeli narrative their own. People don't know the story of Jewish dispossession of Palestinians even prior to the establishment of the state of Israel, but they do know the stories of the Holocaust, Israeli wars against hostile Arab neighbors, and the American alliance with Israel. But those stories have been assimilated to a "right-wing" narrative that defends expanded Israeli settlement of Palestinian lands.

The Palestinian narrative has many supporters, both individuals and organizations, in the Jewish-American community, but these organizations still pale in power compared to the Israeli defense organizations advocating a hard-line right-wing message of Israeli domination over Palestine.

Not all the blame falls on Israel's zealous backers. The partisans of Palestine also bear responsibility for this failure of communication. Palestinians, Palestinian-Americans and those who believe in justice for Palestine need to assess how they have failed to communicate effectively to the American public. Here are some points to consider:

Unity of message: Palestinians lack a coordinated and coherently unified message that brings together governmental and nongovernmental organizations to fashion short-term and long-term messages tailored to current events and political realities.

Passing the torch: While they contributed much to keeping the Palestinian cause alive through some very challenging decades, the older generation of Palestinian leaders continues to cling on to every possible vestige of authority over the Palestinian people, including articulating the Palestinian cause to the media.

American audiences relate much more to the articulate Israeli spokesperson with little or no accent as "one of us" than to the Palestinian spokesperson as someone "different from us" with a foreign accent and an unprepared message.

There is a huge pool of young, Westernized and articulate Palestinians, male and female, who are underutilized and who, if commissioned, could far better convey the Palestinian message to American audiences. This is the time for generational change.

The sound bite: There is a reason news broadcasts in the United States generally run one- to two-minute stories: The American audience prefers a short, simple message, one that can be articulated in a sound bite.

Palestinian spokespeople often veer off-topic into citing an emotional and angry litany of historical grievances that the average American viewer doesn't care about. Focusing instead on a couple of short, clear points and offering a positive forward- rather than backward-looking vision would be much better understood and received.

Just criticism of Israel. Whether justly provoked or not, when Palestinian representatives bash Israel as a whole, they project an image of aggression and intolerance. It is important to aim criticism only at the specific Israeli entity that deserves it, whether the Israeli Defense Forces, settlers or a right-wing government.

It is also equally important to offer praise for the many sectors of Israeli and Jewish-American society, whether media, human rights organizations, political parties, or politicians, that do exemplary work on Palestinian issues.

Engaging America: Palestinian-Americans have generally hesitated from utilizing the many tools American citizenship offers. While some groups have made headway into engaging the political system, the community needs to do much more in general to engage American society at every level, including the school PTA, contributing to political campaigns, and writing for the media.

Palestinians have a cause that is just. It is time for the American public to learn about this so U.S. policy toward Palestine can finally serve all parties -- American national interest, Israeli security and Palestinian statehood.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]

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