In March 1989, during the first intifada, members of the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) came together for the first time in the United States for an international peace conference, the Road to Peace. The late Edward Said, who taught at Columbia University, arranged for the conference to be held there, since it was illegal for Knesset members to meet with members of the PLO except under “academic auspices.”
The Road to Peace was cosponsored by the American Council for Palestine Affairs, which Professor Said steered with its director, Nubar Hovsepian, and by Al Fajr magazine, New Outlook magazine, and Americans forPeace Now. As one of the members of the conference’s coordinating team, I had the opportunity to participate in the two-year planning process and experience it all up close.
Premised on principles of self-determination for both peoples, the hope was to bring together political leaders from as wide a range of Palestinian and Israeli societies as possible. During these years, a commonly-heard refrain in Jewish communities was that there was nobody to talk to or make peace with on the “other side,” meaning the Palestinian side. The conference proved otherwise. Palestinian participants came from the highest levels of the PLO and also included US Palestinian leaders, like Edward Said, Ibrahim Abu Lughod, and Rashid Khalidi, as well as Palestinians from the occupied territories. On the Israeli side, however, while participants included Knesset members from progressive parties, only Yael Dayan agreed to come from the Labor Party and nobody came from Likud.
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As the conference was in its planning stages, the US government opened “substantive dialogue” with the PLO. The period was regarded as one of real opportunity and generated great energy for what was possible. The conference planning, which included Palestinians, Israeli and US Jews, and others, involved tremendous back and forth about the vision, agenda, participants, role of the US government and much more. Thousands of people reached out to come to the conference, which could only accommodate several hundred people. Frank discussion took place during the conference itself, including about the Palestinian right of return for Palestinian refugees. Israeli participants argued with the Palestinian participants who spoke about the importance of that right.
Revealingly, during the cultural evening on the Saturday night of the conference, some of the Israeli participants (and these were members of the “Zionist left”) were offended when a Palestinian performer sang the Palestinian anthem, Biladi — about the dream of returning to Palestine. Emotions ran high. What became clear is that the underlying issues of Zionist history and its impact on the Palestinian people had never been seriously addressed or acknowledged by many of the Israelis. (At the conference the next day, an Israeli participant, former Knesset member Gen. Matti Peled admonished those Israeli participants: “I think there is something very wrong with this tendency on the part of some Israelis to tell the Palestinians what they should sing, what they should play, which Jewish speakers they should like, and which Jewish speakers they should dislike…”)
Fast forward to almost 30 years later. During these years, the Israeli government has become ever-more repressive, aggressive and violent toward the Palestinian people. Palestinians have been routinely and brutally denied their basic freedom and rights. Gaza is being strangled. Land theft, home demolitions, destruction of villages, settlement expansion and burning of olive groves are commonplace, as are military assaults and torture.
International peace conferences and negotiations, such as the Oslo peace accords and others, have come and gone with no movement toward a just solution. This reality has much to do with US foreign policy vis-a-vis Israel, as well as with the Israeli government’s expansionist behavior and lack of any commitment whatsoever to peace and to justice. Rashid Khalidi and others write compellingly about the failure of Oslo, for example. The status quo was more than unacceptable.
Palestinians have been calling for justice and organizing steadfastly for a long time. For many years now, a thriving global solidarity movement, which continues to grow, has joined with Palestinians to strengthen grassroots organizing and hold Israel accountable to basic human rights principles. The call for Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS), initiated by Palestinian civil society, has been a central part of this organizing, which includes a call for the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Organizing within Palestine takes many forms, including the critical human rights work of Palestinian activist Issa Amro and the organization he founded, Youth Against Settlements, as well as Palestinian hunger-strikers in Israeli prisons demanding the most basic of rights. Both have garnered tremendous international support.
And opposition to Israel’s policies has intensified, including among American Jews. In fact, increasing numbers of Jews recognize that issues of the right of return and the reality of the Nakba (an Arabic word referring to the catastrophe of 1948 in which 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes by the Zionist movement and then Israel) must be central to our work. That is why I joined with Jewish educators to create Facing the Nakba.
As Jews recently entered the Jewish New Year, and as we immerse ourselves in a period of reflection toward how we want to be in the coming year, I believe we must reckon directly with the impact of the Nakba. Looking back at these years and looking forward at what’s ahead, we must challenge ourselves and do all we can to strengthen our support for the Palestinian-led movement for justice. I believe that is the most ethical way to move forward.
The Road to Peace coordinating team also included Adnan Abdelrazek, Peter Weiss, Esther Cohen, Nubar Hovsepian and additional representatives from the co-sponsoring organizations.