|September 2000 - Return to Monthly Index MiddleEast.Org 9/11/00|
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"RIGHT OF RETURN"? OF COURSE!
THE COMING DEMONSTRATION? HARDLY!
"The famous journalist of
The Independent Robert Fisk...
derided the Arab American 'Lobby' for its laziness
(and being) out of touch with reality..."
"Isn't it about time that
serious-minded Arab American
activists told these quisling organizations to stuff it
and went on to form their own serious organizations?"
MID-EAST REALITIES - www.MiddleEast.Org - Washington - 9/11/00:
Saturday a few thousand Arab Americans are planning to make it to Washington "demanding" the "Right of Return" for Palestinian refugees. What should one think about this?
A few days ago we published an article about the April "Right of Return" conference in Boston which was the precursor to this upcoming mini "march". Sadly, with the tragic history of misorganizing, self-delusion, and co-optation the Arab Americans already have, it was "a disaster". That article was written by a highly-committed woman of American Jewish background who attended the conference, herself with a long record of strongly supporting Palestinian rights and fiercely opposing Israeli policies.
Today's article, Part II, also about that Boston "Right of Return" conference is written by a Palestinian student who also attended the conference -- "a farce" he concludes. "These conferences are more like entertainment events for Arab Americans than political mobilization events aiming towards political change."
Now the problem isn't the "Right of Return". Indeed, the nearly four million Palestinian refugees and descendants are well entitled to that as has been acknowledged far and wide for quite a long time, plus considerable compensation to boot.
The problem is in the disengenuous, bumbling, naive, and dishonest ways the Arab American organizers go about all this, terribly misleading those few who often sincerely, though usually innocently and gullibly, follow them. And there are so few willing to follow precisely because of the long and sad history of such stumbling along and tripping over themselves that preceeds current efforts.
Remember the famous scene in "Lawrence of Arabia" where the new "Arab Council", triumpant in battle against the Turks, meets in Damascus with everyone screaming and shouting at everyone else and with General Allenby just sitting in his headquarters, practising fly casting, just waiting for the Arabs to shoot themselves in their feet so Sykes-Picot can be put into practice?
Well...sadly...things are about the same today, both in the Middle East itself, and with the Arab American community that constantly parrots those representing the regimes here who always keep them on short leashes and mischannel their every energy.
This time around, while the Arab Americans pretend to finally be doing something important, the new "peace agreement" -- cleverly designed to dissect and fragment the Palestinian people still further and to permanently prevent the "Right of Return" from ever being implimented -- is being polished for signing. Yet those coming to Washington will shout their simple slogans -- heard almost exclusively by themselves -- without even going to demonstrate at the various Arab Embassies which are birthing this latest miserable apartheid-laden deal that has already further terribly fractured Palestinian lands and society. It is, afterall, these Arab "client regimes" who bear at least co-responsibility for both the original and the ongoing plight of the Palestinian people, not to mention for so much bloodshed, corruption, and cowardice, including the ongoing genocidal devastation of Iraq.
THE "RIGHT OF RETURN" CONFERENCE -- MORE DELUSIONS
REFLECTIONS ON THE ARAB AMERICAN SCENE
By Rageb Damian*
On Saturday 8 April in the auditorium of the Boston University Law School a daylong conference titled the Right of Return was held. The conference was organized by a new organization called Trans Arab Research Institute (TARI) -- but it was really the same old failed people and groups from the past.
The conference speeches dealt with the Palestinian refugees’ right of return to their homes in pre-1948 Israel. After the dispossession of the Palestinians in the War of 1948, or the (Nakba) as Arabs call it, the United Nations issued resolution 194 that stated that the refugees of the war had the right to return or be repatriated. The conference was an intensive daylong affair of lecture after lecture, speaker after speaker, who iterated the right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and addressed various issues of importance to the Palestinian situation.
In terms of the information given, one could say that the speakers did a good job of explaining various details about the Palestinian problem, dispossession of the Palestinians and challenges the Palestinians face today. The conference and the conditions that surround it are illustrative of several realities of the Arab-American scene in the US and how it relates to the Middle East conflict.
News about the conference had been circulating through e-mail lists
and Arab-American organizations-affiliated news groups through the Internet.
While the issue is important and key to understanding the Middle East conflict,
the little efforts to
accommodate a larger number of people (the total number who attended finally did not exceed 550 people), was disheartening. “TARI is a little organization that cannot do much”, everyone was told. A video “hook-up” was arranged at the last minute to accommodate the rest of the attendees who were seated in an adjacent room. Conditions were stifling warm. By the end of the day the conference had lost more than half the number of people who were there in the morning. As usual, most of the attendees were Arab American and/or people involved with the very Arab American organizations that arranged it.
The conference started with the organizers congratulating each other
for holding the conference. The two people linked with of TARI were
Mr. Naseer Aruri, the president of TARI, a Palestinian American (Professor
Emeritus, University of Massachusetts) and
a lecturer on Palestinian issue and a critic of Arafat’s regime, and Ms. Elaine Musallem Hagobian, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Simons College, Boston, a frequent lecturer at Arab-American conferences. Aruri started by congratulating his colleague for her wonderful work in helping bring about the conference. He then proceeded to criticize the Arafat regime, rightly, for its ruinous effect on the Palestinians.
The big star of the event was the acclaimed Dr. Edward Said, a Palestinian
American Professor at Columbia University, a man whose books and articles
are essential to understanding Palestinian and Arab issues. His lecture
was very interesting and
insightful, explaining the Oslo trap the Palestinians have been led into, and using Palestinian art to explain the Palestinian psyche of dispossession. For a couple of minutes, the slides projector he was trying to use failed to work, visibly frustrating Said, because the organizers couldn't even get that right.
Said however failed to make light of the reality of the Arab American
organizations that use him as the main attraction to their events.
There was not one single comment about the failure of organizations like
the American Arab Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC), and the various
groups that orbit it, in bringing about an Arab American political force
in Washington, DC. Said never fails to keep coming to
Arab-American conferences, if health permits, no matter if the organization hosting him is effective or not.
The following panel was excellent in terms of putting the Middle East conflict in perspective. It featured Dr. Noam Chomsky, MIT, who put in simple terms the reality of US policy and how futile are attempts to bring justice to the refugees if not accompanied by education and mobilization in the US. He used the Vietnam Anti-War protests as an example of what organizing can do, solutions that Arab American groups have done the exact opposite. Equally illuminating was the next speaker, Dr. Ilan Pappe, University of Haifa, Israel, who spoke about the Israeli public opinion on the right of return. The Le Monde Diplomatique paper journalist Dr. Alain Gresh presented the European Union stance on Palestinian statehood.
The spoil sport was the famous journalist of The Independent Robert Fisk, who derided the Arab American “Lobby” for its laziness, its out of touch with reality, and the luxury with which the organizers attempted to treat him for dinner the previous evening at the Harvard Club, at which he decided not to stay. He rightly expressed his bewilderment of what the relation is between dining him in the fancy (luxurious) Harvard professors dining hall and the right of return for Palestinians languishing in miserable refugee camps. He criticized such a lecture event as useless since as usual, 95% of the attendees are Arab American, and wondered why did not each attendee bring any non Arab American so they could learn about these issues. Half of the attendees applauded. It was later said that Dr. Edward Said was not favorable of Fisk’s remarks about the Arab American “Lobby”; and in fact in subsequent days Said made very derogatory comments about Fisk for daring to speak the truth and try to be helpful.
The conference proceeded for the rest of the day with more lectures about legal and political about the right of return and restitution and issues the Palestinians face in the refugee camps. It was definitely enlightening to learn about all these issues that relate to such a topic. A silent candle light vigil to commemorate the 1947 Deir Yaseen massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Zionist gangs prior to Nakba was planned somewhere in Boston that evening. No reference was made to the unprecedented statement of opposition to the "peace process" published by Palestinian Intellectuals in the Israeli daily Haaretz a month or so before the conference, to which many of the lecturers were signatory nor was there a handout about it among the many given out there. And Dr. Haidar Abdul-Shafi, the dignified Palestinian personality who headed the Palestinian delegation in Madrid and Washington but then resigned because of what the Arafat regime has become, was not invited for fear he would be too critical.
The segment that included Chomsky, Fisk, Pappe, and Gresh was the best
part of the conference. It put everything in perspective and criticized
the conference itself. Yet little did most people know about the
reality behind this conference and the
organizations that sponsor it.
While it is definitely challenging to figure out what is really going
on the Arab American scene only from attending the Boston conference, one
has to learn about the real objectives of the so-called Arab American “lobby”
in order to understand. It is
not just lazy or out of touch with reality, it is deliberately deceptive and aims to waste energy and moral. One has to learn about the Arab elite (in the Middle East and the West) and its many tentacles here in America to understand how all this work together.
To put matters in perspective let us compare the Arab American “Lobby”
to the Pro-Israel Jewish Lobby “AIPAC”. In brief, AIPAC represents
a panoply of Jewish American and Pro-Israeli organizations that lobby,
effectively, the US Administration, the
Congress, and the American media to follow and present a policy favorable to Israel’s current government. AIPAC is pretty powerful and has been so for decades (since 1941). While many Jewish Americans do not consider it representative of their views, it has managed to marginalize those who oppose it through various means such as accusations of anti-Semitism, Jewish self-hatred, etc.
The Arab American “Lobby” on the other hand is different. It does not seriously try to influence the US administration, the congress, nor the US media. Through an organization like the ADC, it tries to fight negative stereotyping of Arabs in films, press, etc. On matters relating to the Palestinian issue, it hides behind simplistic slogans and tiny issues rather than speak about the big picture. You will find it sponsoring an event on Oslo process, but never coming out to condemn the Arafat Reigme for being what it really is, nor the Arab regimes in the area for making possible such a one-sided "peace process". You would find it lamenting the death of Iraqi children under US-backed sanctions, but never condemning Saudi Arabia for allowing the American troops to be stationed there let alone sponsoring an event about that. You sure won’t find it making a public statement about the terrible state of human rights abuses in the Arab World.
WHAT DRIVES THESE GROUPS?
A very good question to ask is who heads these organizations, funds them, and for what purpose. Why do we have ADC, the Boston conference, and why do those intellectuals act the way they do? And why won’t anything come out of this conference?
The key word here is Incest. One interesting way to understand
is by taking a look at all the Arab American organizations’ events throughout
the year and comparing sessions and speakers and organizers with each other,
and then comparing each event to the one the year before. Here is
what we will discover: A lot of the names are the same, many of the
session titles are going to be the same and pretty much will reflect the
political “hot” issue of the year. For example, in 1998, we had variations
of the “50 years of dispossession” commemoration throughout the year.
Dr. Edward Said was invited to speak about fifty years of Palestinian dispossession
at the ADC conference. Last year, he was invited again to speak about
Arab American issues. And most likely, if health permits, he will
be invited and come again this year to speak about the Palestinian right
of return, if not at the ADC, them
maybe at an affiliate of the ADC. The same is true with other speakers.
These conferences are more like entertainment events for Arab Americans than political mobilization events aiming towards political change. The conference in general will promote a tribal mentality as a way to ensure support and eventually plays on the identity problem of those who call themselves Arab American. It will play on the misunderstanding of how US policy works in relation to the Middle East by suggesting that it is a matter of having more Arab Americans in policy positions, or blame it all on the Pro-Israel Jewish Lobby, whose influence is exaggerated for these purposes. There is of course a social aspect to these conferences (old friends get to see each other), which ensures a good show up every year.
As for what happens after these conferences, it is rather depressing.
Of course, keep in mind that the purpose is to mislead rather than direct.
Many students and well-meaning people will get enthusiastic at the information
and messages being
given by the speakers. They will want to do something. Rather than do something on their own and start a real serious organization, they will be mislead into putting their energies into the organization sponsoring the conference and end up chasing
their tail. They will be asked to organize others, write to the president and congress people. The problem is that the themes that the activity is conducted under are vague, misleading, and aimless. It will be something like “promoting Arab American issues” or “making sure the peace process is fair to the Arabs” or “ having more people of Arab American origin in the public offices”.
As for the question of who is behind these conferences and organizations. Definitely, the case of the ADC is illustrative. This organization is headed and pretty much run by the Maksouds and their friends. Dr. Clovis Maksoud, the former representative of the Arab League, an umbrella organization for the Arab regimes, and wife Hala Salam Maskosoud, a nephew of the former 1970’s Lebanese prime Minister Saeb Salam are very much to blame for their corrupting of Arab American organizations such as ADC. Only two years ago ADC activist signed an open letter to Mrs. Maksoud wanting more democracy in the organization and calling the ADC convention tasteless. Not surprisingly, the connections of the former epresentative of the Arab league include the Arab Ambassadors and the Arab businessmen associated with the regimes. Those crowds have an interest in making sure no serious criticism or, may Allah forbid, a mobilization against the dictatorships and corruption of the Arab World is made. Things are kept under control by directing energy towards criticizing Israeli and American policy ad infinitum such as what happens in the Arab Media. The organizers of these events get their pay in the form of residing over an organization and getting to invite their friends each conference to dine and wine and giving awards to each other (for nothing really) while the unsuspecting audience is clapping. Another important side to this is fund raising for their organizations from gullible Arab American and Arabs in the Middle East who think their money is being used to defending Arab causes in America. Of course, the money, like the money the PLO pumped into its US offices in the seventies and eighties is wasted, embezzled, and misused. Within these organizations, an inefficient corrupt system that keeps the honest people away is at work, while the self-serving individuals are kept in power.
THE WIZARD OF OZ
To understand another aspect of this farce, one should think of the Wizard of OZ fable, where the “wizard” at the end was the little man behind the screen appearing to be much bigger than he was, projecting himself not as he really was but how he wanted everyone to believe he was. That is how these groups are constructed.
A helpful exercise is to get a hold of the names of the people who sit on the advisory boards of, main figures involved with, and the people always “recognized” at Arab American events. It is pretty much the same people, and have been the same for the past 15-20 years. The Maksouds are prominent in this. They have used their power and influence to include more groups under them. For example, on the same floor in the same building where the ADC in based in Washington, DC, two more organizations are located: The American Committee on Jerusalem, and the American Arab University Graduates. Since December of 1999, the head of an equally deceptive organization, The National Association of Arab Americans (NAAA), Mr. Khalil Jahshan, has become the vice president of ADC. There is no doubt that we will not be told in the coming ADC convention about why NAAA collapsed and what lessons we will learn from the failure of another Arab American organization. It is more accurate to say that the same people go about under different organizational names in order to fool people and hold more than one conference a year, more dinner parties, and more contributions through attendance fees form gullible members.
Most of these groups are based in Washington, DC and direct their activities
at the Arab Americans in the DC metro area and the larger Arab communities
in the US such as Detroit, Michigan; Chicago, Illinois; San Francisco,
California. Activist Arab
American with an urge to do something political come and spend little time at the conferences, such as Boston’s, not enough to figure out what is really going out. Some do but feel unable to do anything. Others get demoralized without realizing why. Since these groups dominate the scene with no serious alternative, they get to be considered by the American Media as representative of the Arab American community and get called on to give their say on TV reports and Talk shows. More importantly, they are the convenient representatives of Arab Americans for the Arab press. Therefore the distorted image of Arab Americans is also played out to the nsuspecting Arabs who lack any critical news source. Little do Arabs know the effect of the corrupt Arab system of regimes in having satellite organizations in the US to further keep the status quo, and keep many in the dark. Since these groups do some fundraising in the Middle East from gullible Arabs who think their money is put to good use here in the US, and some such as the regime-allied businessmen who are comfortable with keeping the status quo, they get to collect through the same people
monies under the names of different organizations.
What the organizations failed to do in Boston deserves some pointing
out. Rather than invite Dr. Haider Abdul Shafi, a prominent Palestinian
speaker on Palestinian rights to the Boston conference, someone who will
surely speak up about the corrupt
Arafat regime, with great credibility, he was not there at all at the conference, for reasons unclear. In addition, recent attempts to oppose Arafat were not highlighted by anyone at the conference such as the petition of the twenty people from Nov. 1999 accusing Arafat of opening the door to corruption. There definitely was no suggestion of a strategy to follow after the conference or any print out of stated goals other than the vague aim of supporting the right of return. May we ask, what is the point of bringing together 550 mostly Arab Americans, lecture them about the right of return, not preparing any statement for the media or attempting to go on the
talk shows, and then praising the organizations and their heads? And events of this magnitude will repeat twice or more this year for sure.
It is a reason to wonder really how long this lethargy on the Arab American scene will continue. Isn't it about time that serious-minded Arab American activists told these quisling organizations to stuff it and went on to form their own serious organizations? Isn’t it about time there is a hard-headed discussion in the mainstream media about the right of return rather than holding a conference 52 years after the fact and keeping it to Arab Americans talking to each other?
* The author can be reached at Rageb@MiddleEast.Org
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