Lightning Rod of the Boycott Israel Movement

Ali Abunimah Draws Crowds, Controversy With 'One-State Solution' Call

Articulate Advocate: Ali Abunimah may be the most-recognized face of the Boycott Israel movement. He draws crowds on college campuses with his call for a ‘one-state solution,’ meaning Palestinians would enjoy equal rights and the vote within a single state encompassing Israel and the occupied territories.
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Articulate Advocate: Ali Abunimah may be the most-recognized face of the Boycott Israel movement. He draws crowds on college campuses with his call for a ‘one-state solution,’ meaning Palestinians would enjoy equal rights and the vote within a single state encompassing Israel and the occupied territories.

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published March 09, 2012, issue of March 16, 2012.
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“The people most likely to leave would be those with means, those with second passports, those who aren’t prepared to muck it along in a society where they don’t have so many built-in advantages,” he said. “It is very important to recognize that for some people it is about privilege.”

Abunimah is under no illusion that the majority of American Jews or Israelis would willingly agree to such a proposition. In fact, most would go “kicking and screaming.” Already, Abunimah’s detractors, who include Zionists on the left, have painted his idea as a kind of reverse Nakba — the term Palestinians use to refer to their ejection in 1948 — with Israel devolving into violent chaos and Jews fleeing.

And yet, as the two-state vision stagnates, with even negotiations towards it seeming distant while Jewish-only settlements continue to spread in the occupied West Bank, Abunimah seems to be gaining traction. Abunimah’s knee surgery will pause his touring for now, capping a weeklong speaking tour of some of the most elite schools in the country: Oberlin College, Brown University, Brandeis and, most recently, Harvard, which played host to a conference on the one-state solution. To his detractors, Abunimah is preaching to the choir, a tiny sliver of far-left Israel haters with an outsized voice on college campuses. Indeed, the one-state solution has zero backing from Palestinian, Israeli and American political leadership. But Abunimah sees things differently.

“People see that there is really not a two-state solution; there is no peace process,” Abunimah said. “We are at the point where there is nothing left to pin false hopes on, and that is pushing people to say, ‘What are the alternatives to this?’”

For a person whose ideas are portrayed as outside the realm of reasonable political discourse, Abunimah does not look like a radical. Unlike many of the activists who show up at his events, he doesn’t wear a kaffiyeh, the crosshatched scarf synonymous with Palestinian resistance. Abunimah’s head and beard are shaven; when he speaks at campuses, he wears gray V-neck sweaters, blue jeans and sneakers.

Abunimah was born in Washington, DC, but his accent reflects a childhood spent in London and Brussels, where his father was posted as a Jordanian diplomat. Both of Abunimah’s parents are Palestinian Muslims; his mother was born outside Jerusalem, but her family fled to Jordan in 1948. Abunimah’s father’s family was displaced from his West Bank village to Bethlehem during the war.

“I hardly made that painful chapter of my life part of our conversation at home, or ever engaged in any kind of ‘indoctrination’ of the children,” Abunimah’s father, Hasan Abunimah, wrote in an email to the Forward. “I always wanted the children to make up their own ideas and mind, and they actually did.”

In his book, Abunimah said that he accompanied his father, a onetime proponent of the two-state solution, to diplomatic meetings in Brussels. As a child, Abunimah wrote, he, too, was seduced by the idea of two states for two peoples, even as Israel at that time opposed this. But as the years dragged on, he came to believe that Israel had no intention of making peace. In speeches, Abunimah compares Israel’s settlement project in the West Bank to two friends ordering a pizza. “Imagine that we have a pizza here,” he said at Brandeis. “I say I yearn to eat this pizza side by side with you. But instead of doing that, I eat the whole pizza myself.”

Abunimah moved stateside to attend Princeton University, where he initially majored in engineering before switching to politics. After graduation, he enrolled in a doctoral program in politics at the University of Chicago, but left it after he received his master’s degree. Abunimah wrote his thesis on the 1993 Oslo Accords, concluding that they were a “bad deal” for Palestinians. His adviser, Stephen Walt, would later go on to co-write “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” itself a hotly disputed polemic.

“I remember disagreeing with him at various points,” said Walt, who backs the two-state solution. “I was very optimistic about the Oslo process throughout the ’90s. I thought this was the great opportunity we’d been waiting for to achieve a reasonable solution. I think he was more skeptical about that all along.”

Abunimah made his first trip to the West Bank in 1996, obtaining an Israeli visa to cross the Jordanian border into the occupied territory. He visited Jerusalem, Bethlehem and his father’s village of Battir. “To me, that was very formative,” he said. Three years after Oslo, Abunimah sensed that life hadn’t changed for Palestinians on the ground. “I could see it was all a bunch of nonsense,” he said. “Settlements were going up everywhere. People were feeling strangled.”

After graduation, Abunimah worked for several years as a researcher at Chapin Hall, a children’s policy center affiliated with the University of Chicago. In Chicago, Abunimah became part of a close-knit group of Palestinian advocates. Jennifer Bing-Canar, a friend with the American Friends Service Committee, recalled that Abunimah would listen obsessively to NPR every morning and send out a mass email to his friends, detailing the distortions in the outlet’s Middle East coverage.

“People were just amazed at how thorough he was, how meticulous he was and how insistent,” Bing-Canar said. “I think he really set a bar for other activists. If you are going to be serious about this issue, it demands a certain kind of discipline and a certain kind of intellectual curiosity.”

In 2001, a year into the second intifada, Abunimah started The Electronic Intifada website. The name, he said, is actually meant to evoke the first intifada, a widespread, popular resistance movement. Abunimah said he doesn’t support violence against civilians, and in fact he speaks out frequently against anti-Semitism, partly, he says, because he’s often accused of it. Zionism, he claims, is itself form of anti-Semitism — the idea that all Jews should live, and can only be safe, in Israel.

The Electronic Intifada began as an activist project — Abunimah said one of the first campaigns aimed to pressure a Burger King to leave a West Bank settlement — but it soon morphed into a news site. Since 2006, The Electronic Intifada, which gets most of its funds from private individuals, has been supported by a registered charity called the Middle East Cultural and Charitable Society, Inc. Through it, The Electronic Intifada has received several large grants from ICCO, a Dutch inter-church development organization funded in part by the Dutch government. According to the group’s tax forms, Abunimah made $40,000 in 2010.

Abunimah lives alone in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, and he supplements his income with the speaking fees he gets from student groups at universities, usually about $500 a pop. In Abunimah’s recent speeches at Brandeis, he talked at length about his detractors, enumerating Harvard lawyer and noted Israel defender Alan Dershowitz’s opposition to the Harvard one-state conference and then saying, with a degree of glee, “It seems that in a lot of my talks these days I end up addressing Alan Dershowitz in one way or another.”

As far as Abunimah is concerned, the louder his opponents’ criticism, the more he knows they are paying attention.

“I am not a professor at a big university. I don’t have a think tank behind me. I don’t have a title, and yet I am able to influence in one way or another the way people think and the way that they act,” he said. “As much as the opposition would like to ignore me, they can’t, and that is not because of any title I carry.”

Watch Abunimah speak about Electronic Intifada and the Peace Process:

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at zeveloff@forward.com


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