Palestinian Americans Push Religious Pluralism in P.A.

By Ori Nir

Published February 17, 2006, issue of February 17, 2006.
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WASHINGTON — Palestinian American activists are vowing to lobby Hamas against turning the West Bank and Gaza into an Islamic theocracy.

Anxious about the victory of the Islamic fundamentalist group in last month’s Palestinian parliamentary elections, Palestinian American leaders say that they will push for laws favoring American-style church-state separation, pluralism, equality and inclusiveness.

“We are at the time when defining decisions may very well be made in Palestine,” said Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine. The task force is a prominent pro-Palestinian advocacy group in Washington.

“All sides” — including Palestinians residing outside of the West Bank and Gaza — “should be represented with equal degree of vigor” in the debate over the future of the Palestinian society.

“We do not feel less qualified here to discuss this issue than anybody in Palestine,” he said, adding, “We will use our influence” both in Washington and with the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza.

Asali spoke at recent Washington press conference during which his organization introduced a new document, “A Vision for the State of Palestine.” The document lays out the core values and principles on which the organization believes a future Palestinian state should be founded. Among other things, the document asserts that a future Palestinian state ought to be secular and de-militarized. The five-page declaration was prepared by the group well before last month’s Palestinian elections, with the expectation that it could serve as appropriate guidelines for a legislative council dominated by the secularist Fatah movement.

Instead, after Hamas’s victory the document serves as a “way we provoke those who disagree with it into shouting at it, trying to turn it down, enough to raise interest” in the ideas it represents, said Reema Ali, a Washington lawyer who co-authored the declaration.

“When the Iranians issued the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, nobody heard of the book, but then everybody rushed to buy the book and read it,” Ali said. “So while we are not wishing for a fatwa against us, we want them to read what we have to say.”

Two weeks ago, the organization published the entire document in a full-page ad in The New York Times and in Lebanon’s English-language newspaper, The Daily Star. It also published the document in Arabic in Jordanian newspapers.

Some Palestinian American activists say that members of their community should follow the example of American Jews, who directly lobby the Israeli government and Knesset on such issues of importance to them as religious pluralism.

“The Jewish experience in this respect is very useful as a learning tool,” said Amjad Atallah, another co-author of the document. Atallah is a former legal adviser to the negotiating team of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“The Arab American and the Palestinian American community are not nearly as coordinated or as organized” as America’s Jewish community, Atallah said. “But that’s not to say that a similar model can’t be begun where every Palestinian American organization and every Arab American organization” asserts its views on vital issues with the Palestinian government.

“It’s okay for the Palestinian Diaspora community to have red lines” and to identify certain policies and positions of a future Palestinian government that they would refuse to support, Atallah said. “It’s not too early to get started.”

However, many community members are skeptical regarding the possibility that Palestinian Americans would mobilize to assert themselves in opposition to an avalanche of Islamist practices in their homeland.

Several Arab American and Palestinian American activists told the Forward that Hamas’s victory did cause shock and concern within their community over efforts to establish an Islamic Palestinian state. But they were doubtful about whether such shock and concern would translate into action.

“Most Palestinian Americans are secular. Many also happen to be Christian,” said James Zogby, president of Washington’s Arab American Institute. Experts estimate that a little less than half of Palestinian Americans are Christian.

“People are a little lost and frustrated, some are frightened and don’t really know what to do,” Zogby said. However, he said, it is unrealistic to expect a broad mobilization of Palestinian Americans to confront a future Palestinian government the way American Jews do with Israel.

The relationship that Americans of Palestinian origin have with the Palestinian Authority “is unlike the relationship that Jews have with Israel. It is not the relationship of empowered people with a sovereign government,” he explained.

In addition, Palestinian American activists said, their community is fragmented and polarized. Groups that support the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian left have become all but dormant in recent years. “Out of frustration with the demise of the peace process and the problems within Fatah, these organizations are totally demoralized and practically frozen,” said Khalil Jahshan, former executive vice president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

An aggressive push by Hamas to try to turn the West Bank and Gaza into a de-facto Islamic state may push Palestinian Americans to assert themselves in opposition, Jahshan said. However, he added, there is “very little chance that this will happen without a regrouping or resurrection of Fatah” to inspire the reactivation of Palestinian American groups.

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