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Lightning Rod of the Boycott Israel Movement

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. Image by peter tobia

Ali Abunimah was limping as he left Olin Sang Auditorium at Brandeis University in late February. The keynote speaker at the first Israeli Apartheid Week at the Jewish-sponsored school had a torn meniscus, and his doctor had ordered him to lay off the pain pills in advance of his upcoming surgery.

“It is hard to believe I am going to take down the State of Israel when my knee hurts this much,” he said, leaning onto a cane as he stepped into a student’s car that would transport him to his hotel in downtown Boston.

He was joking — sort of. Abunimah is the leading American proponent of a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which calls for a shared democratic state from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. It is a state, in Abunimah’s vision, in which all residents of Israel and the territories it now occupies would enjoy equal rights and obligations. But in the eyes of his detractors, Abunimah’s idea is tantamount to the destruction of the State of Israel, a proposal that would obliterate the Jewish character of the country in favor of majority Arab rule.

“This person has called for the elimination of the State of Israel and the replacement of that with one state inhabited by the return of millions of Palestinian refugees,” said Stephen Kuperberg, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition. “In other words, the elimination of the self-determination of the one state that Jews have anywhere in the world.”

Abunimah’s popular Chicago-based website, The Electronic Intifada, is a clearinghouse of cutting criticism of Israel. In the past few years, the website’s success has propelled him to the forefront of the anti-Zionist left on college campuses across America.

“It has assumed a kind of central place in the anti-Israel propaganda war,” said Michael Kotzin, former executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, who has followed Abunimah’s rise. Abunimah claims his site currently averages about 300,000 page views per month. Its traffic in 2011 increased by 33% over the previous year, he said.

Abunimah’s idea, on which he elaborates in his 2006 book, “One Country: A Bold Proposal To End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse,” is based on the notion that neither Israelis nor Palestinians are willing to cede the minimal amount of land to satisfy the demands of the opposite side. The two-state solution, he likes to say, is pure “political science fiction.”

For Abunimah, 41, an American of Palestinian parentage, the one-state solution is as much a pragmatic remedy to an intractable conflict as it is a way to rectify Zionism’s historical wrongs. In Abunimah’s single state, Palestinian refugees who were forced out or fled in 1948 and 1967 would have the right to return to their homeland. But Abunimah can grow vague when pressed on just how things would work out from there.

In his book, for example, Abunimah says, somewhat boldly, that the one state he envisions would retain a Law of Return for Jews even as Palestinian refugees could also return under its reach. But Abunimah dialed back that concession in his interview with the Forward. Jews will be subject to what Abunimah terms a “nondiscriminatory” immigration policy, he said. “It is not a question of Jews coming or not coming,” he said. “It should be a home to anyone who is persecuted.”

Most of the returning Palestinians would move to new cities on empty land. Some would demand to return to their homes in Israeli cities, and these cases should be handled “as ethically as possible.” Certain settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem would remain in place, no doubt, transformed from Jewish-only municipalities into mixed neighborhoods. Like the white flight from South Africa at the end of apartheid, many elite Jews would leave, Abunimah predicts. But most would stay — in particular, poor Jews, religious Jews and Jews of Arab origin.

“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 [email protected]

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