Recap- Arabesque Lecture: Witness to Atrocities: Let’s Not Forget -- The Vulnerability of Palestinian Refugees

Washington, DC | www.adc.org | May 8, 2012 -- On Monday, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) held its final lecture of the 2011-2012 Arabesque Lecture Series entitled “Witness to Atrocities: Let’s Not Forget—The Vulnerability of Palestinian Refugees.” Just World Books publishing company founder, Helena Cobban, moderated the event which featured renowned authors Phyllis Bennis and Jonathan Randal. The event was held at Bus Boys & Poets and featured a discussion on the many aspects affecting the susceptibility of Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East.

ADC Legal Director, Abed Ayoub, welcomed the guests and introduced the moderator and panelists. The lecture began by noting the month of May’s significance as the anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, or “day of catastrophe” commemorating the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland.  A vibrant discussion by each guest panelist then ensued followed by an in-depth question and answer session.

Bennis began the evening by addressing the differences in the political discourse surrounding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian refugee situation within the last few decades. While the “consistency of oppression” of Palestinians by Israelis has remained the same, according to Bennis what has changed is that it is no longer “political suicide” to express an opinion that is critical of that oppression and those policies. Bennis spoke to the “flawed, damaged, and tattered” democratic process within the United States and the weaknesses of the current and previous presidents in pressuring Israel to discontinue their oppressive policies towards Palestinians. She noted the large amount of military aid the US gives to Israel each year and encouraged the American public to be more vocal about their dislike towards the policies their tax dollars are being used to support. Offering examples of specific events that have shaped the change in discourse, such as the first Intifada and the publishing of books by figures such as former President Jimmy Carter, Bennis stated that hardships are “certainly not over; and, we are nowhere close to victory.”  While stressing that the change in discourse should also reflect a change in US policy towards Israel and the Palestinians, Bennis remarked, “We have a huge challenge in front of us to turn the shift in discourse to a shift in policy- as difficult as that is. . .”  Bennis recognized the hardships that lie ahead but concluded on a positive note saying that it is imperative that we form a plan for “how to make the change not only possible, but necessary.”

Randal began by noting the 30-year anniversary of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila and the importance of remembering these events as examples of Israeli policies that have amplified the vulnerabilities of Palestinian refugees. He noted that the reality is that we must all recognize what an extremely difficult task it is to change the US government’s views on foreign policy with respect to the Middle East, especially the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Noting that Israel is the “only country that is the size of the state of New Jersey that gets so much attention and lee way,” he remarked that the problem is strengthened by the fact that the issue involves  two parties; one of which has no interest in discussing the existing problems. He commented on the ineffectiveness of the US press when it comes to coverage of the Middle East. Using the example of Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon, he stated, “the press is so obsessed with evenhandedness that when you have a problem as loaded as the Middle East, giving equal press to both sides is mad. . .” Randal stated that until the press finds a better way to explain what is at stake exactly, the journey towards any policy change will be difficult. Stating that he was amazed that the general public in the US has trouble “getting from a  to z” with respect to understanding the issues at hand, he implored the younger generation to rise up and change the US perspective on the Middle East and the Palestinian-Israeli issue in particular.

A very informative question and answer session followed the speakers’ remarks. The topics discussed included: the shifting views of US politicians, Israel’s international law obligations as an occupying power, lobby groups in the US and their impact, the Arab Spring and its overall effect on these issues. Bennis concluded the evening with a quote that best articulates the overall tone of the evening by saying, “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.”

The event concluded with members of the audience purchasing copies of  Bennis’s  updated publication, “Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer” and Randal’s re-issued book, “The Tragedy of Lebanon: Christian Warlords, Israeli Adventurers, and American Bunglers.”  ADC thanks the panelists for their participation and congratulates them on their involvement in the discussion of this vital issue and, the attendees for joining us in engaging in this important dialogue.