What can Palestinians learn from the American civil rights movement? Appealing to the Jewish conscience
* Aziz Abu Sarah
WASHINGTON, DC – The struggle for civil rights, freedom and independence is not unique to the Palestinian people. Many nations have traveled the same road. Palestinians today have the advantage of looking back and learning from those who succeeded in their struggles.
The American civil rights movement in particular has important lessons for those working to forge peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It succeeded in using non-violent strategies to bring about the end of legally sanctioned segregation in the United States. What principles can the Palestinians learn from the movement?
The civil rights movement in the United States based its struggle on messages that were hard to disagree with, even for those who did not identify with its aims and objectives. Prominent civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance, reminded the American people of one of the most basic principles in their constitution: “all men are created equal”. He highlighted the law of humanity and lifted it above man-made laws. He called any law or practice that denigrates human dignity or limits freedom unnatural and immoral, and said these laws shouldn’t be obeyed because they inspire a false sense of superiority in one race against another. He touched people’s hearts by reasoning with them and speaking their own language.
Dr. King appealed to the deepest consciousness of the American people. He invoked the highest standard of American values: the constitution and the writings of the founding fathers. Thus, his appeals reached millions of American people and resonated within their hearts and minds.
In the same way, Palestinians can reach the hearts and minds of the Jewish citizens of Israel by appealing to their hopes and fears, ideals and principles. But as Israel has no constitution, this means calling on the Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish traditions.
By presenting Jewish morals, standards and beliefs in a new light, Palestinians can make their arguments more salient to Israelis. For example, the words of the prophet Isaiah are particularly resonant, especially as they are read during the Yom Kippur service: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”
Moses’ cry to Pharaoh is also powerful: “Let my people go”. Moses was asking for freedom, and his words are sharper than any sword. It is a phrase that can reach the hearts of the Jewish community far more effectively than any angry slogan or threat.
Palestinians should also appeal to Israel’s democratic ideals. As Israel maintains a belief in liberty and self-determination, so should Palestinians insist that Israel live up to its own ideals. This means highlighting that true democracy cannot allow for the occupation and oppression of others.
In recent years, many Palestinians have chosen non-violence as a form of resistance, from weekly demonstrations against the Israeli separation barrier to economic and cultural boycotts. However the majority of activities have been unilateral or have failed to reach the mainstream Israeli public.
In America, the civil rights movement geared its campaign toward the large silent majority of white Christians. It is time for Palestinians and Jews who support freedom to do something similar, and call on Israel to uphold the principles it claims to espouse. This appeal should not just be made with words, but through non-violent actions aimed at evoking symbols that will reach every Israeli and Jew, from the soldiers at the checkpoints and the settlers in the West Bank to the businesspeople in Tel Aviv.
The Palestinian struggle shares many similarities with Jewish history. From its fight for existence to the Diaspora experience, Jews and Palestinians have both desired a secure and free homeland.
These struggles have been burdened by disappointment. Here we can also learn from the American Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King wrote in his letter from Birmingham Jail about his own disappointment, but he did not let his frustration distract him from his ultimate goal. Instead, he kept building bridges between people who were divided by walls of fear, racism and even hatred. He was sustained by a belief that he was not fighting a war that would be won or lost by conventional weapons, but a struggle for the triumph of humanity over extremism.
Palestinians, like King, should fight not only for freedom, but also for humanity to defeat separation and prejudice.
* Aziz Abu Sarah is the Director of Middle East Projects at Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. His blog can be found at http://azizabusarah.wordpress.com. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).