The American Association for Palestinian Equal Rights (AAPER) is one of the newest organizations in Washington, DC. Launched this week as America’s pro-Palestine, pro-peace, pro-human rights lobby, AAPER’s mission is to educate the American public about Palestinians’ human and national rights, as well as the US government’s role in the Arab-Israeli relationship. AAPER hopes to shape a US foreign policy that recognizes and seeks to advance the human and national rights of the Palestinian people. Recently Electronic Intifada co-founder Laurie King-Irani interviewed AAPER founder, George Naggiar, about his formative influences, guiding visions, and ultimate goals for this new and unique lobbying organization.
Laurie King-Irani for Electronic Intifada (EI): What is AAPER’s mission and mandate?
George Naggiar: AAPER is divided into two distinct organizations with complementary missions: one focused on education and the other devoted to lobbying. AAPER Foundation is an educational organization, whose mission is to educate the American public about Palestinian rights and the nature of the US role in the Arab-Israeli relationship. The AAPER organization is a lobbying organization, whose mission is to shape a US foreign policy that recognizes and seeks to advance the human and national rights of the Palestinian people. The focus of our work will be lobbying, but we will also work to educate NGOs, the national media, and the public at large.
EI: What ideas, thinkers, movements inform AAPER’s goals, strategies and visions?
George Naggiar: AAPER’s vision is informed by a number of ideas, thinkers and movements. Foremost among them are the great social movements and leaders of our time: Gandhi and the movement against the British Occupation of India, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, and Nelson Mandela and the anti-Apartheid movement. These leaders and movements grasped that in order to change an official policy, to say nothing of the overall course of human affairs, one must first clearly highlight an injustice for the people to see and then mobilize against. The starting point here is realizing that building a more favorable political context is possible, and certainly preferable to accommodating oneself to an existing unfavorable context — or “reality,” as it is so often termed.
EI: How did you decide to form this organization?
George Naggiar: I decided to form the organization soon after the second Intifada began. Like most Arab-Americans of my generation, I was galvanized by the intifada, becoming a student activist and getting involved in a number of local, media monitoring, and campus groups. Being based in Washington, I began to study and understand the causes and effects of the absence of a Palestinian narrative on Capitol Hill. I felt that this had to be changed — and so I decided to do my part to try to change it.
EI: Tell us a little about yourself?
GN: I am a lawyer by profession, but an entrepreneur and activist at heart. In college, I studied the modern politics and history of colonialism and anti-colonial movements, as well as modern European philosophy. After graduating, I went to Georgetown Law School to better understand how to address some of the problems created by the end of colonialism. As a result, I studied international human rights, humanitarian law, and legal and social theory. After passing the bar exam, I began working on AAPER full-time.
EI: Who is your audience?
George Naggiar: Our audience is twofold. In our lobbying work, it will be members of Congress and congressional staff persons.
In our educational work, our audience will be US civil society. We will encourage both audiences to view the Palestinian cause as a struggle for equality and freedom — as opposed to the pursuit of terror — and to understand how the US’s role has tragically been to undermine that cause through investing in Israel’s occupation and settlements rather than in its peace and human rights movement, by which we mean groups like the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, B’Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Rabbis for Human Rights and Gush Shalom, to name but a few.
EI: What, exactly, will AAPER do?
George Naggiar: AAPER will directly lobby elected officials on behalf of the large number of US-based local, regional and national organizations and citizens working for Palestinian rights, but which lack the time, resources or geographical proximity to inform and lobby members of Congress — as well as NGOs — on a regular basis.
EI: What do you dream of accomplishing in the next two to three years?
George Naggiar: Well, in the next nine to twelve months, we would like to ensure that the organization is built into a sustainable entity with talented staff (including young lawyers, former Hill staff and activists), permanent facilities and a stable funding base. By the time these objectives are achieved, we hope to have helped to begin shaping a public discourse in the US that recognizes the cause of Palestinian rights as one of justice and equality. On the lobbying side, we would hope to build a constituency in Congress that seeks to invest in Israel’s peace and human rights movement rather than in its occupation and settlements — as it presently does. When the occupation ends, then we can talk about the large investment needed to rebuild Palestine.
We should like to add that we think that these objectives are quite attainable, but require an enormous amount of collective hard work and consciousness of urgency. We do not have the luxury of taking our time. Speed is an important indicator of success.
For example, part of the magnificence of the Empire State Building as a human achievement is the fact that it was built in only 14 months in the early 1930s. It is this same sense of urgency — and the hard work that is its offspring—that will, we think, allow us to accomplish our goals.
EI: How do you see AAPER complementing the work of other, similarly concerned organizations in the US and abroad? What groups’ work have you most admired and built upon? What, in the work of other groups dealing with the Palestinian issue in a US context, do you think has been lacking? How will AAPER fill needs in a way that other organizations, for whatever reasons, have been unable to do until now?
George Naggiar: AAPER intends to complement the work of affinity organizations in the US by fulfilling functions that they do not or cannot fulfill at the moment — namely, lobbying elected US officials as well as Washington, DC-based NGOs on the cause of Palestinian rights.
If this complements existing work, then what has been missing? Well, Arab-American and American Muslim organizations do a great deal of excellent work in a number of areas, whether it’s civil rights, immigration, secret evidence, Iraq, US-Arab/Muslim relations, Arab/Muslim-American empowerment, etc. Unfortunately, in dealing with so many issues, particularly after 9/11, and with limited resources and time, it is difficult for them to deal exclusively and consistently with the specific issue of Palestine. Yet Palestine is a major issue and is dealt with so extensively by the opponents of Palestinian rights, thus, there is a profound need for a non-sectarian and broad-based organization to work full-time advocating for the rights of Palestinians.
Moreover, while Arab/Muslim-American organizations represent Arab- and Muslim-Americans, the other 96% of the American population who are not Arab/Muslim-American do not have national institutions through which to express their support for Palestinian rights and their opposition to an unbalanced US foreign policy.
The consequences of these organizational gaps for the dozens of non-Arab/Muslim-American local, regional, grassroots groups that support Palestinian rights are that there are very few people consistently and persistently lobbying members of Congress exclusively on Palestinians’ behalf. This, despite the fact that a sizeable American constituency clearly supports Palestinian rights and desires a more fair and balanced US foreign policy in the Middle East.
We think that AAPER fills these needs because it is dedicated exclusively to the cause of Palestinian rights. We will advocate on behalf of all American groups and citizens, not just Arab- and Muslim-Americans. Finally, we will lobby on behalf of the numerous local, grassroots, and national organizations and individual American citizens from around the country who support Palestinian rights.
EI: Who do you see as your natural constituency?
George Naggiar: Our early allies will clearly be progressive Jewish-, Arab- and Muslim-Americans. But our major objective — and indeed the rationale behind the organization’s creation — is to move beyond those constituencies and reach other groups not currently aware of or engaged in the struggle for Palestinian rights. And there are many natural allies there. They include African-Americans, Native Americans, Latino/as, and Asian-Americans, as well as other minorities who have struggled for equality.
Allies also include Church groups, many of which have been supportive of genuine peace for many years; the peace and justice movement, which is strongly supportive of Palestinian rights; tax watchdog groups; and just ordinary Americans who understand that unconditional US investment in Israel’s military occupation and settlements profoundly undermines US security, damages US-Arab relations, and is morally unacceptable in its own right.
EI What do you think will be your greatest challenge?
George Naggiar: We think that our greatest challenge will be to undo the myth that we cannot win the great cause of Palestinian rights. Those who too readily assent to this myth assume that the Israeli lobby is too strong, weapons manufacturers too powerful, and the strategic importance of Israel to the US position in the Middle East too immense. Anyone who wants to can find a hundred reasons why we are paralyzed and thus given to inaction. But history is evidence that there is no force more powerful than that of a just cause and a people determined to achieve it. We have to believe — and then we have to work hard. We have already realized that, in the long run, there is more to fear from our silence than from our protest.
EI: How would you like to work with other groups? What do you need from existing activist movements? What new trends and projects would you like to encourage among activists through AAPER’s work?
George Naggiar: We would like to work extensively with other groups. To be specific, we hope to lobby Congress and, to a lesser extent, Washington-based NGOs, on behalf of the large number of US-based local, grassroots and national groups that support Palestinian rights, but which lack the time, resources or geographical proximity to do so consistently. To do this successfully, it would be wonderful if activist movements did two things: first, if they worked aggressively at the local level to have their city councils, churches, unions, etc. cut ties with corporations that do business with Israel’s occupation, and instead pressure them to invest in Israel’s peace and human rights movement. This local work sets the precedent for national policy. And second, that they organize themselves into a larger, national Congressional network, such as that being put together by the US Campaign to End the Occupation.
EI: What is AAPER’s response to the “Road Map for Peace” in the Middle East?
George Naggiar: We are pleased that President Bush has finally stated publicly that the Palestinians deserve to live in a state as free people. We are also pleased that he has publicly stated that: “The issue of settlements must be addressed for peace to be achieved.”
Now that Mr. Bush has said these things, we hope that he will match his language with action, particularly by halting the substantial amount of settlement financing that comes from the United States. We urge Mr. Bush to begin to condition American economic aid to Israel on the dismantling of the settlement infrastructure; to penalize those corporations that do business in the occupied territories; and finally, to challenge the status of those non-profit organizations that subsidize Israeli settlements.
EI: What is AAPER’s position on the Palestinian refugees’ right of return?
George Naggiar: AAPER believes that the Palestinian refugees’ right of return is guaranteed under international law.
EI: Five years down the road, what would you hope to see in order to say “We made a difference?”
George Naggiar: From an educational perspective, in five years, we hope to see a shift in US discourse on Israel-Palestine. The transformed discourse would reflect the idea that the Palestinian-Israeli question is one of discrimination and occupation vs. equality and freedom, not Arab/Muslim vs. Jew, which, of course, it is not.
From a lobbying perspective, we would hope to see substantial movement towards the aim of achieving a Congressional posture that invests in Israel’s peace and human rights movement rather than in its settlement and occupation of Palestinian land. At present, American rhetoric about and visions of peace are frequently wonderful, but that rhetoric is paradoxically coupled with governmental, non-profit and corporate support for Israel’s settlements and occupation. We would like to see that changed in a material way (i.e., through changes to actual laws and funding policies). And we think that, with hard collective work, this is eminently achievable.
For more information, visit AAPER’s website at http://americansforpalestine.org