Conversation with Mossawa

By Fran Zell

In photo above: Members of the Mossawa delegation posed with some Makom members after the program. Nabila Espanioly is standing next to Fran Zell at far right in first row. Mossawa director Jafar Farah stands to left of Rabbi Davis in back row. 

On October 6, 2018, Makom Shalom sponsored an event called “Conversation with Mossawa.” The biggest takeaway for me was that Palestinian-Israeli peace activists hope to build a network of people and organizations, churches, synagogues, etc. in the United States who will actively speak out against Israel’s recently passed Jewish Nation State law and urge their elected reps to do likewise.

The Jewish Nation-State law makes discrimination and inequality between Arabs and Jews official Israeli policy. It has been compared to the apartheid laws in South Africa and Jim Crow laws in this country. So I was distressed to learn at the event that there is a clause in the law stating that it is speaking for Jews throughout the world. Not just Jews in Israel.

Mossawa is an Arab-Israeli human rights organization based in Haifa, Israel. Several Mossawa leaders came to Chicago in early October as part of a two-week visit to the U.S. It was an effort to build awareness about the new Nation-State law and discuss how Palestinians could be part of the peace-building process.

Much of last summer, a Facebook friend of mine had been posting about his work as an intern with Mossawa. He is currently a Ph. D student in international policy at Johns Hopkins University, so well qualified for the work he did for Mossawa, advocating against the then already highly-controversial nation-state bill.

In September my friend told me about Mossawa’s delegation to the U.S. and asked if I could help set up a public event for them in Chicago within the Jewish community. I reached out to Makom Shalom, and that’s how the “Conversation with Mossawa” came to be. Before Makom’s event with Mossawa, I was aware that the nation state law was discriminatory, mean-spirited and far removed from any Jewish values I ever heard of. I didn’t realize, however, that the law purports to speak for me.

I also learned that it is a Basic Law, which in the Israeli governmental scheme of things, means it cannot be overturned or even changed in any way without an overwhelming majority vote in the Knesset. The law, (which was passed in July 2018) declares that the state of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people even though more than 20 per cent of the population is not Jewish. The law, in effect, declares that only the Jewish population of Israel is entitled to self-determination and equal rights under the law. To put it into perspective, it would be something like Congress suddenly passing an amendment to the Constitution declaring that the United States is the national home of white Christians and that only white Christians are entitled to self-determination and equal rights.

“To the Palestinian citizens of Israel the nation-state law is like a slap in the face,” Mossawa director Jafar Farah told those of us who attended this powerful event. He noted that the Palestinian population of Israel has always been peaceful and a productive part of the economy. As an Israeli taxpayer he said he is horrified about a law that officially enforces segregation and denies him equal rights. Farah said he fears that the Nation State law is part of the beginning of an Israeli campaign to portray its Palestinian citizens as enemies of the state and a threat to Israel's security. “It’s an escalation of fascism,” he said.

A number of American Jewish leaders and Jewish organizations around the world have expressed outrage about the Jewish Nation State law, especially noting that the law ends any semblance of Israel being a true democracy. “Israel is losing its soul and weakening its democracy and Jewish character,” Steven Wernick, head of the Conservative Jewish Movement in the U.S. is reported to have written in a letter to the Israeli government shortly after the law passed.

“The law asserts Jewish supremacy,” Daniel Sokatch, head of the liberal Zionist organization The New Israel Fund, told a reporter for Farah was one of two speakers from Mossawa. The second was Nabila Esanioly, a longtime feminist and peace activist, educator and author, and recipient of many awards for her work as an advocate for peace and advocate for Palestinian women and children. In 2016 she won the Drum Major for Justice Award from Martin Luther King III. The speakers explained that there were about 900,000 Palestinians living in what is now Israel at the time it was declared a state in 1948. Of those, some 750,000 either fled or were expelled and became refugees. About 150,000 Palestinians stayed and became citizens of Israel. Their numbers have since grown to about a million.

They explained that Arab Israelis live in cities throughout Israel, but because of intense segregation practices, Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Israelis seldom get to know each other personally. In addition to segregation, Palestinians are often demonized and dehumanized similar to the way people of color in the U.S. are often negatively portrayed.

The Jewish Nation-State law now turns all these discriminatory practices into official state policy, they said. Mostly the “Conversation with Mossawa” was just that: A friendly and informal conversation in which everyone in the room had an opportunity to comment and ask questions. It was also an opportunity to get to know each other as people, instead of in the abstract.

A Black Muslim woman in the audience said the Palestinian experience of segregation, dehumanization and demonization resonated strongly for her in terms of the black experience in America.

A Makom member recalled visiting Israel as a young adult, after having been taught for years that there was equality in Israel between Jews and non-Jews. She said what she saw was the exact opposite, that there was segregation in the schools and elsewhere. Separate is always unequal, she said.

Rabbi Michael Davis noted that because of segregation, he rarely had an opportunity to meet Palestinians in the many years he lived in Israel. “I’ve met many more Palestinians since I moved to Chicago than I ever met in Israel,” he said. “We all know that the personal is political,” Nabila Espanioly told us. “But I think the political is also personal,” she said. I took that to mean that personal connections and friendships can go a long way toward helping us get past differences and move toward peace and understanding. “We need you,” Jafar Farah said. “Arabs and Jews need each other. “We need to work together for a better future.”

The Mossawa leaders hope to return to Chicago later this year as part of another national tour and effort to create an international organization called Friends of Mossawa. I think I’m speaking for everyone who attended when I say we were all excited to meet and get to know these courageous, committed and warm-hearted human rights activists. I’m equally excited and grateful that Makom Shalom took a leadership role in connecting these authentic Palestinian –Israeli voices to a U.S. audience.

I’m looking forward to finding out how I can get involved with Friends of Mossawa.

Written by Makom Shalom Member, Fran Zell