Jesse Jackson: Afro-Americans and the Palestinians (Interview)
african americans
american politics

Reverend Jesse Jackson is the chairman of the National Rainbow Coalition and a leading activist in civil and human rights causes, to which he has devoted more than twenty years of his life. During the 1 960s he was a leader in the student sit-in movement to desegregate public facilities in the United States. He has been in the forefront in the anti-apartheid movement and has spoken out on Middle East issues for Palestinian rights and mutual recognition. Reverend Jackson was interviewed for the Journal by John P. Egan on 2 December 1985 in Chicago.

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Reverend Jesse Jackson is the chairman of the National Rainbow Coalition and a leading activist in civil and human rights causes, to which he has devoted more than twenty years of his life. During the 1 960s he was a leader in the student sit-in movement to desegregate public facilities in the United States. He has been in the forefront in the anti-apartheid movement and has spoken out on Middle East issues for Palestinian rights and mutual recognition. Reverend Jackson was interviewed for the Journal by John P. Egan on 2 December 1985 in Chicago.


Egan: The connection between Israel and South Africa in the economic, military, and nuclear realms appears to be well-known among black South Africans, as well as many other African and Third World people. How well is the Israeli-South Africa connection known among Afro-Americans?


Jackson: African-Americans are quite aware of that relationship. It is a source of real tension. There are a lot of diversionary things that separate the substance of the Afro-American-Israeli relationship or Jewish relationship, but recent assaults on affirmative action, which have concretely hurt us in the universities and in jobs, are an issue. And Israel's selling South Africa arms is an issue. To put it another way, if any African nation, any African-American group, were selling arms to the PLO, Israel would reserve the right to do whatever it had to militarily to end that. Israel's selling arms to South Africa is as offensive to us as an African nation's selling arms to the PLO would be to them.


But you always have to put the issues in the broader context. The U.S. is South Africa's number one trading partner. And the other Western democratic allies-Japan, West Germany, and the like-are involved. So I'm not sure that it is healthy just to isolate Israel in that sense. All the Western democratic allies should stop trading with South Africa; more specifically, they should stop selling arms to South Africa.


Egan: Afro-Americans are understandably most concerned with fighting for their rights here in the U. S. and with combatting South African apartheid. Does there exist such a thing as an Afro-American view of the Palestine Question? Are African-Americans aware of the similarities between black South African life under apartheid and Palestinian life in the occupied territories?


Jackson: There is a substantial awareness of it. We understand life under occupation because we've been occupied. We understand the violent nature of occupation. Those who would fight against the occupation here would be called militant. Those who would fight against the occupation there would be called terrorist. The fact is, as long as you have an occupier-occupied relationship, you have a violent structure.


But those who encourage the continued occupation of the Palestinians and those who encourage the expanding settlement in the West Bank are not operating in Israel's best interests. Because there is a potential state of war in the Middle East. There must be a major compromise on land and the negotiation of a mutually beneficial relationship that includes mutual security. The means must be mutual recognition. The Palestinians, as represented by the PLO, must recognize Israel's right to exist in security, within internationally recognized boundaries. Likewise, the Israelis must recognize the Palestinians' right to a homeland, to a state, so that they may also develop.


Given the history of violence and pain neither group probably has the emotional strength-since they are so drained-to bring this about. That's why America could render a tremendous service to both of them by being the mediator, the referee, the redeemer in the process. Egypt and Israel did not have the capacity to come together on their own, though it was a beneficial thing to do. It required the full weight of an American president who was able to offer security and economic inducements to both of them. It would require that kind of credible leadership and statesmanship on both sides to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli situation.


Egan: Do you have any more specific idea about what form the U. S. role should be in trying to mediate this situation?


Jackson: Well, of course, the U.S. must talk with the PLO to convince it that Israel has a right to exist. It has to talk with the PLO in order to be accepted as a mediator in a peace process. It has to be able to develop a mutual, trusting relationship so as to be of benefit to Israel, the Palestinians, as well as our own national interests.


It is against America's national interests to have two warring factions and to have one of them decidedly anti-American based upon our behavior toward them. In this way you build in a role for the Soviets, a substantial role, because you have people supporting the Soviets who are really our natural allies. You have Arab nations who support the Palestinians and therefore they support those who support them and oppose those who do not. There are a hundred sixty million people in the Middle East, twenty-one states. America has an interest, therefore, a national interest, in a regional peace plan and the core of it is the Palestinian-Israeli relationship.


Egan: To return to the Afro-American community, how can a more comprehensive understanding of the Palestinian question be achieved in that community?


Jackson: I think that there is a great appreciation in the Afro-American community as to why we should fight for human rights around the world and measure human rights by one yardstick. Our quest for human rights forces us into making a judgment about those under occupation, and leads us to challenge those who are occupiers. We do so with great sensitivity, because the American Jewish community and blacks have had some substantial alliances over the years. But then blacks identify with people who are oppressed all around the world. Russia's invasion of Afghanistan was wrong. Russia's stand on Soviet Jews is obviously a violation of human rights. Israel's occupying of the Palestinians is wrong. South Africa's occupying South Africa or Namibia is wrong. In the same way U.S. attempts to overthrow the government of Angola or Nicaragua are wrong.


We've sought to have human rights measured by one yardstick, to have terrorism measured by one yardstick, and to resist the forces of colonialism and occupation all over the world. Not only because it is immoral but because in this age it simply isn't practical.


Egan: In the 1960s, blacks and Jews struggled together and were prominent in the civil rights and anti-war movement. Much has happened since then and much has been said about the current divisions between blacks and Jews over Israel, Mr.Farrakhan, and other issues. Is it possible once again to bring blacks and Jews together and on what domestic and foreign policy agendas can they agree?


Jackson: Blacks have been hurt as a result of the Bakke decision, whereas Jews have not. Bakke was a white medical student who was beyond the normal age for acceptance into medical school and had been turned down by several schools across the country because of his age. When he couldn't get in-he had scored higher on some test than a black in California who was accepted-he took it to court. This one man who couldn't get in because a slot had been set aside for blacks became the basis for challenging the entire process of compensating blacks for the many years of legal denial. His case spelled the beginning of the end of the real commitment in this country to affirmative action.


Many of the Jewish leaders and organizations supported us when we marched together in the South-and I might add, we had every reason to march together because the fascists of the south were anti-Jewish and anti-black. Jews marching in the South were not doing us a favor. We had a common cause. Some Jews could use some public facilities that blacks could not use because of our skin color, but the fascism that prevailed in the South was anti-black and anti-Jewish as well. So we marched together and developed some substantial relationships as we moved horizontally from the outside in. Then we moved vertically from the bottom up. However, many of our former Jewish allies allied themselves with Bakke. And whereas, if we had stood together we would have prevailed over Bakke, they joined with the Bakke forces and the right-wing forces in this country, and defeated us. I might add, many Jewish people did not support Bakke, but they were comparatively inconsequential because they were ineffective.


In the areas of fighting a common foe we can come together. After all, most forces that are anti-black are anti-Semitic. The Klan, in a philosophical sense, sees blacks and Jews as much the same. In the neo-Nazi march on Skokie, Illinois some years ago, I stood in the forefront with my family with the Jewish community. Even though the neo-Nazis had a technical right to march and the ACLU supported them, in effect, the intent was psychological terror. It was an attempt to reopen old wounds. And so I stood with them and most black people in their hearts stood with them in the face of that kind of attack.


I think we have to move beyond having these sessions where we confess the need to relate or just rehearse ancient alliances in order to operate in a relationship not based on today's reality. We must develop a context in which to build our relationship. For example, on the question of free South Africa, blacks, Arabs, and Jews have gone to jail together. But those are symbolic gestures. Arabs have a challenge to make certain that none of their oil is diverted to South Africa. Jews have an obligation to make certain that none of their businesses are in South Africa and to make certain that Israel imposes an arms embargo against South Africa. This is a way of making our relationship mutually beneficial. You can't have a symbolic "jail-going" in Washington at the South African embassy and yet keep selling bullets to South Africa.


Apartheid is not an original system. Apartheid is the successor to Nazi Germany. Many of Botha's party's members were Nazi sympathizers. There are a few SS troops buried in Bitburg and many more who fled to Johannesburg. The war was over in 1945; but in 1948 Hitler's codes and administrative procedures were codified in South Africa. So every moral and ethical imperative that made us say no to Hitler and fascism in 1945 must make us say no to Botha and fascism in 1985. And those who would not trade with Hitler must not trade with South Africa. As a matter of principle, those who trade with South Africa also share a kinship with Hitler. So there's a tremendous challenge for Western free democracies to make a judgment about apartheid and then to follow the consequences of their positions.


Egan: What are the opportunities for coalition building between Afro-Americans and other Americans, Arab-Americans and non-Arab-Americans, who are concerned with American Middle East policy?


Jackson: I have always contended that the experiment of Afro-American, Arab, and Jew relating together in America should be transported to the Middle East, rather than the Middle East experience being transported to America. One of the reasons that is possible, however, is that in this country there is guaranteed equal protection under the law, under our constitution. If there were equal protection under the law there, that would be a factor. But since blacks, Arabs, and Jews have learned to live together here they are communicating more together.


I think you have to have a formula for peace and a formula involves sharing power. It involves mutual respect. Together we can work on a mass education process to convince people that peace is possible in the Middle East. We should come together on a formula for peace. We contend that Israeli security, Palestinian justice, and territorial integrity of Lebanon, and normalized ties with the Arab world are keys. Israeli security is important. We wouldn't have a plan that would displace or remove the Jews. On the other hand, justice for the Palestinian people, bringing them out of exile, giving them a future in the sun is also important. We should also protect the territorial integrity of Lebanon, and rebuild Lebanon, much the way we rebuilt Europe after WWII. After all, it was our weapons for the most part which destroyed Lebanon. And we must normalize trade ties with the Arab world. I think if this process were to take place, the result would be in the interest of Palestinians and Jews. The Palestinians would have a homeland. They'd be out of the diaspora; they could come home from around the world. The Jewish people would have trading partners. They could come out from behind the walls of their military garrison and bring down inflation. They could begin to flourish. It would be in the interest of all people involved if the energy now being spent on how to defend against each other could be spent on how to trade with each other, and if the energy now spent on preparations to kill each other could be spent on efforts to build each other. If they turned to each other and not on each other, together they could flourish.


Egan: Why did you choose in the 1984 election campaign to take the Middle East position you took, when this position has traditionally been very risky?


Jackson: It was a moral, theological position that all of us are God's children. All of us must be respected. We must measure human rights by one yardstick and terrorism by one yardstick. And if you do not have a position on the Middle East that is morally consistent, then your thinking as a human rights leader is jeopardized all around the world. American leaders who protest occupation all around the world except on the West Bank lose their credibility. And not only is it a bad position to take morally, it is also an impractical position. It costs to occupy people. Occupation is a state of violence which breeds counter-violence and thus you have war. So not only is it a moral challenge, it's a practical challenge as well.


Egan: In 1984 your campaign did not receive as much support from what might be termed white liberals as you had hoped. How do you explain the apparent reluctance of this group to support your campaign even though you addressed several of this group's domestic and foreign policy issues: the arms race, the Middle East, apartheid in South Africa, Central America and so on?


Jackson: Many white liberals have to overcome the trauma of race just as other people do. We must all share power. And the white liberal community has to accommodate the maturity and the sophistication of black America and Hispanic America. Last time around was a trial run in many ways. We all learned a lot about each other. And in the future the movement will continue to grow. We drew a lot of different people together. We made an impact. We were able to get our agenda on the world stage. There will be a maturing of our relationship as we go to another level of consciousness.


Egan: A New York Times story filed from Geneva in late November quoted you as saying you wished you had thought out all of the implications of embracing PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat before you actually did so in front of television cameras. Could you elaborate a little on that?


Jackson: Well, the point is that if you go to the home of a Japanese you take off your shoes. That's a normal cultural procedure. Middle Eastern people embrace. It is normal procedure, not a political statement, but it was interpreted as a political statement. And I could not appreciate at the time how the enemies of the progressive movement would exploit that picture for the purpose of trying to prove that I was embracing terrorism, that I was embracing the philosophy of the non-recognition of Israel. And that was unfair and unfortunate because when I was in Israel I argued with people I know there that recognizing the right of the Palestinians to exist and develop was the right thing to do. And I argued with Arafat that recognizing Israel and its need to develop was the right thing to do. I was there with a commitment to mutual development, to a policy of mutual recognition. As opposed to no talk, I support less talk. As opposed to non-recognition, I support mutual recognition. When I was in Israel, the West Bank, and Lebanon, I took the same basic positions. But the picture you mentioned was distorted and was used in a way that did not help any of the forces we were trying to pull together. It allowed our enemies to distort our mission.


Egan: Is it possible to work for change within the Democratic party on Middle East issues?


Jackson: Most issues require courage. Real social change and justice do not come from within the party. The ending of apartheid in the south by Dr. King did not take place within the party. Likewise, we had to go outside the party to march in Selma and Montgomery.


The Democrats as a party do not have the ability to do what Carter did-to bring Egypt and Israel to an accord. You have to have a leader who has courage, a vision and the will to do that.


Egan: You've been involved in the civil rights movement for many years and you've seen and participated in the black community's development into one with a certain political clout. What recommendations can you give to Americans who disagree with American Middle East policy? How can they become more effective to bring about change?


Jackson: Well, we have always taken a moral interest and a national interest position. We must take the position that's morally correct and in our national interest. It is in our national interest to relate to Arabs and Jews. It is also morally correct to be concerned about the destiny, the life, and security of Arabs and Jews. So if it's a moral interest issue and a national interest position then your strategy should flow from that. The strategy should fight for a policy of mutual recognition. To do that, you must have credibility on both sides. You must be fair toward all sides. Our Middle East policy has not been fair, and it has not served our national interests. It further isolates us in the world community, and the more isolated we become, the less able we are to protect our national interests or the interests of our allies.


Egan: Which strategies of organizing do you find more effective in this country: bottom up or top down?


Jackson: So far, the action from the bottom up has been more effective. Clearly, Arab-Americans must use their full citizenship: register and vote, be politically involved, have press conferences, get on talk shows, give interviews, and put their ideas in the broader American market. This is the same process that blacks, Jews, and others have used. I also think that those groups who are in the middle of such great tensions ought to spend more time having seminars in this country, like seminars around this country on blacks and Jews. Blacks, Arabs, and Jews ought to have a seminar to work on a new relationship, a coalition of the three groups.


Egan: How has the Afro-American community reacted to the airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel and to the ensuing problems encountered by the Ethiopians after their arrival?


Jackson: There has been some recognition of the problems but not any great protest about it. Some of the problems in getting there and rejecting a certain acculturation were predictable. There was also a fear that they would be taken there and then put on the West Bank. That would simply have involved more people in the conflict. The airlift operation saved them from starvation in Ethiopia but they should not be saved from starvation this year to face a war on the West Bank next year.


Egan: You have presumably been in contact with Middle East policy analysts both in and out of the Reagan administration. Do they really believe the PLO is a terrorist organization, as this administration claims, or do they understand that the vast majority of Palestinians accepts the PLO as its national and institutional representative?


Jackson: They have been taught to see the PLO as a relatively small band of fighters, nomads, desert wanderers. There is not very much appreciation in this country for the PLO as a coalition of organizations. Palestinians are not seen as a nation in exile which has its flag flying in many capitals of the world, that has not only a military arm, but also has hospitals, training institutions, and so on. Rather than seeing the PLO as a nation, a state without a home, they see it basically as one personality, that of Arafat.


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