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‘We Have the Uniting Power of the Palestinian Cause’: Zeina Ashrawi Hutchison on Fighting Israeli Apartheid under Biden

Palestinian-American Democratic Party activist Zeina Ashrawi Hutchison on the 2020 election, the state of the Palestinian struggle within the Democratic Party, and what to expect in the coming years.

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Zeina Ashrawi Hutchison, Mondoweiss

Zeina Ashrawi Hutchison is a Palestinian-American activist and DNC delegate from Virginia. This summer Hutchison, and a number of other Palestinian-American delegates, authored an amendment to the party platform that included conditioning military aid Israel, ending the occupation, opposing settlement expansion, asserting Palestinian rights to Jerusalem, and calling for equal rights in the region. The amendment was rejected.

After the platform battle, Hutchison, along with fellow Palestinian delegates Huwaida Arraf and Sam Hindi, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post expressing their frustration with Democratic leadership. “At this critical moment in our country’s history, when millions are mobilizing in demand of racial justice, equality and accountability, the DNC’s failure to advocate policies that guarantee the same to Palestinians is deeply troubling, and inconsistent with the wishes of most Democratic voters,” it reads. “As the Black Lives Matter movement encourages the nation to critically probe and atone for its past, this is no longer acceptable.”

Mondoweiss reached out to Hutchison in the wake of Joe Biden’s presidential win to get her thoughts on the election, the state of the Palestinian struggle within the Democratic Party, and what to expect in the coming years.

Michael Arria: Despite Trump’s refusal to concede, Joe Biden obviously won the election. However, there wasn’t a colossal “blue wave” as many people predicted. Democrats didn’t capture the Senate and they lost multiple House seats. What are your thoughts on the results?

Zeina Ashrawi Hutchison: The results are glaring, actually, they were a lot more revealing in the magnitude and evenness of the votes, at least to start with. The gap is now widening, but it was very revealing that it wasn’t just the Palestinians and the Arabs who realized they didn’t have a real choice. Many were really stuck between a rock and a hard place. Our options are so limited and eventually there was this realization that the “blue wave” we were promised was never coming. All that progress was expected on the backs of the minorities, on the backs of the black Americans, on the backs of the left, on the Palestinians and Arabs, too. We were told to vote against Trump no matter what and many minorities voted against Trump. Very few minorities or progressives voted for Biden, they voted for him to stop Trump.

What was glaring was the fact the Democrats needed us to win and just wouldn’t admit it. They threw the progressive movement under the bus every single chance they got during the campaign and during the debates. They marginalized causes like racial justice reform, as well as the Palestinian cause of course. They pacified us on many, many fronts, whether it was during the platform process or afterwards.

Now that the dust has settled, you look around and realize that we’re more powerful than we thought we were. Our voice is needed as progressives and as Palestinians. The way to do it is a united a front to show the Democratic Party that the base can carry the party, not just the few elites on top. So, now it’s the Democratic Party that has a lot to digest. Do they want to stay the course that they’re working on now, alienate, and play gatekeeper?

The last time we spoke, we talked about the fight over Palestine in the Democratic platform. You co-wrote a piece at the Washington Post about how Palestinians got betrayed by the Democrats in that process. Where do you think the energy around that issue should be focused now?

What we do now directly correlates with the platform itself because that fight was over very specific issues. We see the continuation and the manifestation of those politics on the ground. For example, currently we can see some of the differences between the Trump era and a Biden era. There really isn’t much difference.

There was a battle over with the Biden campaign over the word occupation. The Democratic party not accepting the word “occupation” in the platform is not an accident. As you know, Biden interjected himself into that battle personally and stopped it from being included. When the Trump administration argues that the settlements are legal, they’re essentially doing the same thing: denying the existence of the occupation on the ground.

To deny the existence of the occupation means you’re legalizing settlements. It means you’re legalizing the wall. It means you’re legalizing the oppression of the Palestinian people within the 1967 borders. It means that the International Criminal Court has no jurisdiction to investigate or try Israel for war crimes. So even though the Trump administration actually flat out said, “No, settlements are not illegal”, denying the word “occupation” in the platform is almost equivalent to that. Essentially what Biden and the Democrats have done for years is what Trump is currently doing. Trump moved this forward in a shorter period of time but this has been happening over decades, under the table.

For example, Biden would never say, “I’m against Israeli annexation of land.” He would only say, “I’m against further annexation of land.” So anything before a future annexation, everything before that is fine. Now, in terms of fighting for the cause itself and how we’re going to fix this as Palestinians, or how we’re going to deal with the Biden administration on this..the Trump administration is aligned with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu on so many levels, but if Biden aligns with Netanyahu in the same way, then he is risking a huge part of his base and a huge part of the Democratic Party’s integrity.

The Biden administration is going to have to decide what they want to do, but I think he’s in a tough place with Israel now because the Trump administration essentially delivered what Biden had promised to deliver on Israel. That’s what I saw from the platform, from my work on the platform. As a Palestinian, when I looked at the platform committee, when you and I spoke earlier, I was floored. I was flabbergasted. I didn’t understand why they didn’t want to include equal rights for Palestinians in the platform.

We knew for a fact that the Israeli lobby was directly involved with the drafting of the platform and we knew that Biden has had a love affair with Israel for decades. I mean, Biden is a self-declared Zionist who champions the $3.8 billion that Israel gets from the U.S. every year. Maybe Israel would get a slap on the wrist if they moved forward with annexation, but he won’t admit the existing settlements are illegal. He won’t condition aid.

There’s another issue here, normalization. He’s lost that ground to Trump. In Biden’s platform, he specifically said he wanted to help Israel normalize relations with neighboring countries. I feel like Trump took that away from him with the snap of his fingers. All your promises were delivered by Trump before he left office, so what else do you have to deliver to the Israeli lobby? The fear is that they’re going to go overboard and deliver Israel more of Palestine.

It’s terrifying for me as a Palestinian because I look at the Biden administration and Trump has set all these things into overdrive. At the same time, there are now huge expectations from Palestinians. If Biden truly wants to stand by his word that he does support rights for the Palestinians, that he sees both Palestinians and Israelis as equal, and he does condone further annexation, he needs to stand up and speak up. He needs to do more than say something, he actually has to do something because facts on the ground are changing.

The Arab and Palestinian community in the United States mobilized and got the votes. You have Muslim communities who view Palestine as a priority in their political agenda. They mobilized voters and made phone calls in support of Democrats, knowing full well the ramifications of a Biden administration and I seriously doubt he would have been elected without those efforts. So at this point, we’re cashing in. Cashing in means we’re no longer just a few pockets of Arab-American and Muslim-American communities here and there that aren’t able to organize and mobilize. We are capable, we are strong, we are knowledgeable, and we have the uniting power of the Palestinian cause. It unites people because it’s based on justice. It’s based on fairness. It’s based on freedom. It’s based on your basic human dignity. And it shouldn’t be divisive. So we can get the votes out. We can mobilize people and now they know it. So now it’s up to the Biden campaign and future administrations, as well and candidates on all levels of the spectrum, to actually have the courage to stand up and do what’s right and realize that.

There’s this battle going on right now among Democrats, about what the future of the party looks like and what compels voters to turn out. We’ve seen centrists criticize popular progressive politicians like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, claiming that talk of socialism and defunding the police are costing Democrats seats. We’ve seen the left flank of the party push back against that, pointing to the fact policies like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All are popular. Where do you think the Palestinian question fits into this fight? There’s about to be a lot more House members who support conditioning aid, are we headed for a showdown on that issue?

I think we are and I think it’s an issue of principle, not politics. That’s the tough part here. There’s two aspects to this. When it comes to something like conditioning aid or other foreign policy issues, the president has authority to do things without Congress, so there’s some of this that we have no power to control. However, in my personal perspective and strictly speaking about the Palestine issue, change in the party has to start at the state level. People have to be held accountable on this issue before they get to office, whether it’s at the state level or the federal level.

Once they get to Congress, it’s a lot harder to start influencing these candidates. It’s important to focus on people before they get elected, discuss the issues, have an open conversation about it, encourage them to speak up, and show them that that our community is willing to mobilize and willing to stand behind them. One of the glaring things about this cycle is that many people elected to office were not the most funded. People won who raised less money than their opponent. That gives me a lot of hope because it shows money doesn’t control everything, it controls many elections, but not everything. People are realizing this and beginning to run for office on principle.

If the Democratic Party as a whole wants to listen to the base, wants to incorporate more of the progressive voices into the party, activists have to be involved from the very beginning and grow with the leadership. There has to be a massive shift from the bottom up for the progressive movement, not just on Palestine, but as a whole. It’s a dangerous time for the Democratic Party because they are having to make decisions that could cost the party power, it could cost them influence, it could cost them elections. It could change the whole political discourse.

The two campaigns that Bernie Sanders ran, he lost, but he galvanized people. He brought people together, he educated people on substance, he gave people options to fight for things. That’s the beauty of the progressive movement within the Democratic Party now, is that they’re telling them to their face. We’re not some fringe group that you can afford to alienate. We are powerful. We are within the Democratic Party and we have every right to speak up and dissent when we feel there is a need to. So I think it’s beautiful what we’re seeing. I think it’s not going to be easy going forward, but in due time, the leadership of the party is a whole generation that needs to be replaced.

It’s not just ideologically, it’s just a whole generation. It’s the way of thinking. It’s a way of life. It’s the understanding of the issues. These people haven’t lived with working class families. Most of the elected officials are filthy rich. Working with corporations, they don’t see the day-to-day life of the average American. But most of the activists are average Americans. Slowly but surely we’re catching up. They’re so out of touch that this could either be a complete shift in the Democratic Party to the more progressive side or the complete dismantlement of the structure that exists right now.

As terrible as the Trump years have been, there’s no doubt that he’s drawn a lot of people to organizing and activism. I’d say the Black Lives Matter protests have also certainly done that. Many are grappling with politics for the first time in their lives, but foreign policy might seem like the hardest thing to have any impact on. What would you say to someone who cares about what’s happening in Palestine, but doesn’t see a way to fight for it within their community?

Personally I don’t see the Israel/Palestine issue as a foreign policy issue, even though realistically on paper it is. That’s how it started because of the physical location of the place, but the U.S. gives $3.8 billion to Israel every year. That’s $10 million every day. We’re in this country fighting to cancel student debt, fighting to get Medicare for All, for environmental causes, or LGBTQ rights. We’re fighting for racial justice reform. This all requires investing in our interests here, but our tax money is going to be invested in single payer healthcare in Israel, while people in the United States are going into debt for stepping into a hospital for ten minutes.

This all impacts local politics, it impacts state taxes. It impacts local businesses, when contracts are taken away and given to Israeli companies. People are investing in the prosperity of Israel more than they are investing in the health and sustainability of their own state. And so what I tell people around me is that the Palestinian/Israel issue is not necessarily a foreign policy issue. It is a human issue. It’s a matter of justice and dignity. We’re not asking for much. We are just asking for our right to live freely. We are just asking for equality.

[Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss. His work has appeared in In These Times, The Appeal, and Truthout. He is the author of Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelarria.]