As a proud Palestinian who grew up in the often difficult conditions of the occupied West Bank, I see no contradiction between dedicating my life to achieving a free and independent Palestine and strongly opposing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
At the same time, as a grateful immigrant, I am profoundly hopeful that Minnesota legislators will join me in supporting Palestinians with the same passion with which they rightfully oppose discrimination against Israelis.Palestinians have learned from trauma after trauma a universal truth: If you do not have a country that is yours, you are always at someone else’s mercy. This has not been a very kind history to my people. Our children, however, deserve so much more than empty promises that may never be. If the two-state solution offers me the best chance of self-determination, then how could I oppose it?
Now, when it comes to the occupation, it is illegitimate and must come to an end for Palestine to be free. Like many advocates who support a two-state solution, I could not back the anti-BDS bill currently being debated at the Legislature until it was amended to remove any protections for the occupation. Adding cost to the occupation is something that I do find acceptable.
What I do not find acceptable, however, is indiscriminately boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning all Israelis no matter where they live or work. It doesn’t fit with the necessity of a two-state solution. It also doesn’t recognize that the Israeli people are a very diverse, textured community, including many who are pro-peace and are true partners.
It is extremely troubling that some activists measure my Palestinian pride by my level of support for their BDS movement. My love of Palestine cannot be measured by how much they want me to hate Israel. Because I grew up in a refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, when BDS advocates speak of hardships and human-rights violations, none of this is a surprise to me. I’ve lived it.
What, however, is really a surprise to me is that too many of these same activists are ignorant at best and dismissive at worst of the fact that many Palestinians manage to be creative, energetic and hopeful. We do Palestinians a terrible disservice if we look at them only as perpetual victims. We help no one when we blindly inflict pain on Israelis no matter what the collateral damage is to Palestinians.
I’ve spent countless hours speaking to legislators about the difference between Israel and the occupied territories. I’ve asked them to not just back our independence, but also to invest in the Palestinian people and support Jewish and Muslim Minnesotans working together to foster peace and reconciliation.
I invite Minnesotans to not just visit Israel, but to tour Palestine as well. In 2016, several Minnesota legislators accompanied me to see the promise of the first planned Palestinian city with a high-tech hub at its center. A year earlier, I orchestrated the first-ever official Palestinian business delegation to Minnesota. Having the Palestinian flag, made by a young woman from Hebron, stand next to the American and Minnesota flags is just one way I’ve shown my Palestinian pride. To be truly free, Palestinians must move past charity and dependence to investment and independence. As a Minnesota-trained economist, I know we can contribute if we act upon our Minnesotan values of innovation and bridge building.
Testifying at the Legislature is difficult, but I’ve welcomed the opportunity to speak about ending the occupation through positive investment in Palestine, as well as against the BDS movement. After I testified last week, some BDS activists thought it was heroic to try to shame me into silence. Freedom of speech, however, is not an exclusive right to those living within the BDS bubble, and denying me my right to speak is another form of occupation. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but you demean yourself when you shout “Have you been bought by the Jews?”
A wise man once told me “the Jewish and Arab histories and narratives are precious. They must not become political bargaining chips, or the subject of negotiations.” Palestinians and Israelis will not embrace each other’s narratives, nor should they abandon their own. They don’t need each other to confirm their own identities. What they need is a workable way forward to allow them to live side by side in peace. Hearts as well as minds must change to make this possible. Let this vital work be continued here today.
Walid Issa is a senior associate at Solomon Strategies Group and a board member of several nonprofit organizations in the U.S. and Palestine. He earned his master’s degree in applied economics from St. Cloud State University.