on record

Amnesty USA Director Paul O’Brien’s remarks to the Woman’s National Democratic Club

In response to claims from O'Brien regarding Jewish Insider’s reporting, JI is publishing the audio of his remarks and excerpted transcripts

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Paul O'Brien

On Friday, Jewish Insider published a story about an event featuring Amnesty International USA Director Paul O’Brien at the Women’s National Democratic Club in Washington, D.C. In response to O’Brien’s claims that JI attributed to him quotes that he did not say regarding whether Israel should exist as a Jewish state, JI is publishing the full audio of his lecture and his conversation with a JI reporter at the end of his speech. The following excerpts include those portions of his speech and the subsequent exchange that were quoted in the article.  

The political question of Israel’s right to survive

I was with a young Palestinian lawyer and she took us to the top of the hill and pointed pretty much towards the west. And you could see, like, some buildings in the very distance, and said, ‘That is Gaza, and if you point north, you can see the beginnings of the West Bank. But my village used to be there.’ And we sort of worked out the geography of it. It was an unrecognized village. And it had been destroyed because the Israeli military were concerned that Palestinian communities from Gaza, through to the West Bank, were increasingly becoming an interconnected community that created a security threat. And so for her, she had lost her village. They had moved into another village in the area for a period. But they couldn’t get any services into the village so that in the case of having to give birth, ambulances would not go into the village. Would not. They were hoping to start a family. They moved into the city so that they could get basic service provision. We went back to visit some of their older relatives that were there. And as we were walking away, she said something like, that one day soon, they won’t be there either. 

And what I experienced in listening to her story was the failure of imagination in creating a society that — I personally believe, this is not, Amnesty takes no political views on any question, including the right of the State of Israel to survive. We firmly oppose antisemitism. But if you ask most people who work at Amnesty, do you understand what it means to feel that a state that has provided you sanctuary is now under threat? I don’t know of anybody at Amnesty that would say no, I don’t understand what that means. And I don’t understand why the Jewish people in the United States and in Israel would be concerned about that. 

But as a human rights activist, what I do firmly believe is that if we are going to live in dignity with each other in a secure and sustainable way, it cannot be built on a system that racially oppresses another group in order to survive. That is no pathway towards the future. And that is why I believe history is on our side. Our job by talking about it honestly is to hurry up that history. There has to be a future for the Jewish and Palestinian people to live together in peace, to know that they have a home, and to do so on the foundation of human rights.

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Moving the ‘Overton Window’ in the U.S. Jewish community

There’s a term that the British use, [former Parliament member] Jo Cox used to use it actually, as a campaigner when she worked with Oxfam. It’s a British term, the Overton Window, I’m sure many of you have heard of it. But the Overton Window is the window that a policymaker looks out at, at the general public, to determine what they believe is possible. So one of the questions that most campaigners have to ask themselves is, is the best that I can do to achieve a policy change within the Overton Window? Or is it my job to move the Overton Window? Meaning, to change the politics of what is possible, to discern to move forward on in terms of policy change. On no human rights issue that I can think of right now, is it more important and frankly, do I believe, is it more possible to change the Overton Window than on this issue. We can collectively change the conversation. When I say we, I do mean the broader world. I think it needs to start first and foremost with Jewish community. And it is starting first and foremost with the Jewish community. One in four Jewish Americans believes that there is apartheid in the region. One in four. That’s remarkable when you think of where things were 15 years ago. Now, when I talk to Jewish groups about that number, and when I ask where it’s coming from, they’ll say, ‘Well, it’s demographically — it’s generally much younger people. It’s people who haven’t experienced what we understand in terms of threats to Israel,’ and they’ve said, ‘They will change their minds over time.’ I’m not so sure. I think if the right conversations are held, if the right depth of understanding happens, this Overton Window is going to change and it won’t just be by Jewish Americans, but they will be very important. It will also be by those who’ve lived and experienced the wrong side of this system of human rights abuse, and it will be by their allies, and in that sense as a human rights organization dedicated to the law, and the evidence, Amnesty counts itself as an ally.

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Preserving Israel as a Jewish state

Does Amnesty believe that the Jewish people have a right to self-determination, which is one of the fundamental human rights? Yes, they do. So in essence of that some elements of that would be that we wouldn’t — we don’t take political positions on whether the one-state solution or the two-state solution is better. But the right of the people to self-determination and to be protected is without a doubt, something that we believe in, and I personally believe in. I am going to get personal in answer to the second question. I grew up in Ireland, and I came to the United States as a teenager. We had no real idea in Ireland what the experience of antisemitism was. I didn’t really understand it till I came to the United States. Does it surprise me now? It is a problem for me but I understand better that the Jewish community is still the most attacked community in this country for practicing its faith. That that is a problem, and it is still endemic in this society. And that people come up with all sorts of crazy stuff to explain why they think this or that about the Jewish people. So I think antisemitism is a real live threat. And what I meant to say earlier on is, I think the understanding of that in the United States is perhaps more sophisticated that in some contexts, certainly for me personally, probably not in the region — that Deniz and other of my colleague works on — than in the actual region where the Israeli people now live. But in many European contexts, I don’t think they fully appreciate the conversation the way that it has happened in the United States and I will tell you that, for me, as the head of Amnesty in the United States, it was very important that we talked about how to translate the conversation in a way that we would build a real conversation in the United States about that issue. 

The one thing I wanted to disagree with in what you said: It is not Amnesty’s position, in fact we are opposed to the idea — and this, I think, is an existential part of the debate — that Israel should be preserved as a state for the Jewish people. I don’t know if you exactly said it that way, but you said something about should there be a state for the Jewish people. That is, in essence, the 2018 law, that the State of Israel is preserved for Jews alone, and it should be theirs alone. And that, from a human rights perspective, is not equal treatment between the Jewish people and the Palestinian people. But it is really important, I think, particularly for those who understand the threats that the Jewish people experienced over the last several generations, I think it is incumbent on people who engage this conversation to say, No, I don’t believe that Israel should be preserved as a state in which one race is legally entitled to oppress another. But yes, I understand that the Jewish people have a legitimate concern about their very existence being threatened. And that needs to be part of the conversation.

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Fighting AIPAC’s influence in Congress

I will tell you that if I had had more time with the report beforehand, we might not have ended up, in almost every single congressional office that we went to, having a meeting with that congressional office after they had met with AIPAC, and after they had pretty much told us from the start of the conversation that they had formed a view on our report, which they hadn’t even seen, and that they were going to issue a public statement dissociating themselves from it. So it was an interesting experience for us to introduce a report that was about to be launched in public a week later and to get in 80 different congressional offices, a public statement dissociating themselves from the findings of the report in which none of those 80 statements actually disputed the findings of the report, except to say, in broad strokes, we do not believe that this report is motivated for the right reasons or reaches the right conclusions. So that is the reality of how we engaged with that report in this context.

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Whether Israel should exist as a Jewish state

JI: Maybe Israel should exist, but it shouldn’t exist necessarily as a Jewish state, which is what it is.

Paul O’Brien: That’s where I do feel I’m coming from.

JI: So Israel shouldn’t exist as a Jewish state but Israel is a Jewish state.

PO: It shouldn’t exist as a Jewish state. 

Audience member: Then you don’t believe it should exist.

PO: No, I think it should exist.

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What American Jews believe about Israel

JI: I want to just go back to the point about the attitude of Jews in the U.S. toward all of this, and you were speaking earlier about shifting the Overton Window and starting to do so within the Jewish community. To what extent are you sort of — when you have most Jews in this country, 80-plus percent, if not more, who believe that Israel should be a Jewish state, which Amnesty appears to not believe. Why is it your place to come in and say to the Jews who experienced antisemitism and want to have their own place in the world, you’re wrong on this?

PO: I actually don’t believe that to be true. I believe, my gut tells me that what Jewish people in this country want, is to know that there’s a sanctuary that is a safe and sustainable place that the Jewish people can call home. But I think they can be convinced over time that the key to sustainability is to adhere to what I see as core Jewish values, which are to be principled and fair and just in creating that space. I think most Jewish people in this country would like to see the both/and of a safe Jewish space —

JI: A safe Jewish state.

PO: A safe Jewish state, and that state not to be built on a legal system of disenfranchising people in that country. I don’t think that’s a comfort zone for the Jewish community.

JI: Certainly, the majority of American Jews believe in a Jewish state and a Palestinian state, an Israel and a Palestine next to each other, a two-state solution. 

PO: Well, you can go either way, whether it’s one-state or two-state. I don’t know that the two-state solution is gonna be that.