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Arab Center's Yousef Munayyer discusses evolving Palestinian American views on Israel

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

When Israeli President Isaac Herzog addressed Congress Wednesday, a handful of House members weren't there. They boycotted. They were all progressive Democrats protesting the mistreatment of Palestinians. Fewer than a dozen lawmakers in a body of 435 doesn't sound like much, but it suggests there are cracks in what's been decades of consensus on bipartisan support for Israel's government. The speech comes at a time that Israel is led by the most right-wing government in its history.

For more on this, we turn to Yousef Munayyer, an advocate for Palestinian rights and a senior fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C., and he joins us on Skype. Good morning, and welcome to the program.

YOUSEF MUNAYYER: Good morning. It's good to be with you.

FADEL: So how unusual is it to have Democrats criticizing Israeli policies in Congress?

MUNAYYER: Well, it's becoming more and more normal these days. You know, I think this whole display with this speech to Congress this week by the Israeli president is really the latest benchmark in the deterioration of U.S.-Israel relations. The president holds a ceremonial position, and it's important to remember he was invited to Washington because unlike the politically divisive Benjamin Netanyahu, he was supposed to offer an Israeli face that Republicans and Democrats alike could embrace. But even his visit was not without controversy, and as you noted, several members of Congress announced they'd boycott this speech. I think this shows that members of Congress are starting to understand the problem isn't political personalities like Netanyahu, but the policies of the Israeli state and their abuses of Palestinians, which, of course, premier international and Israeli human rights organizations have concluded amounts to the crime of apartheid.

FADEL: But to be fair, this is just a handful of lawmakers. There was also a non-binding bill that passed with broad support of Republicans and Democrats backing and supporting Israel and condemning antisemitism. So does it actually show a shift in any way?

MUNAYYER: Well, I think it shows the beginning of a shift taking place. Look. Congress often lags behind public opinion on a wide range of issues, including this one, and many elected officials would prefer to pretend that everything is fine rather than acknowledge the house is on fire. But when you look at public opinion on this issue, there are very clear shifts. For example, polls have shown that some 44% of Democratic respondents with an opinion on the matter say that the Israeli system is akin to apartheid. For the first time this year, a majority of Democrats in a recurring poll say that they sympathize with Palestinians over Israelis.

And significant change is happening in Jewish American opinion, too. One poll found that 25% of U.S. Jewish voters see this as an apartheid situation, and that number climbs notably higher among Jews under 40. Yes, we're not seeing that kind of response in Congress, but there's clearly a shift taking place here, and it's one that's a seismic one and will lead to greater change in the future.

FADEL: I just want to note here that Israel denies that it's an apartheid state, and that for people who don't know, Palestinians live in occupied territories controlled by Israel. There isn't a viable Palestinian state at this moment, and there's been an increase in illegal settlements under this current government. But what about concern about antisemitism within the mistreatment of Palestinians? It's something within the criticism of mistreatment of Palestinians. It's something the Israeli president, Isaac Herzog, warned lawmakers about, saying criticism of Israel must not cross the line into negation of the state of Israel's right to exist. Just in the few seconds we have left, you could respond to that.

MUNAYYER: I don't think that this is an issue about antisemitism. It's an issue about the human rights of Palestinians and how Israeli policy and U.S. policy in support of that is enabling those human rights abuses. We shouldn't allow a very real need for opposition to antisemitism to enable other kinds of discrimination and abuses, including the abuse of Palestinians by the state of Israel.

FADEL: Yousef Munayyer heads the Palestine Israel Program at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C. Thanks for your time.

MUNAYYER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.