WASHINGTON, DC: The creation of an independent Palestine has been a dream dashed many times, but there may be a practical path forward emerging from a surprising place. I often heard the phrase ‘business is business’ growing up in the 1960s among gritty American Jewish immigrants; my father said it all the time. It reflected old Jewish instincts to do whatever it takes to survive and feed ‘the family’, even when it meant dealing with people who disliked you – a lot.
What floored me is when my Palestinian partner, Aziz Abu Sarah, with whom I recently founded MEJDI, a social enterprise (business designed for a social goal), told me exactly the same words from his father! Aziz’s family and mine are not involved in our new business venture, but every innovation has implications for the political situation in Palestine, and we seek advice and reactions. I have been shocked by the positive reception in my right wing family to the idea of honest business as a bridge. And every time I asked Aziz, “Are you sure your family is ok with Jews and Arabs doing business given their terrible troubles? They know how Jewish I am?” The answer came, “Business is business.”
I feel very much at home with people who love their families, who see the virtue of work, who when facing an unjust situation recognize that practical and ethical people sometimes prevail. Sometimes honest work eases the way to a sane political vision that overwhelms self-destructive patterns of enemy systems and wounded peoples.
There is a lot of good news on the business front. There is a Palestinian prime minister, increasingly popular, who is revolutionizing the infrastructure of Palestine, preparing for prosperity and statehood. Saudi Arabia, the most conservative state in the region, has just announced a $400 million project for Ramallah. Many Western countries are pouring in huge funds for the private sector.
Will these investments benefit most Palestinians? We are all haunted by ‘the last time’, by the Oslo years of large funds — and large corruption. But thankfully a recent economic conference in Palestine, which included an American presidential delegation headed by Senator George Mitchell, slated $950 million for small and medium sized businesses.
My partners and I at MEJDI want more, however. We argue that more is needed to place justice at the center of Palestine’s future, and to discourage an investor tendency to make a few wealthy and most miserable. All the incoming funds are good but we should explicitly support socially responsible business in Palestine.
Although there is no ultimate solution for Palestine without an end to the Occupation, small businesses are needed to form the backbone of a viable state. Small businesses generate a middle class that depends on the rule of law and democratic values, whereas countries supported only through large corporations and government control rarely emerge as democracies. Palestinians deserve a democracy at the end of their long struggle.
Here is an example of what we are doing as a social enterprise. We are pioneering both tours and academic seminars where almost every dollar spent is going to support and patronize businesses with a clear reputation for fair wages. Profits are also re-invested in lecturers and tour guides who are well known activists for positive social change.
This is just one example of the intersection of small business empowerment and social change. Our other major innovation is the distribution in the West of products made by poor but innovative Palestinian small businesses paying only fair wages. I have learned after 27 years of peace activism that ignoring inequality and poverty is disastrous and it violates every tenet of the region’s religious traditions and values. The un-sustainability of the average Palestinian family makes old ways of coexistence work inadequate. Serious attention to fair wages, however, and financial support for Palestine’s social change activists help engender support for Palestine’s nascent non-violent struggle.
Generations, even centuries, of Muslims and Jews, built mutually prosperous and equal relationships; we are merely recovering their legacy. There have been many times of misery in the long history of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim relationship, but there were also many good times, golden ages. Honest business based on good wages and equal relationships may be one glue that has bonded Middle Eastern cultures before, and may help make inevitable the political path forward toward a just and equal two-state solution.
Rabbi Dr. Marc Gopin, author of www.marcgopin.com, and To Make the Earth Whole, is a principal of MEJDI LLC (www.mejdi.net), and Director of CRDC, George Mason University, crdc.gmu.edu. This commentary is distributed by Common Ground News Service (CGNews), www.commongroundnews.org.