Abbas' Tune at N.Y.’s Cooper Union: Abraham, Martin, John and Mahmoud

The Palestinian leader urged college students to 'Rethink Palestine' and to view Palestinian independence as a great American cause.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech at Cooper Union, September 22, 2014, in New York.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech at Cooper Union, September 22, 2014, in New York. Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

President Mahmoud Abbas chose the venerated New York podium from which Abraham Lincoln catapulted to the presidency two centuries ago as a launching pad for a new Palestinian marketing slogan - “Rethink Palestine” - and as a platform to recast the Palestinian issue as a great American cause.

Speaking before a packed and warmly supportive audience of students at the Great Hall of Cooper Union College in Manhattan on Monday, Abbas swore allegiance to peace, lambasted Israeli “oppression and colonialism” and announced his intention to demand a binding timetable for peace in his upcoming address to the United Nations General Assembly. He condemned terrorism, slammed the September 11 bombings and denounced “the barbarians of ISIS and
Al-Qaida” as “not faithful Muslims.”

But it was his repeated reference to American historical and cultural icons - a rhetorical device that is a hallmark of Benjamin Netanyahu’s U.S. appearances - that was the underlying theme of Abbas’ address. In a presentation that may strike many Israelis and their supporters as preposterous, Abbas placed the Palestinian cause alongside abolitionism, women’s suffrage and other great historical American movements. He told his audience “Palestinians today have far fewer rights than African Americans had in the 1950’s” and promised that a new state of Palestine would be “a model of women’s rights in the Arab world.”

Abbas urged his listeners to emulate the Freedom Riders in Birmingham, the protestors against Vietnam, the students who sparked the sanctions against South African apartheid. He quoted Martin Luther King (“The arc of the moral Universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”) and John F Kennedy (“We cannot negotiate with those who say, ‘What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable.”). He said that he was speaking “on behalf of the Palestinian people in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.”

He compared the “courage” shown by President Obama and Secretary Kerry in pursuing Middle East peace to what he described as Lincoln’s bravery “to stand at this very podium to argue for the end of slavery” though technically, Lincoln had argued against expansion of slavery, not its abolition, in his February 27, 1860 Cooper Union speech that some historians view as having gained him the presidency. The Great Hall, where he spoke, has since hosted 7 other American presidents, including Bill Clinton and Obama.

Outside the building, about 25 Jewish teenagers with yarmulkes stood behind police barricades shouting slogans such as “Abbas is Hamas” and “PA go away” but a planned protest inside the hall did not materialize. Instead, a friendly audience of several hundred people, including Arabs and Palestinians as well as a sizeable group of Jewish students, greeted Abbas warmly and gave his speech several standing ovations. If his accent in English wasn’t so heavy, the reception would probably have been even more enthusiastic.

Judging by their reactions, however, it was clear that the audience was more excited to hear Abbas’ attacks on Israel than his repeated promises to pursue peace with it. His most popular lines of the night came when he called on America to act as a “real friend” of Israel, and not as a “false friend.”

“And just as real friends do not let friends drive drunk, so too a real friend of Israel would not let them engage in the widespread killing of women and children, including bombing United Nations schools and hospitals, such as we just saw in Gaza,” he said.

Abbas commended J Street and Students for Justice in Palestine for their campus activities. He called on young people to “Rethink Palestine,” anointing them as “Seeds of Peace”, after the youth organization founded in 1993 that brings together Israelis, Palestinians and other high school kids in Maine every summer. He did not sound convinced, however, that he would live to see his goals accomplished: “At 79, I do not know for certain if I will ever hold in my hand and taste the sweet fruit of peace. But I do know this for certain. I have held in my hand, and seen with my own eyes, the seeds of peace.”

A line which may or may not have been inspired by the line “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” also known as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, written less than two years after Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech, when the Civil War was already in full swing.

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