The grandson of one of the architects of the Munich massacre is running for Congress in California, and winning praise from members of the local Jewish community for his moderate positions on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Ammar Campa-Najjar is set to be endorsed by the California Democratic Party later this week, ahead of the June Democratic Party primary for California’s 50th District. His family background could become one of his greatest challenges if he makes it to the 2018 midterm elections in November.
Campa-Najjar is the grandson of Muhammad Yusuf al-Najjar (aka Abu Yusuf), a senior member of the Palestinian terror organization Black September, which carried out numerous terror attacks against Israelis in the early 1970s – including the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. As retribution for that horrific attack, Israeli commandos killed Yusuf al-Najjar and his wife in Beirut.
Campa-Najjar’s father is Yasser Najjar, a former Palestinian Authority official.
In an interview with Haaretz, Campa-Najjar spoke about his family history and his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he says are “far removed” from those of the grandfather he never met. He says that “as an American citizen living in the 21st century, I will never be able to understand or condone the actions and motivations of my grandfather.”
The San Diego-based Democrat also discussed his admiration for Sen. Bernie Sanders, promising that if he is elected to Congress later this year, he will focus on inequality in the United States – but “also try to work toward a peaceful solution between Israel and the Palestinians.”
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Ironically, if Yusuf al-Najjar hadn’t been assassinated by an Israeli commando force (which included future Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak) in April 1973, his grandson may never have become a U.S. congressional candidate.
Following Yusuf al-Najjar’s death, his orphaned son Yasser Najjar went to live with his grandmother in Egypt. In 1981, he decided to leave the Middle East and immigrated to the United States. He settled in San Diego, where he met Ammar’s mother, Abigail, and where Ammar was born in the late 1980s.
“My dad is a Muslim Palestinian who grew up in Lebanon and Egypt. My mom comes from a Catholic family in Mexico. I attended both Catholic and Muslim schools growing up,” recounts Campa-Najjar, adding, “I’m proud to be an American of diverse background, like so many Americans who have their origins in different parts of the world.”
Campa-Najjar’s formative years were spent without his father, who moved to Gaza when the Palestinian Authority was founded in 1994. “When I was 8 years old, in 1997, I moved to Gaza and got to know my father and his family for the first time,” he says. “I was being told by people, ‘Your grandfather, your grandfather!’ all the time, but didn’t understand why – apart from the fact he was someone many people knew about,” he says.
In 2001, Campa-Najjar moved back to the United States, attending the Islamic School of San Diego – just as the second intifada was nearing its peak. Najjar Sr. stayed in Gaza.
“It was a frightening time,” he recalls. “It made me sympathize with the pain of both sides of the conflict. I realized how painful and difficult it was for both the Palestinians and the Israelis. I was only there [Gaza] for a few years, and it made me sad to think people were dealing with this kind of violence for their entire lives.”
Campa-Najjar doesn’t defend the actions of his grandfather, calling them “horrific. Innocent civilians were murdered. There is never justification for killing innocent civilians.” His thinking is also different from that of his father, whom, according to a 1996 Washington Post article, was proud of Yusuf al-Najjar and refused “to accept that killing athletes was more repugnant than the violence of Israeli occupation over the years.”
According to Campa-Najjar, “I’m against ‘comparisonism’ – competing who suffered more. Too many people have been killed. What my grandfather did was inexcusable. The goal is for our generation to be better than our predecessors, and find a way to end this conflict.”
While he admits the Israel-Palestinian issue is important to him, U.S. social inequality tops his list of priorities. “I grew up for most of my childhood with a single mother,” he says. “I went to work as a janitor when I was 15. My main focus is on economic injustice in this country, and on issues like medicare and debt-free college.”
Campa-Najjar mentions in passing his “admiration” for Vermont senator Sanders, whom he met last year, noting, “I think he created a discussion in this country about many issues that weren’t receiving enough attention.”
California’s 50th District (Inland San Diego County) has long been considered a Republican stronghold, and the incumbent Congressman, Duncan Hunter, has represented the Republicans there since 2009. Hunter won the seat after his father, also Duncan Hunter, retired from Congress after serving since in 1983. It’s also not clear if Campa-Najjar will be able to land the Democratic nomination. His main competition comes from Josh Butner, a former Navy SEAL who served for over 20 years in the U.S. military, including in Afghanistan and Iraq. Campa-Najjar has received an endorsement from Illinois Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, while Butner received one from Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton – a Marine veteran often mentioned as a possible presidential contender in 2020. So far Campa-Najjar has out fundraised his main Democratic rival and is staying close with Hunter this campaign cycle.
Two rabbis from the San Diego area who have met with Campa-Najjar in recent months say they were impressed by his approach, including on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Rabbi Nadav Caine of the Conservative Ner Tamid Congregation says Campa-Najjar told him that “Palestinian human rights and Israeli security were not contradictory but closely connected to each other.”
He added that “Ammar immediately made the matter personal by explaining how a relative had been implicated in the Munich Olympic massacre and that, while he did not know him, he knew growing up he had two possible paths: One, avenging his [grandfather’s] death by bowing to pressure to hate Israel; or the other – defying the pressure and restoring family honor by forging paths of peace. He chose the latter.
“As he spoke, he didn’t avoid the importance of Israel’s security,” Caine continues. “He embraced it, including his concerns about his own party’s positions on Iran.”
Rabbi Devorah Marcus of the Reform Temple Emanu-El adds that Campa-Najjar “supports Israel and he supports Palestine. He speaks comfortably about the good and the difficulties of both communities. Ammar is someone who understands the value of listening, and he approaches people with a generous spirit and an open heart.”