Monadel Herzallah has been a community activist in the San Francisco Bay Area for decades. In addition to working with the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, he also works with the Arab Community and Cultural Center in San Francisco, the US Palestinian Community Network, and the Arab American Union Member’s Council. He is also a long-time union organizer and civil rights activist. I met Monadel when we both worked for Justice for Janitors many years ago, and had the opportunity to re-connect with him last year at the US Social Forum in Detroit.
I was interested in interviewing Monadel as someone firmly entrenched in the labor and social justice movements of this country, which represent so many diverse groups and sectors. But I was also eager to hear his perspective as someone who is very much focused on discrimination and racism against Arab Americans and Muslims, the anti-war movement, Palestine, and the struggles against the dictatorships of the Arab world. The main themes that emerged from our discussion were the use of immigration-based fear-mongering by the federal government to bolster the American security state; the centrality of the labor movement in the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings; and the current state of the public-sector heavy US labor movement.
The interview was conducted on July 16. What follows is a transcript, edited for length and clarity.
HR: tell me about yourself
Monadel: I came to the states in 1978. And I came to study and , I basically I continued to…
HR: Where’d you come from?
Monadel: I was born and raised in Jordan. My grandparents were forced out of Bier Sheba, southeast of Gaza. They moved to Jordan without my grandfather who was arrested by the British during the Nakba days in forty eight. I went to school, participated in very forbidden political activities in support of the Palestinians. Because of the political repression in all Arab countries, then, including Jordan–they did not have any freedom of forming parties or anything like that–I came here to the states. I started working on issues around democracy, human rights and freedom for people. And Palestine happens to be a very close subject to my heart. I am Palestinian despite being born outside the British mandate borders and because of the sad story of of my grandparents. And I’ve been working towards justice in Palestine ever since. My grandfather’s house is still there, it’s been abandoned, I went there once when I was ten years old, back in nineteen seventy one. I visited and I haven’t seen that house since. I think the village still exists, it’s called the “Old Town” of Beer Sheba.
HR: Are there still Palestinians there?
Monadel:…there are a few, very few Palestinians…
HR:..was it resettled by Jewish people?
Monadel: Yes, it was. My grandfather’s business used to be a coffee shop in Beer Sheeba, and it used to be that there was only form of entertainment and news, which was a huge radio [in the cafe]. It was [on] a trade road. But now it was really wiped out, the coffee shop, by a really ugly cemented bank of Israel in downtown Beer Sheba. I felt horrible, although I was there at a young age. It opened my eyes to the reality of what had happened.
HR: Someone would ask you, aren’t you Jordanian then? Or do you identify as Palestinian?
Monadel: I identify as an Arab, and as an activist, as a human being, as a global citizen so to speak. Palestinians no matter what happens to them, if they immigrate to Latin America or anything else, they continue to keep that identity. Cause we feel that our identity is being targeted to make room for colonialism. So it’s really important if we marry from a different race, of if we choose a different country to settle in, we continue to have that identity and we are really proud of it. I came to the states, I married a Palestinian. [her] parents were forced out of Palestine because their home was demolished by the Israelis. They’re from Lifta, a village called Lifta in forty eight [what is now Israel]. After the Nakba, they moved to Al Birreh, Ramallah. And then my father in law’s house was demolished, by the Israelis in nineteen sixty nine, so the rest of his family moved back to the united states. I met my wife here in the states and we’re both Palestinians. We consider, my son who was born and raised in San Francisco [Palestinian], and he considers himself a Palestinian. [It’s] a statement that no matter how long this colonialism is going to continue, we were really going to go back to our roots and where we belong. Nobody in the whole world should face what the Palestinian have faced. No one, I mean, when we say never again, I mean the Jews have always said, never again, it should be never again for anybody. And we’re saying that never again for Palestinians.
HR: And for everybody. It’s a global movement…
Monadel: Absolutely and we want to insist on that, like when the majority of the people are really paying the high price of globalization, and exploitation and greedy corporations and that the manifestation of that is occupation, is colonialization, are these types of things. So we see the Zionist entity or Israel, as a tool for this type of thing, so we don’t feel that it’s only the job of Palestinians to fight this oppression, it’s the job of everybody.
HR: Some of the plans that Israel has for the West Bank are just basic globalization, neoliberal projects…
Monadel: During my college years, I continued to work in the student movement. We participated in the anti-apartheid movement, we supported the movement to stop intervention in Latin America and Central America. I began working with the issue of civil rights–and particularly after nine eleven–after being an active union member in HERE [as a shop steward] in San Mateo [then at ] Justice for Janitors. Justice for Janitors was really diverse and I really loved working with the members. I truly felt that this is a natural place for people to work for justice, and being in the janitor’s union really taught me a lot about workers, about diversity, of having Latino workers, Asian workers and Arab workers fighting for justice and maintaining their benefits and it was a very amazing experience.
I moved to other unions, working for school employees, workers, who were paying the highest price of governor—governator–Arnold Schwarzenegger’s conservative policies and basically, union busting policies, and we were actively involved in beating his agenda.
We are motivated more to really fight to maintain what’s left of civil rights that have been violated by George W. Bush’s policies. That’s been continued after Obama unfortunately. Unfortunately he kept the same policies that George W. Bush had, in terms of giving the agencies and the federal and homeleand security more reasons to double or triple their budget to scare people and basically take away from necessary programs at the same time, violating the achievements of the civil rights movement. We feel a moral responsibility to defend what people have sacrificed to achieve for civil rights, like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King in this country
They’re biting away from the achievements [of the civil rights movement] and they’re using scare tactics and war against terrorism and Arabs and Muslims, and all this propaganda, to inflate the budget, to fight terrorism, and justify their spending. Basically similar to how Bush justified the war against Iraq with weapons of mass destruction. Now they’re scaring people, and telling them there’s a terrorist living among you.
There’s a dangerous program that’s being introduced right now in local governments called SAR, which stands for Suspicious Activity Reporting. You know, praying can be reported as suspicious activity. Who decides, and what criteria of suspicious activity? It’s up to the government. Homeland Security, the FBI are coordinating , by-passing local government, coordinating with police and people who are getting paid by the tax payers locally,that are pouring money into these witch hunts, instead of combating serious crime.
So they look at the Arab and Muslims as the soft spot, as the weakest link. ‘Hey, this is justifiable, you know, they all look like this, they are terrorists.’ So it will require us to fight more, it takes a lot of courage from people in our community to say no, because we continue to be the face of the enemy. But it’s also important, that people who support the forces of justice to really connect, and ally themselves with this targeted community, Muslims. This is like you’re attacking Muslims and Arabs, it’s like you’re attacking Asians…
HR: Do you know a program called Secure Committees? Secure Communities is this federal program that comes from the DHS, it targets everyone who’s undocumented, but of course, it’s going to target Asians and Latinos more because they tend to have bigger communities and they tend to be more visible. It allows local police forces to share data. If you’re like a Mexican or Central American immigrant, you get stopped for a license violation, and pretty soon you’re fingerprints are at the FBI, they’re at the DHS, and the next thing you know, they’re deporting you…
Monadel: Absolutely, yes, yes, it’s similar, it’s the same concept and it has an additional goal of driving a wedge among immigrant communities.
HR: Over the past few years, being an Arab American activist in America has become a dangerous job. There are prosecutions of activists that have connections to the Arab world and especially Palestine, that situation with Hatem Abudeyyeh…and others in the Chicago area who are the subject of a grand jury indictment.
Do you feel that you enjoy the same civil rights as typical Americans, do you feel targeted? Are you afraid of doing this work that the FBI is going to show up at your doorstep and you’re going to be put in a system with no protections?
Monadel: Actually, it’s really important to know and to say that I am not afraid. Because I’m not doing anything wrong. The goal for these cases is not the immediate reaction for that specific person, but also the surrounding, making people start suspecting that person. Even people who know them, say “I don’t know what he did, he might have done something…”
HR: Especially if you’re Arab American…
Monadel: Yeah. “So, oh, Monadel’s a nice guy, but you know, you never know what happens, maybe he has the type of ties that we didn’t know.” This is not going to make me afraid. I will never be afraid, because I’ve never done anything to harm [anyone]. I mean, or had a connection to harm anybody. It is to the contrary.
I think this very well orchestrated campaign, to isolate people in solidarity with Palestine, to isolate the people who are marching in the street against a war, is to really diffuse the momentum against unjust wars that’s taking place. This is the goal. So if I say, I’m getting scared of this, I’m really meeting their goal.
And he’s [Hatem Abudayyeh] not the only one. There are other people. Some union members, some are not union members, some are Palestinians activists, some are not activists, some are community members, and to put them in a grand jury and. A grand jury reverses the standard of innocent until proven guilty. You are guilty until proven innocent. You cannot have lawyers. I don’t want to mix things, but all these orchestrated campaigns that I mentioned earlier, it is like passing the Patriot Act, you know, secret evidence. The government has the right not to show what evidence they have it’s a secret evidence, so they say, you’re a threat.
HR: You’re saying that they’re using any method that they can to reduce the amount of rights people have…
Monadel: Exactly. They don’t have to have evidence, they have like suspicions of you that means they can interrogate you. And actually I wanted to call it the Israelization of the United States. Following the Israel policy is really dragging the United States and dragging each other–I wouldn’t say dragging, because the United States is doing the same–to international isolation. This is where we are [like Israel]. “We’re building the wall, because we’re afraid of terrorists.” No, you’re confiscating land, you’re making it impossible for the Palestinians to have a state…
HR: So when I look at things like what happened in Wisconsin, institutional unions are experiencing this new vigor. But most of it seems to be happening around government jobs, and I guess my question is, does that help anybody for unions to be focused on the best jobs only? Like government jobs are the best jobs a working class person can get, or middle class person can get in this country. They’re very stable, good benefits. Do you see that that may be a bad investment of worker energy to put it into fights that only help people who work for the government and aren’t helping people who work in, you know, in care giving in homes, that work in the service industry, as janitors, as restaurant workers and hotel workers? They’re like forgotten in all this. When Wisconsin was happening no one gave a shit about hotel workers.
Monadel: Absolutely. These are symptoms of the labor movement weaknesses, basically where it used to be for every three workers, there is like one worker that’s unionized, okay. But that was in the seventies and sixties, when the economy was good. And now you barely can find one out of ten who is union and most of the time they are public sector employees, government employee. That is the symptom of the unions, union leadership, having neglected to do organizing in the nineties when Clinton was there. I really want to underline the issue of leadership, because that is who is really responsible. In a good economy you should concentrate and focus on organizing and build your power, build your power because you have a friend, assuming that labor has worked hard to put him into the White House as it usually has. In the nineties they lost the opportunity to grow in the private sector. Now what happens, is they’re defending what’s left. And that’s a very weak position, a very defensive position. And now they’re [others are] saying, ‘public workers they have jobs, they have the best jobs, they have the best pensions.” You lose your argument, and you’re really in the defense, you’re in the hole right now.
HR: When you look at sectors involved in Egypt, and you look at the sectors that were involved, like the labor movement, these were like powerless, in the sense that they didn’t have institutions with political connection. They didn’t have a lot of money, they were grassroots unions, developing in places, a lot of them were unions that were in response to the state union, which didn’t give them any rights. So they were like, well, we’ll take the union and just take it away from the state and we’ll make our own union.
And that a lot of this energy has been labor, right, but a completely different image of labor than the one that exists in the United States. Let’s just put Wisconsin in there, using the Tahrir Square idea, and it just seems to me it’s like apples and oranges. Like, Tahrir Square is a movement for economic equality for everyone, people who have been forgotten by the system. Whereas in Wisconsin, it’s the people who already enjoy, and I think you talked about this, who already enjoy the protections, fighting to keep what they have, and ignoring what everyone else needs…
Monadel: Yeah, well actually it’s the cycle. I mean, you know, if you want to compare the labor movement in the states and the labor movement that’s taking place right now in Tunisia or Egypt, the United States labor movement needs a tremendous amount of steroids or whatever, it is a dying breed. I mean, that’s an unfortunate thing to say, that the unions back in the seventies and the sixties used to be strong unions, they had respect from the average American and society. But now in the states, you’re appearing to be defending privileged employees, because they have neglected organizing the private sector. And also, the elitists that are leading the union movement have been like union presidents for the last twenty years. They’re like similar to Mubarak and Qadafi and the like. So they have a stagnation at the top. We have stagnations in the leadership of the unions, and the movement’s rank and file has been neglected, and you don’t see the new blood. So changes that unions are claiming are happening are just cosmetic. When it’s real, you see it and feel it. We have a saying Arabic: if we expect rain, we would have seen clouds. I don’t see any clouds in the near future.
Unmistakably know and realize that what made Mubarak quit is the organizing of union members in Egypt. February 8th to February 11th, those were the three days that were crucial, where railroad workers, the workers of Suez [went on strike]. Hundreds of thousands of union members joined millions of people in all walks of life with the goal of tearing down the Mubarak regime. They went to the streets at the beginning of Tahrir. Mubarak dispatched his people, the police and these thugs. The only potential that could put people out in an organized way were the union members and they did not listen to their traditional leaders, because they are considered agents of the regime, the traditional union leaders. They didn’t listen to them. Workers, rank and files started to organize, started to talk about strikes. If you strike railroad workers through out Egypt, the whole country will be paralyzed. So that’s the three days of the strikes that took place. Railway workers really pushed the edge and made that revolution. The major shift in power to the people took place during these 3 days where union members joined millions of people and forced out the regime’s scape goat, Mubarak. I say scapegoat because the regime is still alive and kicking. So as the new revolutionaries still come out in mass, it will still take years to shape. But I feel it’s going on in the right direction. And I feel that when the regime dispatched their organized force, the people dispatched their organized forces, which are their rank and file workers. And they were organized, and they have done many strikes before, since 2006…
HR: What do you see the prospects of Egypt and is there any lesson for us here in the United States?
Monadel: I’m very hopeful, and I believe that we shouldn’t expect miracles to happen in a short period of time. I think that in the next ten years, we’re going to see a lot of changes. Sometimes in America, we like drama. “let’s do Tahrir square in Madison, like Cairo” stuff. It really doesn’t work that way, there are a lot of different elements that are involved and it takes time. I’m hoping because of the hunger–people that want freedom, want democracy, want to protect human rights–and all these regimes have been supported militarily and economically by [our] government. We’re not surprised to see the statements of Hillary Clinton and by Obama not knowing what to do [about Egypt and Tunisia]. It was expected to happen, but they didn’t expect it to happen at this level.
HR: They did expect something like a revolt, right?
Monadel: They expected it, but they didn’t expect that the regime would fall. They were expecting something that could be circumvented, or managed, or contained, or shifted. But it’s not that easy once you get all the people’s eyes are alert on this. “Uh, uh, business as usual is no longer effective, people ain’t going to take this anymore.” And the US government and corporations better figure out a different way how to do business in that region .
HR: What about here. Is there any hope? I don’t see the hope, because we don’t need as much. We don’t think we need as much. We have credit cards and stuff like that, or you know, we’ll always try to get another job that pays less, or we’ll get a part time job. It doesn’t feel like we’re on the level that drove Egyptians out into the street…
Monadel: No, because people have a fake sense of security. I mean, come on, the country is in debt, and involved in three major wars. The impact of those wars is costing trillions. If it happened in any other country, people would be in the streets. It’s the short memory syndrome and the fast food news summaries that are fabricating and masking true public opinions.
Update: Joel Beinin, the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle Eastern History at Stanford University, has very informative, if dense article in Foreign Policy which compliments this interview nicely. It’s awkward to use the word “expert” these days, but Beinin probably fits the bill as far as study of North African labor movements goes.