Writing our own stories
With US President Barack Obama serving as a mouthpiece for Israeli diplomacy, it is time for the Palestinians to tell their own stories, writes Susan Abulhawa*
Anger was my first reaction after listening to US president Barack Obama's two recent speeches, one to the world and another to AIPAC, the powerful Israeli lobby in the US. I went around to my friends with questions like "who does he think he is, presuming to tell Palestinians how they may or may not achieve freedom," or "what makes him think his vision for Palestinian dignity actually trumps the vision of Palestinians themselves," or "how dare he talk to us like a parent chastising a small child," or "when will we have a president who can and will tell the truth," or "I think AIPAC wrote his speech for him."
My friends are used to hearing impassioned political commentary from me. The ones close to me always advise me to let the anger dissipate before I write anything so that what I put into words is coming from a clear head. That's where I am now -- no anger, calm and clear-headed. And here is my reaction.
Who does Obama think he is, presuming to tell Palestinians how they may or may not achieve freedom? What makes Obama think his vision for the future of Palestine, indeed vision for the Arab world, trumps the vision of Palestinians or Arabs for themselves? How dare he talk to Palestinians like we're his bad little children in need of (his) parental direction? And will the US ever have a president capable of speaking frankly and truthfully? Because he has just put Israeli propaganda in his own voice for the world.
After paying lip service to the Arab Spring, Obama outlined how he plans to help -- read manipulate -- the new governments, and then he launched into the "cornerstone" of his vision, which pertains to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, although he referred to it as "the conflict between Israelis and Arabs." That wording is important. It is the obfuscating verbiage that Israel has employed for years in order to lump Palestinians into miscellaneous Arabs, instead of a distinct people native to the Holy Land, being wiped away and swept into other Arab lands. The president dutifully spewed Israeli diplomatic speak or hasbara. And that was just the first sentence on the subject.
In the second sentence, he managed to present Israelis as poor victims living in constant fear for the lives of their children and in pain because, according to Obama, Palestinians teach their children to hate them. Again, here the president is regurgitating the racist Israeli hasbara that contradicts the most basic facts of this conflict. In fact, over 100 Palestinian children have been killed for every Israeli child. Thousands of Palestinian children have been maimed for a single injured Israeli. Prisons in that land have been filled with Palestinian children, not Israelis.
The thousands of school children cut off from their schools and teachers are Palestinian children, not Israeli. The bombed, destroyed homes and schools belonged to Palestinians, not Israelis. The ones who have to watch their mothers, fathers, grandparents and siblings humiliated, beaten and systematically terrorised are Palestinian children, not Israeli. In more than 60 years, it has been Palestinians who have not known a single day of security or peace. And yet, Obama's sympathy is with the Israelis because a few Palestinians have committed acts to make Israelis pay a price for their colonial project that steals the Palestinian people's heritage, inheritance and history.
That wretched sentence was followed by a condescending attempt to describe what it has meant to us Palestinians to have our hearts wrenched from our bodies. Obama said it has been "humiliating" for us. Really? Tell that to my grandmother (and thousands like her) who died in a bug-infested shack so more Jews from Brooklyn could come and take her home and destroy the graves of her ancestors. And even in that reluctant reference to our humanity, Obama manages to insert another bit of Israeli hasbara by adding that our humiliation also stems from "never living in a nation of [our] own."
Despite my initial reaction, I have to smile at this statement, because no one can say or do anything to alter the fact that Palestinian families, including my own, have been rooted in that land for centuries and millennia. That's a claim that no Jewish man or woman from Eastern Europe, like Netanyahu, Tzipi Livni and other Israeli leaders, can ever make. Those Israelis came to Palestine, changed their names and said they had returned home. Then they proceeded to destroy and expel the indigenous population.
They have not only stolen our land, but they have also stolen our story, for it is the Palestinians who are the natural inhabitants of that land and who have descended from its various tribes throughout time, including the Hebrew tribes. But maybe Obama's sympathies stem from America's own history, since the early settlers did the same to the Native Americans. But that's as shameful a history as slavery. Or maybe Obama is just a politician who doesn't have what it takes to be a leader and cannot speak beyond the limits of his own narrow self-interest, even if it means upholding the shameful logic of inherent entitlement that underpins the state of Israel.
No matter. He managed to write himself out of history in that speech, of which I've only touched on three sentences. The next sentence was pure hypocrisy. He said, "we support a set of universal rights. Those rights include free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of religion; and equality for men and women under the rule of law." For the record, every one of those rights is denied to Palestinians by Israel. Palestinian Muslims and Christians in Ramallah, for example, cannot travel the 15 minutes it would take to get to Jerusalem to pray. I also note that Obama said nothing of equality between Jews and non-Jews, the opposite of which is enshrined in the very foundation of the state of Israel.
That's barely a paragraph from Obama's abominable speech. It's hasbara and the pandering quotients only got worse in the version he delivered to AIPAC. However, we need not despair, and we need not fear. It might not be so obvious right now, but Israel is a sinking ship, because as history has taught us over and over again, regimes that seek to create a "pure race" -- with whatever twisted ideas of purity -- do not last. Oppression has a short shelf life, as brave Arab men and women are demonstrating to the world, one Arab nation at a time.
When David Grun and Gold Mabovitch came from Poland and the former Russian Empire, they changed their names to David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir, committed massacres, and drove out the native people. Ben Gurion predicted that the Palestinians, now refugees, would disappear as "the old will die and the young will forget." They told a story of "a land without a people for a people without a land." Meir tried to convince the world that the Palestinians were not even real when she declared to the world that "Palestinians do not exist."
When we finally fought back, they spoke for us and told a story of a depraved, violent and irrational people. They controlled the dominant narrative, presuming not only to speak for us, but also for God. Golda Meir once said that Israel "exists as the fulfillment of a promise made by God himself. It would be ridiculous to ask it to account for its legitimacy." In this narrative, God became a real-estate agent and the Bible a property deal. It was an alluring, albeit absurd, narrative, and the world bought it. But amongst themselves, Israelis understood its miscalculation, which came in a candid admission from Judah Magnes years later when he said "we seem to have thought of everything... except the Arabs."
Today, in the halls of power in both the US and Israel, many people are ironically echoing those words decades after they were uttered by Magnes because the orientalist assessment of the native population does not encompass their aspirations for freedom or their willingness to fight for basic human dignity. The mistake of the United States, of Israel, and of the client Arab rulers was to believe that we are backward, unrefined, uncivilised, fearful and easily controlled by force.
In truth, the greatest and most successful weapon used against the Palestinians has not been Israeli tanks, airplanes, guns and soldiers; it has not been their checkpoints, walls, fences, or settlements; it has not even been their powerful propaganda machine that suffuses nearly all mainstream western media outlets; nor has it been their near complete control of the US Congress or successive US administrations.
Instead, the greatest weapon Israel has used against us has been our own minds. They succeeded, for a while at least, in making us believe ourselves small and powerless and that they are bigger than we are. Their greatest weapon has been their ability to make us believe that we need their permission to live with dignity; that we need their blessing and the blessing of the US to achieve freedom; that our lives depend on currying favour with them; that we must negotiate for the right to live in our own homes, inherit our own heritage, and live with the human rights that are accorded along with the rest of humanity.
Their great weapon has been to make us believe that we must give everything we have, everything dear to us, so that they will stop oppressing us and leave us a pittance and the crumbs of what is already rightfully ours. Perhaps, in their despair and shock, our parents and grandparents bought into this; but no more. Ben Gurion could not have been more wrong. The young have not forgotten, and they are tearing away at these untruths that have kept us chained.
First, Tunisians, ordinary citizens, together took down their ruthless leader, followed by Egyptians, who managed to dismantle a regime that seemed unmovable and all-powerful. In doing so, they destroyed the façade of power. They broke the greatest weapons against us and helped restore our belief in ourselves. Our brothers and sisters in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and beyond are now waging their lives en masse to confront and dismantle long-standing injustices, as Palestinians have been doing for decades.
The politics and issues might differ from one country to the next, but a common narrative runs through them all. It is simply that we are ancient societies with splendid histories and cultures. We are also a people that have been maligned, dehumanised and oppressed by various mechanisms, a people whose voice has been muted and whose story has been told by others, a people who are finally demanding to speak in their own voices, to tell their own story, to define themselves for the world, and to hold the reins of their own destiny.
In that context, it doesn't matter what Obama says to AIPAC or to the world. His vision does not matter and nor does Netanyahu's. Egyptians did not need America's permission to act. They didn't need Israel's either. They needed only their own resolve and fortitude; and they also needed the eyes and solidarity of the ordinary people of the world. That's all we as Palestinians need in order to demand and claim our place among humanity as a people deserving of human rights that are afforded to the rest of the world. We do not need the US or Israel to give us these rights. We were born with them. We don't need to negotiate for them, because they're non-negotiable.
We are a people who stand firmly on moral ground, demanding basic human rights and freedom. Let them say or do what they will. Ours is a demand for inclusion, while theirs is for exclusion. Ours is for the diverse, multi-religious society that Palestine had always been before the declaration of the state of Israel. Theirs is a Jewish-only country. Ours involves equality under the law regardless of religion, while theirs is a demand for privilege and entitlement only for those belonging to the Jewish religion. Ours is a claim based on history, heritage, law, and personal lineage; theirs is a claim based on an omnipotent landlord. Ours is for justice. Theirs is for power.
But Israel's power exists only at the narrow corrupted top where the Obamas and Mubaraks of the world dwell. It's the power of weapons and brute force. Our power is on the wide expansive ground, where the call for justice swells all over the world. It's the space of human solidarity and moral conscience that fights the good fight for freedom and dignity, regardless of religion or race. That's where we are, and here the emperor's speeches are irrelevant.
The Palestinians have not forgotten, nor will we. We carry our homes, our stories and our wounds in our skin and give birth to them all over again with every new generation. Just as Jews cannot forget the Shoah, so Palestinians cannot forget the Nakba, the Naksa, and the ongoing ethnic cleansing taking place. More importantly, we know who we are and where we come from. That is where we're headed and we will make it home, thanks to our resolve and thanks to the solidarity of individuals and organisations all over the world. And when we are finally home, we will remember the solidarity shown to Palestine here and everywhere.
Israel should not see this as a threat, and Israelis should not fear true democracy. Israel has a chance to heed the calls of their brave young people who refuse to be the brutalizers it wants them to be -- the ones who refuse to serve in the military, the ones breaking the silence, or the ones boycotting their own illegal settlements. They are the conscience of Israel. These young people are Israel's redemption. Because the day will come when the racist Israeli system that measures human worth by religion will crumble. The day will come when military force is not enough to stop people from pouring into the streets to march for justice; and a critical mass all over the world will say enough.
Israel exists amidst a great body of Arabs and amidst very old civilisations where historically Jews thrived. Whether in the Middle East, North Africa, or Spain, Jews found strength, protection, home and opportunity under Muslim rule before Israel was established. Israel's best hope is to work to restore that solidarity. To find a way to the understanding that we are not children of a lesser God whom they can destroy and oppress at will.
* The writer is the author of Mornings in Jenin published in 2010.