Guest Post by Non-Arab Arab
BiV’s recent post “Sod, Seed, Salvation: Abrahamic Covenant and the Claim to Palestine” brought me out of my normal lurking. Modern Palestine and what I firmly believe to be the erroneous interpretation most members of the church have regarding events there always riles me up. Usually I do the smart thing and bite my lip, but every once in a while I choose to enter the fray in full combat mode. As I’ve found on most issues of debate, it doesn’t really matter how right I think I am the noise of the argument rarely does more than highlight who already believes what. So my wish here is not to re-argue the questions of Palestine which I’ve already done enough of on this blog. Instead, I’d like to talk about shoes. No, not the famous Arab shoes, rather walking a mile in another’s shoes.
Most American (and many non-American) Mormons grow up with an instinctive ability to walk in a modern Zionists’ shoes [for those less familiar with the terminology, I prefer to use the term Zionist as opposed to Israeli as it better captures the political movement that supports the Israeli state on an international and local basis, and it captures pre- and post-1948 dynamics]. There is a pseudo-scriptural modern narrative that seems to easily link Jewish, Christian and LDS-specific views of the Abrahamic Covenant to modern Zionism. Orson Hyde’s 1840s visit to Palestine and several subsequent visits by church leaders over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries seem to further fit neatly into that narrative, with a number of statements from church leaders that come across as clearly pro-Zionist. Then there is the fact that the leaders of modern Zionism have been overwhelmingly Europeans with a very western mode of communicating (and in western languages much of the time) that is easier for American Mormons to relate to. And sealing it all up there is the manner in which the Zionist version of events is almost the only one heard in American media, literature and entertainment, and it comes across sounding very neat, clean, and heroic. It sounds to most like a clear cut case of good and evil, and it all makes it so very easy to sympathize with Zionism growing up as a Mormon and especially as an American Mormon.
I grew up with that narrative. I was an unusually political teenager. John Birch-style anti-Communist crusading and religious-political support for Zionism were two of my big shticks. The morality of it all seemed clear as daylight, the religious tie-ins to my LDS faith felt unassailable. I lapped up Leon Uris’ “Exodus” like it was the Bible itself. But then something changed. I got to BYU. I decided to make these and related issues a major focus of my studies. I won’t bore you with all the details, but in a nutshell what happened over the years to follow was that in seeking to prove what I already believed was right, I ended up seeing things from the other side’s point of view as well. I walked a mile in a Palestinian’s shoes, and my view of things was never the same again.
Now, perhaps I’m not being generous enough to humanity as a whole in separating Mormons out on this count, but I have always believed that one of the most wonderful ‘weaknesses’ of Mormons is that we’re so darn nice. I mean, obviously that’s a gross over-generalization. But as long as I’m already in that realm, I do feel like our basic doctrines that say that we’re all children of God with eternal worth and potential, means we have a really hard time dismissing other people when placed face to face with them. We may dislike people, we may get as caught up as other people in political and philosophical movements that make us theoretically despise other people, but somehow when we’re placed face to face, those of us who have a real belief in those core doctrines of the worth of souls feel an obligation to not utterly dismiss as worthless the person on the other side even if we find much about them obnoxious. And it is that part of your Mormon-ness I wish to appeal to today in regards to Palestine. I don’t ask you to accept all my views (which can be somewhat seen in the voluminous comments I left on BiV’s previous post), but I would like to ask: will you as a Mormon walk a mile in a Palestinian’s shoes?
Obviously very few people can actually go live in the forced exile of a Lebanese Palestinian refugee camp or experience life under Zionist siege in Gaza, but if you have any interest in what’s going on, even a superficial interest, you can choose to read things from the other bank of the river at least occasionally. I’d like to give you some suggestions on what you can read. If you say you simply don’t agree with it up front, all I ask is that you suspend your judgment and listen to your Palestinian brothers and sisters. See their tears, hear their stories with a clear mental slate, ask how it feels to be them. God could just as easily have chosen you to have been born in their place after all. Walk in their shoes from time to time, and when these issues hit the news and you get curious, make a point of saying “how can I make sure I see how this looks from the other side too?”
So, below I’m going to give three different types of links. As I imagine many readers of this blog are more inclined to literature and the personal angle, I will first give some glimpses of the world of Palestinian literature and a few other related cultural tidbits. As I imagine others are more into seeing the nitty-gritty facts, I’ll then give some links to the counter-facts which show that history looks quite different when viewed without the Zionist prism. And lastly, I’ll give some links for sources one can regularly follow in English to see how the story in the present looks very different from the Palestinian side versus the Zionist or standard American side.
LINKS 1: LITERATURE FROM THE PERSONAL SIDE
*The works of Ghassan Kanafani, especially his short stories and short novels “Land of the Sad Oranges”, “Men in the Sun”, “Letter from Gaza”, and “Return to Haifa” (the latter story was one of the first stories in Arab literature to deal with Zionists as three-dimensional human characters). The two collections I link two below contain a nice and well-translated selection of his works. When Kanafani was murdered by a Zionist car bomb in Beirut along with his niece in 1972 (incidentally, the man had never been involved in any military action in his life, he was a writer pure and simple), the world lost one of the finest rising authors in the Arabic language of the time. Kanafani upset many people on all sides of the ideological divide because he insisted on portraying the Palestinian situation as it was really lived, with all the emotion experienced at a personal level, regardless of the political implications that human portrayal might have. Reading his stories one feels the utter despondency of a father unable to care for his family having been shoved across the border with only the things they could carry, the desperation of trying to sneak across the borders in the Gulf in search of work but unacknowledged as a human because of having been born Palestinian, the inner turmoil of deciding between emigration to the west in search of a better material life versus staying in the squalor of Gaza to stay true to the people who need you there.
(Incidentally, “Return to Haifa” was one of the first full – admittedly short – novels I ever read in Arabic)
*Emile Habiby’s “Pessoptimist” or “The Secret Life of Said”. Ghassan Kanafani wrote from the exile’s perspective, Emile Habiby wrote from the perspective of those few Palestinians who survived the ethnic cleansing to live on in what became Israel. He writes in a satirical format about his now famous character Said who simply never can quite understand what’s going on around him, sometimes cooperating with the Israeli authorities, sometimes becoming an accidental Palestinian hero, but always stuck in a confused limbo, and always in his naïveté noticing the way things really are. This has been made into a popular Arabic play as well, and was translated and widely read in Hebrew over the years. Habiby embodies the plight and struggles of the “48 Arabs” as they call themselves as few others have managed to do, and does so with a wry, bitter humor that is hard not to enjoy. Habiby has somehow managed to gain the respect of Hebrew and Arabic reading audiences and definitely mine.
*The comic genius of Naji al-Ali and Handhala. Palestine’s national cartoonist, discovered by Ghassan Kanafani who saw his work while visiting Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp and first published in the magazine “Freedom” in Lebanon in 1961. He subsequently moved to Kuwait in 1963 and his character Handhala appeared in 1969. In 1973 Handhala turned his back on his viewers, permanently frozen at 10 years of age (the age Naji was when his family was ethnically cleansed) and refusing to turn his face back to the world until he returned home. Naji al-Ali was assassinated by an unknown hand in London in 1987, some have pointed to Yasser Arafat as a potential culprit, but Handhala has gained immortal status in Palestinian and Arab eyes as the embodiment of Palestinians’ hopes and pains. Go through the cartoons on the website (feel free to email me if you want translations).
*Joe Sacco’s “Palestine”. I’m going to be lazy here and simply quote the Amazon product description because I think it encapsulates the book better than I can (other than to say, this is an excellent book for understanding life on the ground in the Occupied Territories if you can’t actually be there — although things have gotten much worse since this was written based on experiences almost 20 years ago now): “Based on several months of research and an extended visit to the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the early 1990s (where he conducted over 100 interviews with Palestinians and Jews), Palestine was the first major comics work of political and historical nonfiction by Sacco, who has often been called the first comic book journalist. Sacco’s insightful reportage takes place at the front lines, where busy marketplaces are spoiled by shootings and tear gas, soldiers beat civilians with reckless abandon, and roadblocks go up before reporters can leave. Sacco interviewed and encountered prisoners, refugees, protesters, wounded children, farmers who had lost their land, and families who had been torn apart by the Palestinian conflict. In 1996, the Before Columbus Foundation awarded Palestine the seventeenth annual American Book Award, stating that the author should be recognized for his “outstanding contribution to American literature,” while his publisher, Fantagraphics, is “to be honored for their commitment to quality and their willingness to take risks that accompany publishing outstanding books and authors that may not prove ‘cost-effective’ in the short run.”” This brief review is also a good summation of the book: http://mobookblog.blogspot.com/2007/04/palestine-by-joe-sacco.html
LINKS 2: THE HISTORY SEEN FROM THE OTHER SIDE
*Ilan Pappe’s “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine”. One simply cannot properly understand what drives the conflict today without understanding what happened in 1948. Israeli historian Ilan Pappe digs into the Israeli archives, press accounts of the era, international organizations accounts, British colonial records, and a few primary and secondary Arabic sources including survivor’s stories (not nearly enough, but in any case the Israeli and international accounts prove more than sufficient to make the key points anyhow) from the fateful years of 1948 and 1949. What emerges is an entirely different picture than the Zionist narrative and almost perfectly in line with what Palestinians have said for over 60 years now actually happened. The title of the book is clear enough in stating what happened, and it comes straight from the records kept by men like Ben Gurion himself in addition to countless eyewitnesses.
*Walid Khalidi’s “All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948”. This is primarily a reference work, but it’s an easy one to spend time skimming through as it has lots of pictures. Khalidi is one of the foremost scholars of Palestine up to it’s destruction by the Zionists in 1948 and meticulously goes through the over 400 villages they ethnically cleansed in 48/49. Pictures of the remaining ruins, descriptions of who lived there and population statistics, when the villages were founded, land ownership, houses of worship, current status of the land and properties, how the actual acts of ethnic cleansing were carried out, etc. You may have visited Israel and noticed old ruined houses or fallow farmland or agricultural terraces in lots of places. Israelis act like they’re not there or “ancient” remnants to have biblical ponderings over. The truth is much darker, these are ghost towns that were inhabited just a few decades ago and whose residents still live often just a few miles away and want nothing more than to just go home, fix and rebuild, and live in peace again in the places they are from.
*Palestine Remembered: http://www.palestineremembered.com/
Think of it almost as an online version of what Walid Khalidi has tried to do, archiving records of what Palestine was and is today. Each district, city, and village is catalogued, and (one of the best parts) personal stories from life in those areas and where its refugees are today are often found. Unfortunately one of the best parts of the site – oral history videos of the survivors of the 1948 ethnic cleansing – only has Arabic audio, though hopefully they’ll be able to find the resources to translate and subtitle eventually. The site is a great resource and along with Khalidi’s seminal work reminds the world what the Palestinians always knew was a Zionist myth: the land was never empty, Palestinian society was thriving and vibrant until it was violently burned down to its foundations in 1948/9.
*Kathleen Christison’s “Perceptions of Palestine”. I’m going to crib another book review that does the job better than me from http://mobookblog.blogspot.com/2006/08/perceptions-of-palestine-their.html “Former CIA analyst Kathleen Christison looks at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an often ignored but vital angle: how the conflict is viewed by US policymakers. Starting in the late 19th century and going US administration by US administration, she examines how Washington’s policies have been a critical factor in the development of the conflict. In effect, she lays out how this is not a binary Israeli-Palestinian problem, but in fact a triangle involving the Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans. A century of deep sympathy for the Israeli perspective, but near constant ignoring and denigration of the Palestinian viewpoint in Washington has helped to fuel rather than calm the conflict in the Holy Land. For American readers who wonder why the United States often gets so much blame in the Arab world for what happens to the Palestinians, this book is a clear-eyed explanation of the issue.”
LINKS 3: SOURCES FOR FOLLOWING CURRENT EVENTS FROM THE PALESTINIAN & NON-ZIONIST VIEW
*The Electronic Intifada http://electronicintifada.net/.
Founded by Ali Abunimah, a Chicagoan of Palestinian refugee descent, the site has become probably the foremost representative of the Palestinian viewpoint in English. Gathering not just excellent writers and op-eds, but on-the-ground human stories from throughout the Palestinian world, Palestinian culture, top-notch analysis of current events, advocacy of a single-state solution with equality for Jews and Arabs and the right of return for every Palestinian, equal-opportunity criticism of Arab rulers alongside Zionists, extensive coverage of the growing international BDS (Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions) and Right of Return movements, and in general a great pulse for the views many Palestinians have of events as they unfold.
*Ma’an News Agency http://www.maannews.net/eng/Default.aspx.
The leading independent Palestinian news agency (i.e., not in the pockets of Fatah, Hamas, or Israel — or at least one hopes so, their reporting as I have seen it would back up their independence). They publish in English, Arabic, and Hebrew (though their Hebrew site seems to be undergoing a redesign at present). You’ll see all sorts of news here you’d never see reported in the American press. Follow it even casually and you’ll quickly start to understand how completely misleading the American and Israeli media are about actual events on the ground.
One of the very few Israeli groups actively working to get Zionists to realize what they did to the Palestinians in 1948/9 and in very practical ways. If you ever visit Israel, you should definitely look these people up and see if you can join one of their walking tours of destroyed Palestinian villages where they often bring survivors back to talk about life in the villages, put up signs marking where destroyed churches/mosques/schools/municipal buildings/homes/etc. once were, and often bump into the present Israeli squatters who frequently turn very irate for having these facts pointed out to them. Zochrot’s goal is the same as mine: a single state where all are treated equally, where the wrongs of the past are acknowledged, the right of return implemented, and a new system of legal equality established. The difference is, they’re on the ground, being told they are traitors by many in their own society, but pressing bravely forward anyways with a wide variety of educational activities. Worth checking their site from time to time to see what they’re up to.
*The Angry Arab News Service / وكالة أنباء العربي الغاضب http://angryarab.blogspot.com/
You probably need to have a similar acidic sense of humor as I do (which I blame on serving a mission in London and at least one BYU professor’s influence on me who shall go un-named), and you definitely need to go with UC Stanislaus Professor As’ad Abukhalil’s many many quirks, but the man has become a blogging cult phenomenon for good reason. He focuses his blogging heavily on Palestinian issues and usually just does short links (many every day) with sharp comments, but he occasionally goes into longer (non-paragraphed) critiques and analyses of different topics related to Palestine and broader issues of the Arab world. He can be hard to follow at first, and his views (he’s a hardcore leftist atheist) may often be ones you disagree with, but follow him on an even semi-regular basis and you will learn incredible amounts about Palestine and the Arab world. What makes him so valuable among other things is the way he is one of the few public academic figures who fully straddles the Arab and English speaking worlds (and I believe his French isn’t bad either, though I don’t think he really writes much in French). His weekly column in Lebanon’s leading paper al-Akhbar is eagerly read (and far less flippant than his blog but no less biting and to the point) by many throughout the Arab world, and he manages to regularly follow and comment on sources on both sides of the linguistic divide. With his growing following he has also gained a wide network of contacts who frequently send him unique information. And if your sense of humor is even as vaguely ironic as his, the man’s a riot. He’s not Palestinian, but is frequently mistaken for one by friends and enemies and takes it as a badge of honor.
I could go on for a lot longer and undoubtedly have already put many of you to sleep. But if you have a genuine interest in the topic of Palestine/Israel – as most Mormons inherently even if only tangentially do – I’d ask you to bookmark the references I’ve given, and go them when your questions come up. If you’re really into digging deeper, feel free to drop me an email, I’m always happy to point people to more resources. The issues surrounding Palestine are such that one must wade through the extraordinarily complex to discover at the end there’s an amazingly simple set of guiding principles behind it all. In a Gospel sense, my belief is that the Zionist violation of the basic commandments of “thou shalt not steal” and “thou shalt not covet” are the root cause of the conflict, that the conflict is inherently modern and not ancient, and that the solution is really quite straightforward: civic equality for all in a manner similar to that which I believe the Lord inspired as a principle in the US Constitution and many other civic-based democracies around the world.
You may not agree with me on those points, but you’re a Mormon, you know if you knew any Palestinians personally you’d feel an overwhelming urge to bring them a plate of cookies and listen to their stories if they broke down in tears in front of you. So even though you may not be able to meet them in person, when the topic comes up, tap that Mormon urge to empathize and at least listen to what the other side is saying, I hope I’ve given you a few useful pointers for doing so.