x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Palestinian identity and narrative cannot be a secondary issue

All there is left for many Palestinians is their narrative of the past and their hopes for the future.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu never tires of inventing new hoops through which he insists Palestinians should jump. As he acknowledged a few weeks back, it’s all part of a cynical game that he plays in an effort to kill the chances for peace.

The most troubling of all the Netanyahu “hoops” is his persistent demand that Palestinians must accept Israel as a Jewish state, the homeland of the Jewish people. While some in the West can understand the Palestinian refusal to cede the Jordan Valley or Jerusalem, or to accept that violent settlers should remain in their settlements, they have difficulty understanding why Palestinians won’t simply agree to recognise Israel as the “state of the Jewish people”.

The problem for Palestinians is not in the name “the Jewish State”. It is what the name means. Palestinians say that accepting this designation is to accept the Israeli historical narrative and to deny their own.

Narratives are important for peoples and nations. They define reality and give meaning to history. I learnt important lessons about the critical and definitional roles played by historical narratives in the Palestinian context through personal encounters over 40 years ago.

In 1971, I had travelled to Lebanon to conduct research for my doctoral dissertation on the emergence of the Palestinian national identity. In Ein Al Hilweh, a massive Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon, I interviewed refugees from dozens of towns and villages. All had left Palestine in 1948. Many told stories of armed Jewish elements coming into their villages creating panic and forcing them to flee.

I was struck by their resilience and their determination to keep alive their attachment to their land, their homes and their culture. And they did this in so many interesting ways. In the camp, for example, Palestinians did their best to recreate their old life. Residents of villages clustered in neighbourhoods that were named after the communities from which they had fled. In a simple walk down just one street, you could pass through Haifa, Akka, Safad, Safsaf and Jerusalem. The homes in the camps might have been poor, but once inside them you had the feeling of being back in the village.

One of my most memorable encounters in that trip was my interview with Um Abed, the grandmother of the friend who had brought me to Ein Al Hilweh. As was common for her generation, she carried on a string around her neck the key to her home in Palestine – which had been appropriated by Israeli settlers in 1948. She told me her story – a powerful tale of loss and pain.

At one point, she asked if I wanted to see her home. When I agreed, she took out an old photo album filled with pictures of her home, her family and the life they had lived back in Palestine. She pointed with pride to the wall her father had built and the tree her grandfather had planted. But then, with a touch of anger, she noted that the tree had been cut down by the Israelis who had taken the house. She learnt of this from a photo a Swedish journalist had taken and showed her.

Her brother told me of their longing to return. “It’s our home,” he said. “We go back four generations in that house. I was born there and lived my entire life there. The Israelis, who never lived here, say they didn’t forget after 2,000 years. For us, it’s only been 25 years. How can we forget?”

Two weeks later, on the plane back home, I ran into a student, Sandra, I had taught the year before at Temple University. She greeted me with exuberance and told me that she “just had the most amazing experience. I went home this summer”. Since I knew she was from Northeast Philadelphia, I asked what she meant. She explained that she had been to a camp in Israel. It felt so much like home, she wanted to return because, she said, she “belonged there”.

The disconnect between the reality of Um Abed’s loss and my former student’s “discovery” defines the debate over “narratives”. I will be honest and admit that I understand Um Abed’s attachment to a home her ancestors built and the trees they planted. Her memories were too fresh and the key she wore a constant reminder of unbearable loss. To ask her to erase that memory, to reject her claim, and to deny her story is tantamount to asking her to cut off a limb.

There are hundreds of thousands of Um Abed who feel deeply about their history and their rights. They have lost so much over the last century. In many cases, all they have left is their narrative of the past and their hopes for the future. In their name, the Palestinian president cannot give up their rights. And jumping through this Israeli hoop would be too costly.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute