Unravelling Emperor’s Speech to Write Our Own Story

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Telling Our Own Story

by Susan Abulhawa


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 Naqba, the Naksa, and the ongoing ethnic cleansing  taking place.

Anger was my first reaction after listening to Obama’s two speeches,  one to the world and another to AIPAC – the powerful Israeli lobby in  the US.  I went around to my friends with phrases 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 on the whole,  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 we in the US ever have a president capable of speaking frankly and truthfully? Because he just put Israeli propaganda in his own voice for the world.

After paying lip  service to the Arab Spring, he outlined how he plans to help – read:  manipulate – new governments, 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’s obfuscation 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, swept into other Arab lands.  The president dutifully spewed  Israeli 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 contradict 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  terrorized are Palestinian children, not Israeli.  In more than sixty  years, it has been Palestinians who have not known a single day of  security or peace.  And yet, Obama’s sympathy is with 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, are rooted in that land for centuries and  millennia.  That’s a claim that no Jewish man or woman from Eastern  Europe, like Netanyahu, Tzipi Levni and other Israeli leaders can ever  make.  Those Israelis came to Palestine, changed their names and said  they had returned home, then 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 Palestinians who are the natural  inhabitants of that land 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 early settlers did the  same to 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 so far.  The next sentence  was pure hypocricy.  He said, “We support a set of universal rights.  Those rights include free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly;  freedom of religion; 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 the very foundation of the State of Israel. That’s barely a paragraph from Obama’s abominable  speech.  It’s hasbara and pandering quotients only got worse in the  version he delivered to AIPAC.

Telling Our Own Story

But  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, regimes that seek to create a “pure race” – with  whatever the twisted ideas of purity mean for each – 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 Russian Empire, they  changed their names (David Ben Gurion and Gold Meir), committed  massacres, and drove out the native people.  Ben Gurion predicted that  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 weren’t  real when she declared to the world that “Palestinians do not exist”.   And 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, presumed to not only speak for us, but also for God.  Gold  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 deed.  It was an alluring, albeit absurd, narrative and  the world bought it.  But amongst themselves, Israel’s 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 (if any  at all) of the native populations does not encompass aspirations for  freedom or their willingness to fight for elemental human dignities.   The mistake of the United States, of Israel, and their client Arab  rulers was to believe that we are backward, unrefined, uncivilized,  fearful and easily controlled by brute force.

In truth, the  greatest and most successful weapon used against Palestinians has not  been Israeli tanks, airplanes, guns and soldier; 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 US  Congress or successive administrations.

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; 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 favor 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 to the  rest of humanity.  Their great weapons has been to make us believe that  we must give everything we have, everything dear to us, so they will  stop oppressing us and leave us pittance and crumbs of what is already rightfully ours to begin with.

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 this nonsense that has 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.  And 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 mass to confront  and dismantle long standing injustices, as Palestinians have been facing  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 who have been so maligned, so  dehumanized and oppressed by various mechanisms.

A people whose voice  has been muted and whose story has mostly 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 reigns of  their own destiny.

And in that context, it doesn’t matter what  Obama says to AIPAC or to the world.  His vision does not matter.  Nor  does Netanyahu’s.  Egyptians did not need America’s permission to do  that.  They didn’t need Israel’s either.  They needed only their own  resolve and fortitude; and they also needed the eyes and solidarity of  ordinary people of the world.  That’s all we as Palestinians need 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  to 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.  Theirs  is for 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 fight 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.

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 Naqba, 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  organizations all over the world.  And when we are finally home, we  will, as Dr. Edward Said urged us, remember the solidarity shown to  Palestine here and everywhere.

Israel should not see this as a  threat and they 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 and the ones breaking the silence or the ones boycotting their own illegal  settlements.  They are the conscience of Israel.  And the conscience of  the Jewish people is reflected in the woman who courageously interrupted  Netanyahu’s speech before Congress.  These young people are Israel’s redemption.   Because the day will come when their racist 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.  Amidst very old civilizations 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 their way to the understanding that we are not children of a  lesser God whom they can destroy and oppress at will.

-Susan Abulhawa is the author of Mornings in Jenin (Bloomsbury 2010) and the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine.

 

 

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