In spring 2001, a local student wrote a history paper about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Referencing recently published work by Israel’s “New Historians,” such as Benny Morris (“The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949”), Avi Shlaim (“The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World Since 1948”) and Tom Segev (“One Palestine Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate”), she wrote a paper examining western narratives about Israel’s successful struggle for independence, and about the concomitant “Nakba,” catastrophe, that befell the Palestinians.
The paper was scholarly and thorough, complete with all necessary references and footnotes. Her ideas were challenging.
The paper examined elements of the prevailing mythology surrounding the creation of Israel: the balance of arms and forces and the reasons for the de-population of Arab villages and cities. She wrote about the number of Palestinian villages that no longer appear on any maps.
She didn’t challenge Israel’s legitimacy but its birthing story.
Although she had followed all the usual academic protocols, her teacher insisted she bring the actual books to class, with bookmarks identifying actual points of contention.
In America, in 2001, the existing pro-Israeli narrative was so prevalent that it was inconceivable to the instructor that what the student had written was true; that there was a Palestinian narrative independent of the Israeli narrative. Although the points made by the Israeli historians had been previously presented by Arab scholars and historians, they had never been taken seriously.
It took Israeli historians to legitimize the Palestinian story. It took Israeli historians to legitimize the truth.
Two weeks ago, I was having dinner with my daughter and a friend at Pimentos. Recently arrived from London, my daughter was telling us about her plans. A couple who had been sitting at a nearby table, and who had just finished their meal, came over and said, “Sorry to interrupt your dinner. Are you the Mr. Azzi who writes for the Herald?
“My wife and I want to thank you for your column. We look forward to it every Sunday. It’s really important to us to be able to read a different point of view.”
It is my honor.
It’s what we all need — a different point of view.
I want to ask — what does it mean to be global citizens? What does it mean to aspire to live in a pluralistic world? What does the future demand of us?
To be fair-minded?
To be fair-minded is to know what the Other is suffering — to want to know what the Other is suffering.
To aspire to be fair-minded is to know that the privilege that empowers the few against the many has to be confronted.
Americans have privilege, both acknowledged and unacknowledged.
Military, economic, media power dominates.
We see ourselves as the normative experience to which everyone should aspire.
As Americans, we don’t see ourselves as oppressors. Americans don’t sense that we are an advantaged power in a damaged world. We think we are an exceptional country, morally neutral, advantaged by resources and military might.
Might makes right?
We don’t need to know the world, many Americans think, we just need to project our exceptionalism into the world. Then everyone will aspire to be more like “us.”
That is one world view.
My world view is that we are all interconnected. The survival of all is dependent on the survival of one.
“Because of this did we ordain unto the children of Israel that if anyone slays a human being — unless it be [in punishment] for murder or for spreading corruption on earth — it shall be as though he had slain all mankind; whereas, if anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he had saved the lives of all mankind.” — Qur’an 5:32
We need to know everyone’s birth story.
There is a risk in becoming a global citizen. Once we know the Other, we become accountable. If we don’t act on our accountability, then we risk being complicit with the oppressors.
If we advantage others who think as we do, who respect and honor each other’s narratives, then we are empowered. If we disrespect the stories of the Other, then we are the oppressor.
The Other has to leave bookmarks, placeholders, to tell his story.
America tells its story through privilege.
Palestinian Hunger Games.
Last week I had the privilege to write about the first wide-scale manifestation of Palestinian non-violent resistance. It was a story that was ignored for weeks by most media outlets. More than 2,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israeli authorities had embraced a hunger strike to challenge Israeli detention techniques and policies.
When I wrote that column there were those, like the student’s teacher, who challenged this truth. They asked, “Could this Palestinian narrative be legitimized?”
Could the truth be legitimized?
The Palestinians won. This past week, the Palestinians and Israelis reached a settlement, mediated by Egyptian negotiators, that settled the grievances of the strikers.
As Yossi Alpher, co-editor of “Bitterlemons” and a former Israeli security official, said, “There was a lot of pressure within the Israeli system, particularly the foreign ministry, to end this strike quickly before anyone dies.”
No one died.
A new paradigm is now in place.
Maybe it’s time for a new beginning.
Palestinian non-violence has now been shown to work. If more non-violent actions prove equally successful, then Palestinian extremists who extol a resistance model based on violence and terror will be marginalized. Most importantly, we have witnessed the birthing pains of a new nonviolent Palestinian resistance struggle for justice, freedom from occupation and independence.
Know that peace is about people’s rights and duty to each other.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.