Uprooted from their native dwellings, loved ones and joint heritage, Palestinians have embraced a steadfastness (sumud) that has been one of the principles of their struggle for justice.
For over 69 years since the inception of Israel, the Palestinian identity has undergone systematic division and abuse. Its endurance is a testament to the inextricable nature of a collective ethos from the human psyche.
Nonetheless, members of the diaspora are indispensable to the collective struggle for Palestinian self-determination and against Israeli oppression. They function as crucial intermediaries between Palestinians within Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories and the outside world, lobby for support and against discriminatory policies at their locales, actively engage in the media battle for accurate reporting and against propaganda, and facilitate campaigns, such as the ones spearheaded by the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Two prominent Palestinians of the diaspora are journalist and book author Ramzy Baroud and retired English literature professor Rima Najjar. Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for more than 20 years, authoring several books on Palestine. Najjar has written an extended essay about returning to work in Palestine, following an exile from the West Bank and a period of living in the US.
In this interview, Baroud and Najjar discuss Palestinian identity, society, roots and resistance.
Yoav Litvin: Ramzy, you are a Palestinian-American and Muslim man originally from the Gaza Strip in Palestine. Please describe your political history and current endeavors.
Ramzy Baroud: I rarely define myself by my religion. Group identities of any kind make me quite nervous. While they have the potential of giving one an automatic membership, thus acceptance within a larger group, they also have the tendency of stifling one’s intellect and inviting groupthink and restrictive conformity.
I was born into a refugee family in the Gaza Strip. My family arrived there soon after the 1948 war and ethnic cleansing of most Palestinians from their historic homeland. Being a refugee has more than physical attributes — living in tents, being stateless and so on; it is the emotional and physiological scars that linger most. Refugees who never go home are scarred forever. I have a home, but I cannot get to it, and no alternative home ever suffices. Believe me, I tried.
[Palestinian poet] Mahmoud Darwish wrote,
“I am from there. I am from here.
I am not there and I am not here.
I have two names, which meet and part,
and I have two languages.
I forget which of them I dream in.”
And between the “there” and “here,” you are lost yet grounded, rebellious yet scared, angry yet patient, happy yet broken and every other contradictory feeling there is in between.
My focus in my academic studies, books and many of my articles is people’s history. I dedicated years of my life to convey the stories of seemingly ordinary people, and how collective popular movements shape history, as opposed to being docile factors in historical events. My next book will bear the title: A People’s Story of Palestine. Recently, I concluded a project for Al Jazeera English (also available in Arabic) called Palestine in Motion. It is the first digital attempt at providing a people’s history of Palestine.
My childhood was difficult, yet interrupted by many happy memories: the love of my parents; the sea; playing football with my friends in the refugee camp. I grew up in a household where old books of poetry and high literature were scattered about in a place with little food and rarely running water or electricity. Everything I owned was a hand-me-down from my older brothers, whose clothes were also hand-me-downs from others. I grew up in a socialist community that practiced socialism without designating itself as such.
My father was a rebel, but eventually a broken warrior. He grew old and lonely in the refugee camp. Most of his friends — old soldiers who fought in the battlefields in Gaza, Lebanon and Jordan — either died or were reduced to begging for scraps from the Palestinian Authority (PA). He remained proud ’til the end, but terribly cynical about everything. My mother was gentle and filled with faith. She cared for everyone and loved us profusely. She died at 42. Immediately following her death, we comforted ourselves by saying how lucky she was that she died, since she suffered so much. It didn’t help much, though. The pain remains until this day.
Rima, you are a Palestinian American, Muslim-born woman originally from Jerusalem (al-Quds), Palestine. Please describe your political history.
Rima Najjar: I worked in the West Bank first with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and then as a professor of English literature at two Palestinian universities for 11 years.
Throughout my entire life, I have thought of myself as Palestinian, period. My father’s side of the family is originally from the village of Lifta, Jerusalem, and my mother’s from Ijzim, Haifa.
I don’t know what it means to be Palestinian Jordanian, which is how I began my life, nor do I really understand what it means to be Palestinian American, which is my current status. But I know in my bones what it is to be Palestinian. Yes, I am “Muslim-born” — and that has a lot to do with being Palestinian, because in many ways, Muslim Arab culture is the culture of all Palestinian Arabs — Jews, Christians and Muslims — whereas Western culture is the culture of Israel.
Ramzy, you grew up in the Gaza Strip. Those were different times and the generations before you had to contend with a different set of challenges. How has the Palestinian identity evolved in the Gaza Strip since 1948?
Baroud: When Israel was established in ’48, what remained of Palestine fell under the control of Jordan and Egypt. The Egyptians controlled Gaza through a military administration, but the Jordanians streamlined their control of East Jerusalem and the West Bank as part of the Jordanian kingdom in the East Bank of the River Jordan. Nearly 20 years of this schism afflicted the Palestinian identity. Many in the West Bank elites found themselves oscillating toward the Jordanian king, who expected loyalty to the crown, even from Palestinians — in fact, especially from Palestinians. The same, more or less, happened in the relationship between Gaza and Cairo. However, the Palestinian identity remained unified despite the volatile geography of their existence, as an occupied, militarily administered population made up mostly of refugees. What kept them whole is the fact that they aspired for one objective, returning to Palestine, and adhered to armed resistance as the means of achieving it.
A psychologist and a fighter himself, Frantz Fanon explained the armed Algerian resistance to French colonialism, not on the basis of whether it is a rational strategy or not. He saw violence as a way for a nation to rebel against its emasculation and degradation, regardless of the tangible outcomes. By uniting around the idea of resistance, Palestinians also remained united as a nation. True, they were poor, stateless and geographically fragmented, yet somehow still espoused a robust identity, a sense of self and nationhood.
The current situation is different. While Gaza itself remains strong in its identity — since it continues to resist despite the siege and successive wars — the relationship between Gaza and the West Bank is palpably weakening. The PA in Ramallah doesn’t view resistance as a viable option, and offers nothing in return. It works diligently to suffocate any dissent [and] supports the Israeli military through “security coordination” to apprehend, and if necessary, kill resisters, while it continues to invest in an unhealthy relationship of financial dependency between it and the people. Since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, the PA managed to create the illusion of Palestinian control in population centers, sustained by international handouts and governed by corrupt local officials.
But Palestinians in the West Bank are sure to rebel and change the status quo. It is this rebellion that will once more repair the severed relationship between Gaza and the West Bank as was the case during the First Intifada in 1987.
Rima, Jerusalem (al-Quds) has historically been the center of Palestinian cultural and political life. It is the home to the al-Aqsa mosque, and is therefore a focus of the entire Muslim world. Please describe some of the challenges and difficulties al-Quds Palestinians face today.
Najjar: Jerusalem is the spiritual homeland for Jews, as it is for Christians and Muslims. By insisting on placing Jerusalem at the center of the political Jewish entity, Israel is pushing Palestinian Arabs out and claiming the physical city as an a priori right for Jews worldwide.
Today in Jerusalem, Israel has 220,000 illegal Jewish settlers who reside on land confiscated from 300,000 Palestinian residents, now landless. It boasts of 50,000 illegally displaced Palestinian Arabs and 685 illegally demolished Palestinian homes that have rendered 2,500 Palestinian Arabs homeless.
Israel’s occupation is legalized through its own jurisprudence but has never been legitimized, as it violates international humanitarian law.
Palestinian Jerusalemites’ status in their own hometown is unique in the entire world; they live in constant fear of the power of Israeli authorities to revoke their residency permits. These permits must be renewed every two years and can be revoked if the holder is granted the nationality of another country. They are “permanent residents” contingent on their being loyal to the state that is occupying their city and has annexed it illegally, according to international law. Al-Quds Palestinians have to prove that “the center of their lives” is in Jerusalem and avoid being outside the city for extended periods of time — for example, to work or study abroad. They are considered stateless under international law (although most are entitled to a Jordanian passport).
There are other conditions that al-Quds Palestinians struggle with. The most substantial is the physical. While they are in a constant state of limbo over their residency status, they have to contend with the hardship of the Israeli annexation/Apartheid wall, which has fragmented many families and cut Jerusalemite Palestinians off from the West Bank. The harsh daily struggle of navigating the Qalandia checkpoint/ bottleneck in order to get to work on the other side is another factor in the “silent transfer” of the Palestinian population out of East Jerusalem.
Al-Quds Palestinian Arabs battling Jewish encroachment on al-Aqsa mosque are the pride of the Muslim nation (umma) worldwide, but even more so, they are the pride of every Palestinian Arab.
Growing up myself as an Israeli in west Jerusalem, since I can remember, the city has been predominantly Jewish, segregated, tense and often violent. How can one learn about Palestinian life and identity in Jerusalem pre-1948?
Najjar: Many Palestinians have written about life and culture in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Palestine before the advent of Zionist colonizers, most notably in diaries and memoirs where the personal and political are enmeshed. One of the most valuable records of Palestinian urban life during the first decade of the 20th century is The Storyteller of Jerusalem: The Life and Times of Wasif Jawhariyyeh, 1904 -1948, recently published in an English translation. Jawhariyyeh, a self-taught chronicler and musician, brings Jerusalem vividly to life as a place without clear boundaries, embodying cohesiveness through social mixing, street festivities and shared ceremonial occasions among the four religious quarters of the Old City (the Jewish Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Christian Quarter and the Muslim Quarter). “What comes out of this,” writes Salim Tamari in the introduction, “is an intimate portrait of Jerusalem’s Ottoman modernity at the very moment when Zionism was about to clash with an emerging Palestinian nationalism.”
My aunt, Aida Najjar, recently published two books in Arabic: a book about the cultural and social life in Jerusalem in the last century, and a book about Lifta, our family’s forcibly depopulated village northwest of Jerusalem, for which Jerusalem was the urban life-line, as it was for other depopulated villages surrounding Jerusalem whose lands are now largely swallowed up by the “Greater Jerusalem” area marked out by Israel.
The maintenance of identity is largely dependent on education. What is the quality of education for Palestinian children in Jerusalem? What are some of the challenges they face to their unique identity?
Najjar: Maintaining Palestinian identity and culture in Jerusalem has become a nightmare for parents, especially in connection with their choice of schools and curriculum. This particular issue, like so many others, followed the same pattern that began developing at the time of the Nakba.
After the occupation of West Bank and the Gaza Strip (schools until then were administered by Jordan and Egypt, respectively) and before the advent of the PA in 1993, Palestinian education was systematically obstructed by the Israeli military governor. This obstruction continues to this day. The system of education in East Jerusalem relies heavily on costly and inadequate private schools. More and more of these schools, due to financial incentives from the Israeli government, are opting for the Israeli rather than the PA’s curriculum, which is taught in the public schools.
As a result, Palestinian children study a curriculum that uses Zionist terminology (for example, “Temple Mount” for “Haram al Sharif”) and denies their heritage, insisting that Jews worldwide, not Palestinian Arabs, are heirs to that heritage.
Nevertheless, some parents painfully send their children to such schools because the curriculum is recognized by Israel and can get their children into Israeli universities with the promise of good job opportunities. At the same time, Israel has revised the PA textbooks used by roughly 32,000 children, deleting large sections of text, including text from the Quran, and biographical information about Yasser Arafat as well as images, including the Palestinian flag.
Palestinians compensate through home education and through their Palestinian connections on the other side of the wall — connections that are fraying with each passing decade.
Rima, please describe the Palestinian diaspora, its history and where it stands today.
Najjar: The estimated 6 million Palestinians who are registered refugees [with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA)] living in 58 recognized Palestine refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria (many of whom are now refugees for a second time), the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and “exiles” scattered all over the world are the bulwark upon which the core of the Palestinian struggle rests.
The biggest contribution of the Palestinian diaspora to the cause is our steadfastness. For 70 years, from generation to generation, we have not forgotten our identity and have not despaired.
Israel refuses to acknowledge the inalienable and internationally recognized right of return of Palestinian Arabs to their homes and land, insisting on recognizing instead a “right of return” of Jews worldwide to Palestine. Israel now has sovereignty over all of mandate Palestine and continues to dispossess non-Jewish Palestinian Arabs, transferring their land and property into Jewish hands — a continued act of settler colonialism.
By and large, Palestinians in the diaspora outside refugee camps are highly educated as a group. Many are multilingual and have excelled in various fields, adapting to their new surroundings in ways that refugees who remain stuck in the camps are unable to do. Palestinian society was 80 percent agrarian at the time of the Nakba, and displacement into refugee camps cut them off from their villages and land.
Some examples of contributions from the Palestinian diaspora include the Transfer of Knowledge Through Expatriate Nationals (TOKTEN) program, which was introduced by [the United Nations Development Programme] in several countries in 1977 and was invigorated as a full-fledged and vital instrument for development after it was launched in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in 1994. Under the UN umbrella, this volunteer program draws on the powerful desire among Palestinian expatriates to contribute to Palestine, countering the brain drain from Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Palestinian territories, and at the same time facilitating our temporary return.
The Palestinian diaspora is behind major investment institutions in Palestine, such as the Arab Palestinian Investment Company (APIC), PADICO Holding, REACH Holding and the Palestinian Diaspora Investment Company, as well as private universities such as the Arab American University in Jenin (AAUJ).
Ramzy, how has the relationship between the diaspora and Palestinians in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories changed through the years?
Baroud: The Palestinian diaspora (shattat) was an integral part of the Palestinian collective, but this has weakened.
When the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was in its prime, there was an unmistakable rapport between shattat Palestinians and those in Gaza and elsewhere. Palestinian workers in the Gulf paid a small portion of their monthly salaries to support the PLO budget, which operated regionally but also in local Palestinian communities.
But Oslo essentially dismantled the PLO, replacing it with the PA that returned to the occupied Palestinian territories with the promise of building a state. No such state was ever built and the PA eventually became the local police, protecting the interest of the elites and guarding the security of Israel. The PLO is no longer there to fill its traditional role of being the bridge that connects all Palestinians everywhere. Thus, the division that exists in occupied Palestine itself now exists at a large scale, dividing Palestinians everywhere. There is not a single moral authority that has been able to bridge the gap that exists today.
The ones most hard hit by this are Palestinians in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. They were in a state of limbo to begin with, but now they are almost entirely neglected. The war in Syria made it clear that the struggle for Palestinian refugees is not a dilemma concerning history books, but a constantly renewed struggle. With UNRWA, meant to look after Palestinian refugees, poorly funded and lacking political mandate, Palestinian refugees are now suffering the dual neglect of the international community and their own leadership.
Rima, as an activist here in the United States, what would you say is the role of the Palestinian American community in resistance to Israeli occupation?
Najjar: The role of the Palestinian American community is twofold. The first is to impact American public opinion positively and the other is to lobby Congress. Both tasks are herculean.
The endeavor involves not only countering Israel’s erroneous narrative on Palestine, which is deeply entrenched in the media, educational institutions and the entertainment industry, but also countering Islamophobia, which Israel fuels through various campaigns, linking Palestinian resistance with “Islamist” terror activities.
Further, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) grip on Congress is entrenched in the US political system, where it often uses unsavory tactics.
The tactics include criminalizing Palestinian advocacy through lawfare, the goal of which — according to Brooke Goldstein, director of the Lawfare Project — is “to make the enemy pay and to send a message [that protesting Israeli policies] will result in massive punishments.”
What have been some of the pressures within academic institutions coming from Zionist supporters and lobby groups?
Najjar: One goal of Palestine solidarity activists on university campuses, and that includes both students and faculty, is to implement an academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions “until such times as Israel brings its conduct into line with international law and humanitarian norms.”
BDS initiatives in academic associations, as well as any pro-Palestine activity on campus, are opposed vigorously often through false, misleading and well-funded campaigns. This necessitates the investment of enormous amounts of energy, time and money in defense campaigns. A recent example is the dishonest accusation of anti-Semitism and of having links with terrorist organizations directed by the Lawfare Project against Professor Rabab Abdulhadi of San Francisco State University (SFSU). The “Academic Defense Campaigns” page on the website of the US campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) has many more examples, including a scathing letter addressing “the cancellation of the faculty search at California State University for the Edward Said Professorship, on ‘procedural’ grounds, after intense pressure from right-wing Zionist groups.”
Palestine Legal helps Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and other organizations or individuals whose rights are violated as a result of their advocacy. Currently featured on its website is a lawsuit it filed on behalf of students at Fordham University against the school over its refusal to grant club status to SJP.
Ramzy, let us turn to global affairs, which inevitably affect the Palestinian struggle. How does the recent surge in right-wing reactionism play into the Palestinian struggle? What is the role of the left?
Baroud: Right-wing reactionism is a self-destructive phenomenon. It is the outcome of mass manipulation of people’s anger and despair over their economic woes and future fears as they are living the imminent decline of their countries as powerful players that once controlled the globe. While the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu is capably exploiting the rise of such populism in the West for immediate political gains, one can hardly determine the future directions of that movement, since by definition it is erratic and irrational. We know that the age of fascism in the West is upon us, but how the global order will change is still somewhat difficult to predict.
While the left has traditionally been more sympathetic to Palestine, we cannot speak about the “left” as one unit. In the beginning, the American left was quite charmed by the misleading idea of “socialist” Israel. While, now, many would not openly support Israel, at least not with the same enthusiasm of the past, they are guardedly pro-Palestine. For others, Palestine is an item on a global agenda rife with a long shopping list of causes and struggles. They either fail to understand the centrality of Palestine in the global paradigm of war and peace and the destructive force of Zionism, or [are] too cowardly to admit it. My personal experiences tell me it is the latter.
Yet the left in South America, other parts of the global South, and the radical few in the West fully fathom the meaning of Palestine in their own fight against old and new imperialism. For them, Palestine is not a shopping list item, but a joint fight against colonialism.
Which countries/governments inspire you as a Palestinian activist and why? Do you find specific Arab countries to be more or less supportive of Palestinians?
Baroud: I am inspired by peoples and nations that are able to pick themselves up and rise above their collective pain. While I refuse to romanticize — as I know that no collective phenomena can be reduced to a single sentence or cliché — I find myself humbled by the strength of many nations: the Venezuelans navigating their current crisis; the Cubans proudly withstanding a harsh blockade and yet thriving as a community and a nation; the Algerians’ resistance against French colonialism inspires and astounds me; the Italian people’s fight toward the end of WWII against fascism and Nazism is legendary; the Malaysians’ refusal to heed the diktat of the Washington Consensus during the Asian market crisis in the 1990s was an expression of rare tenacity; the South African nation that took down Apartheid and continues to struggle for true equality and rights is most inspiring, but also a reminder that apartheid is both evil and not sustainable.
I think all Arab peoples are unconditionally pro-Palestine. Their governments and ruling elites, however, are only pro-themselves. They are masters of self-preservation and would do anything to sustain their privilege at the expense of the great majority of their peoples. There is no doubt in my mind that the Arab people’s struggle for freedom is part of the same struggle shouldered by Palestinians.
That said, I find that the most genuine and heartfelt support of Palestine comes from countries that either truly relate to the Palestinian experience fighting military occupation and colonialism, or poor countries that fully fathom the nature of hardship faced by Palestinians, or both. I find this solidarity in full display in Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan. As for Egypt, despite the endless media manipulation and the anti-Palestinian military dictatorship of Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, the bond between Palestine and Egypt is too strong to be easily broken. Precious Egyptian blood has been spilled on Palestinian soil, and many Palestinian and Egyptian comrades, all descendants from peasants and poor urban communities, fought together and died together.
Lastly, perhaps some hope. Identify a recent campaign that has united and inspired Palestinians. What did it achieve? Is it a model for future resistance? How so?
Baroud: The prisoners’ hunger strike was a reminder that Palestinians are one. It united hundreds of prisoners in Israeli jails, but also millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories and abroad. It also reminded all that Palestinians have leaders, and most of these leaders are in prison. While the Fatah movement — which controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank — is undergoing a pitiful power struggle, another branch of the Fatah movement is alive and well in Israeli jails, capable of mobilizing millions and articulating a revolutionary discourse.
It is definitely a model for future resistance if it is predicated on the supremacy of the collective good over factional interests. If a faction is not there to serve the cause of all Palestinians, then it has the potential of being the enemy of the people. In their hunger strikes, prisoners — many of whom remained committed to a specific faction — often transcended the confines of that faction in the search for the common good of the community.
I see the future of Palestinian leadership nurtured not in conference halls, PA offices or government buildings, but in Israeli jails. It is these seemingly “powerless” prisoners that will eventually define the future of the Palestinian struggle.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been edited for length and clarity.