By birth or by choice?

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One of the most frequently cited phrases uttered by John F. Kennedy was “Ich bin ein berliner,” on the occasion of his 1961 visit to the city which had been recently divided by an East German wall. “I am a Berliner,” he said to the tumultuous acclaim of his audience there, as well as in the whole world. An act of solidarity and perhaps even of courage was imparted to him, that a man so removed from the difficulties of living in a tortured city should say that he too felt that he shared its citizens’ agonised fate. No one questioned his right to do that, or to say that he hadn’t lived in Germany long enough. Similarly, when the rebellious Paris students in 1968 proclaimed loudly that “nous sommes tous des juifs,” (we are all Jews) as a way of expressing their solidarity with the Jews who had been deported and exterminated by the Nazis, no one that I remember argued with their right to do so, or criticised them for taking on another identity for the moral purpose of accepting and assuming the sufferings of fellow-humans.

So it has been with many people throughout the world — including those in Arab countries — whose feelings of compassion and moral solidarity with Israel’s Palestinian victims has caused them in effect to choose to become Palestinian. The late Eqbal Ahmad, Indian by birth, Pakistani by nationality, always referred to himself as one of “us”, a Palestinian by choice if not by birth. Yet so distorted and reprehensible has public discourse become about the Middle East, so influenced by Western Zionists, that even to admit to being a Palestinian by birth has long carried the stigma of delinquency and even criminality. I recall quite clearly in my own case that, when I had completed my first university degree and had begun to study for my PhD, when asked I would identify myself as an Arab quite consciously, that is, purposely avoiding the problems of explaining that I was really Palestinian, from Jerusalem, and so on. It is, I willingly concede, to the everlasting credit of the PLO in the years between 1968 and 1982 that its emergence made it possible for all Palestinians to identify themselves as belonging to one people, in effect a nation, albeit one in exile and dispossessed. And during the Intifada that sense of proudly belonging to an identity bravely fighting for its own preservation against efforts made to extinguish or deny it spread everywhere. In Prague, resistance to one-party rule was often visibly in evidence on the Intifada T-shirts worn by young demonstrators. That was also true in South Africa during the last days of apartheid in 1990-’91: to be a Palestinian in revolt against Israeli occupation soldiers was in effect to give greater depth and meaning to the struggle against racial discrimination.

It is surely one of the ironies of history that the Palestinian people’s greatest historical enemy — the Zionist movement and its more militant ideologists — was energised precisely by the same idea: that one can strongly assume one’s identity as a Jew rather than quietly submit to assimilation as a Polish, Russian, American or British citizen. Most histories of Zionism show that for the movement’s organisers the greatest problem was to persuade Jews in the diaspora that their identity as Jews by birth was not enough: they had to take on the additional national identity of Jews “returning” to Zion for their natal origins to fulfill themselves. And so it has been recently with Palestinians who for years after 1948 were subsumed (willingly as well as unwillingly) into the melting-pot of whatever country they resided in, until, given an opportunity to take on the choice of being a Palestinian for purposes of political struggle, they did so in the years since 1970. This does not contradict Rashid Khalidi’s thesis in his recent book on Palestinian identity, where he argues that one can discern a distinct national Palestinian identity that goes well back in history through the culture, civil society, and political rhetoric. The point to be made in addition is that identity by choice is a political commitment to be Palestinian, as an active commitment not just to the establishment of a separate state, but to the more significant cause of ending injustice and liberating Palestinians into a new secular identity able to take its place within contemporary history.

The pressures against making that choice today are increasing on an hourly basis. One of the principal objectives of the Oslo process so eagerly embraced by the US and Israel is a paradoxical one since it implicitly accepts (and then annuls) the notion that Palestinian identity is in principle an identity based on more than narrow nationalist grounds. To look back at recent history is to note that throughout the ’70s and ’80s being Palestinian meant being in the forefront of several liberationist struggles, not the least of which were those that went far beyond the Arab world, in places like South Africa, Latin America, Ireland and elsewhere in Europe, as well as Asia. I can testify to this in a recent encounter with a Maori intellectual from New Zealand, who came up to me after a lecture and proceeded to inform me in detail how much the struggle for Palestinian rights has meant for the Maori movement for at least three decades. I have encountered the same enthusiasm in places like India, Korea and Ireland, by no means among extremists but rather in the writings and practice of civil libertarians, secularists, women’s groups, for whom the very idea of Palestinian identity signified far more than a simple ethnic nationalism. It meant acting against the forces of religious obscurantism, gender discrimination, economic inequality and the like. Clearly the potency of this Palestinian identity was behind the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, during which Ariel Sharon’s aim was scarcely as limited as just destroying the PLO’s negligible military threat. Recall how one of the first things his troops did when they entered West Beirut in September of that year was to steal the PLO Research Centre’s archives, a symbol of what in effect Palestinian identity had become in terms of sheer intellectual and moral potency.

Oslo was designed in part to break the back of this larger notion of identity, to drive Palestinians back into their Gaza and West Bank towns, villages, clans where they could be encircled, confined, cut down to size both by Israel and the US on the one hand and, most lamentably, by their own national authority. That effort and aspect of Oslo has succeeded, but the centre of attention has now shifted to the 4.5 million Palestinians who still remain in exile, and whose persistent stubbornness in expressing their identity by choice is symbolised by the right of return they continue to maintain. This is not merely a geographical wish or demand. It is at least five things more. It is the right to have one’s own abode. It is the right to remain there. It is the right to repatriation. It is the right to compensation and restitution. It is the collective right of association (we want to be Palestinian where we want to be) and of residence. It is the right to coexist on an equal footing with Israeli Jews.

Quite clearly, the Palestinian Authority symbolises the defeat and abridgement of most of these rights. The burden for the rest of us — and here, I do not speak only of Palestinians by birth — is to resist the attempt to cut us and our ideas down merely to matters of birth and actual residence whose final arbiter is Israel. Thus current “international” plans to resettle the vast majority of refugees include sending them to places like Iraq, Canada, the US, even Jordan, as well as pressuring countries that have large Palestinian communities (e.g., Lebanon) into giving Palestinians citizenship and residence where they already live. Although official Palestinian rhetoric today insists on the right of return, the Authority’s past performances on matters of stated principle does not provide a convincing precedent. Besides, Israel’s position since its inception in 1948 has been flatly to deny Palestinians anything like a right of return while insisting on the absolute right of any Jew anywhere both to “return” and to unconditional Israeli citizenship.

In such a situation, then, to choose Palestinian identity means in effect to resist what the final status Oslo negotiations will have to offer. This is not just a negative thing. It means insisting on the national and political rights that have been denied us as a people by the British (one mustn’t forget that the Balfour Declaration of 1917 offered Jews political rights as a nation, whereas it promised Palestinians only religious and civil rights) and later by Israel and the US (and, it would seem, most of the Arab states). It also means that we stand firm on the matter of identity as something more significant and politically democratic than mere residence and subservience to what Israel offers us. What we ask for as Palestinians is the right to be citizens and not just numbers in the ultimately losing game being played by the Oslo participants. It is worth pointing out moreover that Israelis will also be the losers if they accept the narrow-minded and ungenerous definition of the Palestinians as a subject people confined to a “homeland” being manipulated by their government. In a decade, there will be demographic parity between Jews and Arabs in historical Palestine. Better that we accommodate to each other sooner rather than later as full members of a binational secular state than to go on fighting what has been demeaningly called a shepherd’s war between feuding tribes. To choose that identity is to make history. Not to choose is to disappear.

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