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Robbery of Books and Ownership of Narrative

By Susan Abulhawa | Palestine Chronicle | February 16, 2013

I finally watched The Great Book Robbery at the University of Pennsylvania this weekend with some friends. It’s a film documenting Israel’s systematic looting of over 70,000 books from Palestinian public and private libraries after Jewish gangs in Palestine proclaimed the state of Israel and ethnically cleansed the native population.

The film itself is excellent and I have a lot of good things to say about it. But I was bothered by a certain element, at the very end, which was repeated by the Director, Benny Brunner, who was at the showing to answer questions.  So I raised my hand and asked a question about it. Mr Brunner became very defensive.

His reaction made me think and re-think on a topic that already preoccupies me on a near daily basis – namely, the Palestinian narrative: who tells it, in what context is it told, how is it told, and, ultimately, who owns it. The importance of such a discussion regarding a people’s narrative should not be underestimated, particularly in instances of oppression and ethnic cleansing.

Putting aside the single, albeit important, element that bothered me in the film, and the film director’s unfortunate reaction to uncomfortable questions, I will first tell you everything that was right and good about this documentary. For starters, it unveils another facet of the Zionist project to strip the indigenous Palestinians of everything tangible and intangible, not merely out of pure greed and opportunism, but also to necessarily fill in the various gaps and requirements of manufacturing a Jewish state in the 20th century. This documentary deals with our books – some ancient, others contemporary; some rare one-of-a-kind books, others reproduced. Most of them were personal, all were historic, and each was a piece of Palestinian cultural and intellectual heritage and identity.

As Zionists did with our homes, bank accounts, photographs, farms, orchards, and all remaining worldly possessions, they also stole our books. A large number of them were looted from wealthy families from Jerusalem and Haifa, and in the process of watching this documentary, the viewer gets a sense of the cultured and highly-educated Palestinian society that was dispossessed of home and history by foreign Jewish newcomers. One man in the audience made reference to this in a comment to the director. This film clearly changed the image of Palestinians in his mind from something other than cultured, to people he could relate to. That says something about the film’s power.

Several Palestinian personalities were featured, including Nasser Nashashibi, whose tears fell as he spoke of the loss of his library. Ghada Karmi, too, was in the film. Footage showed her returning to her home in Qatamon and finding the same lemon tree and porch tiles from her youth. Another poignant interview was with a Palestinian by the name of Ahmed Batrawi. He described himself as a prisoner of war who was forced to work and to clear out other Palestinian homes, including his own, and turn over all loot to Zionist authorities.  Although the director did not mention this, all evidence points to Batrawi having been in one of the many forced labor camps that Israel apparently established just 4 years after Nazis closed the last of their forced labor camps. Little is known of these camps and I first heard of them from Dr Salman Abu Sitta, whose research into the archives of the Swiss Red Cross revealed 5 camps with 6,360 prisoners who were forced into slave labor after 1948. But I digress.

The story was haunting and compelling. It provoked anger in me that plunged into a depth of sadness and loss. I think it would seem silly to some to mourn old books, especially when there is so much more to mourn, from stolen futures to extinguished lives. But perhaps it is precisely for the magnitude of our loss that our books, our intellectual heritage and narrative, matter so much.

Now I’ll tell you what bothered me about this film. Toward the end, text appeared on the screen to tell us that no attempts have ever been made to return any of these stolen books (marked abandoned property in the Israeli national library). Immediately after, there was text indicating that there has also been no organized Palestinian demand for these books to be returned. My well-honed antennae perked up with this statement and I sat through much of the Q&A session ruminating about the unspoken meaning of those words, particularly as they were coming from an Israeli filmmaker. In one of his responses to questions, he made another reference to Palestinian inability to coalesce around a demand for those books, “whose ownership is easily proven.”

It was here that I raised my hand. I asked the first of my questions, which didn’t pertain to what really annoyed me: “Palestinians can prove ownership of nearly all of Israel, what makes you think that demanding our books back would get a result different than demanding our homes back?” He said it didn’t matter whether we got them back or not, what mattered was the demand.

It seems that Israelis, especially those referred to as “leftists” can’t help but to lecture Palestinians. The kind of paternalistic finger wagging the director was doing seemed so natural. Even when I questioned him about it, he was indignant and self-assured in his right to criticize.

I reminded him that they – yes, he is part of the “they” – have taken everything from us and with what gall, with what right, did he think he could wag his finger at us when heroes like Samer Issawi are dying of hunger in their prisons.

He didn’t get it. And few in the audience understood my perspective. What an angry, ungrateful Palestinian I was being! This Israeli was on our side and here I was jumping all over the poor guy. Even the Palestinian young woman who organized the event stood up to defend Mr Brunner. I asked her to sit down if she was going to try to squash this discussion because he, the director, should be able to answer uncomfortable questions.

Mr Brunner defended his position and said he did indeed have a right to criticize Palestinians. He said the books were part of his history, too. I disagreed. The legacy of theft was all, and is all, he can claim of those books. Anything else is as ridiculous and laughable as “Israeli couscous” and “Israeli hummus”.

Mr Brunner further lectured that an ideal “solution” to the problem of these stolen books would be that photocopied replicas remain in the Israeli library while the originals could go to the “Birzeit library”. An astute Palestinian woman behind me asked why he thought they should be transferred to Birzeit when these books came from Jerusalem, Haifa, Yaffa, Lod, and other Palestinian towns quite a distance from Birzeit. His response? “It doesn’t have to be only Birzeit. The books can be split between there and Nablus, for example.” He clearly didn’t understand what the woman was asking or the deeply Zionist underpinnings of his response.

In his irrelevant response that followed, Brunner recounted how he was not permitted to participate in the showing of his film in Ramallah because his participation would have constituted normalization. He was indignant that Palestinians would not want to engage in a cultural event with an Israeli in Ramallah. Again, he didn’t get it.

It is not for Mr Brunner to lecture or criticize us. It is not up to him plot an ideal future for our books, one that is suitable to Zionist desires relocate Palestinian identity to the confines of “Birzeit” or “Nablus”, “for example.” Nor is it for him to decide or even express an opinion on how Palestinians should conduct a non-violent anti-normalization struggle.

This is an important lesson for us. Just because and Israeli makes a film and admits that Israel murdered, dispossessed, robbed, disinherited, marginalized, and terrorized Palestinians, it doesn’t mean they really understand. It doesn’t mean that they have a right to our story. Most of all, it doesn’t give them a right to express their endless subtext of ineffectual Palestinian efforts. We know our weaknesses and we know our (official) leaders have fallen short of leadership. Given the magnitude of his societies crimes against the indigenous population and the fact that Israeli society keeps electing one war criminal after another to lead them, perhaps Brunner should focus his criticism at his own and just stick to that.

I recounted this story recently to a friend who is African American. He laughed, cut me off, and said, “Susie, you don’t need to explain it to me. I’m a black man. You know how many do-gooder white people have tried to lecture me on everything wrong in the Black community and what we need to do to fix it?”

The fact is that Mr Brunner’s film is wonderful and he’s being compensated for it, with whatever funds, fame or recognition the film brings. And while there is nothing wrong with an Israeli contributing to our narrative, it is not okay for him or her to try to frame that narrative or the discussion of our narrative. When an Israeli filmmaker cannot understand why an occupied, imprisoned, oppressed society might not want to normalize relationships with members of the occupier’s society, that filmmaker does not have the right to condescend and criticize. That is something that must be earned by Israelis, and there are certainly some who have. They are those who have truly joined Palestinian society in one way or another. People like Neta Golan and Amira Haas come to mind.

The fact is also this: For societies that have been stripped of everything tangible and intangible, so little remains. Some of us still have a little property left. Some still have the privilege to wake up and see the land our forefathers and foremothers roamed (and the price of that privilege is living under the hell of occupation). But the one thing we all still have is our narrative. Our collective story. Our societal truth that’s made up of millions of individual histories. We should all guard, protect, and propagate that. It’s ours. We are the natural descendants of every tribe that ruled or submitted in that land, every conqueror who passed through and raped our mothers, every battle, every harvest, every wedding. We didn’t step off European boats and proceed to kill, terrorize, or steal everything in sight. I’d like every liberal Zionist or Israeli leftist to remember that before he or she presumes to adopt a paternal tone that criticizes or tries to shape the Palestinian narrative or Palestinian struggle.

– Susan Abulhawa is the author of the international bestselling novel, Mornings in Jenin (Bloomsbury, 2010) – http://www.morningsinjenin.com – and founder of Playgrounds for Palestine – http://www.playgroundsforpalestine.org.

Related posts:

  1. Three Books to Stimulate Thought
  2. Zionists and the Palestine Narrative
  3. Five Books: Stories to Shape Life
  4. Deconstructing the Israeli Narrative
  5. Jim Miles: Between the Lines – Books Review

February 16, 2013 Posted by | Ethnic Cleansing, Racism, Zionism, Solidarity and Activism, Timeless or most popular | , , | 2 Comments

Solidarity and Realpolitik: My Response to Jeff Halper

By Susan Abulhawa | Palestine Chronicle | May 4, 2012

Some years ago, I was on a panel with three men, Jeff Halper among them, at a Sabeel conference in Pennsylvania. Each panelist was asked to give their vision for a solution to the ‘Palestine/Israel conflict’.  Because I was sitting at the end of the table, I was the last to speak.  I listened to each one of my fellow participants lay out different versions of a two-state solution, each more depressing than the other, each with irrelevant nuances (all previously articulated by Israel, by the way) on how to make the refugee problem just go away.  They spoke the tired talk of land swaps, compromise, several surreal highways that bypass humanity for miles on end, and more creative solutions designed to circumvent the application of human rights where Palestinians are concerned.

When my turn came, I spoke of Palestinians being accorded the same basic rights that apply to the rest of humanity, including the right to return to one’s home after fleeing a conflict.  I spoke of equality under the law regardless of religion.  I spoke of a construct that would prevent one group from systematically oppressing another.  I spoke of human dignity and the universal right to it.  I spoke of equal access to resources, including water, regardless of religion.

I will never forget Jeff Halper’s response, which he was eager to voice even before I had finished speaking.  He began with a smile, the way an adult might smile at the naive remarks of a small child.  He needed to give me a lesson in reality, and proceeded to tell me, in the patronizing way of someone who knows best, that my vision lacked “how shall I say it… Realpolitik”.

I did not waiver then, nor have I since, on my position that Palestinians are not a lesser species who should be required to aspire to compromised human dignity in order to accommodate someone else’s racist notions of divine entitlement.

That said, I do not consider Jeff Halper racist and I acknowledge the mostly positive impact he has had in bringing attention to one of Israel’s enduring cruelties, namely the systematic demolition of Palestinian homes as a tool to effectuate ethnic cleansing of the native non-Jewish population.  But in my view, that does not entitle him to speak of what Palestinians should or shouldn’t do.  I also don’t think it qualifies him as an anti-zionist when he clearly accepts the privilege accorded to Jews only.  After all, Jeff Halper is an American from Minnesota who made aliyah (Israel’s entitlement program that allows Jews from all over the world to take up residence in my homeland, ultimately in place of the expelled natives). Perhaps is it my lack of Realpolitik, but I cannot reconcile embracing the very foundation of zionism on one hand, and calling oneself an anti-zionist on the other.

In a recent interview on Al Jazeera’s website with Frank Barat, he did just that.  He also laid out a dismal scenario for the future of Palestinians, based on what Israel is very likely plotting, namely the annexation of Area C and the pacifying of the Palestinian Authority (also likely) with economic incentives and mini Bantustans they can call a state.  But he missed the mark, repeatedly, when it came to Palestinians themselves, as if he sized us all up with a glance and decided he was not impressed. Despite the burgeoning nonviolent resistance taking place all over Palestine, in various forms ranging from demonstrations, significant solidarity campaigns, hunger strikes, and more, he says that “[Palestinian] resistance is impossible” now.  At best, he trivializes the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which is the first coordinated nonviolent movement of Palestinians inside and outside of Palestine that has also managed to inspire and capture imaginations of individuals and organizations all over the world to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom.  Again, my lack of Realpolitik here, but to me, creating a situation where it is possible to force the implementation of human rights and restore dignity to Palestinian society is in itself an end.  Jeff Halper seems unable to consider anything other than a negotiated agreement to be an end.

He enumerates all that is wrong with internal Palestinian issues.  Of course there are problems. We know our leadership is doing little more than pick up the trash and keep people in line while Israel steals more and more of our land.  We are not happy about it either.  But he seems to suggest that he, along with other Israelis I presume, have been carrying the burden of resolving this conflict.  In one instance he says:

“We’ve (I assume Israeli leftists?) brought this to governments, we’ve raised public awareness, we’ve had campaigns, we’ve done this for decades, we’ve made this collectively, one of two or three really global issues. But without Palestinians we can only take it so far.”

Then he adds:

“I am trying to challenge a little bit my Palestinian counterparts.  Where are you guys?”

If I read this correctly (and I will grant the benefit of the doubt that it was not meant as it reads), then he clearly sees himself at the forefront of the Palestinian struggle where his Palestinian counterparts are disorganized, haphazard, or not present.  He even suggests that at this crucial time, “Palestinians have to take over,” further supporting the suggestion that Palestinians are not at the helm of the resistance.

He also asserts that importing Jews from all over the world to live in colonies built on land confiscated from private Palestinian owners is “not settler colonialism”.  What is it then?

But back to his strange assertion that Palestinians “should take over” (from whom?), he describes an instance where he refused to participate in the global march to Jerusalem because the Palestinian organizers (who took over?) did not want to include the world “Israel,” the name of the country that denies our very existence and seeks in every way to eradicate us.  Is it that Jeff Halper wants “Palestinians to take over” as long as Palestinians do so in a way that does not offend the sensitivities of the very people deriving privilege at their expense?  That is not how solidarity works.

I don’t presume to tell Israelis what they should or should not do but I would like to see Israelis concentrate on their own failures rather than ours.  I would sure like to hear those who have made aliyah acknowledge that it was not their right to do so; that making aliyah is a crime against the native people who have been and continue to be forcibly expelled to make way for those making aliyah. I would like to hear an apology. The trauma that Palestinians feel is very much part of the Realpolitik and it is not unlike the trauma in the Jewish psyche.  It comes from the same humiliation and anguish of not being considered fully human. Of being treated like vermin by those with the guns. If Halper truly understood that, perhaps dropping the word “Israel” – a word that hovers over the rubble of our destroyed homes and suffuses the pain at our collective core – would have been a no brainer expression of solidarity.

– Susan Abulhawa is the author of Mornings in Jenin (Bloomsbury 2010) and the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine (www.playgroundsforpalestine.org).

May 5, 2012 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Ethnic Cleansing, Racism, Zionism, Illegal Occupation, Timeless or most popular | , , , , , , | 2 Comments