By Susan Abulhawa
I received a lovely letter from a reader who identified herself as a Jewish American. To preserve her anonymity, I’ll call her ‘Sally’. She wrote that she loved Mornings in Jenin, even though the historic backdrop of the narrative did not reconcile with what she learned about Israel growing up. It seemed a heartfelt letter and thus worthy of a similar response. I did not see Sally as a Zionist or even as a Jew. I saw her as a woman, a mother, and a fellow writer. So, I was delighted when she came to my panel debate with Alan Dershowitz at the Boston Book Festival, and when she asked if we could talk more after the event, I was happy to invite her to lunch with a group of friends. She was soft spoken, with a gentle demeanor and through the course of the table conversation, I realized that we also shared similar beliefs regarding some matters of spirituality.
Sally and I continued to correspond occasionally, both privately and with a group of people who were at lunch that day. Soon, she let me know that one of her friends was now questioning her own Zionist beliefs because of something she heard at her Temple. As a result, Sally’s friend had chosen a list of documentaries to watch. Naturally, I asked what those documentaries were and she sent a list of about 12 or so films that were made 1) to show how awful Arabs are, 2) to present rosy pictures of normalization of Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, 3) to show what Israel’s aggression against Lebanon was like from an Israeli paratrooper’s perspective!, or 4) to depict mixed Arab and Israeli towns as a paradise where everyone is equal.
I find that when people are truly searching to understand, they can find the right sources, especially in this information age. Likewise, when people are confronted with an uncomfortable reality that jars an existing belief, they can turn around and find what they need to prove that they were right all along. Reading the list that Sally sent to me, it was easy to see what category she fit into. Here is the response that I sent to Sally:
“If I were trying to get a better view of something, i’d at least look for ones made by third party sources who don’t have their own personal beef in the situation. Although with this list, she’ll be able to put her head back in the sand and say she did her research and it all proved she was right before.”
Sally’s response was immediate and indignant. I’ll spare you the full email, but suffice it to say that she was offended that I had “insulted” her dear friend, and she closed with this:
“I know you are much, much more invested in all of this than I and therefore more passionate than I, but please give me the benefit of the doubt before writing words that insult my friend. You may not realize it, but we are two people who will spread our knowledge with others and that can only help you. I am also getting ideas for my next book that can include this message as well.”
Let me start here: “I know you are much, much more invested in all of this than I and therefore more passionate than I.”
It is true that I am “much, much more invested” in “all of this” than she is. How much more? I’d say at least a few centuries more, several generations of grandparents more, many acres of family property more, and one shattered and dispossessed family more. And what is “all of this”? That would be my country. My history. My family. My countrymen. My only heritage and only inheritance. The place where I belong. The place to which I am not allowed to return because of my religion. “All of this” is a collection of refugee camps where people have lived their entire lives in destitution – honorable people, of nobility and peasantry alike, who have been stripped of everything for the sole crime of being born into their own skin.
Now: “but please give me the benefit of the doubt before writing words that insult my friend.”
As if it is not insulting to me that an American woman, with absolutely no ancestral, historic, cultural, or biological ties to the land, should announce to me that she needs to do more research to determine whether or not I indeed have a right to inherit my grandfather’s farm, reserving, of course, her own right to my grandfather’s farm.
But the most egregious insult is this: “You may not realize it, but we are two people who will spread our knowledge with others and that can only help you. I am also getting ideas for my next book that can include this message as well.”
I suppose she misunderstood my intentions in corresponding with her in the first place. Perhaps she thought I was trying to win her over, to “help [me]” spread the word. So let me make one thing very clear, to her and to anyone who isn’t sure if they should maintain that they are entitled to keep Palestine as their summer home away from their own home. You are standing on the wrong side of history. That’s why the ground feels shaky beneath your support of Israel. You are standing on the side of a military occupation that daily strips people of their belongings, of their livelihoods, of their dignity and cuts off the very food they eat, the water they drink. You are on the other side of Nelson Mandela’s legacy. The other side of every native people’s struggle for self-determination, for human rights and for basic human dignity. It is not for me that you educate yourself. It is for your own soul. For your own conscience. I am comfortable on solid ground. It is physically defenseless, but morally impenetrable ground. Whatever research you chose to do and what you choose to learn is for you and only for you. My correspondence was with you, as a woman I thought I could be friends with. I was not asking for your help. But one day you will be asked for something else. Perhaps your children or grandchildren will want you to explain what you did when Palestinians were being wiped off the map so you and every Jew around the world could have dual citizenship, a summer home, if you will, on top of my grandparent’s graves.
– Susan abulhawa is the author of Mornings in Jenin, a Palestinian story. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.