James Zogby: Four Decades of Heroes

By James Zogby

We are 40 years into this occupation, and the systematic destruction of Palestine, its people and their culture, continues. I am not Palestinian, but throughout my adult life their story has been important to me.

From my first visit to the Palestinian camps in Lebanon in 1971, which led to my doctoral dissertation Arabs in the Promised Land, a study of the emergence of Palestinian national consciousness, and later motivated me to found the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, I have been haunted by the plight of this captive and displaced nation.

Along the way, I have met some extraordinary people, whose commitment to justice and perseverance in the face of adversity, have inspired and challenged me.

First and foremost among them were the people of Ain Al-Helweh, the refugee camp I visited in 1971. Despite a quarter century in exile, and the harsh conditions of the camp, they had, with determined creativity, reconstructed a facsimile of Palestinian life in their camp. They spoke with reverence of their homes, villages and way of life they had lost, of their remembrances of forced exodus in 1948, and of their hopes for the future.

I recall most vividly the grandmother of my host in the camp. Um Abed was a strong woman who possessed steel grey eyes and a face hardened by history and the elements. The day I left, she looked hard at me and said, "now you’ve heard our stories, what will you do?" In some ways, through my work during the past 36 years, I have been answering her question.

I was also fortunate enough to meet Palestinian poets and artists, men like Kamal Boulatta and Ismail Shamout, who embodied the soul of Palestine in their art. Kamal’s calligraphy and his delicate but evocative line drawings defined for me the themes of Palestinian hope. His work shaped my own and still adorns the walls of my office. Ismail’s portraits of Palestinian pastoral life continue to haunt me with his visions of what Palestinians lost, yet seek to regain. Then there were the poets like Tawfiq Zayed and Mahmoud Darwish, whose works taunted the occupiers, like Old Testament prophets challenging injustice, while empowering Palestinians with a bold new language of identity.

Through my work with the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, beginning in 1977, I was privileged to meet Palestinian leaders from the occupied territories: some of whom had been expelled, others tortured. Among them were leaders like Hanna Nassir, president of Birzeit University, and Abdul-Jawad Saleh, mayor of Al-Bireh; both of whom were arrested, humiliated and expelled by Israel on 10 December 1973 — the UN day of "Universal of Human Rights".

Hanna, who was a man of thoughtful dignity and wry humour, never showed bitterness. While he preferred, he told me, to study the stars, he accepted the challenge of exile. Abdul- Jawad was a charismatic political leader who as mayor had organised cooperatives to empower his community. In exile, he too refused to surrender. Both men demonstrated, by example, the Palestinian characteristics of steadfastness in the struggle for justice.

Over the years, I interviewed so many men and women who had suffered unimaginable horrors under the hand of occupation authorities. There were victims of crude torture whose stories moved me to tears. There were those whose homes had been demolished in acts of collective punishment, or whose centuries-old orchards had been uprooted to make way for settlements. There were young men hardened by years of imprisonment without charge and without trial. And there were men and women, young and old, who told stories of the indignity of countless acts of humiliation visited upon them by daily life under the thumb of military colonialism.

What remains with me from all of these encounters was the lack of anger. What these Palestinians wanted most was to return to a normal life and to secure the right to live as free people to rebuild Palestine.

My work also brought me into contact with some extraordinary Israeli human rights activists. Two who stood out as most significant were Felicia Langer and Israel Shahak. The latter, who as a child was interned in the Nazi camp at Bergen- Belsen, chaired the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights. His motto was "Equal rights for every human being", and he lived it, letting no injustice pass. A brilliant researcher and analyst, and a tireless advocate, he devoted himself to opposing hypocrisy and abuse wherever he found it, whether from Israel or among the Arabs.

Derided by her detractors as a communist, Langer was an attorney and a passionate defender of Palestinian victims of Israeli land theft, home demolition and political repression. Each week she would write to me in elegant prose, telling me of her new cases and appealing for support. "Your letters from the US," she would say, "can hold back the hand of the torturer, and rein-in the bulldozers."

Writing of Langer and Shahak, one young Palestinian said: "they defend us. But they also defend their own, because they remind us all that our two peoples can co-exist."

We are not yet done. The occupation continues and new heroes have emerged. There are the courageous internationals like Rachel Corrie and the Christian Peacemaker Teams, who put their lives on the line to stop abuse. There are also the Israelis in Peace Now’s Settlement Watch Campaign and the human rights monitors at B’Tselem. The risks they take are great and their reporting is invaluable.

And then there are men like Zahi Khouri, Ibrahim Abu Lughod, and Sam Bahhur — Palestinian Americans who, after Oslo, decided to pull up stakes in America and return to rebuild their beloved land. Zahi, an extremely successful New York businessman, Ibrahim a tenured professor of renown, and Sam, a young and dynamic entrepreneur — all took great risks and have paid dearly for their commitment.

These are but a few of the many heroes Palestine has produced. I have been inspired by their lives and work. And from them I’ve learned even more.

The tragedy, of course, is that 40 years later, the nightmare continues. Gaza has been strangled by a permanent blockade. The West Bank and East Jerusalem, by deliberate design, have been maimed by settlements, settler-only roads, checkpoints, and now the insidious wall that has cut Palestine and the Palestinians into pieces. The violence, collective punishment and humiliation of the past four decades have also taken a toll on the psyche of ordinary Palestinians and their culture.

But I know the Palestinians, their steadfastness and their remarkable ability to breed heroes out of hardship. And I know that there remain Israelis committed to justice and who, like Jeremiah of old, continue to challenge their people to righteousness. Because of this, I have faith that this nightmare will continue to produce heroes who will, one day, bring it to an end.

-Mr. Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute.

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