After traveling through the West Bank in Summer 2015, Dr. Barbara Lewis, Director of the William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black History and Culture at UMass Boston, shares her observations on the global link between African Americans and Palestinians.
“They aim for the eyes,” Mohammad Al-Azza said, pointing to a scar. In 2013, when he was taking pictures of Israeli soldiers who were raiding Bethlehem’s Aida Refugee Camp, a rubber-coated bullet tore into his cheek, cracked bones in his face and skull, flooding his right eye with so much blood he temporarily lost vision. While he was convalescing, soldiers again invaded the family home, arresting Al-Azza and pummeling his wounded eye, which retarded his recovery. Still, bearing the mark of his experience, he has continued to bear witness. Al-Azza heads the Lajee Film and Photography Center just outside the walls of the Aida Camp, which was founded right after the 1948 Nakba when more than an estimated 700,000 Palestinians lost their homes; an exact tally is impossible. Aida is where Al-Azza was born. An award-winning filmmaker, several of his films have been shown internationally and in the Boston Palestinian Film Festival, held in October. Al-Azza is committed to training the next generation of the displaced living in refugee camps, empowering them with the skills to tell and share their stories.
Bethlehem, like other West Bank cities, is regularly patrolled. Armed and muscular, young and trained, male and female soldiers are everywhere in pairs, often racially mixed, giving the impression that Israel is inclusive in its politics and policies. These soldiers are always strapped with machine guns. On the plane out of Tel Aviv, I sat near several young American Jewish students, roughly the same age as the soldiers at the crossroads, who were returning to the States, exhilarated, after completing their gap year. The first half of the year they studied together, learning how the Israeli settlers steeled and pulled themselves up to current heights; the next six months they did service assignments in impoverished areas, teaching in Ethiopian villages and putting up solar panels in Bedouin desert communities. Traditionally a herding people, the Bedouins have been contained into smaller and smaller settlements, many left off the grid without electricity, water, or municipal services. Helping the deliberately marginalized made these teenagers feel good. So did the constant, unrelenting presence of the guns. Each Israeli soldier, they told me smiling wide with pride, is taught to think that the gun is a lover that can never be left alone. If Israel is a democracy, as many claim, then it is a gun democracy; so is America.
In both places, guns protect some but not all. The unprotected exist outside the status of full citizenship. Disproportionately, the unprotected are targeted and relieved of life on the word of the gun carriers who explain their actions, post facto, as necessary due to the threatening criminality of the deceased in a kill or be killed environment. The unprotected are arrested, even for minor infractions, and jailed at higher rates than the protected. The unprotected in both locations are vulnerable, the Palestinians even more so, to being separated from house and home, an action couched in terms of arguments and legalities drawing on the legitimacy of prior claims as well as the likelihood and capacity of improving said property to best advantage. Usually the precipitating cause, not always stated or made evident, is the desire of a favored citizen or group to take with one hand and claim fairness on the other hand. Have you ever seen a shell game played on the street? The shells, usually three, are moved across a table in view of the crowd, with a ball under one shell. The winner, who takes all the wagered money, guesses which shell hides the ball. Hoping for a win, the on-lookers place their bets. Nine times out of ten, their dreams are dashed. The shell game is meant to deceive. And in gun and shell democracy, the logic is the same; the unprotected are led to believe that they might have a chance; but the odds are weighted against them and the high profits to be made come from predetermined losses.
In centuries past, the Jewish people were classified as the unprotected; they were pariahs. After the Second World War ended, the Zionists sought land on which to establish a nation; they had long eyed Palestine, which they considered rightfully theirs through religious logic. Having reconstructed the Jewish narrative in the 20th century, the Israelis, supported largely by England and the United States, kept adding to their territory such that they have pushed the Palestinians into the selvage of the nation. Whereas walls were once erected to contain Jews, the Israelis are now confining others inside their walls. In Bethlehem, a wall zigzags through the city, respecting nothing, even cleaving one side of the street from its mate, splitting the whole in two. There is no denying that this is a divided world; divisions are upheld and maintained by the gun. And the checkpoints, with guns everywhere, cross and crisscross the roads, some of which are for the exclusive use of the Israelis; these are the newer roads leading to the secluded sections that are the Israeli settlements, where water is abundant and the recreational swimming pool is full. Water is not rationed in Israeli homes, but it is in the refugee camps and other areas where Palestinians live. When I was a little girl, we sang a counting song; with each verse the number got smaller and smaller until nothing was left. The counting song is the soundtrack of Palestinian life, as it was in the European concentration camps and as it is in the unprotected districts of America. Irony of ironies, the rituals of the deficits and dangers of the past are being replicated in Israel, but the politicians, thinkers, and artists rarely recognize or point out that Israelis are visiting the hurts of yesterday on today, recreating the concentration camp landscape of division, deprivation, and death.
I am not a Palestinian, but I am no stranger to being thought inferior on the basis of appearance. The narrative of my nation portrays me that way. And the fault is assigned to me, my mother and father and to all my relatives back until time can be counted no more. At one time, a similar narrative also stifled the Jewish people wherever they happened to live, and it still afflicts the Palestinians. How to fight an idea? When I grew up, it was drummed into me that education was my only defense. I had to excel. I had to believe that the opinion of others was not the sole measure of who I was or could be. And a similar impetus is motivating for the Palestinian people. They want to improve their status; so they travel far and endure much in order to position themselves for better, beginning with education. They take pains to gather the reams of required paperwork to go abroad and endure endless checkpoint grilling at the borders; but they now have more options to pursue knowledge and skills at home. Palestinian universities began sprouting in the 1970s, after access to stellar Arab universities in cities like Beirut and Cairo was cut off following the 1967 war. University campuses in Palestine are sites of occupation; the soldiers are stationed nearby. On each of the five Palestinian campuses that I visited, a tall stone monument honors the university martyrs, students that the soldiers have killed. Also, Israeli soldiers routinely arrest students toward the end of a semester, forcing them to miss final exams and making it necessary for them to repeat coursework, thus impeding their progress toward their diplomas. Still, enrollment in Palestinian universities, where female students outnumber male, is climbing and offsetting the brain power lost to emigration, while building expertise and capacity at home. The value and worth of education is unassailable. Homes can be shuttered and lost; lives taken; bodies shot and left to linger in deep storage, where they might expire; but knowledge and creativity are forever.
Taking the bad and ferreting out the good to be extracted makes you constantly alert. So you stay vigilant, and you notice; you pay attention. Palestine, a country full of internal borders that carry the penalty of pain or worse if infringed was not strange to me. I was there during the commemoration of the Nakba which also falls in close proximity to other religious and political remembrances that stir the emotions. On those days, I saw people of opposed opinion gathering, with each group jostling and yelling at the other. In the ancient city of Jerusalem, with walls dating to Ottoman times, on one of those emotion-laden nights, I was walking back from dinner with friends, when a female Jewish settler in long skirt and scarf, concluding, perhaps, that I was a foreign intruder, headed, full throttle in my direction, as if to knock me off my path. At the last moment, I swerved. I have learned to preserve my sense of self by not backing down too early and yet I can get myself out of harm’s way when necessary. I was inducted fast into the hostile undercurrent of a place that attracts people from all over to see the biblical sites we read about – Canaan, Bethlehem, Jordan, Jericho, Hebron, Nazareth, Jerusalem – and it was clear that the golden rule injunction to treat others as you would be treated was not always upheld. Instead, Israel has become a land wary for its future and divide-and-conquer is its prevailing mantra.
I have to admit that part of me is numb. On the media screen, I encounter regularly the face of someone, who could easily be my son or my sister or my neighbor, as the latest casualty of the gun, and violence is endemic. Going to Palestine showed me violence on other streets; I walked behind the walls of a refugee camp in Bethlehem, where children are frequent casualties; I visited an ancient market in Hebron where Israeli settlers occupy apartments on the top floors of buildings towering over the netted stalls of the tradespeople, and from their high windows, they rain down dirt and unspeakable filth. They insist on seeing but do not want to be seen, and they retreat behind their window panes. In Nablus, a hilly northern city where the Good Samaritan once lived, enmity has pushed the remaining Samaritans high up into the steep, craggy hills where they are still pursued by the Israelis and often thrown into jail. In Ramallah, I saw a city that is being gorged with foreign money not so much for the benefit of the residents but so that the status quo remains unassailable. And in Jerusalem, where Edward Said was born in a family house taken in the Nakba, I found a city bustling like New York, where Roman columns to Damascus still stand, and where religious pilgrims, Muslims, Christians, and Jews, congregate to pay homage. In that global city, Palestinian Jerusalemites can only be provisional residents, as Israeli settlers ground their citizenship, erecting another encampment in the hills, from which to watch and dominate.
In Israel, in Palestine, and in America, some pull the blinds and curtains down on the hurt they cause, maintaining the darkness, refusing to see. The narratives that reassure and comfort us, which position us as innocent, can hide the damage we do to others out of our need to quiet past pain. I will end as I began, with a picture. In the First Intifada when resistance was inflamed, a photographer took a picture of a young boy throwing rocks at Israeli tanks. When this image went viral, Ramzi Aburedwan, the stone thrower, was living in the Al-Amari Refugee Camp, where he was born. Later, the new David learned he was musically gifted, and he mastered the violin. Now, he runs a music school and a workshop in Ramallah, where he teaches youth to harmonize and build world-class violins. For the marginalized in America, music was also a means of coping, serving to transmute pain into rhythm and blues and jazz. For youth, hip hop is now the voice reaching around the world. As the casualties mount in urban America, across Palestine and elsewhere, war, declared and undeclared, scars the present and the future. But the young are resilient, and some will survive and thrive. And so the beat stirs the air, resonating in other languages and circumstances, seeking and unleashing new harmonies.
Barbara Lewis, Associate Professor of English, is the Director of the William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black History and Culture at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
This article is scheduled for publication in October in Writ Large, the student magazine of ideas at UMass Boston, under the title "Seeing Past Yesterday."