Demanding a Place for Palestinians in American Cultural Life
Palestinians aren’t just kept in misery and degradation by the Israeli occupation — they’re also silenced, at home and abroad. Palestinian activists and their supporters are trying to change that.
First published at Jacobin.
In her January 19, 2020 op-ed in the New York Times, Michelle Alexander argued that it is “Time to Break the Silence on Palestine.” After recounting the many ways people have been forced into silence on Palestine, she ends with this resolution: “In this new year, I aim to speak with greater courage and conviction about injustices beyond our borders, particularly those that are funded by our government, and stand in solidarity with struggles for democracy and freedom. My conscience leaves me no other choice.”
I greatly admire Alexander’s op-ed and stance. The occasion of her essay was Martin Luther King Day, prompting her to reflect on the stance he might have taken on Palestine. “Breaking the silence on Palestine,” however, did not include a single Palestinian voice. Alexander referred to the case of Bahia Amawi, a Palestinian who was fired for not signing an anti-boycott pledge, and she names the good work of several Palestinian organizations. But not a single quote from a Palestinian voice.
The tendency has been to refer to Palestinians as victims of oppression, but also omit the fact that they are among the most resilient and courageous peoples of the world, having endured that oppression and resisted it for decades. The media has been consistently awful at even recognizing the accomplishments of Palestinians and Palestinian Americans as human beings, and the stories of those accomplishments and histories have been erased and repressed everywhere.
Not everyone has a platform in the New York Times, so we should be immensely grateful to Alexander for using her column to say what she did. But we also need to note how rare this kind of statement is — and that there is no Palestinian or even Arab voice at the Times. Censored, shut down, and denied mainstream means to tell the Palestinian story with Palestinian voices, Palestinians and their supporters go to other places, media, venues, and invent their own.
For instance, since 2016, graduating Palestinian architecture students have competed for the prestigious “Reconstruction of Destroyed Palestinian Villages” award. As reported in the Middle East Monitor, “the architectural competition, organised by the Palestine Land Society, brings together history, politics and contemporary architecture as young students compete to reconstruct over 500 villages destroyed during the Nakba in order to preserve and restore their heritage and draw a realistic, future blueprint for the return of Palestinian refugees.” And the Arab World Institute in Paris hosts an annual exhibit called “For a Palestinian National Museum,” which collects Palestine art, photography, and graphics in a series of galleries that stands in as a temporary “national museum” for Palestine.
Acknowledging the tremendous burden placed on Palestinians to create a counter to the erasures and distortions they have faced, Palestinian scholar and activist Edward Said once said, “The Palestinian must make the present since the present is not an imaginative luxury but a literal, existential necessity.”
Last year, a group of Palestinian, Palestinian-American, and U.S. activists raised enough funds to produce a three-day event in New York City, “Palestine Writes,” with exactly the aim of creating a Palestinian present and presence at the heart of U.S. cultural life. They raised enough funds to bring some of the most esteemed writers from Palestine; pay for visas and lodging; and put them in dialogue with US writers and activists such as Angela Davis, historian Robin D. G. Kelley, indigenous scholar and Red Nation activist Nick Estes, and others on translation, incarceration, indigeneity, and more; along with a series of workshops and events for children.
The event sold out all three days. And then the pandemic hit.
The event organizers have regrouped and are doing an online event from December 2 – 6. Headlining the festival are luminaries of Palestinian writing in Arabic and English, including literary giants Ibrahim Nasrallah, two-time winner of the Arabic Booker Prize (Katara), and Mahmoud Shukair; acclaimed novelists Hala Alyan and Randa Jarrar; and notable Palestinian visual artists, including Samia Halaby.
And for the first time ever, Hanan Ashrawi, Jeremy Corbyn, and Angela Davis will share a stage to discuss culture, solidarity, and internationalism. All told, more than seventy international scholars, writers, artists, and activists will take part, including Kenyan poet and playwright Shailja Patel, Robin D. G. Kelley, Oglala Lakota educator and poet Mark Tilsen, and Nick Estes.
Conference organizer and novelist Susan Abulhawa says, “Palestine Writes is part of a terrain where our humanity, creative genius, and ancient culture can thrive, as the physical land of our ancestors, our belonging, is being pulled from beneath our feet by colonizers.”
Like the Reconstruction of Destroyed Palestinian Villages project, Palestine Writes does not claim to restore Palestine, but it will aim to open space for thinking about Palestine’s history, present, and future in a uniquely Palestinian-grounded manner. Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, once said, “Poems can’t establish a state. But they can establish a metaphorical homeland in the minds of the people. I think my poems have built some houses in this landscape.”
“Breaking the silence” on Palestine will require pressing the issue in multiple venues. Given the recent presidential election, one of the key areas will be in the new Joe Biden administration. Neither Biden nor Kamala Harris has shown even a modicum of concern for Palestinian rights, and it will be a test of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party to place conditions on any continuance of military and diplomatic support for Israel. Palestine Writes is an essential part of bringing a fuller spectrum of Palestinian life onto the world stage, so that politicians know the people whose rights and lives hang in the balance.